Distorted space

Video art as a methodological power of the false

[extract from RGS-IBG 2016 conference paper, full version here]

It is relevant to consider video art as pushing geographic methods towards what Deleuze, primarily in his second book on cinema but also in different places, terms the ‘powers of the false’. Put simply, if true narration refers to forms of narrative that unify, represent, control and identify forces, temporalities, characters, social realities, and so on, then, by contrast, false narration actively opens up towards the irreducible multiplicity of the event for the purpose of fabulation of a people to come. As Deleuze notes, and following Nietzsche’s philosophy, ‘The false ceases to be a simple appearance or even a lie, in order to achieve that power of becoming which constitutes series or degrees, which crosses limits, carries out metamorphoses, and develops along its whole path an act of legend, or story-telling.’ (2013, 283) Thus, rather than making claims towards any ideals of truthfulness or representation, video art is explicit in refraining from a will to truth and instead, produces its own reality, and its own source of inspiration. So, how then are we to start enrolling video methods as methodological powers of the false? I want to suggest a double Deleuzian movement may be a fertile conceptual point-of-departure.

Movement 1: figuration, figural

The first movement is conceptualised by Deleuze in his work on the painter Francis Bacon: the move from the figurative to the figural. The production of the figural configures an act of balancing between figuration and non-figuration, where figuration refers to representation and illustration, and non-figuration to absolute deterritorialisation or total abstraction. As such, as Deleuzian art theorist O’Sullivan points out, the movement towards the figural does ‘not involve a simple turning away from the figure or from the human, but a kind of stretching or twisting of it’, a turning to forces of falsification (O’Sullivan 2006, 64) The resultant logic is one of sense and sensation, rather than of essence; its intensity being more directly perceptually felt than objectively real. If in paintings such as those of Francis Bacon, as Deleuze points out, the figural consists of ‘asignifying and nonrepresentative lines and zones, line-strokes and colour-patches’ (Deleuze 2003, 101), then one way in which video artists have sought to achieve this movement is by attending to technological failure.

Technological failure in video is usually regarded by geographers as a feature to be avoided at all costs. The geographer Michael Gallagher, for instance, insists that ‘leaving audio to take care of itself or hoping for some miraculous post-production quick fix for sloppy sound […] is likely to be detrimental to the quality of video research’ (Gallagher, 2015: 166). Video artists such as Rosa Menkman, by contrast, enrol ‘glitches’ as productive points of uncertainty. Glitches, as short-lived faults in hardware and software, are effected here, in the words of O’Sullivan, ‘To break a world and to make a world.’ (O’Sullivan, 2009: 251)

In Menkman’s video The Collapse of PAL we recognise a landscape, or at least we think we recognise a landscape. It’s familiar yet estranging. It shakes as if experiencing an earthquake, almost collapsing onto itself, leaving it hanging somewhere in between the truthful and fiction, in between representation and non-representation. Menkman hints at the purpose of her skewing of landscape through glitches: ‘a source for new patterns, anti-patterns and new possibilities that often exist on a border or membrane (of, for instance, language).’ (Menkman, 2011: 340) Because the material forces take on their own lives, creating worlds beyond both control and expectation, what Menkman’s video production shows is an embracing of ambiguity, a being open to chance encounters and a being unafraid of not knowing, It is thus less occupied with a reproduction of ‘truthful’ past sensations, instead, in opening up to and manipulating material forces of uncertainty to produce the figural, that is, to produce ‘false’ future perceptions, sensations, and relations to the world.

Movement 2: movement-image, time-image

In addition to the one from figuration to the figural, there’s a second movement of the powers of the false central to strands of video art with relevance to geographic methods: the one from movement-image towards time-image. Both concepts are, again, drawn from Deleuze’s second book on cinema. Put briefly, in this book he draws on Bergson’s syntheses of time, to outline what he considers to be a significant divergence in approach to temporality between pre-war cinema and post-war cinema. Where the movement-image of pre-war cinema projected time as chronological, linear and universal variation, the time-image of post-war attends directly to the corporeal multi-dimensionality and non-linearity of time, recognising that, as Italian film director Fellini suggests, ‘We are constructed in memory; we are simultaneously childhood, adolescence, old age and maturity’ (Fellini in Deleuze 2013, 104). As such, in the words of Deleuze, [time-images] ‘shatter the empirical continuation of time, the chronological succession, the separation of the before and the after’ (Deleuze 2013, 160).

