Activists and social movements have used creative practices, such as “culture jamming”, to get their message across to the public



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Activists and social movements have used creative practices, such as “culture jamming”, to get their message across to the public.


Do you think that such methods are effective?

What are their advantages and limitations?

In this essay, I will firstly look at culture jamming and what it entails, exploring how it can be defined as a ‘creative practice’. I will consider the efficacy of these methods, considering the advantages and limitations, looking at various examples.

The term ‘culture jamming’ was coined in 1984, and refers to a tactic used by social activists whereby mainstream cultural institutions are disrupted or subverted, often using media in an ironic or satirical sense to portray the desired message. Advertising corporations and the advertising industry as a whole are frequent targets, activists often creating mock posters or viral videos that draw on conventional advertising methods, but with an ironic twist (this will be discussed in more detail below). Cultural critic Mark Dery produced an online amalgamation of files about cyber culture (The Cyberpunk Project); he notes how a member of the band Negativland (who first coined the term) observed "as awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life grows, some resist”, and how culture jamming “directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large" (Dery, 2003). In other words, culture jamming is about making people take a step back and open their eyes to the advertisement-filled and consumer-driven world we live in. Furthermore Jan Lloyd of Canterbury University defines the culture jamming movement as “about reclaiming urban spaces” which, as a unifying concern, “connects them to broader organised protests against the commodifying of culture” (Lloyd, 2003). Culture jamming encompasses a huge sense of unity and togetherness.

Culture jamming can be demonstrated through a number of methods, and via a number of platforms. Demonstrations such as the student protest against the rise in tuition fees in 2010 are one such example, as students and teachers alike came together to make a stand and attract the attention of the media and government to get their point heard. Although often difficult to orchestrate, media hoaxes are another large scale method of culture jamming, such as those by American activist and prankster Joey Skaggs. In New York in 1981, Skaggs held a press conference posing as doctor of entomology who claimed he had “created a strain of super-roaches immune to toxins and radiation” and that he had “extracted a hormone which he and his followers were taking” (Skaggs, 1997). He claimed he could now cure the common cold, acne, and anaemia, amongst others. The purpose of the press conference was to inform the public of his hormone vitamin pills, which they could attain free of charge. The press and broadcast networks picked up on the story; it was publicized and the media and public alike fell for it. A few months later, Skaggs announced it had in fact been a hoax, the intention being “to bring attention to the media's responsibility to report the truth”, as well as “to the public's responsibility to seek worthwhile solutions to problems rather than panaceas and quick cures”. Skaggs wanted to highlight how imposters can take advantage of the media to persuade gullible and desperate sick people (Skaggs, 1997).


The rise of the internet has led to digital activism becoming more popular and simple to use by social activists. Culture jammers can create websites and blogs relatively easily and at a low cost. The nature of platforms such as social networking sites (notably Facebook and Twitter) and viral video sites (notably YouTube and Vimeo) have enabled the rapid dissemination of information. More traditional methods are also still in use, such as leaflets, posters, graffiti and pirate radio. Subvertising is a method frequently used by anti-consumerist campaign Adbusters, which is the production and dissemination of anti-ads. An example would be the spoof ad for monster sportswear corporation Nike, which showed a man whose outfit comprised entirely of Nike items, with the easily recognisable tick and tagline ‘Just Douche It’ - a take on the original ‘Just Do It’ (Adbusters, 2011). The ad implied that anyone who wore Nike items was a ‘douche’, which would clearly be the opposite of the company’s original advertising campaign.

Culture jamming can be viewed as a creative practice as the activists use inventive and resourceful methods to disseminate information and attract media, governmental and public attention. It is easier to express alternative political ideas through art and cultural products, such as art, posters, graffiti etc. Social movements themselves are acts of creativity, as they are physical outcomes of a group or individual’s alternative vision of the world. For example, Adbusters produces the spoof ads (a physical creative output) as a result of their alternative view that advertisements are too dominating, omnipresent and aimed at gullible and passive people. It is also easier for people, particularly newcomers, to understand and engage with the message being presented if it is in a creatively memorable form, such as artwork, or a poem or chant. For example, at the 2010 student demonstrations against the rise in tuition fees, the chant ‘No ifs, no buts, no education cuts’ was repeated by large groups of students throughout the day (as demonstrated in the visual item). It was a simple way of bringing everyone together and making even those whose participation was initially unplanned, and so perhaps did not have placards or banners, feel included as they only had to use their voices to help articulate the common vision. I filmed the video outside Tory HQ at Milbank Tower just as students began setting fire to their placards, and shortly before a fire extinguisher was thrown off the building.
To determine the efficacy of culture jamming and the practices used by activists, the goal must first be identified. In terms of the message portrayed actually being received and acted upon, culture jamming has little effect. An example of this would be if advertisements for fashion houses and perfume labels became less glamorized and sexualised – Adbusters produced several spoof ads aimed at Calvin Klein, whose campaigns tend to be overtly-sexual. One such poster showed a stereotypical underwear model looking down the front of his Calvin Klein boxers, the tagline being ‘Obsession, for men’ (Adbusters, 2011). It highlighted the obsession with body image caused by the models used in the campaigns. In reality, Calvin Klein and other fashion houses are unlikely to break the mould and change their campaigns to use more realistic and so less attractive models based on the culture jamming methods employed by Adbusters.

