The Viewer, The Reader, The Heckler
How a London trio are responding to modern advertising.
Cypher BILLBOARD is a project run by three of us: Erin, Holly, and Amba, all artists based in the UK (mid-Wales and London). Through the project, we commission responsive site-specific artworks for a billboard space in Bounds Green, London. The site hopes to challenge conventions of display, and act as a launch-pad for generating conversations through a series of satellite events and workshops. It provides an alternative space and framework for developing new work, holding its own rules and limitations as well as freedoms and extensions. We launched the project in September 2017 and the site has hosted eleven billboard artworks to date, alongside a series of external projects. Like those of many others, our plans for this year’s programme have been delayed due to Covid-19. We hope to re-launch in the late Autumn, so watch this space…
In the meantime, the invitation to contribute to this online journal has prompted us to consider the research and thinking that has shaped the project so far. Meeting together via Zoom to talk and write has been an energising activity in a moment of lag and uncertainty. The reflections laid out below are an extension of conversations we facilitated last year in an accompanying public discussion, chaired by Vanessa Murrell of DATEAGLE ART and programmed as part of Art Licks Weekend 2019. The event broadly considered instances of resistance, complicity and collaboration within collective organisational practice in the arts. In this text we look at the wider landscape of advertising that the billboard inhabits, and each in turn contemplate different methods of critically engaging with this context through approaches we have framed here as viewing, reading, and heckling.
When dipping in and out of London during my time living in Berlin, it always struck me how billboards were very telling of the vibe of a city. I’d often see adverts in Berlin for refreshments, usually energy drinks or beer, all geared towards young people having a good time. Whereas, in London the adverts largely promoted sleep as a luxury commodity with lots of posters for mattresses and the unique selling point for energy drinks was to help you work more hours rather than party longer. The ‘are you tired of being tired’ advert which was all over London also stood out to me. The wording of the slogan sums up the draining individualism I felt across the city; it implies that it is your problem if you’re tired, a problem that you need to fix by buying…’ This persuades you not to question outward factors that may cause you to be tired, like ridiculously long commutes or working (probably unpaid) overtime/ zero contract hours, but to look for short-term relief and keep you running that little bit longer. The ad must be successful due to its extensive running time, prompting an amusing Reddit thread titled; ‘Anyone else tired of seeing this advert about being tired of being tired?’.
Cut to 2020 and we’re in lockdown. I’m wondering what the billboards are looking like in London right now? How are they reflecting what is going on?
Although I’m no longer seeing physical adverts, I am of course seeing plenty of them online. This time, the advertising landscape that is being reflected back to me isn’t the vibe of a generalised city, it is me. Or rather, it is my supposed virtual-self and it is disappointingly generic. I have an untested theory that if you leave YouTube playing the most recommended video one after the other, no matter how obscure the video you begin with is, if you leave it running long enough, you’ll eventually end up with ‘Despacito’; you always get pulled towards the mainstream rather than following specific curiosities. The targeted adverts I get online are often for clothes, makeup, moisturisers, yoga leggings or those posture correctors (which I confess I actually bought directly from Instagram). Are these ads reflecting just how vain or conventional I really am? Or, are my targeted adverts another strong centripetal force pulling me towards a mainstream?
On the whole I don’t have as much of an issue with adverts in and of themselves. The days of feeling angered by the realisations that came with reading Naomi Wolf’s ‘The Beauty Myth’ seem distant. Today’s advertisers opt for flattery and messages of empowerment rather than demeaning tactics or body-shaming to sell products. I’m more unsettled by the consequences of relentless interruptions and the cognitive-hijacking these targeted commercials perform.
You can use ad blocks and you don’t have to use Google or other websites that collect your data for targeted adverts but it is easier than trudging through less efficient alternative search engines. Interestingly my partner recently saw two billboards for DuckDuckGo. The slogan asserted that your data isn’t sold if you use their search engine. An advert, advertising the removal of individually targeted adverts! It feels like we’ve come full circle!
What would life be like if we really lived advert free?
In 2007, Gilberto Kassab, the Mayor of Sao Paulo, banned billboards altogether through implementing the ‘Clean City Law’. An incredible 15,000 billboards and 300,000 oversized storefront signs were removed in a single year. They are not the first city to implement this kind of law but what I find particularly interesting in this case is what taking down these billboards revealed. What slowly emerged was the poverty that they had been masking. For instance some of the billboards were concealing unknown favelas and some were even physically supporting some dilapidated buildings. The city was hitherto able to ignore these social inequalities because the commercials constantly diverted their attention.
If physical billboards create visual pollution, online adverts create cognitive pollution. Similarly, if all online adverts were removed, would they too reveal neglected aspects of our minds that we need to address?
Like many others during lock-down, I commenced quarantine by bathing my anxieties over the unstable unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic in the milky balm of Netflix binge-watching. I developed an addiction to hand-stitching homemade face-masks as a pretext to legitimise further tv-viewing. I watched while I sewed and found the two feeding each other; the in-out-in of the needle making for a lulling rhythm, a meditative preoccupation that binds the hands from intervening to halt the seamless segues between episodes.
