Last night, a small group of artists and activists installed a series of subtly tweaked Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) advertisements in two train cars in the New York City subway system.
“I’m glad I was reminded to report that suspicious bag,” a bus rider named Jo is quoted as saying in one of the ads. “But I wonder, when my own president uses a willing media to perpetuate a constant state of fear, who are the real terrorists and who profits off my panic?”
The five replacement ads, made to blend inconspicuously into the MTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign posters — which feature brief testimonies from New Yorkers who’ve alerted agents to suspicious objects — boast tweaked quotations and more pointed prompts like “Call your elected officials and make yourself heard” and “Stay aware, not afraid. Scared people are easy to manipulate.” Each poster also includes the number for the MTA’s safety line and the hashtag #Resist.
“They were designed to be so subtle that they could probably go unnoticed by people who’ve seen them a million times, because they no longer pay attention to them because they’ve become background noise,” said the artist who created the tweaked posters, who spoke to Hyperallergic over the phone on the condition of anonymity. “I’m using the same people from the campaign, so visually there’s nothing to draw your attention to the fact that it’s different.”
For the artist, it was important not to contradict the MTA’s message, which it sees as valuable. Rather, he sought to apply the campaign’s principal more broadly to the world around us, not just the immediate confines of a subway car.
“I have no problem with the MTA campaign; it’s smart and it’s responsible — it was a backpack that was involved in the Boston bombing, so we should be on the lookout for suspicious bags, and I didn’t want to take that away from the ads,” the artist explained. “But to me, a campaign that’s telling you to be vigilant, but just say something when the problem’s already in front of you, is kind of useless. Let’s try to get a little bit more upstream from the problem. Where is the root of this problem?”
One of the tweaked ads, which features an attorney who has prosecuted protesters for the NYPD, displays a particularly derisory and self-aware faux quotation, but for the most part the invented comments are targeted at specific issues, like police corruption, foreign policy, and political accountability. In each case, the artist wanted there to be a practical takeaway from the ads.
“I wanted each of these — or at least four of the five — to have a call to action on the bottom,” he said. “The premise needed to also play off a call to action of, ‘Be vigilant, here’s something you can do.’ So for the most part there isn’t a lot of space and time in the ads, but it’s asking you to be aware and let your representatives know that you’re watching and paying attention.”
The artist asked that we not reveal which train lines the fake ads had been installed on in hopes that they would remain in place longer, hopefully catching the attention of more unsuspecting straphangers.
“My favorite thing that could happen is that someone looks at it, does a double take — either mentally or physically — and maybe they smile, maybe they’re angry, maybe they’re bothered, maybe they feel even more unsafe because someone was able to tamper with the ads,” he said. “When you see something that speaks honestly and has been presented to you almost like a Trojan horse, you for a second wake up, you’re startled. You might not jump out of your skin, but there’s a part of you that becomes a little bit more awake.”
Though this is the first art project to specifically remix the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, MTA signs and messaging are popular targets for covert public art interventions. In 2009, the artist Daniel Bejar inserted his “Get Lost” maps in place of MTA subway system maps, offering travelers a view of the natural landforms underlying New York City. In 2010, the artist Jay Shells created a line of subway etiquette posters that mimicked the design of MTA service interruption notices. Last year, three design students subtly altered official MTA maps of the subway system to call attention to Rikers Island and, by implication, the need to reform our criminal justice system. And shortly after the death of pop music sensation Prince last year, the Prince Street station saw a slew of memorial interventions.