Hate speaks to Bill Posters, co-founder of Brandalism, about the detrimental effects of global advertising, subvertising public space and co-founding Subvertisers International. If you hate advertising as much as we do, you can learn how to hack ad space by getting a copy of the world’s first Subvertising Manual here.
How did the Brandalism Project begin?
Brandalism was founded in July 2012 by myself and Peter Marcuse and supported by an international network of street artists, designers and illustrators. The first Brandalism project was a critical analysis of corporate propaganda via the installation of 36 artworks on billboards in 5 major cities across the UK. The artworks interrogated the intersectional issues that corporate advertising and marketing exacerbates including climate collapse, environmental destruction, body image, debt, cultural values and mental health.
Over subsequent interventions, Brandalism spread across ten UK cities and in 2015 to Paris for the UN climate talks where artists and activists installed 600 artworks in advertising spaces across Paris the day before the COP21 UN Climate Talks began. Six weeks before the talks were due to start, we shipped a studio’s worth of equipment to a squatted warehouse. More than 80 artists submitted around 140 artworks and everyone involved in the mass action assembled in the squat for a gruelling eight-hour debate on which artworks to include and install. Detailed training and screen-printed uniforms were provided and 45 teams installed more than 600 pieces of subvertising across Paris, resulting in global press coverage. The subvertising critiqued the corporate takeover of the climate talks process and made visible the links between advertising, consumerism and climate collapse at a key media and political moment.
In 2016/17 we established an international network (www.subvertisers-international.net) that has spread across 16 countries to date. Our network has partners in various EU states, the US and within the global south.
How many people are behind the project, and how do you go about creating and putting posters out there?
Brandalism has a core team that operates and organises within the UK and internationally, for security reasons we can’t share many details about our crew and numbers of people involved.
If you want to start subvertising there are loads of methods that subvertisers around the world use now and it’s really good to see so many different approaches develop in the studio and in the streets over the last 5 years. If you are wanting to hack the street level ‘6 sheet’ ad spaces that you find at bus stops or on the metro, then you need a key but what you do after you’ve hacked the spaces is up to you. Some artists just remove the posters, some graf up the cabinets for high visibility outlines or tags, others take the adverts, rework them in the studio and install them back in the streets. We have silk screen printed and often digitally printed posters for our projects. You can get these outdoor posters printed quite cheaply online - just search for ‘outdoor large format printing’.
We recommend using a hi-vis to keep it low key but all you really need is £3 / $4 / €4.50 key and you are good to hack over 100,000 ad spaces across Europe and the US. Not a bad investment. All we ask is just don’t be a dick and put anything racist, sexist or detrimental to any other culture, gender, race or religion in the spaces that you reclaim. Adverts already do this all the time.
To encourage others to subvertise we have just released the world’s first pocket sized ‘Subvertising Manual’. The book features practical advice and guidance on all aspects of subvertising including where to buy keys and how to access spaces. This concise manual ensures that anyone, anywhere, can open, reclaim and subvert advertising spaces easily in their city.
There are also translations in the pipeline for German, Spanish and Norwegian versions too which is cool.
Can you tell us a little more about subvertising? Its history, and why you think so many artists and activists are starting to get involved?
Subvertising is a form of contemporary street art and culture jamming that has its roots in the Letterist, Dada and Situationist art movements from the 1950s onwards. Part art and part propaganda, subvertising gives corporations their own shit back. By developing the technique of detournement first used in the 1950s by the Letterists and later by the Situationist International, Subvertisers often use the mythical and symbolic power of corporations against themselves by skilfully reworking, subverting and critiquing the brand identities, values and messages of corporations. Subverts are often installed anonymously in public space as an extension of the practice of ‘social sculpture’ developed by Joseph Beuys in the 1970s. Beuys’ developed the term to embody his understanding of art's potential to transform society. For subvertisers, the act of trespassing into ad spaces is an essential part of the practice.
In the 1970s and 80s a group of Australian protesters calling themselves BUGAUP scrawled anti- tobacco messages on billboards across the country, leading to an Australia-wide ban on tobacco advertising and making the group world pioneers of a movement now known as culture jamming. Subvertising is a form of culture jamming that grew in popularity and sophistication in the US in the 1980s as a result of globalisation, corporate greed and the horrors of the Disney corporation. The Billboard Liberation Front’s humorous ad hacks around New York set the standard for other artists to follow. During the early 1990s, groups like Artfux, Adbusters and artists including Ron English developed the practice using accessible desktop publishing technologies and processes. As large format printing and design technologies got cheaper and more accessible, suddenly it wasn’t just rich people that could get their messages up on billboards for all to see it was white middle class kids too.
