Placing Art in Ad Places - An Interview with Vandalog's RJ Rushmore and Caroline Caldwell

Socially Engaged Art, Interviews

February 17, 2017

Art in Ad Places is a 52 weeks long campaign thought out and produced by Caroline Caldwell and RJ Rushmore of the Vandalog blog, among others. The idea for this project which includes replacing ads in public spaces with artistic works came about in 2016 after one billboard advertising an aesthetic surgery provoked conversation on the messages ads send out, and the influence of such messages on people’s beliefs and attitudes. Concluding that such influence is often damaging, the team behind the campaign decided to try and rectify this by taking over the public places from ads and replacing them with artworks. Art in Ad Places initiated its crusade against ads in January 2017, basing it on five postulates that the members of the team believe in, succinctly stated on their webpage in the following manner:

Outdoor advertising is visual pollution.

Outdoor advertising can be psychologically damaging.

Outdoor advertising is pushed on viewers without their consent.

Outdoor advertising marks underutilized venues for other messages.

By replacing advertisements with artwork, Art in Ad Places provides a public service and an alternative vision of our public environment.

Almost two months old, the campaign is presently in its full swing, so we decided to reach out to Caroline Caldwell and RJ Rushmore, and to ask them about its different aspects, including what obstacles they faced so far, the public reaction, and future plans.

vandalog street instagram blog from 2014 and 2015 details vandalog media post day view on vandalog
Michelle Angela Ortiz. Photo by Luna Park.

A Marketing Campaign against Advertising

Widewalls: How did the idea for this campaign first come about?

Art in Ad Places : We’ve both been involved in the world of ad busts for years. Caroline has been pretty much since she began doing street art, and often with a feminist and anti-consumerist bent. RJ comes from more of an academic angle, with an interest in how we are shaped by the messages that public spaces send us, and how the general public might be empowered to affect public spaces. RJ had been thinking about what a new large-scale ad busting project might look like, but the push to take action came when Caroline saw a massive billboard for a “Brazilian butt lift” just down the block from our apartment. We started talking about how ridiculous that billboard was, and what we could do about it.

Art in Ad Places sprang from that conversation. Over the course of 2016, we honed the structure and philosophical underpinnings. Rather than just going and destroying one annoying billboard, we wanted a project that would make a grander statement, include more people, and unfold over an extended period of time. A sort of marketing campaign against advertising.

Widewalls: Can you tease out a few important issues you are addressing with Art in Ad Places campaign?

AiAP: We’re drawing attention to three things: the messages that ads send, how corporations privatize public space, and how people engage public space.

Body shaming ads are like a concentrated form of all the worst things about advertising. Nobody needs to walk down the street berated by messages telling them that they need liposuction in order to fit in with society, especially when the next ad down the block advertises fast food with that same basic message of “do this, or else you’re not cool.”

Years ago, the advertising industry subsidized payphones, agreeing to maintain the infrastructure in exchange for the right to turn the phones into mini-billboards. Now that we live in an age of cell phones, the payphone aspect is obsolete, but the billboards live on, serving no public good. We oppose outdoor advertising generally, and payphones are an obvious example of advertising gone amuck.

And then there’s people’s relationship with public space more generally. Advertising relies on a system in which public space is sold off to the highest bidder, and that bidder can bombard you with whatever message they want. Often, it’s a message designed to make you feel like crap, or it reinforces the worst about society. If given the option, would the general public prefer to see payphones covered in movie posters, or art and community message boards and poetry? Let’s change the dynamic and find out: instead of feeling like messages are imposed on you, you should feel that you have the right to contribute to public space.

vandalog street day vandalog view
Kristen Liu Wong. Photo by Luna Park.

Escaping the Toxic Environment of Advertising Through the Vandalog Art Project

Widewalls: On your webpage, you state that outdoor advertising can be psychologically damaging. Can you elaborate a bit on this? How is this damage manifested?

