It's Sunday morning on the edge of Alphabet City and Jorge Rodriguez Gerada is perched at the top of a ladder, ripping up a cigarette ad. Moments ago, the billboard at the corner of Houston and Attorney depicted a fun-loving Newport couple jostling over a pretzel. Now it showcases the haunting face of a young child, which Rodriguez Gerada painted in rust and printed on a giant piece of self Adhesive vinyl. To finish it off, he pastes up a few hand torn strips of the original ad to form a frame around the child's face.
When it's done, the piece looks exactly how the 31 -year old street artist imagined it would: as if years of cigarette, alcohol, and car ads were scraped away to reveal the rusted backing of the billboard. "Burned" into the metal is an image of what the real product is: the public: the younger, the better. And it's the advertisers who have purchased our consciousness. " After the ads are taken down," Rodriguez Gerada explains, "what is left is the impact on the children in the area".
Although it's somewhat riskier Rodriguez Gerada refuses to slink around at night like a vandal, choosing instead to make his statement in broad daylight, with kids stopping to watch and an old man offering to help out. Unlike the advertisers who pitch and run, he wants to be part of a community debate - one about the politics of public space and the nature of commercial images. In coming weeks, the artist will take his street seminar to different parts of Manhattan, where he plans to reproduce the Houston Street installation. Rodriguez Gerada is widely recognized as one of the most skilled practitioners and creative founders of "culture jamming," the art of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards to drastically alter their messages. "Subvertising", as it is sometimes called, engages in hand-to-hand combat with the marketing machine, forcing a dialogue where before there was only a declaration.
The goal is to jam the corporation's method of communication, making it foot the bill for its own subversion. "In one simple deft move you slap the giant on its back," says Kalle Lasn, editor of AdBusters, the self-described "house organ" of the culture jamming movement. "We use the momentum of the enemy." Hand-drawn aerosol messages on billboards and brick walls are hardly an activist breakthrough. San Francisco's Billboard Liberation Front has been altering ads for 19 years and New York artist Ron English has been at it for 15 (his most famous works scar Joe Camel as the "Cancer Kid"). The term culture jamming was coined in 1984 by the San Francisco audio-collage band Negativland. "The skillfully reworked billboard... directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy", a band member states on the album Jamcon '84. Nine years later, Mark Dery wrote the movement's defining work - Culture Jamming; Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Sings, a booklet published as part of the Open Magazine Pamphlet Series.
The roots of the movement incorporate an eclectic mix of theater and activism including the Guerilla Girls' attacks on the museum elite, Robbie Conal's pun-tagged poster parodies of right-wing politicians, Joey Skagg's media hoaxes, and Artfux's 1990 execution-in-effigy of Jesse Helms on Capitol Hill. These days, culture jamming is in the midst of a revival, more focused and pervasive than ever before. With ads invading every crevice of public life - from PBS to classrooms to space over public urinals to playground backboards - a growing number of media activists are seizing pockets of sponsored space for their own wholly uncommercial messages. With its soon-to-be-released album /Dispepsi, Negativland is returning to its culture jamming origins. According to band member Mark Hosler, the CD is "entirely about Pepsi." As Lasn says, ad parodying "seems to be having a rebirth. Classrooms are doing it. Ad executives and art directors are doing it."
The movement is also being radicalized by mounting awareness of the link between big money spent on advertising in the West and job flight to low-wage countries in other parts of the world. (One oft repeated ad-related statistic: it would cost Nike just 1 per cent of its $280 million annual advertising budget to raise the wages of its entire Indonesian workforce above the poverty level.) As the multinational giants spend more on image and less on production, out come the street-level Chomsky's, deconstruction corporate culture with a waterproof magic marker and a bucket of wheat paste.
More advanced tools are also being employed to further the movement. The Internet is crawling with sites offering ad parodies for easy downloading, and linking up culture hammers in cities across North America and Europe. According to Rodriguez Gerada, culture jamming has shifted "from low-tech to medium-tech to high-tech" over the last decade. With scanners and software like PhotoShop, activists are now able to match advertisers' colors, fonts, and materials precisely.
