InterviewsRe:Public

Public Space Can Be Used Against You: NY Street Ad Takeover #2

Tabula rasa photo by Luna Park
"Tabula Rasa" by Luna Park, used with permission

I had been working on a story for six months but some things don’t always work out the way you plan them. What was the story? Last Sunday, Jordan Seiler of Public Ad Campaign organized the second New York Street Advertising Takeover (NYSAT) in New York. The New York Times was there but sadly I wasn’t.

I first interviewed Jordan Seilers of Public Ad Campaign after his first NYSAT action last spring. At the time, we discussed his issue “with advertising colonizing the public atmosphere and the commercialization of the public environment.” The growing presence of ads as part of our communal consciousness disturbed him. He told me that he felt that “advertising has an incredible ability to quell” public space and transform it into a commercial space. “Advertising in a public space makes it very problematic,” he said. Speaking to him I remembered that even ancient Athens had three distinct types of public space, the acropolis for religion, the agora for commerce and the Pnyx Hill for government, but those types of distinctions are less clear in our time as advertising has crept into almost every public space imaginable.

After our phone conversation, I found myself being most drawn to some of the facts he threw at me about how the city treated individual and corporate vandalism very differently. The Citywide Vandals Task Force, which falls under the NYPD, is staffed by 75 people, while corporate vandalism is handled by four guys in the city’s Department of Buildings — that blew my mind.

I was planning to document and witness the latest NYSAT but Jordan’s attempt to whittle down his list to a smaller more trusted number of accomplishes resulted in me being left out of this past Sunday’s event (October 25). Afterward, he admitted to me that he thought I was involved in advertising, though how he got that impression isn’t exactly clear but it happened. In lieu of my plan to file much longer reports and articles, I asked Jordan to speak to me via email yesterday about his vision for his ambitious project and its goals. He agreed.

First some facts. The first NYSAT on April 25, 2009, involved 27 people whitewashing illegal ads and 45-50 artists sprucing up the liberated spaces. The event resulted in four arrests (two whitewashers and two artists) but eventually the charges against the activists were dropped. The second project included 90 participants who planned to transform 114 billboards, though Jordan isn’t sure how many were completed before police began to crack down (he guesses at least 50). This recent event attracted more police attention than the first action and by midday Sunday five NYSAT participants were jailed overnight, two others were arrested and released and one received a $50 ticket.

The following is an edited transcript of my email correspondence with Jordan on Monday, October 26, 2009.

Hrag Vartanian: Is the NYSAT campaign an art or activist project or both?

Rene Gagnons contribution to NYSAT #2, photo by Luna Park
One of Rene Gagnon's contributions to NYSAT #2, photo by Luna Park, used with permission

Jordan Seilers: Activism informed by art and the artistic process. Sometimes it takes a few hundred artists to move the law forward

HV: If it’s art, what would you consider the aesthetics of the project?

JS: Aesthetics? I don’t think this is visual as much as about mental clarity.

HV: Were you surprised that the advertisers were able to react as fast as they did this time to the street project? Most of the ads didn’t last through the day, did they?

JS: No. Many location saw ads go up a mere hour afterward.

HV: That’s incredible. How are these illegal ad companies able to avoid arrests for their illegal activities, while activists who are covering the same space with non-corporate ads aren’t?

JS: I am not sure. But I did call the cops while they were posting ads on Sunday and they did not listen to my complaint about them not having permits. I think it speaks to the fact that the city is ready to defend the private over the public.

HV: There were five people arrested yesterday during the campaign, correct? What were the people arrested for?

Photo from Broome & Bowery courtesy Jake Dobkin
Photo from Broome & Bowery courtesy Jake Dobkin, used with permission

JS: Unsure at this point but five spent the night [in jail]. Two were arrested and released above the five and one person got a $50 ticket.

HV: That makes me furious. My first reaction is “Why aren’t people organizing public protests that highlight this inequality?” So, why aren’t they?

JS: That’s what we are doing. And I have no fucking clue why no one comes out for this. No one seems to understand how this is not about illegal ads but about a social health issue. We have great lawyers involved this time. There will be a fundraiser for the arrested and a large courthouse appearance when they finally have their case

HV: Why do you frame this as a social health issue? Explain that please.

JS: Because access to interacting with your public space is an amazing way to ground yourself in your environment. If you paint a mural on the st, you leave a bit of yourself behind. This means you are psychologically invested and responsible for that space. By marking your environment your become a part of it which makes you an invested citizen. If you cannot do this you travel through your space “un-responsible.” By marking your public space you become it, its protector and its vision. This is the social health issue. If you cannot connect you cannot protect. You see what I do. I mark my environment and it is an indication of my level of respect for that space.

HV: Than how do you respond to those that say they hate all forms of “vandalism” and this is simply another incarnation of it?

JS: Vandalism is done out of disprespect. This project is done with the exact opposite. Vandalism is destruction, this is production, liberation. The goal of those involved is not self promotion. Graffiti vandalism has the individual at heart, this project has the public at heart. No one involved in this project gets the proper respect according to how much they put in. If they wanted fame they would plaster a wall in Brooklyn. This project is a gift. And I mean that in every sense of the word.

HV: What’s your vision for Public Ad Campaign? Sounds like it is far more expansive than illegal corporate ads, which most people assume is the basis for the project.

A photo of a NYSAT billboard at 13th Street & Avenue B by Veken Gueyikian
A photo from 13th Street & Avenue B by Hyperallergic publisher Veken Gueyikian

JS: Yes. We’re are often pigeon holed. Public Ad Campaign (aka PAC) is about spreading public responsibility for the state of our public environment. We live here, we should determine how this space is used. I want my kids, when I have them, to paint a mural with their third grade class close to the public school they go to. I want them at a young age to feel responsible for the city they live in/produce. I want them to pay more attention to the blind man crossing the street than the six story Calvin Klein ad and their desire for a new pair of pants. I want them to consider the public space to be where their life happens. My best moments, most important interactions have all happened in public. I just sleep at home, I live in the public

HV: Would you favor laws like those in Sao Paolo, which have practically banned most corporate ads in public? Do you see that as the future?

JS: Yes. Sao Paolo has turned itself into one of the major art capitals of the world by allowing its citizens access to public space. It has been beneficial to them in every way. Ads bring nothing, people bring life.

HV: If there are two things people can do to help PAC realize this vision, what are they?

JS: Defend public interactions and maipulations of our built environment. And do so vocally. Push to have PAC deputized to act on behalf of the city. No just kidding, that won’t happen. Paint on the streets everyday, shake hands with someone on the subway and help an old lady navigate these crazy streets.

For more info and images about NYSAT #2, visit:

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