“It stops the one-way flow of corporate bullshit”: graphic artist Bill Posters on subvertising

In this new excerpt from his upcoming book, protest and graphic designer Bill Posters traces the anti-capitalist history of subvertising.

Bill Posters wants to teach people how to hack the streets. The graphic artist, activist and researcher (real name Barney Francis) has written an “illicit, tactical guide to creating art in public”. The Street Art Manual is an 11-step guide to street art covering the basics of graffiti and stencil work as well as providing an in-depth look at social media-grabbing work like urban murals. In an extract below, Posters discusses the history of “subvertising” (a portmanteau of “subverting advertising”) and how it has been adopted by protest groups.

Photo courtesy of Mobstr

“Subvertising has its roots firmly planted in the histories of art and activism”

Subvertising — short for ‘subverting advertising’ — is a visual and performative form of street art that subverts the power and meaning of corporate ads. It is a form of creative resistance against the mainstream ‘screams and piss’ of advertisers. In the words of the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, humans have ‘always created myths to unite our species and give a select few power’. Consumerism is one such myth and, by intervening in ad spaces that usually celebrate and promote consumption, subvertisers aim to challenge and disrupt corporate power. From hacking into ad spaces using special keys, to spray painting statements onto billboards or hacking huge digital screens, it’s hard to beat the feeling you get when you take over ad spaces in the city.

The modern subvertising movement is a reaction against the outdoor advertising industry and the economic system it serves — capitalism. Subvertising has its roots firmly planted in the histories of art and activism: from Dadaism, which was characterised by satirical and often nonsensical art, poetry and performance, to the Agit Prop art element of the ‘anti-art’ movement, which was born out of the horrors of World War I, to the Situationist art movements of the 1960s, which resisted ‘the spectacle’ of American imperialism (consumerism); and from the DIY principles of the Punk and graffiti movements of the 1970s to ‘culture jamming’ in the 1980s, which sought to ‘jam’ the messages of consumer culture — all these influences merged with the ‘Do It Together’ (DIT) tactics that came from the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s to inform the present-day subvertising movement.

Subvertisers believe that you have the right not to be advertised at, so now a global movement of artists are harnessing the power of social and digital networks to unleash subversive memes into the streets and thus into the consciousness of people around the world. Part art and part propaganda, subvertising gives corporations their own shit back.

US artist Thrashbird uses détournement to twist the message of this iPhone advert to say ‘Fuck that!’ on a billboard in downtown Los Angeles, 2017. Photo courtesy of Thrashbird

“A performative act of civil disobedience”

The technique of détournement (meaning ‘rerouting’ or ‘hijacking’) was first used in the 1940s by the Letterists, a group of radical French avant-garde artists who began to see letters as ‘sounds’ and then ‘images’, subverting poetry into music and writing into painting. Later, the social revolutionaries of the Situationist movement used détournement to turn expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself. Subvertisers carry on this tradition by subverting the symbolic power of corporations through skilfully hacking, reworking and critiquing the brand identities, values and social and environmental impacts of corporations. Subvertising is often installed anonymously in public space, and the act of trespassing into ad spaces is an essential part of the practice.

It is a performative act of civil disobedience that feels great and stops the one-way flow of corporate bullshit. This is critical, because psychologists and neurologists are proving that advertising affects our perception of what is important in life and modifies our behaviour as a result, even if we think we don’t consciously pay attention to it. Advertising dominates our day-to-day lives – both online and in public spaces – and normalizes some crazy shit by using what academics call ‘persuasion architectures’. In public spaces, these ‘architectures’ are the billboards, posters and ads that are inserted everywhere, creating powerful stories about what we should care about, value and aim to achieve in life. Corporations and governments think we have no choice but to be affected by them, but, thankfully, street artists around the world think we do have a choice — these are the subvertisers.

The Street Art Manual

“It might not be the best thing to tell people to buy more shit all the time, everywhere”

In the 1970s and 80s, a group of Australian protestors, calling themselves BUGA-UP, scrawled anti-tobacco messages on billboards across the country, leading to an Australia-wide ban on tobacco advertising. This group became pioneers of the practice now known as ‘culture jamming’. Subvertising, itself a form of culture jamming, grew in popularity and sophistication in the US in the 1970s and 80s as a result of globalization, corporate greed and, specifically, the horrors of the Disney corporation. The Billboard Liberation Front’s humorous ad hacks around New York set the standard for other artists to follow. During the early 1990s, groups such as Artfux and Adbusters and artists including Ron English developed the practice using accessible desktop-publishing technology and processes. As large-format printing and design technology became cheaper and more accessible, suddenly it wasn’t just rich corporations that could get their messages up on billboards for all to see. It was white middle-class kids too.

The recent rise in the popularity of subvertising is linked to a growing dissatisfaction with the influence that both corporate and political forms of mass media exert over every aspect of our modern lives: from how we feel about ourselves and our bodies, and our understanding of gender, race and class through to our perception of others and the world we live in. Some subvertisers, such as Special Patrol Group, Jordan Seiler, Bill Posters, Resistance Is Female, Hogre and Thrashbird, challenge the corporate dominance of culture and space in order to interrogate, question and resist. Plus, climate change is happening right now, so it might not be the best thing to tell people to buy more shit all the time, everywhere.

An inside spread of The Street Art Manual

In recent years, subvertising groups, such as Public Ad Campaign, Brandalism, Art in Ad Places, NO AD Day and the Subvertisers International, have pioneered a collective, network-based approach to the art form by using social media and digital networks to mobilize artists around the world. These groups prefer to collaborate and to transcend — rather than merely criticize — the status quo in order to imagine a world beyond capitalism. Often working with hundreds of artists and activists, some subvertising groups use participatory organizing methods to re-democratize access to creating art in public space for people whose voices are normally not valued in cities.

Thanks to globalization, you can now spend around £4 (that’s about €4.5/$6) on a couple of keys that give you access to over 100,000 ad spaces around the world. From Moscow to Toronto, from London to Melbourne, your ability to reach the public with your art just increased massively. Not a bad investment. The tutorial that follows shows you all you need to know to hack the three main types of advertising space (street posters, billboards and subway posters), so that you can get your artworks installed easily and continue the job of creating free public art that challenges the corporate control of everything in life.

The Street Art Manual by Bill Posters is published by Laurence King, and is released 3 September. You can purchase the book here.

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