As you have seen recently, there has been a large media frenzy over the hijacking of billboards and bus stop advertising spaces across the UK, which sees wonderful illustrations placed inside them depicting the true realities of life, rather than the false expectations we are led to believe through advertising. We thought we would get in touch with Bill Posters, the man behind Brandalism, to discuss the group’s work further.
Advertising Shits in Your Head – by Bill Posters.
‘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’ – Michel Serres
Advertising shits in your head – but, first, its torrential, golden flow stains your magazines, your phone, your computer, your newspapers and your streets. Advertising shits all over and dominates our culture. It is a visceral, powerful form of pollution that not only affects our common public and cultural spaces, but also our deeply private intimate spaces. Advertisers want your ‘brain time’ – to shit in your head without your knowledge. We want to stop them.
First Thing’s First
As you read these words, the UN’s Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights is preparing a landmark report into the effects of advertising and marketing on our cultural rights – specifically the right for us to choose our own identities, without coercion or persuasion. The report focuses on the development of conventional advertising and marketing practices and also emerging ones linked to behavioural targeting and neuromarketing. It is becoming increasingly apparent that from the sides of entire buildings to the individual neurons in our brains (the microscopic cells in our brains that inform us of our reality), advertising, media and marketing corporations are waging a war of perception on our individual and collective consciousnesses. So citizens and artists across the UK, with help from others across the world, have begun fighting back.
The Brandalism project started in 2012, as an extension of the guerilla art traditions of the 20th Century, and a manifestation of various elements influenced by agitprop, the Situationists and graffiti movements. We began by merging the arts, the social and the political in the UK’s largest unauthorised exhibition, taking over 36 billboards in 5 UK cities. Internationally recognised artists were involved, but on the street you wouldn’t know it: all the works were unsigned and anonymously installed within public space, as gifts to society.
We attempted to connect individual forms of expression with collective bigger-than-self issues. It was part propaganda, part art – or ‘popaganda’ as Ron English calls it. They were installed in spaces traditionally associated with commodity exchange but the artworks spoke of something else. It was a threat and the result was the national mobilisation of the big 3 outdoor advertisers (JCDecaux, ClearChannel and Primesight) to hunt down our art works and remove them from public space.
It is important to consider here that the spaces reclaimed by artists are in public space, despite being privately owned and operated by multinational advertising corporations. There are hundreds of thousands of these spaces across the UK, but we have never consented to being pissed on from above by their messages and their branded advertisements. This is fundamentally different to the other forms of advertising that we come into contact with and have, to a greater extent, some agency over. We can choose to turn a page, a channel or install software on our computers to remove these trespassers on our visual realm. We have no such luxury concerning public space.
How did this happen?
The drive to consumerism that infiltrated society told citizens to become more concerned about consumption than political action. The expansion of capitalistic economies inevitably led to an uneven distribution of wealth, thus widening economic disparity. Suddenly the media (and the art created by designers) became a tool of political forces and a medium for advertising, rather than the medium from which the public got their information on political matters. This limiting of access to the public sphere, by the political control of the public sphere, was necessary for the modern capitalistic forces to operate and thrive in the competitive economy.
We have always seen culture as the spaces and places where society tells stories about itself. Every society has a space where these stories are told and in our culture it’s advertising that dominates these spaces (both physical and digital). If we want to understand the messages that define (popular) culture then we have to look at the main storytellers. In our culture that is the storytellers that have the most money – the advertisers. Advertisers underwrite and subsidise most forms of communication (print, radio, TV, outdoor, digital, online) in the UK and their spending topped £14 billion in 2013; with the digital outdoor sector showing growth rates of 17% in 2013, it isn’t about to slow down anytime soon.
Cognitive and social science (neuroscience, psychology and sociology in particular) studies have shown that advertising distorts our most automatic behaviours, including unconscious behaviours (low attention processing model). Using brain imaging, neuroscientists have recently begun to look at the effects of branding on our brains. Focussing on our reward systems, the region of the brain that interacts with emotions and decision-making, they found it is highly sensitive to signals from our environment, which can influence our behavior even when they are not consciously perceived.
These studies are finally proving what many have suspected for decades: advertising affects and normalises attitudes, behaviours and values. Advertising doesn’t just reflect culture, as the industry purports, it actively shapes our values. Could we therefore say that the control of our collective values remains with those who can afford it?