So can this mean for video productions as constituting a power of the false? In Time Delay Room by Dan Graham (1974), we see a man walking into a room to witness a video installation. The rooms depicted on the two screens remain empty. Seconds after his actual entrance, the left screen presents his entrance. Seeing him standing still in front of the screen offers the illusion that image and non-image are now in-sync. As we see him lift his arm in only one register, we realise time is out-of-joint. Chronological, rational or truthful time of the movement-image is warped and destabilised to cultivate ‘false’ movements and ‘false’ continuity, where at certain times not-necessarily true pasts co-exists, and other times, incompossible events appear simultaneously. The aim here is not to smoothen difference out, but to bring together differently charged temporalities in an act of disjuncture which exceeds the potential of the sum of its parts. The resulting irrational intervals generate a hard-to-grasp feedback loop between different events, different times, different participants and their different acts of communications. Through a form of montage, the work is thus concerned with co-producing new events, temporalities, identities, rather than with arresting them. The time-image embodies a methodological potential for geographic video methods that is calling for further exploration.


Deleuze G 2003 Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation London, Continuum

Deleuze G 2013 [1985] Cinema II: the Time-Image London, Bloomsbury Academic

Gallagher M 2015 Working with Sound in Video: Producing an Experimental Documentary about School Spaces In Bates C ed Video Methods: Social Science Research in Motion New York, Routledge 165-186

Manning E 2015 Against method In Non-representational Methodologies: Re-envisioning research Vannini P ed London, Routledge

Menkman R 2011 Glitch Studies Manifesto In Video Vortex Reader II: Moving images beyond Youtube Available online at http://art310-f12-hoy.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/Glitch+Studies+Manifesto+rewrite+for+Video+Vortex+2+reader.pdf

O’Sullivan S 2006 Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought Beyond Representation New York, Palgrave Macmillan

O’Sullivan S 2009 From Stuttering and Stammering to the Diagram: Deleuze, Bacon and Contemporary Art Practice Deleuze Studies 3 247-259

Simpson P 2011 ‘So, as you can see…’: some reflections on the utility of video methodologies in the study of embodied practices Area 43 343-352

Robert Montgomery: public subvertising as intimate poetry

‘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.




The encounter (visual experiment)

‘The already known, normally expected event is thus wrapped in a parasitic indeterminacy. The art intervention’s special effect is an added parasitic twist to the pre-fit experience habitually associated with the site type and the promised outcomes its form generically enfolds.’ (Massumi, 2003: 33)

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Paris field work: some field notes and images

IMG_1199 edit smallIMG_1219 edit smallIMG_1438 small editIMG_1361 small editIMG_1405 small editIMG_1636 small editIMG_1629 small editI am sitting in a white van rushing through the Parisian night. Alongside me sit 100 posters and four girls. My stomach is battling the early-morning caffeine overdose, awkwardly interrupting the nervous silence so present in the vehicle. In the wake of the terror attacks taking place exactly two weeks ago, Paris has become a heavily militarised city. Perhaps not the best time for illicit interventions.

Nearing the centre of the capital, we roll past the patrolling members of police and army forces into a side-street of one of Paris’ most luxurious shopping streets. Screen-printed JC Decaux vests, legal numbers, four-way utility keys and six-sheet posters in cardboard tubes are circulated swiftly inside the parked van. I follow one of the two installation couples at distance as they approach their first target: a back-lit Louis Vuitton model shielded behind JC Decaux glass. Although they are breathing loudly, their appeared confidence is impressive. No-one looks up as they rip out the native poster, click the alter-poster into the metal frame, roll it down and close the media space. They step back, the corrupted advert glows in the night. They smile at each other and head towards their next victim. The City of Light brightens up. I stay back to photograph the distorted media space when I hear a subtle chuckle coming from behind my shoulder. My act of documentation is a greater peculiarity than the act of intervention taking place only a minute ago. I am now no longer the only person photographing the finished product.