Mad Men was my programme of choice – seven series of long-haul entertainment. I watched the centre-stage details of the characters’ lives foregrounded against a backdrop of social and political events, broadcast from their own television sets. The sexism and racism of 1960s America, troubled by ripples of 2nd wave feminism and civil rights campaigning, curdled and congealed on the screen. I watched the strategic packaging of neoliberal ideals presented in turn as heroism and folly. I cringed as Betty, the ultimate desperate housewife and ‘hostess with the mostess’, placed cold beers selected from the supermarket’s featured display stand on the table for her guests, only to be greeted by the laughter of the ad-men. She is prey to their recently-launched campaign, and the butt of an in-joke on the puppeteering power of marketing through product placement. She may not be the most likable of characters, but here I empathise.
Many of the hours I’ve been spending beyond those consumed by Netflix, have been measured in screen-time of a different sort; mainly scrolling, attempting to nimbly dodge adverts of ath-leisure wear cluttering my Instagram timeline. It didn’t work and I soon became the proud, new owner of two pairs of Fabletics leggings and corresponding crop tops, purchased on their VIP sign-up 2-for-£25 deal. I spent the next week reminding myself to unsubscribe.
Betty’s targeted beer ad is found in the physical space of the supermarket itself, but my leggings advert is cradled in the palm of my hand, wherever I go. It’s delivered to me on an internal firewire directed by data gleaned from previous purchases, GPS mapping, demographic info, and more I’m sure. It navigates itself through the virtual space of the internet – a territory previously viewed as open and democratic, but increasingly revealed to be privatised and didactic – to arrive in the most intimate and personal of spaces, couched in trouser pockets and bedside tables. Similarly playing on the hazy boundaries of public and private domains, the billboard is owned privately, but generally located outdoors in seemingly-public spaces. Be it online or offline, advertising is intended to reach into our lives, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, and tell us that we need something. It sandwiches itself into the gaps between things, to be encountered fleetingly, but repeatedly, in passing; while walking, driving, scrolling, queuing; and seeks to bend our desires to its will.
I’m interested in the communal and personal realms that such persuasive content embeds itself within, and in the agency we have as viewers when confronted with such visual matter – to see, to interpret, to absorb or to reject. Amba introduced us to social theorist Michel de Certeau’s ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ in a reading group event she hosted to accompany her own billboard artwork made in collaboration with Ralph Hunter-Menzies back in 2018. Writing in 1980, de Certeau celebrates seeing, looking and reading as active interpretative interventions with the capacity to push back against systems, as opposed to passive or submissive acts at the mercy of a pervasive media machine. Such active gestures may operate within an established and dominant language system with its own pre-existing structures of vocabulary and syntax, and inflect these back on themselves, inverting them to create new meanings or purposes.
I’m reminded here of an excellent workshop I attended at Chisenhale Gallery, led by writer and curator Taylor Le Melle, looking at ways in which English grammar can be purposefully misused as a liberatory and decolonial linguistic strategy. According to de Certeau, the consumption he speaks of is a DIY practice, where ‘users make innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and rules’. He touches on ‘users’ of different subject positions, such as ‘the housewife’ and ‘the immigrant worker’, navigating a system that subjugates and exploits from multiple angles. Where ‘users’ are particularly imperilled by such systems, there emerges in resistance a delicious-sounding ‘deviousness, fantasy, or laughter’.
Reading his introduction, I feel it’s an optimistic proposal – small glimmers of redemption. While there may be an argument for creative and subversive tactics located in the housewife’s supermarket decisions, I’m not sure that Betty’s beers quite fit into this camp. Nor my Fabletics leggings, which are, possibly disappointingly, being put to very conventional use. But I like the notion of the agency of the user/reader/consumer to recalibrate whatever is projected at us and to make it our own. I’m interested in this active interpretive consumption in the context of considering the viewers of our own billboard too.
While re-reading de Certeau’s essay recently, I couldn’t help but attempt to map the Cypher BILLBOARD poster project itself onto the matrix he sets out, as an active intervention that purposefully absorbs and adapts the visual language of consumerism to produce something other. While our invitation to artists imposes no curatorial framework for the development of new poster artworks beyond the format of the 48-sheet billboard, this in itself demands site-specific responses that inevitably engage in a dialogue with advertising, broadcasting and commerce. I like the idea of borrowing the subversive ‘tactics’ of an alternative consumption he speaks of – tactics of looking, reading, and reflecting back something new – as a mission for our platform; of – like other artists before us – opportunistically camping out into a space not normally reserved for broadcasts that do not yield profit; of enabling a fleeting platform for open-ended, non-didactic artworks that carve out a place for subversion, imagination, and humour, ‘deviousness, fantasy, or laughter’.
