Robert Montgomery: public subvertising as intimate poetry

by thomasdekeyser

‘The work of art of the future will be the construction of a passionate life.’ – Vaneigem 2006, 202


Image by Thomas Dekeyser

Last week I went to hear Robert Montgomery speak at The Art Conference. I’ve been reaching out to him for a while now, trying to arrange a conversation, without luck, so I was excited to finally hear one of my favourite subvertising practitioners elaborate on his practice and related politics.

There’s a very peculiar, effective force to Montgomery’s form of subvertising. This particularity resides in the way the poetic intervention leaps over the names and images of brands, to address consumerism as that field most requiring destabilisation. As such, and unlike culture jamming (thanks Jordan Seiler for this connection), it does not take the form of direct critique of the most despicable of companies, but instead, it expresses itself in the ethos of a more generalised questioning, one that addresses us not them.


Image from Robert Montgomery’s website

We are here not left hanging, dissatisfied, numbed by the perceived impossibility of change; instead we are shown how an imagined future utopian society starts from somewhere so close to us, something within reach, something we do at least feel in control over: our own being. The work thus empowers; it exhilarates as it angers. It points towards and is ultimately rooted within future potential. Therefore, it is always unfinished. As the theorist Raoul Vaneigem (1967, 201) pondered: ‘Why is it that the work of the greatest artists never seems to have an end? The answer is that great art cries out in every possible way for realisation, for the right to enter into lived experience.’ It is this lived experience, this call to ‘think of my bones as wood’, to exceed mediated and materialist experience, that is so central to the work of Montgomery. ‘The work of art of the future will be the construction of a passionate life’, Vaneigem went on. From this perspective, Robert Montgomery’s dream-like wordings are cries for a passionate life. They’re helping us to construct a novel collective consciousness, one that is so different to the one dominating our present era.


Image from Robert Montgomery’s website

And poetry, as Robert Montgomery shows us, has a particularly grand role to play in political projects. THE POETS WILL NOT REST UNTIL YOU TAKE YOUR LAND BACK AND YOU TAKE YOUR TIME BACK, Montgomery writes. Here the duality of critique (YOUR FEAR IS MANUFACTURED) and release (WE WILL WIN BECAUSE WE REMEMBER THE MAGIC INSIDE OF YOU) is again so beautifully married in his poetry. This is why his poetry works so well in inspiring movements such as Occupy London a few years ago, with the latter reaching out to the artist to ask if they can reproduce one of his billboards to inspire those involved in the struggle. This moment, as the artist recollected during his talk, was dozen times more important than any gallery or biennale invitations.


Occupy billboard – Image from Robert Montgomery’s website

But Vaneigem also notes, ‘[poetry] plays muse to rioters, informs revolt and animates all great revolutionary carnivals for a while’ only until ‘the bureaucrats consign it to the prison of hagiography.’ (Vaneigem 1967, 203) Montgomery’s greatest strength is simultaneously its greatest ‘weakness’: the ambiguity which allows it to speak so profoundly and so widely, is also that which allows for such easy co-optation. But what happens when his work starts appearing legally in the spaces of outdoor advertising companies, as it previously has?

The performance of the work is, of course, fundamentally altered: it is no longer executed under a general state of precarity affected by the ongoing possibility of arrest. It has become more an object and less a performance. What happens in the encounter, and the way it diverges from illicit interventions, is harder to conceptualise. His work never truly appears as non-advertising at first sight; the typography forms and narrow spacing are fashionable, the white-on-black aesthetic equally. People walk past it like any other advert desperately screaming for their eyes, hearts and social connections. It is only at the moment of cognitive interpretation, of standing in front of the poster and taking it in consciously, that its subversive character emerges, sometimes at the end of the very first sentence – HERE COMES THE BOOM OF THE END OF YOUR CIVILISATION AND DON’T YOU LOOK PRETTY IN YOUR COOL NEW JEANS – and other times there’s a suspension, an uncomfortable holding mid-air of any sense of clarity, that is only resolved at the end: BLANK YOUR MIND WITH LIGHTNING FIRE AND BLOOD AND PUSH AWAY ALL THIS. Whether installed legally or illegally, since the passer-by is unaware of this distinction, the quality of the interventions remains the same.

But where the question of politics does make a difference is that it in no means threatens the world of outdoor advertising, one of the many desire engines of those ‘vacuum cleaners, ‘hand bags’, and ‘3-D TVs’ Montgomery is so suspicious of. Further, there’s an anxiety, on my end, that the worlds of outdoor advertising are even benefiting from these sorts of legal ‘interventions’, which they happily enrol to construct their stories of corporate social responsibility, to defend themselves against critiques of their industry, to construct an ‘edgy’ or ‘artsy’ image, and ultimately, to heighten the investment margins of their spaces that co-constitute a consumerist ideology in the first place. Collaboration is therefore not a neutral act, it is an active force that becomes part of the billboard-as-performance and balances out, at least to a certain extent, the radical potential rooted in the billboard-as-object. Again, I follow Vaneigem in considering the affective charge of art as distributed across both process and object: ‘The object created is less important than the process which gives rise to it, the act of creating.’ (202)

In that sense, Robert Montgomery’s work, for me at least (and there is danger here in me unavoidably presuming certain intentions on the artist’s end), could go further in following Raoul Vaneigem, one of the key theorists of the group that has been of great inspiration to Robert Montgomery (as he himself notes): the situationist international. While Robert Montgomery is happy to collaborate with Jack Agency, Clear Channel and other outdoor advertising providers, Raoul Vaneigem sees co-optation as the end of poetry’s fertility, a force that requires ongoing resistance. ‘Only an art armed against itself, against its own weaker side – its most aesthetic side – has any hope of evading co-optation’ (202). What’s more, the old specialisation of art somehow remains in his work: the galleries, the beautifully-printed monograph, the brand partnerships, the biennales. This is less a critique of his work (we have to make a living) than a gentle challenge and a call for reflection I am sending out to those negotiating the field of outdoor advertising spaces. In Montgomery’s vein of combining critique with hope, it may also be that collaborations push others, as a counter-movement, in new directions, perhaps mapping tighter, more radical connections between art, political ideology and social movements, ones which are premised not just on democratic messaging, but equally on democratic processes, on developing a ‘true poetry-made-by-all’. (201) The process may well become as empowering as the artful object itself, giving rise to the democratisation of art as much as that of public space.


Image by Thomas Dekeyser

Reference: Vaneigem, R. (2006/1967) The Revolution of Everyday Life. London: Rebel Press.