Why artists installed 600 fake adverts at COP21

It’s 72 hours before the official launch of COP21 and 60 volunteers – armed with four-way utility keys and 600 six-sheet posters – drift across the streets of Paris in screen-printed JC Decaux vests. Their mission: to illegally replace existing advertisements with artworks that raise concerns around the sponsorship of COP21 by large corporations such as Engie (previously GDF Suez), BMW, Dow Chemicals, The Coca-Cola Company and Air France.

“Tackling climate change? Of course not, we’re an airline,” reads one such illicit poster. At first glance, it looks surprisingly legitimate. The poster is signed off “Air France – part of the problem”.

This is just one of 600 posters installed as part of the Brandalism project. A recent report by Observatoire Des Multinationales has revealed that only one of the ten major COP21 sponsors is lowering its carbon emissions in line with EU targets. Brandalism questions whether the public should trust that large-scale corporations and their market-driven tendencies will effectively respond to the current climate situation.

Another report by the Corporate Europe Observatory emphasises how the Solutions COP21 exhibition (running alongside the talks) facilitates corporate “greenwashing” opportunities. The report suggests the event does this by allowing corporations to ride “on the coat tails of the real solutions” offered by innovative, smaller institutions to distract from the actual impacts of their core activities. Some of the Brandalism interventions re-appropriate the joyful aesthetics of the branding of that event to question its legitimacy.

The Solutions21 tagline: “Live The Climate Experience” suddenly acquires a dark undertone when aligned with an image of a man and a woman traversing a flooded landscape against the backdrop of a burning oil rig. The question raised is clear: will COP21 prompt legally binding steps towards reconfiguring the unsustainable core activities of major companies? Or will it instead become an opportunity to paint businesses in a positive light of environmental friendliness?


The cultural jamming practice of “subvertising” – a portmanteau of “subvert” and “advertising” – is by no means a novel emergence. The history of hijacking advertising ranges back to the 1970s when the Australian BUGA.UP (Billboard-Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) collective started responding to what they considered offensive tobacco advertising. Around the same time, the Billboard Liberation Front initiated subversions of any outdoor billboard they deemed inappropriate across San Francisco.

Today, the practice of subvertising is reaching novel heights. Collectives are starting to connect globally to form an ever-increasing force of resistance against the visual and mental implications of advertising. Initiatives such as Brandalism, Brigade Antipub and Plane Stupid are beginning to specifically address the connections between advertising, fossil fuels and climate change.

Intervening into advertising spaces that usually celebrate consumption, they divert messages towards ones of anti-consumption. As Joe Elan from Brandalism notes: “We are taking their spaces back because we want to challenge the role advertising plays in promoting unsustainable consumerism.”

And Brandalism’s new “adverts” do not simply critique; they are, at times, also suggestive. Some of the posters present words and images that poetically reflect on modes of alternative living to suggest the more fundamental transformations in culture possible (and necessary) to circumvent environmental decline.

Multiple states of emergency

Subvertising is not just gaining relevance in the light of COP21. Initiatives such as the £6 “hackpacks” by Strike Magazine! – offering bus shelter takeover keys and a how-to guide for £6 – also highlight and trouble the role outdoor advertising plays in the commercialisation of public space and of the people and relations occupying it. The right to the city is currently disproportionately distributed, with advertising spaces in public space only available to those who can afford to pay for it. This is particularly significant in the current French context, where under the regime of the state of emergency following the attacks on November 13, authorities are restricting certain liberties of public expression.

Which state of emergency? Art work by Eube.

In the weeks leading up to COP21, squats thought to be hubs for environmental activism were raided by police without judicial oversight. And while public assemblies such as football games and Christmas markets are allowed to proceed, political protests have been banned.

In this light, there seems to be a greater turn towards creative acts of civil disobedience that, as activist and Climate Games organiser John Jordan has noted, occupy “grey areas in the law” to continue to publicly voice concerns. Advertising takeovers and other forms of creative disobedience are argued to be some of the few means left to contest who is allowed to take a seat at the COP21 discussion table and who is allowed to maintain a public voice.

These interventions are surely empowering on some levels. One of the Brandalism organisers said they could have not hoped for any better public response:

On the streets and online we’ve received a high range of “thank you’s”, demands for how-to guides and requests for the posters in printable form.

