democratic media please - real democracy requires the end of the for-profit media-advertising system

brandalism (has nothing to do with branding or vandalism)

published

the brandalism project has recently completed a new run of ad-takeovers in the united kingdom — see their website: www.brandalism.org.uk — 365 street level ads replaced by volunteers with the artwork of 40 different artists, over 2 days, across 10 cities — examples:

brandalism-minorrefusal

brandalism-#THIS

it is really good that so many people are fully aware that the domination of public space by for-profit advertising is a serious problem, a major link in the process of systemic corruption of our “democracies”, and something that we can and should protest against.

brandalism isn’t the only organised bunch of street artists who are willing to clean up for-profit ads in public space, free of charge, even though the stupid law says no — and i hope more and more people get involved.

i think this is a really great thing, and it’s awesome to see artists, whose works engage with the clear stupidity of exponential-growth consumer capitalism, actually getting their hands dirty and acting on their beliefs in a way which attempts to address some of these problems from their root causes.

this whole ad-takeover movement, which brandalism is a part of, is encouraging — i just hope everyone involved takes the logic of their objection to for-profit advertising in public space and applies it to the whole of our ‘democratic’ public sphere (which is public space in the broadest and truest sense) — something which will necessitate “insane” demands and make certain compromises unacceptable.

the about page of brandalism’s website refers to brandalism being “a revolt against corporate control of the visual realm” and “the biggest anti-advertising campaign in world history” — which broaches themes such as “the ecological damage of consumerism, debt, gender stereotypes, the right to the city, the disaster of finance capitalism, and the pervasiveness of advertising itself” — so it seems fair to assume their criticism goes deep.

it is unclear whether print, television, radio and the internet form part of the visual realm that brandalism wants to see freed from corporate control, but i certainly hope so — when they say they want to “challenge the authority and legitimacy of commercial images within public space and within our culture“[emphasis mine], again i can only assume, but it seems so.

when you are talking about dealing with the issues of the ecological damage of consumerism, debt, the disaster of financial capitalism, etc. you are really talking about remedying the problems which our entire global capitalist economic system is based on, a system that has infiltrated our politics and mainstream culture to such a point that most of us can’t even imagine that there are desirable alternatives — a change as trivial as the abolition of outdoor advertising, as an end-point achievement, does little to precipitate the massive cultural-philosophical change necessary to unite the world in the pressing need to realise a just and sustainable economy, especially when the rest of our public sphere is plagued by, funded and beholden to, for-profit advertising.

the reason i’m a little doubtful as to the extent of brandalism’s critique and aims is because there is a tendency amongst artists commenting on for-profit advertising in public space to see the outdoor form of advertising as the only truly indefensible kind, the only one they feel comfortable questioning, because we are incapable of switching it off — as we can switch off our televisions or radios, or put ad-blockers on our web-browsers, or not pick up or purchase any publications that contain advertisements.

despite the argument that anyone is theoretically free to move to the country where there are no outdoor ads, it’s true that not even a weak argument for tacit consent is usually raised in the defence of outdoor advertising — but how much is watching the sport on the television or listening to pop music on the radio really granting permission to be advertised at? is it any more compelling as tacit consent than choosing to live in a city (whose local government, we are fully aware, allows outdoor advertising) is as tacit consent to see billboards? and even if it’s possible to see living and participating in the advertising culture we were born into as some kind of consent (we could always move to north korea, as a policeman once told me, probably erroneously), can that flimsy consent alone legitimise a system that turns the media of our democracy into a megaphone for for-profit ideology? the same for-profit ideology that must systemically corrupt our democracy to maintain its supremacy?

whilst outdoor advertising hasn’t even offered us a cookie before it pulls our pants down and has its way with us, advertising in other media forms is more objectionable in that it funds the for-profit media system that keeps our entire mainstream media and politics constrained within the anti-democratic boundaries acceptable to for-profit interests — boundaries that, by design, make the root-cause focused solutions to our global problems impossible.

we shouldn’t have to isolate ourselves from our own culture, by both moving to the country and shielding ourselves from our mainstream media, just to be spared from the insulting deluge of evil corporate shit — as practically possible as that sort of isolation may be for a privileged few of us, it does nothing for those who, for any number of reasons, are unable to devote their lives to that sort of fanaticism, or to protect the children of these people — it also does nothing to challenge the communicative power imbalance in our public sphere, to democratise the structure of our mainstream media which continues to define the political framework and agenda.

the way i see it, outdoor advertising provides the opportunity to act against a physical manifestation which is symbolic of for-profit advertising in all its forms, as a method of action to push for deeper changes — it is the theatre, if you like (i don’t really), in which to act out the struggle we are engaged in to have some meaningful involvement and control in our own public sphere, in our own supposed democracies — as the cops show up to protect the domination of for-profit companies (who bought our public space from some other for-profit with money fleeced from us) hopefully the significance of the act isn’t lost on everyone.