Billboards contain rich material histories often bearing signs of weathering, neglect and vandalism. As urban palimpsests, they are host to visible and invisible layers, public and private messages, indexical and printed marks. On these sites, graffiti as surface intervention through text and mark making becomes a technique of overwriting the media landscape. When we started the Cypher BILLBOARD project in 2017 the billboard, which had been in disuse for some time, was covered in a pale blue poster, plain except for some pink and orange graffiti dotted around its base: ‘Happy’, ‘Boom 2006’, and ‘CG’, along with some sprayed hearts, animated the lower half of the hoarding.
Around the same time, I would frequently pass a commercial next to New Cross Gate station, which for a few months was in a continuous cycle of being graffitied, replaced and then graffitied again. The poster image was for a supermarket, and featured a woman preparing an uncooked chicken. The inscription was always the same: ‘meat is murder’. Graffiti on billboards can be tags decipherable only by a small community, or personal and political messages intended for public consumption. Linguist David Hanauer (2011) argues that no matter the meaning, all forms of graffiti are inherently political because, as unrequested interjections within the public sphere, they challenge the authority of capitalistic ideology.
Using the billboard as an interface, graffiti becomes a way to interfere with public messages. Like the unilateral experience of television commercials, one-way information pipelines that transmit but never receive, billboard advertisements treat viewers as passive receptacles. As a form of non-interactive media, the billboard advertisement is a commercial monologue. Defacing these surfaces is to insert oneself, and ones’ body, into the space through marks or traces. As a means of initiating dialogue, billboard graffiti talks back to the media to arrest its flow. ‘Culture jamming’ is a term used to describe this kind of image alteration and other forms of consumerist media sabotage (Sandlin & Milam, 2008). In 1984, experimental music band Negativland commented that the ‘The skilfully reworked billboard…directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large’ (Negativland, 1984). Intruding on the intruders, culture jammers aimed to introduce noise into the advertising stream by generating idiosyncratic and unintended interpretations (Dery, 1993). Graffiti, like squatting, appropriates physical and cultural space. Taking over an advertising post or a privately-owned building is an act of resistance on a contested site (Jordan, 2002). Graffiti is a milder means of protest than riots or violence, yet it can still be understood as a micro-level form of political participation (Dobratz & Waldner, 2013).
Mel Jordan (2020) describes the ‘heckler’ as an unauthorised public speaker, ‘an ear turned mouth that hijacks another’s public’. She suggests that speaking out at the wrong time is an embodiment of becoming social and describes the heckler as a heroic figure in their ability to suspend rhetoric. She suggests that without the heckler, political speeches cannot be considered democratic. Perhaps graffiti on billboard advertisements can be framed in these terms, as a hijack or heckle, a diversion in the motion of the message and its meaning, an eye turned mouth talking back through the spray can as a political inscription device. As Nina Wakeford and Celia Lury (2012) note in ‘Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social’, the term ‘device’ has multiple meanings, including object, method and bomb. Graffiti as a device can have destructive and disruptive effects, never operating in isolation as it is engaged in the reconfiguring of relations. Like the Situationist International practice of détournement, such interventions are involved in the rerouting of meanings. The words ‘meat is murder’ on the supermarket advertisement altered the register of the billboard by creating new relations between image and the additional text. Tags and messages are not only markers of social engagement but also cultural emplacement. The conjunction of topography and typography is rendered transparent in this example. New Cross is an area that accommodates Goldsmiths’ students tastes, local cafes serve falafel mezzes and halloumi wraps and the university itself has an entirely vegan food outlet. The anti-meat sentiment of the graffiti reflects the vegetarian sympathies of this portion of the local demographic.
Billboard graffiti can be vandalism, hijacking, culture jamming, hacking, writing, inscribing, inserting, talking back, a minor politics, a riot of contending signs. Like graffiti, the Cypher BILLBOARD project is a temporary insertion into the public realm, however it is a somewhat quieter intervention, obstructing the flow of advertising media not by overwriting, but by occupying its space.
de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
Dery, M. (1993). Culture jamming: Hacking, slashing and sniping in the empire of signs.
Dobratz, B. A., & Waldner, L. K. (2013). Grafitti as a Form of Contentious Political Participation. Sociology Compass 7(5), 377-389.
Hanauer, D. (2011). The Discursive Construction of the Separation Wall at Abu Dis. Journal of Language and Politics 10, 301–21.
Jordan, J. (2002). The Art of Necessity: The Subversive Imagination of Anti-Road Protest and Reclaim the Streets. In S. Duncombe, Cultural Resistance Reader (pp. 333–46). London: Verso.
Jordon, M. (2020, Janurary 14th). On art and the public sphere: six cuts – public art – everyday superheroes – the heckler – people as producers – real montage – slogans and democracy. London: Royal College of Art.
Lury, C., & Wakeford, N. (2012). Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social. London and New York: Routledge.
Negativland. (1984). Jamcon.
Sandlin, J. A., & Milam, J. L. (2008). Mixing Pop (Culture) and Politics: Cultural Resistance, Culture Jamming, and Anti-Consumption Activism as Critical Public Pedagogy. Curriculum Inquiry 38(3), 323–50.
Words by Cypher BILLBOARD