Six artists moved across a 14th Street rooftop on a recent balmy afternoon, their prey in sight, their crime carefully choreographed. It took them just 20 minutes to cover an innocuous Nissan ad with their own contribution to Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, that series with stark black-and-white photos of 20th-century groundbreakers like Albert Einstein and Miles Davis. These ads are a current favorite among billboard liberators nationwide, since, as one of them explained, “It’s a grammatically challenged campaign.”
The liberators have happily provided what they like to call “improvement.” So which 20th-century iconoclast would be shilling for computers on this particular afternoon? The artists first wheat pasted the side with the familiar typeface and logo, unrolling the new ad gradually to reveal the crazed and definitely “different” stare of Charles Manson.
For 20 years now, merry pranksters have been wheat pasting against the machine, trying to take back America one billboard at a time. It hasn’t exactly worked. But it’s the thought that counts—the occasional blessed interruption in the official wallpaper of our lives. On April 28, a show featuring 20 years’ worth of such media sabotage—often called “culture jamming”—opens at CB’s Gallery, with work from the Billboard Liberation Front, the Cicada Corps of Artists (formerly ArtFux), Hocus Focus, billboard pirate Ron English, media hoaxer Joey Skaggs, and more.
“Jamming” is CB radio lingo for breaking into someone else’s broadcast. The sound-collage band Negativland coined the term “culture jamming” to signify blips in the flow of official messages. This movement actually seems stronger now than ever. And more necessary.
An entire generation has passed since French theorist Guy Debord began obsessing about the Spectacle. Debord was part of the Situationist International, that self-proclaimed “last avant-garde,” founded in 1958. To the Situationists, ideology counted more than aesthetics, and Debord was chief ideologue, preaching a sort of Marxism gone Dada. Instead of critiquing earlier art traditions or even the fabled means of production, however, the Situationists critiqued the means of consumption. That’s where they found alienation, passivity, and boredom. Debord’s 1967 classic, The Society of the Spectacle, asserted that people no longer bought commodities; they bought images. “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” Debord wrote. “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” In other words, the Spectacle produced spectators who lived a pseudo-life.
The Situationists were virtually unknown in America before 1981, when an anthology of their writing was finally published here. But their ideas became the fulcrum catapulting Dada into punk, negation into pop culture. By the ’80s, a critique of the Spectacle was in the air. It can’t be an accident that the Billboard Liberation Front, oldest of the culture-jamming crews, grew out of the San Francisco Suicide Club in 1977. The Suicide Club was a group in revolt against the pseudo-life. These were people who had decided to live each day as though it were their last, and they pursued experiences that took them outside mainstream society. They climbed buildings and infiltrated cults. They did “enter-the-unknown” events, where they would be blindfolded and led into some strange urban adventure. Jack Napier, cofounder of BLF, improved his first billboard with them.
By the end of the ’80s, BLF was part of a subterranean network that had developed around the notion of “seizing the media,” an idealistic if flimsy assault waged mostly by zines and distributed by mail. From the Aggressive School of Cultural Workers in Iowa to the Church of the Subgenius in Texas to the Immediast Underground in New Jersey, it was all about recontextualizing the banal. After a while, though, even this movement became a tad predictable: the ubiquitous collage art, the pro-plagiarism rants, the constant navel gazing about the meaning of zineing.
The billboard teams may have been among the most isolated artists in this underground scene. Ron English began painting signage in Texas in 1982, completely unaware of BLF. He met the guys from Cicada a couple of years ago, but he estimates that it’s just within the past year or so that they’ve all found one another through the Internet, and the CB’s show developed from there.
A certain momentum has been created now by the Internet. It’s still too soon to see where it will go, but the Web subverts ownership, lets subjectivity run rampant, and makes it possible for anyone to find an affinity group. And the electronic world has no underground.
Just last week, a favorite canvas for all these artists finally disappeared: the cigarette ad. (The tobacco industry agreed to take down all billboards if states agreed to drop claims for smoking-related health costs.) Pedro Carvajal of the New Jersey–based Cicada Corps says that when his group formed in 1992, they chose to focus on “the amount of disproportionate advertising in poor communities, especially by tobacco and alcohol.” Ron English became so obsessed with Joe Camel, and painted him so well, that RJ Reynolds tried to hire him. They canceled his contract, however, when English persisted in hiding skulls in the pictures.
An ad is the ultimate in received ideas, and ads now control much more of the landscape than they did in Debord’s day. There was even talk a couple of weeks ago about baseball players wearing ads on their uniforms. (Is nothing sacred?) The manifesto of the Billboard Liberation Front calls upon everyone to make their own:
“Through the Ad and intent of the Advertiser we form our ideas and learn the myths that make us into what we are as a people….To Advertise is to Exist. To Exist is to Advertise. Our ultimate goal is nothing short of a personal and singular Billboard for each citizen….Until that day we will continue to do all in our power to encourage the masses to use any means possible to commandeer the existing media and to alter it to their own design.”
And so a Kent cigarette ad with lounging smokers came to read, “Kant—The Choice Is Heteronomy.” Charles Manson, certainly the spokesconvict of the moment among billboard liberators, appears to be selling Levi’s these days. And an Apple ad with Amelia Earhart’s photo now advises us: “Think Doomed.”
Jack Napier says BLF has now begun back-charging and invoicing both the ad agencies and their clients, like Apple and Levi’s. “We think they should pay us for improving their work,” he says. BLF isn’t political, just out to attack the vapid. But that’s a whole revolution right there. Jack Napier, by the way, is a pseudonym. Napier’s day job is in advertising.
“Celebrating 20 Years of Billboard Liberation and Culture Jamming” opens April 28 at CBGB Gallery, 313 Bowery. Beginning at 10 p.m., billboard improvers, including those mentioned above, will make presentations. Don’t miss the Web sites for BLF (www.billboardliberation.com), Joey Skaggs (www.joeyskaggs.com), Ron English (www.popaganda.com), Cicada (www.escape.com/~cicada), Hocus Focus (www.hocusfocus.org), Negativland (www.negativland.com), and culture-jamming central, Adbusters (www.adbusters.org).