Infringement festival Ministry of Culture-Jamming
The Ministry of Culture-Jamming welcomes critical artists, theatre activists, and concerned citizens to join in jamming the corporate monoculture and other oppressive structures.
Leading up to the festival, The Ministry of Culture-Jamming meets every Monday night at 9pm at BAR BIFTECK (3702 St. Laurent) for an informal celebration involving strategizing and discussion. EVERYONE is welcome to participate!
By learning about culture-jamming you will discover excellent techniques to enhance activism, as well as find ways in which you can make the arts more potent on cultural, structural, and political levels.
If you think you might want to join in this collaborative process, throw your ideas into the mix, stage cultural interventions, and network with like-minded people, read on!
What is Culture-Jamming?
Culture-Jamming is an international movement that was unleashed in the 1990s as a subversive response to the corporate monoculture and its uni-directional information flow (also known as "The Spectacle"). According to Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia, Culture jamming:
…is the act of using existing mass media to comment on those very media themselves, using the original medium's communication method. It is based on the idea that advertising is little more than propaganda for established interests, and that there is little escape from this propaganda in industrialized nations. Culture jamming differs from artistic appropriation (which is done for art's sake), and from vandalism where destruction or defacement is the primary goal. The word, "culture jamming" comes from the idea of radio jamming: that public frequencies can be pirated and subverted for independent communication, or to disrupt dominant frequencies. The Situationist International first made the comparison to radio jamming in 1968, when it proposed the use of guerrilla communication within mass media to disseminate confusion within hegemonic cultural discourse. Culture jamming is a form of activism and a resistance movement to the hegemony of popular culture, based on the ideas of "guerrilla communication" and the "detournement" of popular icons and ideas…Forms of culture jamming include adbusting, performance art, graffiti art and hacktivism (notably cyber squatting).
Culture jammers borrow liberally from the avant-garde movements of the past - from Dada and Surrealism to the Situationists, but the emphasis of today's culture jammers is mostly to hack into corporate advertising and other avenues of corporate speech. The ultimate goal of a culture-jam is to radically challenge standard interpretations of corporate representation, and hence norms of behaviour; done by metaphorically throwing a wrench into the officially sanctioned "culture" of the Spectacle. Naomi Klein suggests:
The most sophisticated culture jams are not stand-alone ad parodies but interceptions - counter-messages that hack into a corporation's own method of communication to send a message starkly at odds with the one that was intended. The process forces the company to foot the bill for its own subversion, either literally, because the company is the one that paid for the billboard, or figuratively, because anytime people mess with a logo, they are tapping into vast resources spent to make that logo meaningful. (281)
A good jam, according to Klein "is an X-ray of the subconscious of a campaign, uncovering not an opposite meaning but the deeper truth hiding behind the layers of advertising euphemisms" (281-282). Culture jamming can be seen as a sort of "semiotic jujitsu" - media power is used against itself; a radical deconstruction of corporate memes is carried out, exposing the system as illusory and oppressive. Semiotics, as used by culture jammers, it is an essential tool in the all-important undertaking of making sense of the world, its networks of power, the encoded messages that flicker ceaselessly along its communication channels. The movement is loose, informal, and growing quickly. According to Kalle Lasn, and one of the planet's most recognized jammers, membership in the movement is diverse:
We're a loose global network of media activists who see ourselves as the advance shock troops of the most significant social movement of the next twenty years. Our aim is to topple existing power structures and forge major adjustments to the way we will live in the twenty-first century. We believe culture jamming will become to our era what civil rights was to the '60s, what feminism was to the '70s, what environmental activism was to the '80s. It will alter the way we live and think. It will change the way information flows, the way institutions wield power, the way TV stations are run, the way the food, fashion, automobile, sports, music and culture industries set their agendas. Above all, it will change the way we interact with the mass media and the way in which meaning is produced in our society. We are a very diverse tribe. Our people range from born-again Lefties to Green entrepreneurs to fundamentalist Christians who don't like what television is doing to their kids; from punk anarchists to communications professors to advertising executives searching for a new role in life. (adbusters.org)
Culture-jamming for many is an entire way of living. Its advocates generally reject the notion of the citizen as merely consumer, and the idea of society as only marketplace. The culture-jammer approach to life questions the underlying social relations which govern the place of media (and by extension, capital) in our culture and society. According to Dery:
Part artistic terrorists, part vernacular critics, culture jammers…introduce noise into the signal as it passes from transmitter to receiver, encouraging idiosyncratic, unintended interpretations. Intruding on the intruders, they invest ads, newscasts, and other media artifacts with subversive meanings; simultaneously, they decrypt them, rendering their seductions impotent. Jammers offer irrefutable evidence that the right has no copyright on war waged with incantations and simulations. And… they refuse the role of passive shoppers, renewing the notion of a public discourse.