AiAP: Words and images have the power to shape thought. Fear and self-doubt are the cornerstones of advertising. Banksy described advertisers as people who “make flippant comments from buses that imply you're not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else.” Spot on. Even Coca Cola ads prey on those emotions. Advertising tries to convince you that you’re inadequate, unless you buy the product being sold. Most advertising also encourages people to be selfish: buy this for yourself, you’re better than others if you do.

That’s a toxic combination: Low self-esteem and selfishness. It’s not good for our minds, our relationships with friends and neighbors, our civic culture, or the environment. And it sounds a bit like Donald Trump.

We don’t want to feel trapped in a toxic environment, so we’re trying to change it. Let’s actively resist messages that tell women their bodies aren’t good enough, or tell us all to eat more processed food and buy newer cars when our current ones work just fine. Let’s fill the world with better messages.

Widewalls: Who are the artists you are primarily interested in working with?

AiAP: We want Art in Ad Places to reach audiences that aren’t already super-familiar with street art or ad takeovers, so we’ve tried to reach beyond our friend groups. That’s meant sending out a lot of cold emails to artists we’ve never met. We’ve also considered what kinds of ideas or voices are generally underrepresented in advertising. For example, Michelle Angela Ortiz and Jess X Snow have contributed some particularly powerful and timely work about the immigrant experience in America.

Beyond that, we’re interested in all sorts of things: work from artists who actually do make advertising, political messages, imagery that just gives off good vibes… We’ve tried to cast a wide net, so long as the image still translates well as a poster.

Jim Houser. Photo by Luna Park, vandalog.
Jim Houser. Photo by Luna Park.

Working with Artists and Overcoming Hindrances

Widewalls: Did you give any instructions to the artists who participate in your project regarding style, themes, or general aesthetics their works should adhere to or engage with?

AiAP: We asked artists not to include nudity, obscenity, or messages that might make us a target of the police. Beyond that, we’ve pretty much said, “Submit whatever you like, so long as it fits within our weird size requirements.”

Widewalls: The campaign started in January 2017. With few weeks already behind you, can you tell us about the public’s reaction to your work? Did you receive any feedback so far?

AiAP: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The most common response has been people asking us to come to their cities. Our answer has been that anyone can do ad takeovers. We’re not special. That’s why there’s a Take Action page on our website where people can learn about the tools that we use.

Widewalls: What about hindrances or problems you encountered since the project started? Were there any?

AiAP: Our first poster (a piece by Adam Wallacavage) was removed within 24 hours of us sharing photos and announcing the location. That taught us to not be so public about the exact address of each installation, and influences which photos we share. Luna Park, who is handling most of our documentation, had been great about finding angles that show off the poster without revealing too much about where it’s at.

Monica Canilao vandalog and Eric Loundy. Photo by Luna Park, vandalog.
Monica Canilao and Eric Loundy. Photo by Luna Park.

Public Space for Public Good

Widewalls: What is the vision of public environment you would like to see coming to life in the future?

AiAP: New York’s outdoor advertising spaces, especially those spaces owned by the government, should be turned over to the people. The former ad space should be used for the public good, whether that’s for public art, public service announcements, free advertising for non-profits, or some other use that we haven’t thought of. We envision a city where the public enjoys and benefits from the messages on pay phones and throughout the mass transit system. We think that’s a reasonable thing to ask of any city.

Widewalls: Art in Ad Places is currently bound to New York City. Do you plan to spread the campaign to other cities as well? Do you perhaps plan to initiate similar practices outside of US in the future?

AiAP: We would love to see other people start similar campaigns all over the world (in fact, campaigns like Brandalism have already been doing this work for years).

As for our next steps, we would love to continue Art in Ad Places past 2017, expanding the kind of work that we put up. We want to see the streets filled with poetry, interesting facts from scientists, brain teasers and puzzles, children’s artwork... all that good stuff. So, if all goes well this year, that’s what’s next.

Featured images: Adam Wallacavage, photo by Luna Park. RJ Rushmore and Caroline Caldwell, photos by Will Star. All images courtesy of Art in Ad Places.

Follow These Artists