But now that the posters have all been removed (without further comment from police or JC Decaux), it still remains to be seen whether shedding a different light on the talks will affect COP21 at all.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Hackpacks and the right to the city: some thoughts

Image by Strike

Image by Strike

It costs an advertiser a few £10k’s to access bus shelter advertising spaces, it costs you £6. After their involvement with Banksy’s Dismaland exhibition, Strike Magazine! have been working to ensure public access to a third of the global outdoor media landscape; offering inhabitants the tools to claim their right to at least a part of the city. Their hack pack comes with a handy how-to guide.

Guide by Brandalism - Design by Strike

Guide by Brandalism – Design by Strike

For Lefebvre (1991), the production and management of space is a dynamic central to the performance and manifestation of power. In the case of outdoor media, through private ownership, the advertising industry controls a significant channel of communication by turning it into a legalised marketable commodity set to work in favour of corporate flows, while working in a ‘public’ setting. Its re-appropriation by inhabitants then becomes, unavoidably, a claim to the right to the city.

The idea of the right to the city, as intended by its progenitor Henri Lefebvre, has lost its radical edge through its appropriation by planning councils, urban regenerators and UN Charters (Purcell, 2013). It is simply becoming yet an other ‘right’ to be implemented into a liberal-democratic logic built upon the supremacy of ‘democratic control through elections, parties, laws, and stable state institutions’, rather than achieving its position as a serious contester of that same logic (Purcell, 2013: 142). For Lefebvre, taking ownership over urban spaces is merely a point of departure towards autogestion (self-management) with inhabitants taking on a more participatory role in the production of the spaces that they embodied and are embodied. Ultimately, the aims are to move towards a stateless society.

So what then does this mean for offering access packs to the public? Even though, in granting a legally tenuous toolkit to operate outside of property laws and conventional party politics, the pack offers the potential to exceed institutionalised ideas of the right to the city, the question lies with the actual manifestations of the novel interactions with outdoor advertising it gives rise to. Indeed, what if artists re-embed these spaces with their own brands, their stylish logos, seeking attention from the commodified arts industry, where then do the politics of billboard distortion arrive? What kinds of worlds does it then open up to? Are we not, in this instance, devaluating any claims at seriously asserting our right to the city, in ‘branding’ it our own, once again, and following Michel Serres’ conception, polluting urban space like jungle-animals bounding their physical territories? We are here not far away from the paradoxical of endeavours of Russian urban explorers locking off their favourite roofs to turn them into exclusive (paying) tourist attractions. Or perhaps more obviously, what about artists collaborating with outdoor media providers (such as Brian Kane’s ‘Healing Tool’ project) or local councils?

In the case of more (post-)anarchist appropriations, I believe the promise of the hack pack is in line with Lefebvre’s original, more radical conceptualisation of the right to the city. Here its intentions are not to achieve artistic fame, legal rights to media spaces (although a critique of property laws may be central) or even to abolish outdoor advertising from the streets. As Sao Paulo, Grenoble, Vermont and other cities have signalled, the social reappropriation or physical removal of media spaces do not, in themselves, formulate threats to the structural imperatives of consumer society (as if outdoor advertising is the sole maintainer of consumerism), let alone capitalist, state bureaucratic society as a whole. Instead, the role of accessing media spaces through hack packs should be a symbolic one: through the illicit subversion of some of the core machines of affect it hints at the potential for things to be radically different; where spaces and social relations are managed outside of economic imperatives. Advertising take-overs are here not ends in themselves, but rather leverage points for a novel participatory urban politics.

The question is however how much longer activists will be able to leverage these arms. Now that conventional bus shelter spaces are increasingly replaced by their digital equivalents, will encrypted coding keys be sent across the web, providing access to the rhythmic veins of the capitalist body where they will be disentangled and re-entangled in forms more democratic than their original counter-parts? Or perhaps this is just a credulous dream.


Lefebvre, H. (1991 [1974]) The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Purcell, M. (2013) Possible worlds: Henri Lefebvre and the right to the city. Journal of Urban Affairs, 36(1), 141-154.

Becoming Advertising-less [Grenoble field trip images]

In June I spent a few days wandering around the streets of Grenoble with my camera, photographing and filming the slow disappearance of all media spaces in the city. Most spaces (owned by JC Decaux) have already been removed and the removal has been marked by blue fences, operating like the white outlines of deceased bodies in the street: reminders of what was once there. Other media spaces are now amid a death row of those same blue fences, waiting to be taken away. All of these are soon to be replaced by trees.