it’s most likely that the people behind brandalism fully realise the magnitude of what they are opposing and have simply decided not to state long-term goals that would have the majority write them off as crazy — fair enough i guess.

but the fact remains, if these global issues are really to be tackled at root cause, the first step is ending the for-profit domination of our public sphere in its entirety (across both public space and media), a task that isn’t going to be easy or painless, and which, to use my powers of depressive realism, is most probably unlikely……. but better to aim for a necessary near-impossibility than kill oneself?… i guess.

what i really want to know is if the people involved in these campaigns actually believe in the critical importance of the cause and fully understand the consequences of a continued failure to rectify this situation — the task is so gigantic, and the consequences of continued failure so terrible, that we really should all be prepared to throw our entire lives into a stance against this shit — and the sooner we throw ourselves into it completely the better, because the longer it rules, the more people continue to suffer and die, and the worse our future.

now some slightly more specific comments/criticisms about brandalism in particular:

the first thing to say (which i so subtly referred to in the title of this post) is that the name brandalism accepts the positioning of wrongdoing/illegality set by the advertising industry and the legal system which props it up with cops.

i don’t think (even though street artists tend to see being ‘naughty’, labelled a vandal, as a positive virtue) that the movement should position themselves as vandals — it is the advertising industry that is anti-social and destructive, which is vandalising our democratic systems — the dominant (for-profit) culture will call the movement vandals, anti-social and destructive — but the movement itself should never concede what is the opposite of the truth and should instead make counter-accusations which are much more truthful.

brandalism is a better descriptor for the ‘guerrilla advertising’ (illegal) techniques of the for-profits, or the practice of for-profit advertising in general, including all its presently legal, yet undeniable criminal (i.e. senseless and deplorable), forms.

anyway, all this pedantic name criticism is coming from a dickhead with a website called global liberal media please — names are difficult, and they don’t matter as much as substance — but on the topic of names, rather than calling this an “anti-advertising movement” i think it is better to call it a “media liberation movement”, or even something more cumbersome: “movement for the liberation of the public realm”.

opposition to advertising comes from an ideology of wider goals which are much more important and positive, rather than reactionary — the for-profit mob will refer to it us as “anti-advertising”, but we don’t have to accept this, much like the global justice movement didn’t accept being labelled the “anti-globalisation movement”.

brandalism is very conscious (as are many ad-takeover artists) of not being accused of simply advertising the artists involved as professional artists, and so they should be — brandalism asked that all artists leave their names off the artworks which would replace the abuse-of-psychology-and-perversion-of-art-works of the advertising companies (only the artist ludo failed, or secured a win, getting special mention on brandalism’s about page as well as on my outrageously popular blog).

all the artists participating are listed on brandalism’s website along with photos of their installed artwork — so while the small number of people who took notice of the installed artworks on the street might not have known anything about the project or which artists where involved, the far greater number of interested people who visited the site would be sure which artists have integrity and are taking the fight to the big boys (at least in theory).

what concerns me is that by avoiding detection, and having the legally-protective armour of ‘professional artist’ in the case of any actual prosecution (especially unlikely if they themselves didn’t fit the posters, like you would presume was the case for the non-uk artists), perhaps these professional artists have only a lot to gain personally from their involvement in this movement and aren’t willing to sacrifice anything for its ultimate success, which they may not particularly care for or believe to be possible.

this is a somewhat cynical view, but i think it is something the artists themselves have the onus to dispel, and i’d really love them to dispel it — i’d love a whole lot of them to stand up, stand their ground and push the issue for as long as it takes, no matter the personal consequences — of course i understand that some people are just unable, unprepared or simply not emotionally desperate enough for such an approach, but to talk the talk, wager nothing, and come out stinking of false integrity while reaping the social benefits would be something i couldn’t live with.

ron english is no hero of mine, and my role models are not the academics who churn out erudite tomes of condemnation of for-profit advertising and the for-profit media system it sustains (as much as i might like those books and believe them important) — we either live our beliefs, or we are just another bad example to the kids, demonstrating how one should live cooperatively alongside that which one claims to find unconscionable, at the same time as earning a pretty penny (or some kind of social capital) for our ‘strong stance’ — which isn’t really a stance at all, it’s just another career within a disgraceful world-order with the fringe benefit of ‘perceived integrity’.

returning again to brandalism: another problem in reserving expressive involvement with the project for established artists, on top of the appearance of simply promoting the artists involved, is the exclusion of non-artists.

i understand how it might have more impact in the contemporary media environment if this project involved a bunch of professionals producing high-quality ad-takeover artwork of undeniable and verifiable ‘cultural value’, but this movement shouldn’t be reserved for established artists, nor should it necessarily be reserved only for someone who wants to use the space for something more than a direct, unadorned, unexplained negation of a clearly absurd practice — i mean you don’t even have to say anything else once the ad is removed/covered/disabled/disarmed, you have already written a book, saying something explicit, while communicating more clearly to those who might not intuitively understand, tends to limit the multitude of things expressed by focusing the critique on one of the thousands of simultaneous reasons.