We think the recent rise in the popularity of subvertising is linked to a growing dissatisfaction with corporate and political forms of mass media and the influence they exert over every aspect of our modern lives. From how we feel about ourselves; our bodies; our understandings of gender, race and class; through to our perceptions of others and the world we live in. Some subvertisers like Special Patrol Group, Beast, Resistance is Female, Hogre and Thrashbird challenge the corporate dominance of culture and space to interrogate, question and resist the corporate and political bullshit that is forced into our lives. This is good to see because it is reconnecting street art to its anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist roots which has been under threat due to the exponential rise in popularity and commercialisation of the art form over the last 15 years. Lots of new artists getting involved in street art don’t know this history, they think it is all about epic murals and gallery shows so we need to find ways of reconnecting the art form to its social function and subvertising is one form of street art that does this without question.
In recent years, subvertising groups and collectives like Public Ad Campaign, Brandalism, Art In Ad places, No Ad Day and the Subvertisers International have pioneered a collective, network-based approach to the art form by using social media and digital networks to mobilise artists around the world to collaborate together and transcend - rather than merely criticise - the status quo in order to imagine a world beyond capitalism. It’s also been cool to see more graffiti writers and street artists taking over advertising spaces as canvases in the city.
Advertising is incredibly insidious and manipulative. What are the aims of the project with subvertising?
Advertising is indeed incredibly coercive and manipulative. Globally there wouldn’t be $500 billion spent on buying what advertisers call your ‘brain time’ if it wasn't. We believe that building resistance and resilience to corporate power is at the heart of the culture wars in the 21st century. Corporate advertising influences every aspect of our modern lives: from how we feel about ourselves; our bodies; our understandings of gender, race and class; through to our perceptions of others and the world we live in. Intervening into advertising spaces that usually celebrate consumption, Brandalism uses ‘subvertising’, short for ‘subverting advertising’, as a protest model to divert messages towards ones that dream of a world beyond consumer capitalism. By utilising popular forms of visual arts, and internationally recognised artists from a broad range of disciplines, Brandalism uses outdoor advertising spaces as a lens through which we can view multiple social and environmental justice issues that consumer capitalism exacerbates. We want to engage young audiences in some of the most pressing issues of our time so we read really dense theory, try and understand it and then use creative processes and practices to articulate ideas in accessible and relational ways.
From Brandalism’s perspective, in broad terms our aims are fourfold:
Firstly, we subvert and reclaim corporate advertising infrastructures to make visible the often invisible connections and relationships that exist between corporate media spaces and the cumulative effect that capitalist values and corporate power exerts on us as individuals, societies and the ecosystem we are a part of that supports all life.
Second, we hack the city so we can open-source our learning, knowledge and tactics with others that wish to challenge corporate and state power in public space. All creative interventions into public spaces are political in nature (whether artists recognise this as an explicit part of their practice or not) as with the act of intervention you are creating an alternative social condition that challenges and often contradicts the dominant neoliberal ideologies and values that create and shape the purpose and function of urban space. Part of our open-source methods include the production of tools, tactical manuals and the establishment and facilitation of communities of practice for subvertisers. We also offer free trainings, theoretical workshops and publications for political groups, collectives and artists. We actively facilitate the development of international networks and practitioners to further open up access and agency for marginalised voices in the streets.
Thirdly, we use non-hierarchical and direct democracy methods when working with artists and activists for our projects to establish an alternative model that re-democratises access to storytelling in public space via collective and consensus based forms of organising.
Our model is influenced by Harvey, Lefebvre, and Bookchin’s municipalist theory. We believe that public space matters, and a city with fewer ads, more public art and a mixture of stories and voices in public space is a healthier and more representative city. The right to author, change, create and recreate the public spaces that we inhabit, share and live in is a fundamental right for all people that coexist in communities, no matter what size. The multinational corporations that own ad spaces didn’t ask you or any member of the public for consent before they took over every city in the world with adverts. Advertising infrastructures are symbols and monuments to deeper ideologies that have actively shaped the way meaning and social relations have been created in societies since Victorian times. We believe people have the right not to be constantly advertised at, especially in public space and want to make this rebellion a collective one that distributes power rather than consolidates it.
