Distorted space

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.

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.




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

Moving away from madmen, magic and manipulation

There is something profoundly alienating about radical career shifts. Until 14 months ago, I was investing precious time in the job I had fought so strongly for during the course of my practical/academic education and my work-based internships (see here for the unnecessarily long list). But at the same time, I must have always somehow known I did not want to advertise stuff to people that don’t need it on a planet that does not need it. The moral questions I had always received standard answers. ‘The economy needs to keep going, right?!’, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, practically all jobs have as their ultimate goal a greater consumption of products/services’ and – one of my personal favourites – ‘What are you, a Marxist?’ are some of the classics that eventually fuelled my departure from the glittery world of madmen, magic and manipulation. Perhaps even more integral to my move away from (outdoor) advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi London was Michel Serres’ innocent-looking little bookMalfeasance: Appropriation through pollution?’ and more specifically the following quote:

It makes me suffer so much that I need to say it over and over again and proclaim it everywhere; how can we not cry with horror and disgust confronted with the wrecking of our formerly pleasant rural access roads into the cities of France? Companies fill the space now with their hideous brands, waging the same frenzied battle as the jungle species in order to appropriate the public space and attention with images and words, like animals with their screams and piss. Excluded from those outskirts, I no longer live there; they are haunted by the powerful who shit on them and occupy them with their ugliness. Old Europe, what ignorant ruling class is killing you? (Serres, 2011: 54-55)

Six months of travelling, thinking (often of the existential nature only a 25-year-old with a quarter-life-crisis can experience) and launching projects (a series of unofficial pre-demolition exhibitions here) after my official resignation, I decided to start off on the MA Cultural Geography (Research) course at Royal Holloway, University of London, with the only certainty being that I knew I did not want to go back into advertising and that I knew was interested in those artists/activists who critically engage with the spheres of advertising. A few months down the line, my PhD proposal on the topic of ‘subvertising’ was outlined and accepted for full-funding for a start in October 2015:

From Walter Benjamin’s romantic ode to the “inhabited interiors” of Paris to his threnody of that same space infiltrated by the “cancerous tissue”of commodity fetishism: the non-singular urban is swamped by apparent contradictory processes. Its condition is a fluidity of dreams and nightmares, of spontaneities and limitations, of territorialisation and deterritorialisation. Along these lines, recent scholarship in the fields of urban geography, political theory and cultural studies, has focused on the urban public as an increasingly contested site of spatial appropriation and re-appropriation. Essential to this is the popularised artistic/activist practice of ‘subvertising’: the attacking and altering of corporate advertising in public urban space, a political space where consumer culture is occupying an increasingly prominent place. However, from shoewear brand Vans sponsoring illegal graffiti practices, to luxury brand Marc Jacobs subverting activist Kidult’s assualts into a commercial opportunity; various attempts to reclaim urban space have proven to be paradoxically successful in feeding the brands of corporations. Although there have been studies into broader concepts of consumer resistance and cultural jamming, the domain of subvertising and its inherent political relationship with the urban remains critically almost untouched.

The proposed research seeks to examine the politics of subvertising and its tense ongoing relationship with dominant acts of place-making. To investigate the practice of subvertising, its subjectivities and its affective potential adequately, the research methodology requires a multi-media, practice-led approach with a theoretical contexualisation that ranges across disciplines.

This blog will/should bring together some of my thoughts, writings and audio-visual productions that emerge on my journey away from advertising into the often political realm of critical geography as a PhD Candidate (and hopefully beyond). All of these are likely to walk the thin lines between geography, arts and activism. For now, there is not much to look at yet, but times will change.

Let it all begin!