However, if the goal were to simply spread the message and encourage others to open their minds to the activists’ alternative way of thinking, then culture jamming is more effective. A good example here would be Banksy, whose politically and culturally satirical artwork has become celebrated and exhibited, which as an activist aiming to spread the alternative vision of a campaign is ideal – media coverage and hype every time a new piece is discovered. However, Banksy has become so popular now that he has almost become part of popular culture, which would not be desirable for someone promoting the anti-consumerist movement which many of his pieces do. The 2009 exhibition held in a museum in his home town of Bristol attracted 8,000 visitors in the opening weekend, including Damien Hurst (Miller, 2009). Some might say that he sold out by exhibiting his work in such a mainstream way, as opposed to the original ‘street art’ method. Lloyd explains that as some culture jammers ‘gain sophistication and acceptance, they can indeed be viewed as a brand themselves’, which would obviously defeat the object (Lloyd, 2003), as perhaps is happening to Banksy. She describes this as ‘blurring of the boundaries that is happening between mainstream advertising and anti-brand activists’, highlighting that as some social movements produce and market films, books, magazines, commercials etc, they ‘claim our attention and consumption of their products’ (Lloyd, 2003). So culture jammers, particularly those of an anti-consumerist persuasion, run the risk of their methods and dissemination of information becoming the very thing they are targeting.

Another example of culture jamming being effective is the case of Joey Skaggs’ ‘Miracle Roach Hormone Cure’, mentioned above: the media fell for the hoax, and by covering the story they did exactly what Skaggs had intended, which to highlight how it is the job of the media to report the truth, (they obviously failed to do so in this case). In terms of duping the media and public through his use of culture jamming, Skaggs definitely succeeded; hundreds of newspapers in the US ran the story, as did numerous television networks, including a live interview on WNBC TV’s Live at Five (Skaggs, 1997). When it was eventually revealed by Skaggs in People Magazine, UPI and WNCB never retracted their stories. Public stunts and street performance are also another example of culture jamming being effective in terms of attracting attention and disseminating information. With a tendency to be light-hearted and funny, public stunts such as those demonstrated by the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA, 2011) are often spontaneous and improvised, and aim to change public opinion and create change. Although again, the efficacy in terms of actually achieving this change is limited.

Generally speaking, culture jamming will never entirely remove or change the perceived problem that it is targeting. Activists run the continual risk of the media covering the events or acts in a negative light, leading to the public thinking of them as a nuisance. As the media has a tendency to highlight violent occurrences, this will often be remembered rather than the reason for the event itself: for example, the student demonstrations against the rise in tuition fees in 2010 were intended as a peaceful protest. But (as the visual item demonstrates) a small minority of protestors became violent, and began smashing windows of Tory HQ, setting fire to things, and eventually dropping a fire extinguisher off the roof. The media focussed on this, portraying the protest itself as ‘violent’, as well as implying that this was the intention all along. The protests and marches that followed were expected to follow suit with more violence, which they did (perhaps as this small minority mistakenly now felt it was standard practice to do so). Students were often portrayed as irresponsible, and the violence was depicted as as important as the reasons for the protest themselves. This would be an example of how culture jamming is perhaps not as effective as intended, though it could be argued that it was simply down to the minority who thought violence was called for that rendered it such. An article published by the BBC a month after the initial protest suggested that the wreckage left ‘proved effective’ in terms of the aim being to draw attention to the protesters’ cause (BBC, 2010). The article goes on to say how the Suffragettes in the early twentieth century used violent methods such as smashing windows and setting fire to letter boxes in order to draw attention to their demands (to gain women the right to vote). This extreme but relevant method of culture jamming was essentially effective, although unorthodox, as women were eventually given the right to vote. But this does not mean that violence should be condoned, as it not always successful.


