While some may praise Lush for its recent #SpyCops poster campaign, having your own shop window to deliver a political campaign message in is a luxury most do not have. Now, the non-shop owning agitpropper can turn to Brandalism, who have launched a Subvertising Manual that shows anyone how to reclaim visual spaces from advertisers by replacing 6-sheet adverts with their own artwork.
Taking aim at the backlit hoardings most frequently seen at bus stops, the manual tells you everything you need to know to hang your own work in these spaces. Subtitled What You Need And How To Do It, it discusses what tools are required to open the displays; artwork sizes for the majority of bus shelter hoardings, (advertising lingo calls these 6-sheets); what to wear and the best times of day to hang your work to avoid getting caught; and where you can find information online so your work stays up as long as possible.
Encouraging visual dissent is nothing new. In 1992, the Anticopyright Network produced a book called Flyposter Frenzy. Packed with agitprop posters covering the concerns of the day, its introduction demanded: “No copy of this book should have its spine unbroken! Ram the bastard down against the copier glass until it replicates itself in fear.” (Fuller, 1992, p8). It hoped that those annoyed enough would find a poster in the book that covered their cause of choice, photocopy it and stick it up where ever they felt was appropriate. The Brandalism publication is friendlier than that in tone, but is promoting the same call to direct action. Subvertising Manual goes much further than Flyposter Frenzy though; it encourages people to produce their own graphics to take back the visual culture of the streets, rather than copying what someone else has produced and sticking that up.
A sister publication produced by Dog Section Press, titled Advertising Shits In Your Head, provides some underpinning context. It claims that, Edward Barnays, the person who is considered to be the founder of modern public relations, (previously called propaganda, now a large aspect of advertising), believed: “…the conscious manipulation of the masses by means of propaganda was seen not only as inevitable and benign, but as a necessary part of democracy … Where subvertising activists describe outdoor advertising as un-democratic—in that there is no collective control over it—Barnays suggests that public relations are an important component of a democratic society.” (2017, Dog Section Press, p13–14). It goes on to say that Barnays thought “a smoothly functioning society was one marshalled around consumption,” and that as such, capitalism seen thorough public relations has a ‘civilising’ impact on society.
Needless-to-say, Brandalism think otherwise: “Corporate advertising influences every aspect of our lives,” claims the appropriately named author of Subvertising Manual, Bill Posters. “From how we feel about ourselves; our bodies; our understandings of gender, race and class; through to our perceptions of others and the world we live in. Advertising doesn’t simply sell us products—it shapes our expectations of how meaning should be produced in life.” (2018, Posters, p62).
The visual and psychological influence of advertising in public space is central to Brandalism’s want for people to take back control of visual culture in their neighbourhoods. Recent actions by the group, such as for Cop21 in November 2015, where they attempted to take over all bus stop ad spaces in Paris during a United Nations Climate Talk, was overtly political. However, Subvertsing Manual equally encourages replacing adverts with artwork that doesn’t necessarily have a specific political message—the taking back of visual space from advertisers is the important thing.
This encouragement for people to ‘do it themselves’ echoes contemporary protest themes over the last decade, some of which are highlighted in the Hope to Nope exhibition currently running at London’s Design Museum. The show displayed many examples of visual responses by the people directly affected by political situations and social upheaval, as opposed to them waiting for traditional political organisations to take the lead. In this, it is demonstrated how individuals can take control of their own political discourse, and in regard to Subvertising Manual, the public spaces they have to traverse as well.
This empowerment is important in the age of neoliberalism, which as a political system has taken away the power and control of urban areas from national and local government, and handed it to corporate organisations that few have any influence over. As Bill Posters states at the beginning of the manual: “Some of the largest outdoor advertising companies in the world have contracts with local councils or municipal regions for the installation and management of public transport infrastructure. These contracts are essentially monopolies that can last 30 years or more. In exchange for allowing multi-national corporations to build and maintain this infrastructure, they get to install advertising all across the city whilst local councils save money from their non-existent budgets as a result of the financial crisis and neoliberal free-market economic policies.” (2018, Posters, p12).
In their essay Hardwired Hegemony: Art and Design After Neoliberalism, design academics Pendrell and Trafford argue that: “By reforming the political through the lens of the economical, neoliberalism entails that our citizenship no longer guarantees political agency.” (2018, p82). Relate this to bus stop adverts and it is visibly clear who has control of the look of shared public environments.
In Subvertising Manual, Brandalism make a brave attempt to empower anyone with the gumption to address the imbalance of advertising in their graphic commons. And in doing so, they seek to put some sense of agency back in the hands of those that have to visually navigate these spaces everyday.
—Dog Section Press. (2017) Advertising Shits In Your Head. London: Dog Section Press
—Fuller, M. (1992) Flyposter Frenzy: Posters From The Anticopyright Network. London: Working Press
—Pendrell, L and Trafford, J. Hardwired Hegemony: Art and Design After Neoliberalism. In Laranjo, F. (2018) Modes of Criticism 3: Design and Democracy. Portugal: Onomatopee
—Posters, B. (2018) Subvertising Manual: What you need and how to do it. Available from: http://brandalism.ch/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Brandalism_Subvertising_Manual_web.pdf (Accessed: 24 June 2018)