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A new generation of Bay Area 'culture jammers' manipulates media manipulation
It's a late afternoon last summer, and a crowd of weary commuters is standing on the platform of the Montgomery Street BART station, avoiding eye contact and glancing occasionally at the overhead monitors. Between train destination announcements, the perfect faces of KGO-TV newscasters Terilyn Joe and Dan Ashley beam down.
Suddenly, a gust of wind indicates an imminent arrival. The crowd looks up to the monitors in unison, checking the train's destination. The Channel 7 ad then switches over to the characteristic lettering of a BART destination message -- only it reads, 'Capitalism Stops at Nothing.'
The message blinks twice before giving way to the train's destination. And for a few seconds, hundreds of people scratch their heads and wonder the same thing: 'What the hell just happened?'
Welcome to the next generation of Bay Area culture jamming.
Coined by the Berkeley art-rock group Negativland in the early 1980s, the term 'culture jamming' -- aka 'media hacking' -- refers to the deliberate disruption, distortion, or subversion of mainstream media messages, primarily advertising. Or, as Mark Dery, author of Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs, describes it: ' 'Jamming' is CB slang for the illegal practice of interrupting radio broadcasts or conversations between fellow hams with lip farts, obscenities, and other equally jejune hijinx. Culture jamming, by contrast, is directed against an ever more intrusive, instrumental technoculture whose operant mode is the manufacture of consent through the manipulation of symbols.'
According to Dery, culture jamming can trace its roots to the carnival traditions of medieval Europe, dada, and the Situationist International movement. But in the Bay Area, culture jamming began with groups like the Billboard Liberation Front, ad-defacing vandals whose pranks date to 1979, and Negativland, whose recomposition of a U2 song led to a well-publicized legal battle with the band and its label, Island Records.
Lately, a new guard of culture jamming artists has been creeping out of the corners of San Francisco's urban landscape. Where artists in the 1970s and '80s sought to add 'noise into the signal,' altering existing public works, their '90s progeny generally avoid head-on confrontation and make their own signals, setting them free to sink or swim in the great American mediastream.
Andy Cox, the artist behind the short-lived 'Capitalism Stops at Nothing' campaign, is a civil engineer with a master's of fine arts degree from San Francisco State University. He says he came up with the idea for the 'ad,' predictably, while waiting for a BART train.
'I was just standing there, and I noticed that two things were going on with the signs,' Cox recalls. 'The train destinations were coming up all the time, and they were asking people to advertise. They put up a phone number, and I thought, 'Why not?''
Cox, who doesn't advocate any particular ideology despite the tone of his work, says he paid roughly $800 to New Jersey-based MetroChannel, which eventually pulled the ad citing rider complaints. He says he was surprised they accepted it in the first place.
'I tried calling other people before, like ad companies,' Cox says. 'I said I wanted to put the ads on taxis and was willing to pay for it. They told me to call the Art Commission instead.'
Filmmaker Craig Baldwin, a San Francisco filmmaker whose credits include Sonic Outlaws, a documentary about audio jammers such as Negativland, the Tape-beatles and the Barbie Liberation Organization, has been a student of the culture jamming phenomenon since it first appeared on Bay Area billboards in the mid-'70s.
Although Baldwin cites the work of multimedia artist Jenny Holzer as a precendent to Cox, he says the 'Capitalism' campaign signifies a new attitude among culture jammers. With its vague, almost defeatist, tone, 'Capitalism Stops at Nothing' stands in direct contrast to the highly-focused outrage of earlier works.
'People now are even more resigned to the pop culture world in general and advertising in particular,' Baldwin says. 'I think the utopian belief that we could just join together and get rid of it has come and gone.'
Baldwin's comments extend to the work of Gordon Winiemko and Julie Wyman, creators of the short film Enjoy. The film, a satire about the huge neon Coca-Cola billboard at Fourth and Brannan streets South-of-Market, is less about lashing back than about acceptance.
'We referred to it as 'post-rage' when we were making it,' says Winiemko. 'When I look at billboards in the city, I don't see these corporate representatives. I see the art work of our culture. Just like any artwork, it expresses values, for better or for worse.'
