Distorted space

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.

References

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

 

References:

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

 

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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.

 

IMG_9339-1

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.

Surveilling Surveillance

‘If you’re not doing anything to be ashamed of I don’t think there’s a reason to worry.’ – Royal Holloway student

Academic controversy around the omnipresence of surveillance cameras is nothing new, nor is it particularly surprising. Dark dystopian views, as found in numerous sci-fi writings and movies, continue to inspire critiques of a surveillance society founded upon Foucauldian principles of the panopticon. What I find remarkable however is the ongoing lack of critical response by the public to its obvious (highly visual) and rapid emergence that, until today, has no real proven record of reducing crime rates (Piza et al., 2014).

 

Image and art work by Lush.

Image and art work by Lush.

As the series of CCTV subversions by artist Lush indicate however, there have of course been exceptions to the passive acceptance of the pervasive infiltration of security cameras. This includes the notion of sousveillance – ‘to watch from below’ – that aims to ‘confront surveillance by using wearable computing to surveil the surveillers reflectively, bringing into question the very act of surveillance itself’ (Mann et al., 2003: 337). Examples include taking photographs in surveilled stores, filming police officers who come to your door and the live-streaming of activists-police encounters. During a one-day session on creative research practice at Royal Holloway I have appropriated perhaps the purest form of sousveillance: filming CCTV cameras. My attempt has been to start to evaluate the potential of ‘sousveillance practices’ to challenge the dominant paradigms surrounding CCTV cameras in public (in my case, a ‘public’ university campus) and to experiment with new iterations of the concept that extend it further into the public realm.

 

 

References:

Mann, S., Nolan, J. and Wellman, B. (2003) Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments, Surveillance & Society, 1(3), pp. 331-355.

Piza, E. L., Caplan, J. M. and Kennedy, L. W. (2014) Analyzing the Influence of Micro-Level Factors on CCTV Camera Effect. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 30(2), pp. 237-264.

Last Breath: exploration and art practice as research

In the previous post I mentioned a project I have been working on that I want to delve into a bit further here (this was also posted on Royal Holloway’s Landscape Surgery blog). Over the last months I initiated my first two ‘real’ academic adventures: a participation in UCL Urban Labs’ Cities Methodologies exhibition (showcasing innovative means of investigating the urban) and in the Reconfiguring Ruins research project (an AHRC-funded platform bringing together museums, academics and artists to reconsider our current understandings of material and immaterial ruins and the process of ruination). Apart from the disastrous technological breakdown minutes before the exhibition’s opening night (no surprises there), it proved to be an exciting experience to present a project I have been working on intensely throughout 2013 and 2014, where the ‘traditional’ boundaries of the researcher were questioned and blurred into spheres of curation, art practice and film making.

Last Breath

Last Breath is a series of unofficial pre-demolition exhibitions that travelled from London to Phnom Penh and Melbourne in search of architecture soon-to-disappear. The identified condemned spaces were opened up to artists through an invitation to contribute a piece of work. This was done on the understanding that their work would not outlast the lifespan of the building. The buildings, then full of interventions, were made public, with the organisers (myself) offering tours. The selected construction, the performing artists and their work were audio-visually captured and wrapped up in 2-minute videos (memento mori) that were shared online and contained invitations for others to take part in future manifestations of Last Breath. At its core, the series is a practice-led study into the potentiality of extending the immaterial lifespan (urban memory) of inherently temporary space through affective, ephemeral material interventions. Perhaps unsurprisingly however, the project did not start of with specific, detailed research intentions in mind; rather these grew with every extra manifestation that took place. As probably the case with all forms of research, the more I started digging (i.e. searching for locations, exploring, organising the events, curating, film making) the more questions emerged beyond the topic of urban memory: what does a non-Western understanding of ruination and demolition look like? Can we consider architectural dematerialisation as, counter to current conceptualisations of (human-induced) ruination, potentially productive of matter and non-human life? What credible role can mediation and representation play in processes of material disintegration? How to ‘reproduce’ affective events? Of course, the list went on beyond the scope of any singular research project.

The sort of process I went through and the kinds of output I created are unlikely to find a place in an official research (funding and publishing) context. However, I believe certain ways of thinking and ‘doing research’ that were accomplished are equally applicable in more official spheres and might have their own specific benefits. First, acknowledging and putting forward the geographer not merely as a distant bystander, but as an active and creative producer of space, appears productive in the ways it prioritises practice-based knowledge. Automatically, in forcing the researcher to take on different roles and engaging with the topic differently (often awkwardly in the beginning), new kinds of knowledge are achieved. Second, and similar in terms of effect, actively engaging with non-academics in the research process (in this case local established and non-established contemporary artists) offered the opportunity to gain alternative insights from differently-schooled, differently-minded individuals. Their perspectives are still too infrequently captured in academic papers/books. Third, knowing that I was producing work that would resonate primarily with non-academic fields (local visitors, news papers, magazines, blogs) forced me to prioritise the notion of relevance over theoretical complexity. I had to be able to explain what I was doing, why I was doing it and what I was learning from it in a limited amount of (accessible) words. Although this was limiting at some points, it allowed me to make sure throughout the entire the process that I was not getting lost too frequently in unnecessary complexity (although I did of course at moments) without returning to lived relevance.

If anyone is interested in getting actively involved in any of the next iterations or is interested in discussing any of the questions the project put forward, please feel free to get in touch. In the meantime, see other episodes here to get a better, more in-depth feel for the project:http://www.lastbreathproject.co.uk, or email me: thomas.dekeyser.2014@live.rhul.ac.uk