Culture Jamming with Pedro Carvajal
Issue #37, March 1998
Pedro Carvajal left Venezuela to earn a media arts BA from Jersey City State College. He has made documentaries on East Village squatters, the Yanomani, and an AIDS patient (winning the Chicago International Film Festival's Silver Plaque award). We met to talk of his work in relation to culture jamming -- a variety of practices in contemporary media designed to "jam the signals" of the media monopoly. His videos on this topic -- Citizen Art and Subvertising -- focus on culture jamming in public spaces, particularly billboard liberation, in which an outdoor ad is altered to critique the original company or product, or deliver a public service message. Citizen Art focuses on the antics of the billboard liberation collectives, Artfux and Cicada -- with whom Pedro collaborates in Jersey City and New York. Subvertising has additional grass roots footage, as well as commentary by sociologists and media critics.
Pedro Carvajal: Not so much with Artfux, but with Cicada, the main thing in the beginning was to deface tobacco and alcohol billboards. At the same time Reverend Calvin Butts and others from Harlem were painting billboards white to erase images that make drugs alluring to a young crowd. They knew how cigarette companies get into minority neighborhoods and push a poisonous, legal product to an audience that will probably get hooked. It isn't a racism issue to them. It's a natural market. They know chances are communities like those--which have enough problems--are not going to have the political model to stop the company.
Lisa Prothers: Now that the FCC has imposed regulations on the tobacco industry and state and private clients are seeking compensation for medical costs, you hear repetitions of ideas expressed in billboard alterations: tobacco companies lie, they market to kids. Have alterations helped these ideas become current?
PC: I don't know. We used to deface a lot of tobacco ads in Alphabet City. Tobacco companies got tired of their ads being altered to the point where they don't use that space anymore. Maybe they realized it was a waste of money. If it works at that level I don't see why there isn't a connection with the decision.
Cicada has moved from jamming tobacco and alcohol ads to any ad we consider detrimental to society. We have to convey that there are more important things than making a profit. How advertising has worked here will be exported to places like China - the dream market for an auto company like GM. In this country we have more cars than people. Advertising will convince every man in China he can have that. It isn't sustainable. The economy will collapse. How can you produce that many cars and not think we're going to pollute the entire planet?
LP: Do you think of billboard alteration as working to break down the outdoor advertising industry? Is that a goal you have in mind?
PC: Advertising is not just about manipulating people anymore. It's about taking over their major environment. I wish billboards would somehow disappear. I don't think that's going to happen.
LP: What are some issues that need to be addressed by those interested in culture jamming?
PC: Jorge [a founding member of Artfux] doesn't alter billboards anymore. He thinks no matter what you're trying to do you're pushing the product, which in a way is true. One thing people should keep in mind when they're jamming ads is to avoid creating product recognition. Jamming works at the same level as advertising. Associating a product with something that causes fascination or curiosity can be dangerous. If you create product recognition, connect it to a message educating people about that product or company. Destruction of the Amazon rainforest would be an image to associate with McDonalds that people would find negative. Or, [how] McDonalds is taking over the [primary school] library, providing books and instruments that used to come from the government.
LP: You got involved with culture jamming as Artfux's filmmaker - as a witness. How did you get drawn into things in a different way?
PC: I didn't feel behind the camera trying to document it. Because of friendship with Artfux and Ron English - the energy they brought to it, what they believed - I had the knowledge of doing it myself. When you do it [billboard alteration] there's definitely an adrenaline rush. If you can provide a forum for an issue to be seen by other people it becomes a powerful weapon. It's exciting to have people coming to me saying, "I think we have a big issue with sexism. I wondered if you could do something or teach us how to do some billboards." People who want to change the way the environment looks or how they're being influenced by it are willing to take the risk. You get to teenagers or people in the twenties. I don't believe in revolution as much as being radical. When I think about revolution I think about civil war, which will never happen in America. We're living in an age when people want to be comfortable. If something that doesn't make them comfortable interests them they will become radical. I see something like a women's movement and people in that movement being radical in their beliefs, which will challenge people with other views. By changing views they change policies. ACT-UP was able to change the way people view people with AIDS and HIV. They still have a long way to go.
LP: Culture jammers and groups like ACT-UP offer some possibilities through their efforts to become media savvy. But there is the problem of what media will not cover. Many media-ready spectacles and actions don't get visibility. PR efforts--documentaries, the website, press contacts--seem crucial to Cicada.
PC: Our purpose is not only culture jamming within a local space. We use the Internet to reach a broader audience. We have also learned to be savvy in how we interact with the media: to phrase the issue in a way that addresses how we want it presented and anticipate how we might be manipulated. A typical example is what happened when Orlando contacted ABC about following the group as it defaced billboards. ABC was more interested in the fact that the police showed up and were going to arrest us. They were looking for the sensationalism of the story.
LP: Artfux was arrested in 1991. Could you tell that story?
