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Memory and Gentrification in the Sign Wars

Fortresses of privatised security and surveillance mushroom in areas that were once proud to include everybody in the civic spaces of their once much more democratic cities.

David Cox

I. Gentrify This!

While they are past-masters at re-doing seaports into shopping malls, Yuppies often want to rip down the magical relics of other eras, especially ones which represent something a bit 'low-brow' or 'old- school'. They tend to prefer more acceptably class-neutral nostalgic 'pasts', as these seem more in keeping with the broader agenda of regional 'development' (often with the backing of city councils) and long-term high-yield investment. All too often these latter ideas bring with them an element of social engineering; keeping out the undesirables, the undeserving poor, and other unsightly blights on the clean surfaces required by tourism, retail and real estate. There is the camera obscura behind the Cliff House near San Francisco. This beautiful camera-shaped building houses a camera obscura which lets those inside view the 360-degree panorama of the surrounding ocean. The camera obscura is true old school. It is a sacred relic of San Francisco's past fascinations for optics, a rich history including Eadweard Muybridge's photographic experiments that led eventually to the development of the motion picture camera and other innovations. The camera obscura had been targeted for demolition. Its biggest crime was that it was a form of popular roadside Americana that despite its history was essentially low-brow in its appeal. Developers wanted to build an upscale restaurant nearby, and they wanted to remove the camera obscura from view for their upscale clientele. Years of concerted protest led to the decision to list the structure as a historical site, immune from redevelopment. These places, up to the point where the developer's gaze transforms them, are museums and buildings that embody the popular memory. They are citadels of the public imagination. Every city is filled with them and everyone knows a special place where they live or where they grew up whose magical ability to act as backdrop to one's personal desire floats freely, defying the ability of planners to erase it. The 1950s and 60s political art movement known as the Situationist International called them 'ambient unities'. They were places that possessed a kind of special energy as well as an ability to act as a lively and promiscuous repository for notions of public and utopian shared space. This is the space of play, the space of desire, and the space where the hand of the 'Spectacle' does not, or cannot yet, reach.

The Situationist International found ambient unities in bus shelters, gardens, staircases and corners of Paris. They plotted them carefully on intricately cut-up maps of the city. They stuck the bits of map onto a larger surface and added cut-out pictures of 17th century warriors, then drew arrows to connect the ambient unities of the city. Soon the arrows pointed this way and that and it became clear which of the various parts of Paris were not yet gentrified- not yet taken over by the developers.

II. Every Sign a Detour Sign

The Situationist International in Europe in the early 1960s started to outline how the imaginary taking back of cities could occur. Today's 'reclaim the streets' movement is the direct descendant of this Situationist idea. Contemporary youth-led techno and Indy mediastyle protest culture and culture-jamming networks stage regular events to, at least, symbolically, take back parts of the city they see as falling victim to over-zealous commercial development. In order to reclaim a sense of ownership over the urban environment and its culture as theirs to inhabit, young people worldwide have decided to turn the tables on the contemporary corporate sector, using methods remarkably similar to those employed by the Situationists. The Situationists, led by Debord, employed techniques such as detournement, or the deliberate reworking of an advert or article for the purposes of turning it against itself. Comic strips had their 'speech balloon' contents replaced with Marxist commentary, anarchist yearnings, and appeals to a more utopian future.

Today's urban jammers are reworking billboards to make them read as something totally different to what the advertising company intended. Feature films, which win multiple awards and tour the world, are being made almost entirely out of old, cast-off 16mm training and educational reels. Satirical bands like Negativland are parodying the overfed lofty aloofness of super-bands like U2 by sampling bits of chart-topping mainstream songs, and despite the ensuing bitter and unfair legal battles, emerging as moral victors and champions of free speech.

Backed by arts organisations such as ®TMark, who structure themselves along the lines of legitimate stock exchange firms but who in fact bankroll corporate sabotage, culture jammers have gained momentum. The Barbie Liberation Organization was one group that gained economic support from ®TMark by switching the voice boxes of G.l. Joe (Action Man) dolls with those of Barbie dolls and replacing both Barbies and G. I. Joes on the toyshop shelf. But where is all this culture jammer energy coming from? Why now?

III. Yuppification: Theme-Parking the World Beyond Recognition

The Western world seems to have reached a frenzied fever pitch of commercialised banality. Shopping malls replace friendly downtown communities; fast food chains replace small business hamburger joints and fish and chipperies, and mom-and-pop style eating-houses. In the US, 'big box retail' Wal-Marts and Walgreen stores rob town centres of their soul. The corporations have long since replaced the government as the corruptors of the social fabric. Often with the full support of the conservative governments of the world, companies are finding it increasingly easy to occupy formerly public spaces and institutions. Corridor advertisements and ads over the public address systems are starting to appear in publicly-funded schools in America. These schools in return receive support from companies, who often then expect to be able to influence the curriculum itself in the form of casual in-class references to their products. More often than not, right-wing governments are more than happy to finance the corporatization of public life, while at the same time publicly vilifying the few publicly-minded institutions remaining. Private prisons swell with the incarcerated victims of the economic imbalance. The companies that operate these prisons boast of being able to provide the cheapest labour available to answer airline phone calls, telemarket, and to make everything from number plates to kitchen stools.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her extraordinary undercover investigative journal of life on the edge in the US, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, shows that underpaid, overworked, poverty-line retail and fast food workers are growing as a servile under-class. Paid as little as US$6 per hour, these workers cannot afford to shelter themselves. The middle-class people they serve, that is, those who can afford shelter, cars, and to support families, grow indifferent to the plight and welfare of the underclass around them. Fortresses of privatised security and surveillance mushroom in areas that were once proud to include everybody in the civic spaces of their once much more democratic cities.

David Cox is a filmmaker, artist, writer and teacher based in San Francisco. He is the author of Sign Wars (2010).

Copyright © David Cox. All rights reserved.