By James Keller
The branding of our environment, both public and private, seems increasingly unavoidable. More and more, advertising is creeping into once out-of-bounds areas like washroom stalls, public schools and even NASA spacecraft. It is said people see upwards of 3,000 advertisements every day, and there seems to be no limit to where advertising will rear its ugly head. Video screens in elevators and above urinals, “Street Blimps” (driving billboards), ads on public transportation and benches, and even good old-fashioned highway billboards saturated our view of the world.
A small pocket of activist-culture has created an answer, if only temporary, to the assault from brand empires: culture jamming. Perhaps increasingly difficult to define, culture jamming seeks to disrupt, reconstruct and in other words jam the messages broadcast to the public through advertising. The subject of Jill Sharpe’s new film Culture Jam, this new type of activism largely focuses on jamming billboards along busy intersections and highways, turning a “Think Different” campaign with a photo of Gandhi–obviously someone who would have benefited had Apple’s latest OS been around in his time–into a “Think Disillusioned” ad, challenging perceptions and messages.
“It kind of defies definition, but if I had to put a definition on it, it’s kind of an artistic and radical form of media activism where people inject new ideas into the mental environment,” says Sharpe, pointing out the differences that exist between groups and individuals. “After I went and interviewed about 26 different people who do culture jamming around the world, I realized they didn’t want to be pegged into a box.”
Despite the fluidity and ambiguity surrounding culture jamming, Sharpe’s film tries to paint a picture of a movement, even if it is not entirely inclusive. She follows the Billboard Liberation Front to its hidden meeting location and later to a jam of a series of Internet advertisements. She documents the ranting of “Reverend Billy” from the Church of Stop Shopping as he raids a Manhattan-area Disney Store preaching about sweatshop labour with Mickey Mouse nailed to a cross. She follows Carly Stasko as she stickers over bus ads and ATM machines, and attacks a urinal video ad with a magic marker.
With the exception of Reverend Billy, all of these acts seem markedly like vandalism. Changing the neon sign of a major hotel chain to read LSD or a Camel Cigarettes ad to ask “Am I Dead?” may appear at first glance the result of childish pranksters, out to damage and destroy.
However, Sharpe is quick to defend the culture jammers and praise them less as criminals and more as artists. The difference, she explains, is the forces behind the act–what motivates people to jam.
“You’ve got to remember that it was illegal for women to vote, it was illegal for blacks to be on a bus with white people. At any time in history, look at what’s legal and what’s not legal. Why is it legal for Coca-Cola to dominate the vending machines in schools? It’s always a question of society’s values. And there’s no real property damage. It’s a non-issue.”
Unlike petty vandalism, culture jamming does have a purpose, even if it seems ambiguous. Sharpe emphasizes that culture jamming isn’t the result of a single movement or group, but rather a convergence of actions and ideas happening simultaneously and often independently of each other. If there is a common goal, it’s less about battling sweatshop labour, globalization, excessive corporate control or the beauty myth (although many address these), and more about creating dialogue and making people open their eyes.
“Companies don’t really come after it because they look bad. If Disney knows it’s paying people 12 cents an hour and making exceeding profits and it’s the truth, then what are they going to do?” Sharpe asks. “Culture jammers are trying to entice corporations into a dialogue. They’re trying to draw the companies in because they can draw them into the press.”
Perhaps the real motivation is power. As Sharpe explains, the BFL would say they love billboards. What they oppose is that the distribution of information–particularly through advertisements–is controlled by corporations and out of the hands of the populous. The answer, perhaps the end goal of many in the culture jamming movement, is to equalize that power, to let the masses speak up as well.
How has it come about that we as citizens have no input in controlling what messages are out there every day,” she says, pointing to jamming as a creative experience as well as a message. “There’s very little left of people getting together and creatively entertaining themselves or doing something unique outside of what is programmed as social interaction.”
Sharpe’s interest in culture jamming in particular stemmed from her own animosity toward our branded world. For Sharpe, advertising’s reach has reached a breaking point, growing from a simple annoyance to an unavoidable assault on our visual space.
“Every time I go into a restaurant bathroom and there’s advertising in the toilet, it enrages me. There’s this idea that there’s no sacred space anymore,” she explains. “What ad company thinks they will get any more business by being that ‘in your face.’ The sheer nerve of it is just shocking to me, this grim assault that ads have on our environment.”