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Culture jamming: the power of taking the piss

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Remote-controlled monster cars, Santa flash mobs and Chuck Palahniuk are all part of the anarchic multimedia movement using humour to reclaim public space

Taken from the summer 2018 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

In September 1977, members of an activist cell known as the Billboard Liberation Front climbed onto the awnings of a Max Factor advert overlooking San Francisco’s inner city freeway. Dubbed the “Max Factor 26”, the young urban adventurers defaced the ad, changing the cosmetics brand’s name to “AX FACTOR”, and its slogan to “THE NEW MUTILATOR.”

The act helped kick-start an era famously known as culture jamming, a situationists-inspired movement that sought to reclaim open space and refire public consciousness. The co-leader of this group John Law was also one of the first members of a secret society called Suicide Club, the pre-eminent culture jammers who explored non-violent acts of protest, the reclamation of abandoned buildings, flash mobbery and head-fucking street theatre. Law even infiltrated the meetings of a deep excavations mining group, stealing their teachings on technical rope work for use in urban trespasses.

Where the Billboard Liberation Front focused on what was referred to as ‘improvements’ (nine Camel cigarette ads were “improved” on Christmas Day of 1977), the Suicide Club used absurdity as their weapon. Organised by founder Gary Warne, event “nooseletters” would be sent to members, who could in turn drum up new public disruptions. Warne’s set of rules for the group, the 12 Chaotic Principles, urged members to avoid violence at all costs, and insisted no drink and/or drugs were consumed at stunts. One event involved 30 members riding San Francisco’s iconic cable cars naked and distributing postcard pictures of the scenes, while another saw members play ball games in the sewers and amongst the city’s bustling financial district. Though Warne and his disciples dismissed any wider messages attached to their stunts, like The Situationists, Suicide Club events forced onlookers to question social conditioning, especially in a town exposed so gratuitously to corporate propaganda.

Law has been one of the key torchbearers of the movement since Warne’s death in 1982, starting his own group The Cacophony Society and festival The Burning Man, and inspiring generations of culture jammers well into the present. He moved from Michigan to San Francisco as a car-thieving 16-year-old, sleeping rough in Golden Gate Park, burying his blue collar twang under a hooky British accent and exploring the city’s abject industrial wastelands. “At that time the entire landscape was abandoned because of a major economic transition,” Law recalls. “Abandoned buildings, abandoned factories, abandoned ships, abandoned stuff all over the place. It was literally a wonderland for exploration.”

Law saw what Warne was doing as a radical alternative to the art gallery complex of nearby LA — an underdog uprising in which he could continue to curtail accepted norms without having to explain or intellectualise. “San Francisco was not a competitive atmosphere,” he says. “You could have any idea, good or bad, and people were happy to do it. There was no critical differentiation, which meant we could do stupid shit. At least in that city, it was a society of spectacle.”

After he founded the Cacophony Society in 1986, Law took the small-scale stupidity of the Suicide Club to the rest of America. While the Suicide’s nooseletter mailing list hit a ceiling of around 100 members, by 1997 mainstay Cacophony Societies had spawned in LA, Brookyn, Portland and Detroit. As technology caught up, so did the stunts: one involved driving a monster truck to the Nevada Desert using a hand-held remote control, and blowing it up with hunting rifles once they got bored. “A lot of newer members would show up to events thinking it would look good on their social resumé,” remembers Law. “When we’d go into some mud-pit in an abandoned toothpaste factory somewhere, they were horrified.”

Unlike the fiercely clandestine Suicide Club, Cacophony were open about their actions, and regularly fed the media breathtaking misinformation. “We put together these fake protest groups. We had this idea to protest the Disney movie, Fantasia. We invented a group called BADRAP, which was the Bay Area Drought Police Assistance Program. At the time everybody was talking about flushing your toilet right, so we were protesting Mickey Mouse’s water-wasting sequences. We even had pamphlets made.” Cottoning on, TIME magazine run a cover story on a new wave of surreally sensitive protest groups, with a particular focus on BADRAP.

At an event in Portland called SantaCon — an annual flash mob prank in which members dress up as Father Christmas — Cacophony Society member Chuck Palahniuk handed Law an early edition of his new novel, Fight Club. “I forgot about it, until a few years later when my friend told me about this crazy new movie seemingly based on Cacophony,” says Law. The 1996 novel goes underground with a violent anti-capitalist cartel called Project Mayhem, who vandalise pieces of corporate art, infiltrate mutual aid groups and chant a cultish mantra straight out of Warne’s Chaotic Principles.

But Palahniuk wasn’t the only one drawing new inspiration from culture jamming. Law sees a lot of the movement’s core approach in groups like Art In Ad Places and Improv Everywhere, two New York-based initiatives which continue to draw in young members. “Culture jamming planted the seed in my teen head that resistance through art is even possible,” explains Caroline Caldwell, who started Art in Ad Places with her partner RJ in 2012. “One day, RJ and I were looking at a billboard of a massive CGI butt. This (ad) was practically right above our apartment and we had to look at it every day,” she remembers of the reasons they formed the project. “At first, the butt was kind of funny. But the joke wore off and it became just a daily example of how women are constantly being told by advertisers that their value is their physical attractiveness, and that they’re always just one product away from achieving beauty.”

