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|Fauxvertising, FSU-ism and other Semiotic Attacks on Consensual Reality
|Orginally for presentation* at CBGB's, NYC, April 28, 1999
I start with the simple idea that advertising is theft.
I know those are fighting words, but when you consider that the battleground, the theater of operations is human consciousness, the I between our eyes, and that the stakes are what one makes of the world through the din of perceptionthen it is easy to understand why we do what we do.
It's either write, or be written. I can raise a pen or a brush in defense of my own mental environment, or allow myself to be the passive, infinitely impressed palimpsest which is the consumer caught in the maw of a marketing campaign.
So if I don't like what Apple or the auto companies are paying to flash at me, does that give me license then to act the sniper, firing my own tracer billets from the same screen of desire?
I suppose the law on this is pretty clear, that money talks and bullshit walks. In this day and age we do not expect our prophets to be without profit motive.
Rather than debate the hydra-headed polemic on which forms of rhetoric and persuasion are protected, let's just say that our minds and attention-span are a resource that will be colonized and exploited, unless we work to conserve them--and this is never easy. There are strategems for survival in the media landscape that go beyond head-in-the-sand ostrich filters and the arch coolness of mirrorshades.
Two that I favor I call fauxvertising and FSU-ism. In fauxvertising, an existing message is creatively falsified to reach a higher truth or deeper meaning. It takes an unacceptable sales pitch and turns it into a provocative statement. Instead of harnessing human desire to sell something one may or may not need, the idea is to identify what is really at stake, subvert the ad and jumpstart discussion about issues that concern all of us. Which is the last thing advertisers want us to do, have a debate or foster discussion.
Like the best comedy, everything is at the mercy of the prankster. These imps of the surreal strive to undermine the manufacture of consensus by goading you to rise above your assigned rank and UPC serial number.
Situationist writer Guy Debord described our modern world as "the society of the spectacle." For many of us, bread and circuits are not enough.
Beginning with futurism and dadaism, the avant garde movements of this century have frequently employed cutup methods, including collage and "found" artwork, as a means of disclosing dreams and teasing truth from the dark matter of everyday life.
Another favorite tactic in this daynage is politely concealed behind the mock academic initials FSU.
I'm sure there is a state or private university out there going by those suggestive 3 letters. If I am an FSU alum, however, it is under a more profane cred....what I take to be an engine of creativity, and the restless spirit of mischief, which in Native American culture is represented by the coyote, in Norse mythology the god Loki. In puppet theatre, he might be the Harlequin, possessed by an impulse to Fuck Shit UP, or FSU.
Obviously we have no Prufrockian hesitation about disturbing the universe, or we wouldn't be here. What I'm saying is we all have it, just as innately we require food, sleep, and sex. In order to succeed, we need to feel effective as human beings, something the shrinks have been on to for the last century.
That means taking an active role in shaping the world in which we live. Socialization is supposed to round off the roughest of edges, or we would not be able to get along with each other. Public space should include areas in which the public can truly express itself, rather than just running around the hamster wheel of commerce at the mall.
Consider the infantile urge to write your name…everywhere, to cover every square inch of eyespace and you space with an amiable even whimsical memento
Hello My Name Is…
to force the unwilling and indifferent to see you
Kilroy Was Here
in all your airbrushed glory.
You’ve got mail
What narcissism, what extreme ego could foist itself in this way on the unsuspecting and the innocent?
You could already be a winner.
Information they say wants to be free, but then so too might a virus.
Where do you want to go today?
What we see in billboards is the sign as a tabular razor to the innocent eye. For despite the multifarious parade of products that steadily impoverish us, one really has few choices in this daynage: to buy, or not to buy? If you do not buy in to this formula, you might soon be said to have bought it.
Kills bugs dead!
Perhaps because so many people now edit their television watching through time-shifting use of VCRs and the mute button, billboard advertising has exploded in recent years. Looking around our world, I am reminded of the scene in the film Brazil which shows a freeway that is entirely enclosed on both sides by a continuous scroll of advertising.
Their very omnipresence leads to some dangerous and odd situations, such as the one where a billboard's placement proved fatal. A wire service report from South Africa told of a helicopter crash that killed four people in the center of Cape Town. The heavy-lift helicopter had just unloaded an air-conditioning unit when it clipped a billboard atop the hotel and exploded.
In San Francisco recently, an exercise club stirred controversy when its billboard suggested that when the aliens land, they’re going to dine on fat people first. The outcry that ensued led the President of the city’s Board of Supervisors to propose an ordinance banning discrimination based on weight or body size.
This is an election year in San Francisco. The two leading mayoral candidates are both consummate insiders. But wait, another candidate who recently threw his hat in the ring is a man who actually did time for altering a billboard message.