If we want to understand our culture and society we had better come to terms with the role and power of commercial images. Consumerism does not stress the value of a collective, sustainable future, and the prevailing values of the commercial system provide no incentives to develop bonds with future generations. Faced with growing ecological and social crises, and with advertising being the engine of an unsustainable and detrimental economic system, we have to manifest alternative values that will provide a humane, collective solution to these global crises. With so much of our culture focused on consuming, to accept that you can’t make a mark on the world – that your only pleasure is to say “I bought”, never to say “I made” – is a form of disempowerment that we need to reverse, quickly. We have to give them their shit back. And we are stronger together.
If we are to fundamentally alter this reality, we must begin from the understanding that we need to create – with rediscovered knowledge of our inherent abilities as creative humans, as cultural producers, and not as the consumers we have been told we are from day one.
Re-democratising Public Space
Every citizen should be guaranteed the right to choose where and when they want to access advertising information. This would protect citizens from unwanted influence, or simply allow them to rest from information overload. In the UK we see on average 4000 brand impressions in the city, every day. Faced with this daily grind, the mental freedom of citizens must be ensured, especially in public space. We as citizens must be the guarantors of our own intellectual freedom, as well as helping to provide psychological security for everyone. We don’t need anyone else to do it for us. We are the city. We are the streets.
This understanding of the public sphere forged the starting point of the Brandalism project. How could we, as creative people, help re-democratise public space and share alternative messages about the social and environmental injustices caused by consumerism? How can we break their monopoly over message and meaning in public space?
So the idea behind Brandalism was to create new ideas and perceptions of public space at a time when its democracy is highly contested. On reflection, the first forray fell short: even though the project received international acclaim, striking chords of discontent across the world, in the end it was two pissed-off people in a van intervening directly in public space. What emerged in 2012 was clearly a temporary intervention, a starting point for further dialogue and development. It didn’t offer a solution to the problem of who gets the chance, opportunity and right to share messages and create meaning within public space and culture.
When the Brandalism project returned in 2014, we were fundamentally concerned with movement. We asked ourselves the question: what can we as a global network of citizens do to challenge the cultural pessimism arising from the power of consumerism? How can we facilitate the reclamation of our right to the city and the revolution of everyday life?
Across the globe the chasm between citizens and political institutions is growing and privatization of our public spaces is increasing. Neoliberal values ensure that the logic of the market dictates social relations via commodification. In response to this, a networked culture, a ‘movement of movements’, centered around global solidarity – a worldwide activism spawned by globalisation and driven by citizens, new media technologies and the expansion of art’s urban context – has emerged in the last decade.
Brandalism’s most recent attacks on the spaces of corporate advertising form part of this emerging movement in an attempt to shift artists’ and public attention to grassroots activism, as a means to combat the privatisation and corporate takeover of our cities, public spaces and culture. Public space is an arena in which no single authority should reign and multiple voices should be heard, so we started from a profoundly democratic conviction that the public sphere is a place for communication, a place where people can speak, establish their presence, and assert their rights. By raising issues via art works, viewers could interpret and debate: Brandalism therefore attempts to wrest authority away from the wealthy and return it to the public. The public sphere should not be an arena of market relations but rather one of discursive relations, a theater for debating and deliberating rather than for buying and selling.
Our project saw a global network of artists transferring art works to us to print. We voted with consensus as to whether each artwork should be included in what became the world’s largest unauthorised outdoor exhibition. On home-made printing equipment, 400 art works were collectively screen-printed, each one an original. They were then installed by teams in 10 major UK cities (teams who are now a network of citizens as artists/activists). The art was revealed and existing when the works were installed and observed in situ: at once, privatized parts of public space became user-generated. Occupied spaces that are usually the preserve of powerful advertisers and political parties shared alternative messages, ideas and perceptions of what the public realm could be.
To build the movement, we now run workshops showing other people how to intervene and take back these spaces. And we are already planning the next project with others from around the world. We are working together to position the citizen as narrator, and in the telling reveal to others how the city can become a playground, stage and instrument for unsanctioned artworks and activist interventions. This is the terrain of arts activism that re-democratises message, meaning and cultural forms of communication dominated by global mass-media corporations. We want to force them out of public space permanently. They do not have the right to our cities, our head space, our culture. We do. Reclaim your right to the city and to your self.