everyone who wants to be involved in this movement, and who takes on the personal risk/responsibility by doing it themselves, has equal right to be replacing/removing advertisements with/as their own heart-felt expressions of revolt — the more involved from all walks of life (not only professional artists) the better — democracy isn’t just where professional artists get to express their opinions in public, and i hope brandalism in the future also co-ordinates mass takeovers of free expression (for sure including the skilled expressions of artists) than to effectively position themselves as curators of ad-takeovers in the united kingdom.

using established artists for media clout is a tactic, but do the benefits outweigh the downsides? you might gain slightly more attention from a fucked-up for-profit media that just portrays the protest as another ‘wacky weird world’ piece for the mild amusement of the passive, politically-cynical, urban commuter — but you exclude people who aren’t artists from direct and empowering expressive involvement (allowing them only to be minions for the expressions of the artists while taking on all the personal risk themselves, potentially lowering the morale, numbers and retention of participants) as well as opening the project up to criticisms that this is all just a promotion for bad-boy street artists.

what would surely get the attention of the community (and perhaps even the attention of the for-profit media) is if this practice of ad-takeovers, or even just ad-negation, grew in numbers, spread across the world and became more and more intense, and it could only do this by involving more than just street artists — and this is something that both brandalism and public ad campaign specifically advocate, disseminating information on how to open advertising panels, public ad campaign even planning to produce and distribute tools that work in different locations around the world, which is all super great — but if brandalism’s take-over projects are only for invited artists, their practice sends a different, more exclusive, message.

of course i also believe this: — if the people who felt really strongly about this issue ditched the cat-and-mouse game and just openly transgressed the laws that protect this ridiculous bullshit, that would be a really helpful part of the whole movement, a deliberate and direct confrontation with the laws that protect this rubbish — artists in particular (with their legally-protective artist suits, public profiles and (often) confident and outspoken personalities) would be perfect candidates to throw themselves against the legal system and make a real issue out of this.

street artists in particular are in a very powerful situation presently — their ‘illegal’ activities have gained mainstream acceptance as valid cultural production, and their art has much more claim to public space that for-profit advertisements do.

they are building more prisons every day, but if everyone who truly understands the destructive effects of for-profit dominance of our public sphere was to act out, they wouldn’t have enough cells to hold us — and the justice system would start to look even stupider if it were throwing people in jail for peaceful ad-takeovers justified by a legitimate concern for democracy and global justice.

i don’t like that i feel the need to criticise brandalism in any way when they are doing such awesome things, but i hope all my as-yet-unproven-or-disproven concerns turn out to be unfounded, and also that everyone whose present practice i criticise knows i’m only saying this shit because i actually desperately want this movement to succeed — similarly i’d hope if anyone has criticisms of the shit i do that they feel to be valid, that they don’t hesitate to advance them.

if this movement expands and becomes more influential, the for-profit-controlled state will want to stop the movement — the tactic that will be employed first is to simply ignore it and wait until everyone gets bored/tired/disillusioned and moves on (a likely scenario, as everyone involved will know an unnecessary crack-down would be a “p.r.” win for the movement).

but if we want this movement to be more than just an empty gesture, we’ll have to push it beyond what the state can ignore, draw the crack-down — and be willing to keep pushing in the face of everything the state throws against it.

with so much at stake, there is every reason that we should have complete commitment to this, it is just up to us to push our own personal interests into the background, which again, with so many innocents having their lives destroyed on the back of this system, there is every reason for us to do.

i don’t want to see this ad-takeover movement just die in the arse and add to the understandable cynicism of the community, inoculating them against the impact and importance of this form of interventionist protest — i really think it is time that first-world anti-establishment established artists, as well as all first-worlders espousing global justice goals (especially well-credentialed academics), put their actions where their mouths are — if this whole brandalism thing blows over and all these artists continue existing along peacefully within global destructo-capitalism, earning a nice little living for their empty expressions of revolt, then this whole brandalism thing will only have taken us backwards, just as politically disarming as the sale of an anti-advertising artwork in a gallery.

looking at the art of know hope (israel) and paul insect (u.k.)(included at the top of the post), the artists are obviously aware that their refusal is token, minor, doesn’t constitute a refusal at all really, just a cheeky bit of side-eye they hope doesn’t result in a fight — they also realise that no twitter feed, divorced from action, can save the world — i’m just begging them to pretty please take it to the next level, to make it a total refusal, to put their lives against for-profit advertising, not just their 140 characters, which is symbolic of all kinds of verbalism.

we have to go as hard as we would if the whole world depended on it — because it does — i don’t care how ‘wet’ i sound anymore.