Ambitiously, for the entirety of 2017 Caldwell and RJ personally covered one public ad a week in art that had been submitted to them. “We see Art in Ad Places as a kind of community service, similar to picking up trash in a park,” Caldwell reasons. “Advertisers have nearly exclusive control over the messages we are exposed to in public space.”

“Culture jamming planted the seed in my teen head that resistance through art is even possible” — Caroline Caldwell, Art in Ad Places

A New York cohort of theirs, Jordan Seiller, has a similar attitude to corporate advertising and how it can be used to co-opt collective thought. In 2012, he began organising the distribution of skeleton keys that could open ad display cases in bus shelters up and down the city. Sold as handmade sculptures that doubled as unlocking tools, his project Public Access now has a global reach, with ads being swapped for art everywhere from Mexico to Tel Aviv. He explains over email: “Since a lot of my work is about encouraging civil disobedience that questions advertising’s role in our shared public spaces, giving the keys to other people seemed like a good idea.”

Back in 2009, in what he describes as his “most traditional and aggressive anti-advertising activity” to date, Seiller and 100 allies buffed a 20,000 ft street billboard in broad daylight. Most recently, his year-long NOAD project allowed New Yorkers to replace ads with original art and moving image if they positioned the augmented reality app on their phones in front of billboards.

Another tech-savvy group harnessing the energy and philosophies of culture jamming is The Illuminator, who project statements of foul-play directly onto offending organisations’ headquarters. “Shining a light on the urgent issues of our time” is the collective’s motto, who formed as a breakaway from the Occupy Wall Street uprising in 2012. “We all agreed that Occupy needed a kind of Batman logo in the sky,” recalls Grayson Earle of Illuminator’s origins. Among other actions, the group projected a vast “Stomp the ban!” sign onto the facade of Brooklyn Borough Hall to protest the 2016 Muslim travel ban proposals, and shone “There’s a rapist in the White House” across The Trump International Hotel in Washington DC.

In 2015, the Illuminator were arrested after protesting outside the Musuem of Modern Art, and had their projector confiscated for two months. After being cleared in court, the group sued the NYPD, and took to the streets with a contingency plan: their back-up projector. “We had a placard that read, ‘Didn’t think we had a second projector, did you?’, as a kind of double fuck-you to the police,” explains Earle.

Like culture jamming groups before them, Illuminator operates as a strictly non-hierarchical organisation, agreeing on operations as a committee of nine. Beyond what member Rachel Brown describes as “imitating the spectacle typically used to control”, they are able to offer a platform to those directly affected by decisions of the elite. “We’ve done a great job of having a moment of intervention, but also involving the power of the audience,” observes Illuminator’s Emily Andersen. “We have a tool that uses a webcam — it allows us to project the handwritten messages of individuals on the buildings. That makes the social interaction very dynamic.”

“(Culture jamming) certainly provided a road map for people like me interested in doing unauthorized projects in public spaces” affirms Charlie Todd, whose group Improv Everywhere took a similar approach to SantaCon when it formed in 2002. “We once showed up to a Best Buy in Manhattan with 80 people wearing blue polo shirts and khaki pants, essentially surprising them with 80 extra employees,” he remembers. “The cops showed up and had to explain to Best Buy management that it was not illegal to wear blue shirts and khaki pants.”

On another occasion, Todd sent 100 shirtless males into an Abercrombie and Fitch to ape the semi-naked model the retailer had installed in a window display. “I think there's an inherent political message to what we do, which is that we’re exercising our right to express ourselves in public spaces without having to ask for permission,” he says.

“We’re imitating the spectacle typically used to control” — Rachel Brown, The Illuminator

“I’ve been in New York for 20 years now, and one constant is that artists always find a way (to disrupt),” adds Jeff Stark, who compiles the culture jamming events newsletter, Nonsense NYC. “But what sticks out to me about culture jamming are the innovations: not the party in the subway tunnel, but the long walk over the bridge beforehand — to avoid the police precinct… it wasn’t just the rebelliousness, or the jokes, but the sense that these were basically just regular folks who decided to take things into their own hands.”

John Law is similarly optimistic about the future of youth activism, and specifically young people's’ ability to upset the rhythm in fresh and innovative ways. The culture jamming of the 80s may not have invented these sorts of stunts, he says, but it was crucial to the movement to believe that they did. “When I was 18-19, I didn’t need somebody to tell me, ‘Oh, we already did that. Oh, you’re sneaking into abandoned buildings…’ I didn’t need to hear that. I needed to believe that we pioneered the group that we were in, that we were doing stuff for the first time.”

“People will always rise up against the forces and factors of control, like we did. It’s a part of human nature, and I would say the best part,” he continues. “I came up with what I guess should be the epitaph on my gravestone: “Find out what you are supposed to do, then do something else.”

All images courtsey of John Law