(University of Western Australia Student Newspaper) Australia, October 18 2000
“Incitement to Riot?” by Cliodhna Quigley
Andre Roussimoff, aka obey giant, was a 7’4″, 520 lbs. professional wrestler who won hearts for his starring role in The Princess Bride. He may have died in 1993, but he still happens to be the face of one of the most popular worldwide guerilla art movements of our time.
Fact is, obey giant has a posse. His image has been immortalised in a legion of stickers, posters and t-shirts, courtesy of graphic designer and sometime counterculturalist Shepard Fairey. The sticker design is simple it’s black and white, and features the big man’s face, his physical stats, and the now famous maxim: “obey giant has a posse”. Full instructions on how to run up your own batch are available at the official website if you’re interested.
So what’s the point here? It’s all about visual enquiry. Let’s talk about Heidegger’s Phenomenology. How do you respond with your environment? Probably very passively. Human perception is subject to accommodation, which is a fantastic thing from an evolutionary point of view. The more frequently you encounter a particular stimulus, the less you’ll notice it. So the beautiful surrounds of our campus may no longer cause sheer delight every time you wander through them, but that’s alright. Should a nasty predator strike, you’re more likely to notice, because your attention will snap to the new and novel visual input straight away.
All well and good, but it’s nice to know that there are some pro-active kids out there , like Shepard Fairey, who actually care about the fact that our surrounds are there to be looked at and appreciated. There’s nothing like a mental pinch to wake your mind to the rich and varied source of eye candy that’s out there, or at least to alert your brain to the fact that there’s always something in front of you to be rated as beautiful or ugly.
We’re at the stage now culturally when big business is big business. The advertising industry is committed to bringing the ads to the people whether they like it or not. And so it’s time to reclaim public space. And this is our time, people. What better time in our lives to practise a bit of subversion than now? Indulge in a bit of culturally reactive procrastination, save your master plan for the holidays, or start refining your technique right now and make a major media hacking impact for Prosh next year.
As far as advertising goes, we’re about to reach saturation point. Adbusters’ profile is increasing slowly but surely (take a look at adbusters.org if you want to get clued up about it), and campaigners in certain states of the US are getting places in their attempts to slap an outright ban on billboards. The general ethos seems to be to forget about ads; let’s have trees and skies instead. They’re much more fun to look at.
Let’s hear from the bad guys: according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, “what outdoor [advertising] provides is continuous coverage ’round the clock to an ever changing audience ready to react … the “people’s space” as another creative director calls it”. The people’s space. And what better to do with the people’s space than fill it full of advertising clutter.
But there’s more: “Outdoor advertising provides excitement and appeal to commercial areas, contributing a vibrancy to the built environment not easily provided by other means. Colourful and illuminated, billboard copy changes regularly, when most of the individual components of a city are permanent.” Fantastic. Let’s dispense with architects and city planners, let’s get rid of the concept of interesting structural design and public art and any trace of natural landscapes what we need are more billboards…
…or not. The Billboard Liberation Front has been active in San Francisco since way back in ’97. They’re a highly organised collective, targeting visible billboards and planning their strikes carefully to produce amazing results. They’ve even reclaimed neon ads. But the best thing about the BLF is that they recover public space in an innovative and polite manner. Go to their website, billboardliberation.com, and you’ll find apology letters that they’ve written to “the sign men”, including detailed instructions on how to restore the ad to its former glory.
Now it’s all well and good to use guerilla tactics for political means; it even works from time to time a joint campaign by Greenpeace and Adbusters recently saw Coca-Cola vow to remove harmful environmental pollutants from its refrigeration systems by the 2004 Olympics. But why not culture jam for a different reason? Practise random acts of humour and good will. Make somebody somewhere laugh by placing a crazy ad in the classified section.
Why not highlight the sheer ridiculousness of something that popular culture is blindly accepting for no good reason? Take blowthedotoutyourass.com for instance, an American group that was seriously and justifiably disillusioned with the sudden boom in the number of new dot-com companies with unreasonably stupid gimmicks earlier this year. The very funny thing about the BTDOYA poster campaign was the fact that their website was immediately inundated with so much traffic that it was completely unaccessible for quite some time.
