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Culture Jammin'

4 October 2005

As the world becomes more convoluted with imagery, particularly with that perpetuated by the advertising world, we see more subversive movements emerging to commentate on their influence upon people’s lives.

In New York, artist Ji Lee has been stickering speech bubbles  on advertising billboards around town and photographing the humorous scribblings left behind by passers-by. His aim? To “transform the corporate dialogue into an open monologue”. A similar project to what adbusters have been doing for some years now.. His cv lists a variety of advertising agencies he has worked for. Either he has been ‘sleeping with the enemy’ to subvert from the inside or he has learnt some handy tricks in how to successfully market a new book.

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Another artist subverting public spaces in America is Stephen Stapleton who has been travelling across the US on his bicycle and reporting on what he sees. A midnight prowler, he takes down advertising posters, draws, cuts and pastes over them and puts them back up in their original setting,transforming their meaning.

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In London, Banksy, a modern day Scarlet Pimpernel, has been using stencilling to brighten up public spaces and bring a smile to humdrum lives while also making political commentary. His humorous sketches which merely require a can of spray paint and a pre-prepared stencil, take seconds to put up and can be seen peppered around the city in the most unlikely places. A recent outing to Palestine to what he described as the ‘ultimate holiday destination for the graffiti artist’- the apartheid wall / separation fence (Palestinian / Israeli terminology) between the West Bank and Israel- saw him assailed by gunmen as he worked on decorating the “fence”.

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Also in London, but spreading ever outwards into Europe and beyond, come Mobile Clubbing and Pillow Fight Club. Participants communicate via e-mail and a website and convene in a public space at a predestined moment to either dance away on their personal stereos or fight each other with pillows. The organisers claim there is no political subversion intended, simply free expression and brightening up commuters’ lives.

Finally, in Paris, an environmental group calling themselves “Les Degonfles” ("The Deflators"), angered by  the presence of so many polluting vehicles within the city, have been letting down the tyres of SUVs and other gas-guzzlers and explaining why to the owners with a polite note on the windscreen.

Where do all these groups come from and why do they seem to be on the increase? Technology seems to have much to do with it, particularly increased communication through internet, email and mobile phones. The success of these movements can be classified by what Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene coined as a ‘meme’ – “a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation”. The Blogosphere has allowed apparently insignificant movements to snowball into cultural events which everyone (within a certain demographic) is talking about or participating in. Perhaps with the apparent failure of traditional forms of protest (witness mass anti-war marches before Iraq which appeared to have little effect) the disenfranchised are looking for new ways to attract attention to their causes. By subverting the recognised mechanics of corporate marketing their message is being heard outside the conventional constraints of traditional channels of communication.

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