Grenoble, June 2015.

IMG_0091-5 Grenoble advertising advertisingless advertising-free antipub Grenoble advertising advertisingless advertising-free antipub Grenoble advertising advertisingless advertising-free antipub

Guardian Cities – ‘Celebrating the final moments of doomed buildings’

Following the blog post I wrote about exploration and art-production as research practice in the Last Breath project, I would like to link to a gallery I’ve created for Guardian Cities giving more textual and visual information on the spaces we encountered in London, Phnom Penh and Melbourne and on the workings of the project.

by Thomas Dekeyser 7

“Many urban buildings disappear almost unnoticed every year behind hoardings. Photographer Thomas Dekeyser contributed to the Last Breath, a series of unofficial pre-demolition exhibitions celebrating the final moments of everyday structures around the world.”

View the gallery here.

A sincere thanks to Bradley Garrett and Dean Sunshine for donating some of their images.

Unvertising and the production of ad-free blissfulness

Image by Thomas von Wittich

Image by Thomas von Wittich


Did you ever walk onto a tube platform that used to have advertising but suddenly became ad-free? Or perhaps a new tube station was opened without installed media spaces? Or perhaps you visited a Communist city that prefers the sight of concrete over that of advertising messages? If you have, do you remember the feeling that emerged? I do. It happened to me about a year ago. I stepped into an elevator at Goodge Street station when a rather intense, uncomfortable feeling overtook my state of mind. I was aware it emerged through a disjunction of aesthetic expectancies, however it took a while before realising the cause: it was the first time, after taking this elevator twice a day, 5 days a week for more than a 18 months, the internal walls of the elevator were not covered in adverts. This was the first time the well-known fact of advertising’s omnipresence shifted from my rational acknowledgement towards a more emotional, sensual and at first pre-conscious understanding.

On the basis of a similar realisation and as part of his 2014 electoral campaign to become the mayor of French city Grenoble, Eric Poille ended his city’s contract with global media space provider JC Decaux. Over the last months, Grenoble has started to clear its streets, squares and buildings from commercial messaging, thus becoming the first city in Europe to become ad-free. By doing so, it follows Brazilian metropolis Sao Paulo and its Clean City Law. While the subtle re-emerging of brands into Sao Paulo (particularly through brand collaborations with street artists) is not unproblematic, the potential of its ad-free nature has proven to facilitate a range of unexpected delights. It is worth noting however that the grounds of these decisions have roots in aesthetics (as the term Clean City Law implies), rather than in politics. This is to liberate the city landscape from its visual pollution, rather than its political, everyday resonances through its advertising messages. This raises interesting questions into our understandings of the affective capacities of advertising; and whether its resonances are primarily aesthetic or, as many scholars would argue, are disruptive of more fundamental levels of human experience, and by extension, more-than-human experiences through the consumerism promoted in commercial advertising. These are some of the points I am currently thinking through in my MA dissertation which includes field work in Grenoble.

Beyond the kinds of legal transformations found in Sao Paulo and Grenoble, and perhaps more politically-inspired, the presence of ad-free spaces is also increasingly promoted through unofficial interventions. This is subversion of the media space itself, not its content. This is what could be termed ‘unvertising’, or the physical undoing of advertising. Here the alteration of the expected (the advert) into the unexpected (a blank space) becomes a vehicle for unleashing affect. The intensities such change is afforded might extend beyond the capacities of material subversion, i.e. ‘conventional subvertising’. The latter requires an individual to already pay attention to adverts in the first place, while, we all know, the encounter with advertising is one most commonly characterised by a disposition of inattention (Cronin, 2006). By contrast, the visual disruption that derives from fully removing the advertising in, for instance, an entire carriage might be more forceful by nature. If indeed, as Carlisle (2014: 10) has pointed out, ‘habits show themselves when they are disrupted’, then unvertising might become a forceful tool for the shifting and hijacking of habitual engagements with and understandings of our advertising-loaded urban environments. This potential is formulated most intensely in closed, more ‘passive’ environments such as tube trains, where the stimuli of the non-advert has an easier time attempting to stand out amongst a range of multi-sensual triggers (speech, machinic sounds of movements, scents of food and flowers).