We co-produce projects on the ground with those that are actively involved, most of whom have been recruited via openly organised workshops and trainings. This collective approach ensures that, in a small but significant way, there is a ‘re-democratisation’ of access to authoring public space at a grass roots level. For major projects, all artworks installed are voted on using consensus by participants to further redistribute power and authorship. Any artworks that don’t reach consensus with those that are actively involved in installing them are not included. Some artworks by very famous artists have been dropped because the collective decided it.
Last but not least, we hope that as a result of the aforementioned methods and tactics, we can help to make visible a world beyond capitalism and the powerful cultural and commercial forces that obfuscate our current reality and limit the possibilities for life and society. In order to experiment in co-creating these post-capitalist visions and relations we co-founded the Subvertisers International and in 2016 we launched the first internationally coordinated #SubvertTheCity project in 16 countries around the world.
Can you explain more about the #SubvertTheCity project?
Over the course of 2016, Brandalism worked with friends from around the world to establish the Subvertisers International (SI) – a new network of artists and activists in 10 countries around the world. Our trans-national network uses the twin strands of activism DNA – creativity and civil disobedience, to begin to imagine a world beyond capitalism.
The SI was founded on 10th May 2016 by representatives of Brandalism (UK+), Consume Hasta Morir (ESP), Le Collectif des Déboulonneurs (FRA), Democratic Media Please (AUS), Dies Irae (GER), NoAdDay (Int), Vermibus (ESP), ContraPublicidad (ARG), Public Ad Campaign (US), Résistance à l’agression publicitaire (R.A.P) (FRA), Robert Johnson (RJ) & Commission AntiPub Nuit Debout (CAP) (FRA) and Special Patrol Group (UK).
The SI launched on 22nd – 25th March 2017 with an international campaign entitled #SubvertTheCity.
#SubvertTheCity saw the world’s first coordinated international ad takeover & over 60 creative actions in 38 cities in 18 countries around the world. From Norway to Uganda, from Iran to Belgium, and from Argentina to Australia, people around the world took creativity into the streets to challenge corporate advertising in public space as together we collectively re-imagined what our cities and societies could be in the age of post-capitalism.
Over 60 internationally recognised artists created artworks that articulated messages of hope and affirmative politics to challenge the politics of fear and division that is currently gripping global political discourse in the age of the anthropocene.
The public call to action asked people to imagine a better city – a more democratic public space, or dream of a more equitable society. #SubvertTheCity saw public art, events, workshops, screenings and creative actions that addressed some of the concerns the public have with how corporate media is influencing our minds, bodies and planet.
We founded the Subvertisers International to challenge corporate advertising all over the world. The concept behind #SubvertTheCity is to imagine and share visions of hope for the kinds of cities and societies we must create to meet our shared human needs and those of the planet. We are challenging consumerism by moving beyond it because what we need right now are not cheaper cosmetics or faster cars, we need visions and solutions to the social and environmental issues we face in our cities and societies around the world. We hope this project and the art works will inspire others to imagine alternatives and take action by joining our movement.
Many of the #SubvertTheCity artworks submitted by artists from 17 countries including Iran, Egypt, Mexico, Poland and Hungary focussed on the refugee crisis and expressed solidarity with those that are facing persecution in their own countries and abroad.
What has been your favourite subvertised poster so far?
For me the art is in the processes, organising and intervention with others in public space not the individual posters. In many ways the posters are not pieces of art but pieces of propaganda as they direct the viewer to a certain prescribed perspective and understanding of the subject matter they are interacting with. Therefore my favourite subvertised poster is always the one that someone has just installed in some unknown street in some unknown city just now, waiting to be discovered.
You've made posters on climate change, Spanish protest laws, and consumption, what have you got planned next?
Currently I’m working on a large Brexit related body of work that will be released next year and I am also developing projects that migrate my work from public to digital space. I feel that the coming battleground is really centred around the impacts and effects of computational propaganda and the AI and machine learning technologies that are establishing the field of behavioural sequencing using big data. For me I am interested in finding the points of intervention to subvert digital systems and spaces by applying detournement theory to interrogating how these new forms of propaganda and their associated infrastructures impact societies today.