Before the recent tobacco industry settlement that is now clearing away cigarette advertising on billboards, state law in California limited the installation of cigarette ads near schools and playgrounds restrictions that were widely ignored. To respond to this evil merchandizing, this targeting of young consumers with an expensive and toxic dependency, Jim Reid climbed up a cigarette billboard and wrote
"Selling addiction with sex"
When you’re working alone, as he did, it’s easier to get nailed―he did 25 days in a county jail for this public service.
For Midnight Editors, the greatest safety lies in working as part of a well-organized team. Properly equipped and coordinated, it is possible to hit the most high profile and prized advertising yardage. To hit the sign well and to get away with it.
Many of the billboards on display in this show would fall under the rubric of self-documentation, or admiring pictures shot by friends. In fact, given the turnout here, I’d say these brave, billboard-climbing artists have many friends. Friends who like to be able to show off and share the fruit of their friends’ midnight toil.
My little collection of pictures at the back is an exception to this, since I carry a camera with me most places and use it to document graffiti and other random ephemeralities of the urban experience. The general presentation of what I have photographed in billboard and advertising adjustments is perhaps less elegant and artistic than most of the other works here. But even in their rawness, they reflect the voices of the community responding to the Big Brother messaging of public space.
One of my earliest shots, from 1983, shows a billboard on a corner on Haight St. The ad is for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The message is
"We Do Chicken Right."
That billboard was just a few feet over the sidewalk, so it was within reach of just about anyone passing by. Well, somebody took exception to their claim and amended it with the comment:
"YOU DONE THEM CHICKENS WRONG! MEAT=VIOLENCE."
The outrage in this mini-manifesto is the beginnings of a dialogue that a mature society must be prepared to have with itself. In a dysfunctional society, every voice that crosses the line is relegated to the margins.
As long as advertising and paid publications monopolize our media landscape, murals and midnight editing such as graffiti and altered billboards are going to be necessary marginal emendations.
A few years ago I went to Russia and was shocked to see how the New Wild West (as they call it) was adopting some of the worst aspects of capitalism. By the mid-90s, in St. Petersburg and Moscow the sides of entire buildings were being painted into advertising space…for American products, no less―generally Camels & Marlboros!
Now we see that same cancer metastasizing in our own back yard. When I saw my first such building-sized ad in San Francisco it was for Sun Microsystems. Ironically, the message read
"Keep Technology From Dividing Us All."
Well, one can see how that movement to convert open or public space into display advertising is deforming the community and pitting those who value art and community against those who respect only money.
A few months ago the new owners of a building on Harrison St. blithely painted over a beautiful abstract mural by Chuy Campusano so that the space could be made available for advertising. They did this without any consultation, leaving the community in uproar. And if that isn’t enough, the mural titled "Extinct" by Rigo was itself recently extinguished in its original location to make way for new ad space.
In light of these encroachments, it is hard not to feel embattled by Mammon and the excesses of sales pitching run amuck.
Now, I don't want this to sound like a holy war we're fighting, but it is worth recalling some of the more famous prophetic graffiti appearing in the Book of Daniel that goes Mene mene tekel upharsin. "Thou (I think this Thou referred to King Belshazzar, last of the Babylonian kings) Thou hast been weighed in the balance and found wanting."
Now I ask you: is this a world out of balance, or what? And what do you intend to do about it?
*Regrettably, the first publication of this address was not oral, but as a staple-bound printout. The text was intended to be read at the opening night reception of the Billboard Liberation show at CBGB's.
But since the reading was shut down, it was only distributed through the same old same cold print, followed by the bemused pixelation of email to those on my personal spam-list.
The cosmic irony of the aborted reading was that instead of my getting to pontificate on the virtues of fucking shit up, we had our shit fucked up for us.
Seth Maxwell Malice, who was brought along from SF to NYC to peddle his poster for the show, pestered and heckled the speakers into silence.
From the minute Mark Dery rose to present a chapter from his new book, Maxwell was screaming obscene suggestions and harassing him such that Dery at one point departed the stage.
Dery did resume his reading, but emerged shaking from the ordeal of being pelted by Maxwell's belligerent verbal caca. When Dery fled, Ron English decided enough was enough and cut off the remaining presentations to move directly to panel discussion.
Because of the time and effort I put into preparing this site-specific address, I was more than a little put out. But I also had to marvel at the irony that we were FSU'd by one of our own. We brought that little bag of chaos with us―what else could we have expected?
All it takes for any system to collapse is some applied chaos, a force that both snaps at the heels and is a curiously honored partner in both the most banal and outlandish of schemes.