Two recent projects were built on this logic that are worth highlighting here. Vermibus is known for his brushing away of the flesh and faces of advertising models through the use of solvent, thereby producing rather alienating bodily appearances (see here). Last year he launched a project to officially turn 27th of November (i.e. the day before ‘Buy Nothing Day‘) into No-Ad day through an invitation to start removing advertising from its dedicated spaces across the global. In the words of Vermibus, ‘NO AD Day is about controlling the over-saturation of our minds and environment by commercial media, so that we might address our consumptive needs in a more meaningful and productive way’.



Similarly, and moving back from Berlin to London, Strike Magazine recently launched its #Adfreejubilee campaign, requesting underground travellers to engage in the simple act of removing/reversing tube adverts. While both of these projects are experimental, rather than strategic, they do seem to signal an accelerated fascination with the potency of an advertising-less globe.


Image by Strike Magazine

Image by Strike Magazine



Carlisle, C. (2014) On Habit. New York: Routledge.

Cronin, A. M. (2006) Advertising and the metabolism of the city: Urban space, commodity rhythms. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24(4), pp. 615–632.



On why I weep every time I visit Piccadilly Circus




The weeping usually starts at the end of the following scenario, one that I can not help but envision. Extra-terrestrial life lands its interstellar vehicle in the middle of Leicester Square. From here it walks (yes ‘walks’, my corporeal imagination is indeed rather human-centric) in the direction of a fully-packed square anticipating to witness one of the planet’s greatest achievements. On encountering flows of humans with strange devices on long sticks staring into the depths of some moving screens, the alien visitor shrugs a sign of profound disbelief and swiftly produces a U-turn; only to never look back and disappear once again into the pink-fumed night skies of London. However, due to the exposure to such high levels of non-ambient light, it loses control over its vehicle and dramatically crashes into the Shard, thereby bringing the sole remaining source of hope for external support to an abrupt ending.

One could say, through the lens of Baudrillard, my bloodshot eyes might see Piccadilly Circus as a symptom of the societal collapse of meaning through the ‘implosion of the medium and the real’. Similarly, through a Debordian lense, it could be I sense the screens as a superior world subsuming lived reality and throwing us into the abyss of the spectacle that encloses us. But of course, it is easy to fall into the potential trap of critical thought by rendering people into some massified object of naïve absorption, which, one could argue, both Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard are at least partially guilty of. My weeping, of a more critical nature I like to think, therefore finds its triggers in a slightly different space.



Rather, I wish to see the broadcasted messages of Piccadilly Circus, alongside an ever-increasing range of mediations, as adding to a narrowing, not a substitution as Debord would have it, of the everyday encounters that are deemed desirable or appropriate, a compressing of what it means to ‘Choose Happiness’ as Coca-Cola asks from us so ironically. It’s like when someone asks you: ‘who, of all of us, do you like the most?’. The desirable answer is already embedded into the source of question. In non-personal interactions, as at Piccadilly Circus, such irony is not as easily recognised. In presenting commercially viable words and images, these processes can be read as a subtle process of leaving aside ‘otherness’, thus restricting, rather indirectly, the diversity and vibrancy of what it means to think, feel, act, become in social life; while promoting short-cuts to the promised land of self-realisation. Along these lines, it is perhaps exactly the celebration of the theatre that is Piccadilly Circus that mainly constitutes my moaning. Visitors ironically celebrate external attempts at reducing their vibrancy and potential. While effectively shaped as entertainment, they delimit at exactly the same time, in the same space. Even though it would be easy to draw in conspiracy theories here, I rather like to think of the capacities of delimitation as an unintended side-effect of promotional cultures of consumerism, one limiting our capacities to engage meaningfully with pressing urgencies of our times by directing our attention elsewhere. And perhaps this is the crux: the realisation of the complexity of Piccadilly Circus’ ongoing constitution, attraction, millions of visitors and selfie re-productions. But perhaps I lack imagination and am therefore fully missing the point. Maybe it’s just about having a colourful background for a new profile picture and no one could care any less about the actual screens or their messages. I however, am still awaiting the moment subvertisers take over the screens, and, at least momentarily, re-direct our attention to the possibility less consumerist imaginations of being. Until then, my encounters with Piccadilly Circus will continue to stimulate the drowning of my eyes.