Culture Jamming – Where Art and Pranking Meets Activism. A Micro Essay

When it comes to citizen media and grassroots activism there it one practice that doesn’t need a large number of people actively participating to be effective but rather something as simple as a single person with a bucket of paint and a brush. I am of course referring to the art of culture jamming. This practice can mean numerous different activities however to put it simply it involves interrupting or altering some message to change its meaning, usually as a form of media activism. Something as simple as painting over a few words on a billboard can change the meaning, as you can see in this popular example of a hijacked Stella Artois billboard.

Harold Christine explains culture jamming to include the pranking the media, sabotaging billboards, or remixing audio and describes culture jammers as somewhere between “artistic terrorists and vernacular critics” (see Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs). Naomi Kline also offers description of culture jamming and brings up famous examples such as the band Negativeland, who originally coined the term culture jamming and fought with numerous corporations and producers of mainstream culture including U2 and Disney (see Negativeland’s remix of The Little Mermaid in the video Gimme The Mermaid)*. What makes culture jamming so effective is that unlike digital activism, alternative journalism, and blogs, culture jamming doesn’t need a critical mass of people to be effective. A single person can have an impact with a single clever image. Organizations like the Guerrilla Girls and Adbusters launch whole campaigns to challenge the mainstream with clever edits to popular ads and brands.

Compare culture jamming tactics with the effort and masses of people required for effective digital media activism. Because of the masses of people required for digital activism it can face pitfalls such as uninformed digital activists and misguided efforts. For example Evgeny Morozov tells the story of activists banding together to save a fountain that was never at risk of being destroyed in chapter 7 of The Net Delusion. Another challenge of digital activism is that it has built in inequalities, where when participating in blogging or hashtag activism some people are going to have their message heard by more people than others. Culture jamming such as billboard hijacking leverages the already established audience to the media being hijacked and avoids uninformed masses of slacktivists. Unfortunately Habermas’s ideal public sphere where everyone is equal doesn’t exist. Instead we have publics and counter publics and an imperfect democracy. Citizen media is a way to balance the imperfection of democracy and a chance for citizens to act directly instead of through democratic representation. It gives a voice to those who feel that their concerns are underrepresented.

Culture jamming is an artistic and clever way to draw attention to issues, causing audiences to think about the media they are seeing. It directly engages mainstream corporations or politics to criticize capitalism, ideologies, politics, and popular culture thus benefiting from the intended audience of the message, whatever it may be.
*if you can find Patricia Zimmerman’s article Just Say No: Negativelands’ No Business (2006) it is an excellent story on the band Negativeland and their use of culture jamming and the legal action they faced as a result. It also provides context on the Gimme the Mermaid video. Unfortunately to see this article one needs special access to academic journals – usually through an academic institution.

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