For Rodriguez Gerada, who works in the commercial-sign business by day, this evolution is at the heart of culture jamming's renaissance. Unlike graffiti, which seeks to be an unsightly blot on the slick face of a billboard, his messages are designed to blend in with their targets, borrowing visual legitimacy from advertising itself. "Technology is allowing us to use Madison Avenue's aesthetics against itself," he says. "That is the most important aspect of this new wave of people using this guerilla tactic, because that's what the MTV generation has become accustomed to. Everything's flashy, everything's bright and clean." Rodriguez Gerada has been illicitly scaling billboards in New York and New Jersey for nine years, first with Artfux, which he founded, then with the art collective Cicada. In one of the latter group's most circulated creations, he melted the grinning faces of Newport cigarette models under the slogan "Rebel Without a Lung." These days he's gone independent - doing street works without any group backing - and has started training up and commers in the art of the jam.
Another culture jammer who recently left his mark on New York is Jubal Brown. In December, the art-school student visited the Museum of Modern Art to deliberatively vomit on Piet Mondrian's Composition in Red, White and Blue, a markedly low-tech response to what Brown called the painting's "lifelessness."
In his hometown of Toronto, Brown is a renowned guerilla artist, and was involved in the city's largest billboard-busting blitz. Last year, the faces of models used to sell everything from Calvin Klein underwear to Sunkist oranges were defaced in exactly the same way:" a magic marker blacked out their eyes and a zipper was drawn over their mouths, making their heads look like skulls.
Brown is also an active member of the Toronto Media Collective, part of a loose network of groups combining ad busting with zine publishing, pirate radio, and community activism. Over the past year, Media Collective chapters have popped up in Tallahassee, Boston, Seattle, and Winnipeg.
The response from the corporations being jammed has been more restrained than one might expect. While North America's largest billboard firm, Outdoor Systems, says it will prosecute any culture jammers who are "caught in the act," according to spokesman Tom Wisz, there have been only a handful of vandalism arrests, and the charges are usually dropped. And though companies often threaten to sue ad hijackers for trademark violation, they rarely follow through - perhaps fearing the publicity that could attract copycat crimes.
Wisz would not admit that his company, which has had to deal with ad busting most directly, had seen an uptick in reworked billboards. He did say, however, that the targeting of cigarette signs has contributed to a "revenue drop in tobacco advertising. There has been a trend in that and I'm sure it's because of these various groups." The major cigarette companies did not respond to Voice inquiries.
Nobody is riding the culture jamming wave as high as AdBusters , the Canadian magazine devoted to ad parodies and anti-corporate analysis. Published by the Vancouver-based Media Foundation, the journal started in 1989 with 5000 copies. It now has a circulation of 30,000, 20,000 of which is in the United States. The Media Foundation also runs spoof-ad contests and produces "un commercials" for television. Last November, Headline News aired a Foundation ad for Buy Nothing Day, which attacked North American overconsumption. NBC, ABC, and CBS, however, refused every one of the Foundation's spots.
AdBusters editor Kalle Lasn, who speaks exclusively in the magazine's enviro-pop lingo, likes to say that we are a culture "addicted to toxins," which are poisoning our bodies, our planet, and our "mental environment." He believes his advertising spoofs - if they ever make it to the masses - will spark a "paradigm shift" in public consciousness.
Not everyone is convinced. Though AdBusters is capable of lacerating wit, its attacks on nicotine, alcohol, and fast-food joints can be repetitive and obvious. Jams that change Absolut Vodka to "Absolute Hangover" or Ultra Kool cigarettes to "Utter Fool" are turning off some would-be supporters who worry that the magazine's crossing a fine line between information-age civil disobedience and puritanical finger wagging. Mark Dery, who was an early contributor to AdBusters, says the "booze, smokes, and grease" emphasis "exudes the deep-rooted distrust of the masses' ability to police their own desires, and makes strange bedfellows of moral crusaders on the left and the right."