PC: An outdoor [advertising company] noticed Artfux [written] on a billboard we were always defacing. They sued us for vandalism and defacing public property. Jersey Journal did a story almost daily and Orlando's brother was on the New Jersey Supreme Court. This had an influence. Not only did they drop the charges they gave a billboard space to Artfux and said: "Do whatever you want. Just let us know what issues you're going to choose." We contacted an AIDS organization and executed their message. Although it was controversial they didn't do anything. It was in their favor because it gave them an image of being responsible.
LP: Gannett got a good deal of exposure, as if they were able to supply a press release influential to the news stories. It's hard to weigh that kind of "gift." They used it as a media strategy to control the perception of outdoor advertising as something that does damage to a public.
PC: There couldn't have been a better way of walking away from that situation.
LP: If billboard alteration is illegal how do you justify it?
PC: Many people have argued, particularly corporations we attack, that we're infringing their first amendment rights, their right to advertise however they want. They have the right to express themselves. But it's my human right to deface a message if it's a false statement or for a product that's bad for the community. Even though I'm not paying for the space I have the right to change it.
LP: How is your group treated by other activist organizations?
PC: Cicada was invited to participate at the second Media & Democracy Congress in New York. As part of our solidarity, we decided to deface one of those obnoxious ABC billboards ["Comedy night. Not to be confused with Meatloaf Night"]. I saw a bumper sticker from Free TV America ["Surgoen Generel's Warning: Telivison Promots Iliteracy"] and called to say I would like to paste it on an ABC billboard. The man said, "Send me a package about what you do." Later he said, "I showed your stuff to my lawyer. He freaked out. He said there's no way you guys can do that. But this is not copyrighted so if you want to use it there's nothing to stop you."
LP: The same division is subtly managed by Adbusters: in the relationship between the magazine's reproductions and sponsorship of relatively safe ad "spoofs" or "parodies," and its rarer documentation of the more legally precarious tactic of billboard alteration. "Legitimate" organizations will appropriate spoofing and its symbolic strategies for public service ads. But the spoofs and the more mainstreamed aspects of their discourses still bear a relationship to billboard alterations, which are their underground.
PC: Yes. As ad agencies appropriate techniques previously harbored by anti-advertising groups across North America, Madison Avenue is discovering that advertising can be critical of the medium--or at least spoof it. To reach jaded consumers, they've found themselves giving green lights to ads that don't take advertising too seriously. It's a way of making people double take and adding humor to something that was boring. They're connecting humor to another thing--at least we're telling you the truth, even if it's an ugly one--and getting people to buy the product.
LP: Culture jamming is an anti-consumerist movement articulating a critique of corporate and media power. That's obviously about public access. But once people decide to take on the responsibility of educating the public they assume a power position where they claim to speak for the public. What do you make of that?
PC: Adbusters has been criticized many times. They feel they took on this authority, speaking for the public through the magazine and un-commercials. They think they're the only magazine dealing with the anti-consumerism mentality, the only game in town. All I'm trying to do is educate the audience without being didactic. Once you identify and find an audience willing to work with an issue, cater to their needs. Pass the torch instead of trying to be an authority. A lot of particularly young people want to do this. So I say, "Let's do it together and then you can form your own group." It empowers those people and brings freshness to it. That's what Adbusters should do at this point.
LP: On one hand, Adbusters says it can act as a network for culture jammers and other trends clustered around that. A lot of people try to contact them, but there are only a few other personalities in the house. They have low or non-paid workers and don't have the ability to mobilize what it is that identifies with them. On the other hand, Adbusters doesn't appear to offer much resistance to the media's tendency to make it token for a dispersed subculture. I talked to Kalle Lasn about setting up a database of different groups that work together, to get an overview of who is culture jamming. He said the Media Foundation's attitude towards people who communicate with it has to do with how they interact with the products they provide. They have a list of subscribers and different levels of people who have that relationship with them. It brings you back to the need to produce profit that we all have. They have a particular business and how does that affect what they provide? People expect them to offer something other than they can, given the structure they have. And on Adbusters' listserv there isn't a lot of distinction about people's politics or reasons.
PC: That would be an interesting thing to write about. What is the difference? What motivates these groups to connect? There is that piece by Mark Dery.
LP: Dery's manifesto has helped popularize culture jamming by theorizing it, naming tactics and areas of practice, and contextualizing it among specific groups. But under the name of culture jamming, things get blurred. Dery's essay gets cited as an endpoint. No one has substantially built on it.
PC: That's the reason why culture jamming hasn't become that popular, why nobody has written about it: trying to bring all of these things together and then focus on each one at a time. There are a lot of groups out there we don't know anything about, some really good stuff, infinite possibilities.
Lisa Prothers is a doctoral candidate in English Studies at Illinois State University. She is currently writing a dissertation on billboard alteration and collaborating with Pedro Carvajal on the documentary, Camels, Cowboys and Public Intellectuals. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cicada's website is at http://www.escape.com/~cicada.