The rise of the internet has proved advantageous for culture jamming: platforms such as social networking sites and viral video sites are relatively low cost for activists to set up, and the nature of such sites enable rapid dissemination of information. For example, the visual item included received thirteen views in ten days of being uploaded to YouTube – if I was a social activist, that would mean that I had spread whatever message I was trying to portray to at least thirteen people in just ten days. Adbusters have uploaded many advertisements and viral videos to YouTube which users can subscribe to. The internet has provided a multitude of online spaces that social activists can take advantage of, including blogs, websites, alternative news sites, social networking sites etc. Blogs in particular allow the activist to publish as much or as little about their work, such as photos, videos, news of upcoming events such as a demonstration or protest. Users can subscribe to the blog, enabling emails to be sent regularly with updates and information. Similarly with social networking site Facebook, users can become a member of a group which enables the rapid dissemination of information in the form of emails and regular updates to the page. The nature of Facebook means that pages can gain instant popularity with the click of a mouse, such as the Adbusters page, which has over 13,000 fans (Facebook, 2011)

Social activists often have a difficult relationship with the mainstream media, having limited access to the media agenda and no control over the framing of issues, which often leads to violence being highlighted in turn leading to the negative portrayal of activists. Having control over content published on platforms such as a blog, website or alternative news stream means that the activists have the opportunity to present coverage fairly and in an unbiased way. More creative culture jamming methods such as demonstrations, protests, media hoaxes and public stunts often are more advantageous as they are simply more interesting and dynamic, which is bound to attract mass public attention (more often than not in a positive light). In an article in the New York Times, executive director and chief curator of the Alternative Museum in Manhattan Geno Rodriguez notes how some media artists (i.e. culture jammers) are ‘very effective’. He highlights in particular that guerrilla art (‘trying to communicate with society at large instead of an elite art group’) is timely (Dery, 1990). Again, it is advantageous in terms of spreading the message and gaining coverage, but not as much in terms of demands actually being met i.e. something being done.

Alternately, culture jamming cannot replace the organising efforts and clear proposals for policy change outlined by social activists, but supplement them. A demonstration without a website to back the need for such an act could be deemed random and unnecessary. It would also be pointless, as potential new members who wanted more information would most likely check online, and would probably lost interest quickly if the search was fruitless. Creative culture jamming practices such as those outlined above are just a few tactics of many, and more traditional methods should not be forgotten about, such as writing to a local MP, or having a petition circulated to show the need for change. Digital and internet-based culture jamming also cuts out a large portion of the population who do not have the skills, knowledge or access to partake, such as perhaps the older generation who may not know how to navigate a social networking site.

Methods that cause controversy and often use deception, such as media hoaxes, could potentially undermine the seriousness of the argument, possibly being misunderstood to appear disrespectful. For example, it could be argued that with every media hoax, Joey Skaggs is wasting the public’s and media’s time, even giving a bad name to culture jammers and social activists in general. Similarly, the violence that occurred at the student protests against the rise in tuition fees was seen by some as undermining the students’ argument. Again, the limited access activists have to the media’s agenda mean that a small violent act could be blown out of proportion, altering the angle of the article or broadcast.

To conclude, I think that as a general rule, culture jamming is a harmless, creative and artistic method of reaching the public with a social movement’s message. I think that examples such as Banksy and Adbusters demonstrate how social movements are essentially acts of creativity, interpreted by the individual to produce original outcomes of an alternative vision. As stated previously, I think that culture jamming is more effective in terms of actually spreading the message and gaining recognition than the message being received and acted upon (by whoever it is aimed at, such as the government, the advertising industry, the press, etc). The visual piece is a fair representation of both the advantages of one culture jamming method (large groups of people being united by a similar vision, voicing their feelings and views through the use of chant and song) and also disadvantages (methods such as demonstrations always run the risk of a small minority turning violent, often changing the angle of the media coverage). Social activism is something that I am fascinated by, and I think culture jamming has a lot to offer society.

URL for visual piece: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNSA7KPjr3M




Bibliography

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Kelly, J. (2010). Student fees protests: Does rioting change anything? [Online]. Available at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11990316> [accessed 26th March 2011].
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Skaggs, J. (1997). Metamorphosis: The Miracle Roach Hormone Cure [online]. Available at <http://www.joeyskaggs.com/html/retsub.html> [accessed 21st March 2011].


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