As if to prove Dery's point, a new pro-Christian Right long-distance phone company has taken an unsettling shine to the term culture jamming. With Restoration Communication, "15 per cent of your monthly bill will be to fight the liberal bias in the media." the company isn't up and running yet, but its Web site already has a "Culture Jammers Exhibit" featuring an altered picture of bikini-clad beach babes hanging off Bill Clinton.
The critique of AdBusters isn't only about the magazine's evangelical hyping of culture jamming, the trend. It's helped spread the gospel of the jam far and wide, but at what price? As Lasn, himself, concedes, "It has the feeling of a bit of a fad." Little wonder, then, that William Morrow has just signed Lasn to pen a culture jamming handbook, reportedly for a six-figure sum.
This has some die-hard jammers wondering whether the antimarketing movement is becoming too, well, marketable. The kinds of people who are inherently critical of hype are skeptical when anyone tries to sell them something, including culture jamming itself. The very process of naming a trend, coining a catch phrase, being part of a scene or movement is regarded, with deep suspicion.
"AdBusters jumped on it and was ready to claim this movement before it ever really existed," says Carrie McLaren, one of the magazine's most vocal critics. McLaren is editor of Stay Free!, a New York zine whose parody ads make AdBusters's look like an after-school special. In a recent issue she jams the row of "white, black, and yellow" hearts in a Benetton ad by scanning in a bloody butcher knife and the slogan" Murder kills. Bogus social responsibility swallows."
In her articles, she complains bitterly about the "USA Today/MTV-ization" of AdBusters. "It's become an advertisement for anti-advertising," she writes. Like Dery and Negativland's Mark Hosler, McLaren is particularly annoyed by the magazine's line of anti-consumer products: culture-jammer toolboxes, posters, videos, and postcards. Most ironically, AdBusters" used to sell calendars and T-shirts to coincide with the Media Foundation's annual Buy Nothing Day. "What comes out is no real alternative to our culture of consumption," McLaren writes. Just a different brand."
There used to be a deep belief among culture jamming's original practitioners that ad busting in an ad-driven society was the last taboo - that attacking the commercial culture's source of revenue could never be co-opted.
In the age of postmodern marketing, culture jamming, with its combination of NBA attitude and punk antiauthoritarianism, clearly has sales potential. Yahoo! already has an official culture jamming site on the Internet, filed under "alternative". Even mainstream activists are using the technique of the ad parody - particularly in Manhattan, where hundreds of rooftop taxi ads now hawk "Virginia Slime"- and "Cancer Country" -brand cigarettes in an extensive campaign financed by the antismoking lobby. And while artist Ron English is still harassing Joe Camel, he also has a show at Gallery Stendhal where parodies of every pop icon from Mickey Mouse to Marilyn Monroe sell for up to $ 15,000.
Kids wear logo-jammed T-shirts, with Kraft changed to "Krap" and Ford changed to "Fucked," though they appear to be interchangeable with the unaltered Double Bouble and Tide symbols. What began as a way to talk back to the ads is beginning to look more like the absolute triumph of the logo - where we can only communicate with each other through shared pop references reclaimed, subverted, or straight For Rodriguez Gerada, the central problem of most culture jamming is that "when you parody an ad, teh company is still getting its brand name out there, there is still product recognition." And as the corporate appetite for the cutting edge, extreme, and bizarre grows more voracious, don't be surprised if advertisers start issuing pre-parodied spots.
Rather than riding the trend to its logical conclusion, Rodriguez Gerada decided it was time to take anticorproate guerilla art to the next level: cut the ads out of the picture entirely. The HOuston Street installation accomplishes this, taking aim at the impact of advertising on the community rather than at a specific product or campaign.
"I'm sick of playing with their rules, their characters, their fonts,: he says. "I wanted to do a piece that changes the whole culture jamming thing. I wanted to take away their power altogether."