So what’s been going down in Perth so far? I guess it’s true that these things aren’t always very well documented, or if a plan is unsuccessful it’s impossible to know how great the scheme could have been. I did uncover one crazy event perpetrated by Perthlings the great Pink Panther Action Force strike of ’73. The PP’s chucked some soap powder and a colouring agent into the fountains at Parliament House. Strong winds caused a spillage of pink bubbles onto the Freeway. Nice one. (And remember kids, that fountain is still there today…)
And last year a couple of stunts were pulled off here in our own Guild by a group known only as Large Scale Pranks. Inspired by Roald Dahl’s “The Twits”, they swapped the interiors of Emmanuel “the president” Hondros’ office and the staff lounge. On another occasion they threw custard over the fence of a Custard gig. And their final subversion was the culmination of a month-long Random Assassination Program, when a member of the Guild suffered from an Assassination by Flour.
And if we look a little bit further afield, you’ll find that there’s plenty of wacky stuff going on over East all the time. One of my favourite group backlashes happened in Melbourne in the late ’80s, when a group of angry pedestrians painted their own zebra crossing along the Princess Highway. Drivers obeyed the crossing and stopped, and it soon proved to be exactly as functional as any official pedestrian route.
Melbourne also wins out in the individual Australian activist category, with a spectacular court case involving an anarchist who hung a poster out his window that read “Kennett Must Die”. A Liberal brown-nose snitched to the local Police, and the vocal insurrectionist was fined and charged for “minor offences”. But the good news is that he won an appeal on the grounds that the then-Premier was a human, and like all other humans must eventually die. Good call.
Like any other activity involving disgruntled citizens, culture jamming can get a bit stupid at times. A good example is the Coalition to Raise Aesthetic Consciousness (CRAC) a group based in Georgia in the US. They’ve developed the “Operation Ugly-Aware Toolkit”, which consists solely of a sticker stating “This is Ugly” (luckily one of the rules of CRAC state that no sticker “shall ever be affixed, either directly or indirectly, to a human being” ). So far they’ve slapped them on the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Pyramid of all things.
I find this kind of weird. It’s not like the French are going to tear down two of their best-known landmarks just because some crazy jammer declared them to be unsightly. And is it really useful to point out the ugly stuff to people who may not know any better? I say you can’t raise Aesthetic Consciousness in a person who doesn’t realise that they have any. Try fostering it instead surely it’s more beneficial to show an aesthetic idiot the nice stuff and let them work it out from there. How about “I really like this structure” stickers instead of labelling things with “This looks crap, doesn’t it?”.
It’s interesting to note that CRAC are a covert organisation, operating “discreetly”. Some cultural reformists are happy to share their identity with the world at large. Shepard Fairey is one example, with his Obey Giant “propaganda” regularly exhibited at many locations around the world. It’s art, man. But others are not so quick to accept the glory. A mysterious series of tiles has appeared on streets around the US, (and other international locations if certain reports are to be believed…) bearing variations on the message “Toynbee ideas in Kubrick’s 2001 resurrect dead on planet Jupiter”. The identity of the tiler, and the meaning of their message, is still a mystery the Baltimore Sun has repeatedly appealed for the perpetrator to come forward, but it hasn’t happened.
No-one knows what the Toynbee message means, but maybe that’s not the point. It’s all about causing a reaction. Call them random acts of pointless attention-seeking, or call it Art if you really want to, the fact still remains that these unusual acts of subversion demand a reaction. Advertising is commerce paid-for speech, full of vested interests and biased “information”. Manifestations of cultural insanity are fun and thought-provoking. Don’t let your city turn into the municipal equivalent of Bert Newton, a vehicle for crappy advertising. Get out there and reclaim it. Enjoy it. Take back what’s yours.
If you’re not up for a bit of crazy visual incursion, and if the thought of doing something kind of illegal doesn’t float your boat, then why not take an urban adventure? Take to the streets. Subvert your role of passive pedestrianism it’s time to explore your homeplace with your eyes and ears wide open. Start small Â take a walk through Fremantle or West Perth with a friend in the dead of night. Or get yourself into the places not designed for public usage hospitals, hotels, tunnel systems, abandoned buildings, whatever. Just get out there and do something. Start treating the streets with a bit of aesthetic respect, and much good may very well follow…