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A Worldwide Ad Takeover that Turned Billboards into Democratic Spaces

An ad takeover helps a new wave of anti-billboard activists raise awareness about the value of public space.

Eye Saw’s contribution to Subvert the City (all photos by Luna Park and used with permission)

If you too believe that art is at its best when it is an agent of change, you may already be familiar with the practice of subvertising. Known by many other names, subvertising has been around in one way or the other for the past 50 years, challenging the commercial media that covers our cities and blankets our minds. Groups like the Billboard Liberation Front and B.U.G.A.U.P. began by taking direct shots at the content of commercial billboards, and through small acts of civil disobedience, unmasked the slick marketing agendas of commercial media interests. Kalle Lasn called it Culture Jamming and the liberal left thought its media savvy would bring corporate greed to its knees with incisive detournements that drew on the Situationist’s belief that breaking expectations could bring revelatory results. Artists like Ron English and even early Kaws turned the messages of advertising inside out to reveal harder and colder truths.

What these early artists knew deep down was that the pandering of commercial messages to our inner desires was having long-term effects on our individual and collective health. They felt what social scientists had unmasked through years of research: that the more advertising you consume, the more inward you turn, focusing on the self, and leaving empathy and compassion towards others behind. These early culture jammers’ efforts focused on subverting the messages in hopes of neutering their effects, yet many years later it has become clear that Culture Jamming has become another marketing tool used deftly by commercial media to push consumerism further.

Acutely aware of the deficiencies of this nimble cultural aikido, a new group of artists and activists have refocused their efforts not on the messages themselves, but on the spaces that they occupy. Artists like Vermibus, OX, and myself along with activist groups like Brandalism and R.A.P. see the monopolization of our public visual environment by commercial concerns as a way for corporate media to set the terms of our cultural and political discourse through extreme repetition. Advertising today has so deeply saturated our shared public spaces that avoiding it and retaining your attentional independence requires a hermetic lifestyle counter to what it means to live in, and be part of a city. These artists, myself included, are unconcerned with the messages of commercial media and instead question the authority invoked through the sanctioned medium of outdoor advertising. If in early days it was thought that with the right stroke of a pen we would all just “snap out of it,” today’s public space activists question the very right of advertising to exist on our cities’ streets and walls. They see hope in protecting ourselves from the malevolent forces pushing us away from collectivity and towards our own individuality, by simply removing its influence.

Two weekends ago, a loose network of these artists and activists, under the name Subvertisers International, launched their first global effort to reclaim our shared public environment from its monopolization by commercial media. The demand was not for better or more truthful advertising, but to imagine what a city would look like when the stories we told ourselves in public space reflected a democratic voice.

From March 22–March 25 the informal group held workshops, film screenings, and lectures in 38 cities and 21 countries, all of which addressed how we choose to curate our shared public spaces and what that means for the determination of our collective social agenda. Alongside these legal acts of resistance, a highly coordinated global advertising takeover was organized and implemented on March 23. Artists and activists in 16 countries and 21 cities replaced approximately 500 advertisements with artwork in an effort to demand democratic used of our shared public spaces. From Iran to Mexico, Canada to Norway, Australia to Israel and Argentina to the US, hundreds of participants made their opinions clear. The streets are ours, and we will reflect back the messages and ideas that we see fit. Photographer Luna Park has been at the forefront of documenting this growing movement and captured the following images from the New York City interventions that took place in the Bronx.

A work by John Fekner
An intervention by SRX
A work by Jordan Seiler
An anonymous work
A work by Robert Montgomery in front of the Bronx Museum
A work by Aida Wilde
A work by Hyuro
A work by Sean Martindale and JP King
A work by John Fekner
A work by Jordan Seiler
A work by Hyuro
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