Brandalism - A Story Of Cultural Subversion

September 8, 2014

Important stances of our existence can reside in the ephemeral events of everyday life. I was standing on a bus stop and in a moment of sheer boredom started to read a notice under a large advertisement for a meat product company which covered an entire wall. It said something like “Do not write graffiti or vandalize the ad in any other manner, there is 24 surveillance.” I found this infuriating for a number of reasons, but the notice triggered something that hasn’t left my thoughts yet. This ad is covering a big part of public space; what is more, the size of the surface makes it visible from a far and it stands near a beautiful square of architectural and cultural value. I couldn’t stop persuading myself that this thing was, in a way, taking up a much bigger “portion” of public space – it has been actually imposing itself on the cultural space of its surroundings. Of course, I could be just overanalyzing. Why in the world would such a thing be relevant? Am I losing my mind? Well… I am, probably, overanalyzing and might even be losing my mind. But, it is not irrelevant. This is important.

Brandalism history video photos cities spaces home new days
Artwork by Ludo (Manchester)

What Does Brandalism Mean?

This is the issue with –isms: these notions tend to generalize a set of ideas into a body of meaning. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but the “problems” occur when there is no consensus over the mentioned set of ideas. Thus, “brandalism”, just as any other -ism for that matter, has come to be a notion potent with different meanings. It can refer to the body of cultural industries in the broadest sense, such are numerous forms of this “practice” within design or fashion industries. However, this is not going to be a story of various dispersed ideologies or different interpretations, but a specific one concerning a project which is transforming into a movement. This story began in 2012, when the project reclaimed 36 billboards in 5 cities with the help of 28 artists from 8 countries, over the course of 5 days. Two years later, in May 2014, the Brandalism project affected 360 advertising spaces by inserting original artworks, covering the advertisements. These artworks were created by 40 international artists. Working with the legacy of such movements as Street Art and Situationism in mind, 16 teams of citizens found themselves in the midst of changing their public cultural space in 10 cities around UK. We have already talked about the ways in which the advertising industry tries to overpower the realm of street art. And, since we understand what Brandalism stands for, now let us see what it can do – let us turn to the possibilities of resisting, to an extraordinary act of revolt against the hegemony of corporate influence over the public space.

Featured image: Ron English - Mural Houston Bowery Wall 2015. Photo Aymann Ismail

Interacting With The World

Let us try to contextualize the process of reacting to the diverse and vast field of commercial product placement. This, in fact, concerns the notion of understanding popular culture. In a study on popular culture, a media scholar and cultural theorist John Fiske contemplated the creative instance within the field of mass culture of capitalist societies. With a now famous statement People are not cultural idiots, Fiske tries to explain the space where meaning is created within the relation between cultural industries and the market, on the one hand, and the public as possible consumers, on the other hand. The key word here is possible consumers. Why? Because there is a presumption that the public cannot be overwhelmed with the symbolic content of the commercial origin, but rather – people create culture in the reaction to what the system is offering. Thus, popular culture is not something which can be imposed, it is created by the people. In this regard, according to Fiske, the culture of everyday life resides on the creative use of symbols and products of the capitalist system. But, what does this actually mean? Is this creative incentive within the culture of everyday life “strong enough” to resist the financial power of corporate aspirations toward the public space?

Brandalism history video photos cities spaces home new days
artwork by Dr.D (Bristol)

Beyond the Tactics of Everyday Life

To find an answer to the previous question, we need to take a “reflective step backwards” and ask ourselves what does the culture of everyday life actually mean. And, what is more, could this form of creative response be enough to coexist with the symbolic hyperproduction which overwhelms our reality? The notions which Fiske tried to convey reside in the ideas of Michel de Certau. This French philosopher relates the terms of strategies and tactics to the notions of power structures and individuals, respectively. Thus, the realm of culture is shaped by the everyday tactics of people consisting of ways to deceive the hegemonic structures which try to impose a formation of meaning. Not much different then the situation from the bus stop and the beginning of our story. That meat product company was involved in a scandal concerning the quality of their food, yet by means of financial power, its symbolic presence was left intact and continued to impose itself on the public. In a way, I understood the situation and a future scenario of consuming a product of this company, for me, is practically non-existing. However, the message of the company still occupies the public space. Besides ignoring the message, I am left powerless to act. It seems that sheer opposing a symbolic message through the act of understanding the intention is not enough. So, let us move beyond understanding. Let us talk about action.

Subversive Culture and The Art of Self-Defense

The Brandalism project is a story of cultural subversion. It is a story of a “silent revolution” against an aggressive system of commercialism. This is a movement which incorporates the political, social and cultural dimensions of the contemporary power struggle. What is most important, it perceives art as the field of reclaiming the public cultural space! But, one of the main arguments against the actions of people involved in the Brandalism project, which we want to address here, could refer to the act of vandalism upon the space that is legally installed. Basically, the public space is being leased for a period of time in exchange for a certain amount of money. By the action of “destroying” an advertisement, a portion of public funding is affected. This is crucial – the subversive action is being executed within the space which belongs to the citizens. The support which the Brandalism project has acquired during the period of the last couple of years points to the need for acting upon the visual pollution we are subjected to in our urban environment. So, If I was to act upon the hegemonic aspirations of consumerism, would I be considered a vandal? Surely, I’m breaking some law here and, surely, there is the context of “destroying” something that doesn’t “belong” to me. But, here’s the thing – it is a question of power struggle and the situation of my cultural and existential space is at stake. I am fighting with the only power that I have – a symbolic one. So, am I a vandal? Surely, I’m going to be called one and, surely, I am not going to stop fighting.

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