I 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.
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.
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.
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
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 ) 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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
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.
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.