Still, Winiemko's stance hasn't won him any free airfare to Atlanta just yet. In the film, he and Wyman play a pair of 'cokeheads' with an unhealthy fascination for the billboard. Half underground 'stalk-umentary,' half semiotics lecture, Enjoy deliberately undermines the Coca-Cola image by mimicking the look and feel of a real television commercial.
For Baldwin, the key link between Enjoy and 'Capitalism' is their use of ambiguity. They leave it up to the individual viewer to decide who -- if anyone -- is being attacked.
'There's kind of a love-hate relationship going on,' Baldwin says. 'They say we'll take this object, this crass commercial object, and we'll make it the central piece in our video. They don't disavow it like other artists do.'
According to Winiemko, that love-hate relationship isn't accidental. 'We really do love that sign,' he says. 'We love it for its beautiful monstrosity and for its monstrous beauty.'
Baldwin reserves his highest praise for the group behind the 'Seismic Solution' messages that have popped up around the Mission, SOMA, and other districts over the past two years. A sly protest of the over-gentrification of San Francisco, the stickers and posters cheerfully postulate what effects a repeat of the 1906 or 1989 earthquakes might have on skyrocketing rents, sparse parking, and the city's recent proliferation of Blockbusters and Pasta Pomodoros.
'Our messages are meant to be seen as social commentary, meant to inspire thought about the state of the world, meant to make people think and laugh,' reads an online polemic by the group. 'We are the seismic messengers spreading the word about a city that's reached its limit.'
By mating the guerrilla-art attitude of early 'subvertisement' works with the style of a legitimate public-service ad campaign, Baldwin says, Seismic Solution has upheld the 'jujitsu' aesthetic central to culture jamming. 'Basically, jujitsu is the art of using the weight of the enemy against itself,' he explains. 'With corporations, sometimes the only way to beat them is not by brute force, but by symbolic agility.'
He admits, however, that it isn't exactly clear who is being thrown over the artist's shoulder in Seismic Solution's case. With no corporate antagonist, is the enemy city government? Society? The reader on the street? Again, ambiguity plays a crucial role.
'It's a booby trap,' Baldwin says. 'People are confused by the message, but they're drawn in by the language and style. Once they're seduced by it, they're hit over the head by it. At that point, they have to accept it, but the beauty of it is it calls into question the whole frame, the whole purpose of advertising.'
Winiemko says he has observed a similar 'booby trap' effect in watching audiences react to Enjoy on the film festival circuit. 'When people see it, there's a confusion at first,' Winiemko says. 'After about five minutes they start asking, 'Is this a joke?' After that, they start to put down their defenses and examine it for what it is.'
Aping the style of mainstream advertising has its disadvantages, of course, from a theoretical standpoint. Where old-school culture jammers could guarantee viewership by, say, hijacking a prominent billboard to critique a corporation, the new generation seems more interested, as Winiemko puts it, in 'hijacking the internal thought process that makes advertising work.' As a result, today's culture jammers have to find a way through the conscious filters set up to protect Americans from media oversaturation.
'A lot of our culture is based on people giving something one cursory glance,' Winiemko laments, sounding like a Madison Avenue executive. 'That's hurt us a few times. People don't want to take the extra time to look at something and find out what it's really about.'
Maybe that's why the artists behind Seismic Solution, 'Capitalism' and Enjoy, along with other hard-to-pigeonhole people and groups such as the pie-throwing Biotic Baking Brigade, collectively rely on another tool: humor. Just as recent advertising campaigns like Tanqueray's 'Mr. Jenkins' series have co-opted culture jamming's style, it seems artists have stolen a page from such ad agencies as San Francisco's Goodby Silverstein & Partners, creators of the 'Got Milk' campaign. Simply put, humor sells -- even when you're selling subversion.
'A lot of artists I know tell me they can't get their message out without some form of ironic twist,' says Cox. 'Unless your work does something funny, the mainstream media isn't going to report on it, and you really need the mainstream media nowadays to get you message out.'
Taken from Subvertise, a great repository of CopyLeft & Anti-copyright material. First appeared in SF Weekly, 1999.