Culture-jamming strategies are also all about self-empowerment. They embrace self-publishing in all its forms: self-made 'zines, techno music done by teenagers in bedrooms, personal web site production, graffiti, hacking, billboard alteration and other forms of popular media resistance to the mainstream can reside under the broad banner of culture-jamming. Jamming is also all about interconnectedness and collaboration in non-corporate settings; a growing creative movement is emerging which identifies with open systems of all kinds. The rise of the Linux computer operating system and IndyMedia publishing empire are good examples; constructed as alternatives to corporate systems, they are free and available to anyone. "Shareware" culture of this type reflects a broader sense in the community that ideas, like software, music or a good joke, are there to be shared, circulated and made available. Hirsch suggests:
…culture jamming is about exerting your democratic and human rights by reclaiming the airwaves, taking back the ability to communicate with other people. culture jamming is a tactical and strategic approach to progressive change. it is about the synthesis of culture and politics, the combination of love and rage. it represents a new environmentalism, a new holism, that incorporates our immediate realities and environments into the struggle for equality, social justice, and democracy.
Furthermore, culture-jamming can also be used as a way to strengthen awareness about the Spectacle, and ultimately to act as a filter for the deceptive and depoliticising corporate media representations that bombard us on a daily basis. Mizrach believes:
Culture jamming is more than just a clever game. In an era in which conspicuous consumption is slowly eating up the entire planet, it may just be the key to survival itself. We may not be able to stop the signal at its source, but at least we can jam its reception. The point is to awaken people to their media-controlled life, to stop and notice the signal and noise that is their mental environment.
In many ways, jamming can be seen as a self-initiated deprogramming effort, metaphorically not dissimilar to debugging a computer of the malicious viruses that prevent it from functioning properly. By setting up a sort of "firewall" against corporate spam and messages, we can protect our mental environment from all the pollution that poisons our minds, depoliticizes and dragoons us. On a grander level, culture-jammers are aiming at a complete détournement of the consumer-capitalist society. Disillusioned with all the empty glitz and glitter of the corporate image-making machine, Lasn believes that the time has come to toss out the old and bring in the new, the "new American dream", that is:
One of the great secrets of demarketing the American Dream is détourning it, in the public imagination, with a dream that's even more seductive. What's better than being rich? Being spontaneous, authentic, alive. The new American dream is simply to approach life full-on, without undue fear of crippling self-censorship, pursuing joy and novelty as if tomorrow you'll be in the ground, The Situationists called this impulse "the will to playful creation," and they believed it should be extended "to all know forms of human relationships." There's no one more alive than the person who is openly, freely, improvising…There's no other way to discover what's at your core. This is what the new American dream is all about, and this is the kind of person the culture jammer aspires to be: someone who, to paraphrase Ray Bradbury, "jumps off cliffs and builds his wings on the way down." (1991:168-169)
Lasn maps the route towards this seemingly impossible goal, describing the concerted and sustained actions of jammers as a massive détournment-in-process, otherwise known as "Uncooling the Spectacle":
Using a methodical, systematic, social…campaign, we start at the personal level and grow in scope. We begin by demarketing our bodies, our minds, our children. Then we join like-minded jammers to demarket whole systems. We go after chief social and cultural rituals, now warped beyond recognition by commercial forces, and try to restore their original authenticity. We reverse the cycle. We demarket our news, our entertainments, our lifestyles and desires - and, eventually, maybe even our dreams. (199: 181 - 183)
Is Culture-Jamming Theatre?
It depends on how you apply it and who you ask. While the terms "revolutionary" and "radical" theatre are tossed around loosely, encompassing many types of political theatre that depart from the traditional (eg: Brecht, Boal, Dario Fo), its overall aim is well-summarized in Toni Sant's online Applied and Interactive Theatre Guide:
Radical theatre aims to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions. Throughout the 20th-Century, avant-garde theatre has been concerned with politics or activism in one way or another. From the actions of the Futurist Movement through to the groundswell in political theatre after the 1960s, radical thought has always been applied to theatrical forms. Over the past four decades, activist groups have used ritual concepts, often including participation of the spectator, taken to the streets, and organized festivals and spectacles presenting ideas marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional.
In a nutshell, culture-jamming is a sort of meta-theatre (between the corporate Spectacle and anti-oppressive players). Culture-jamming is certainly revolutionary and theatrical in nature, however not all acts of culture-jamming involve overt performance. A billboard liberator, zine artist, or hacktivist is not necessarily creating and playing a character, but rather focuses on challenging oppressive systems and détourning their representations. However, there are some culture-jammers who place theatrical performance as central to any cultural intervention; going beyond only jamming images and representations, they insist on jamming both everyday life and specific oppressive social realities. Creating their own characters, they temporarily transform oppressive spaces (eg: shopping malls, corporate headquarters, military bases, universities) into reflective meta-theatrical performances. One fine example of performative culture-jamming is the theatrical antics of New York-based theatrician Bill Talen, known in-role as the "Reverend Billy". Tracing Mayor Giuliani's campaign to "clean up New York City" with a series of draconian measures intended to displace those deemed "undesirable", Talen believes:
When the sidewalks were cleansed of the "characters" who supposedly unnerved the tourists, the big Broadway houses were cleansed as well. No one caught on that the theater indoors was related to the theater outdoors…The streets evolved into the hallways of a mall, overpoliced, oversurveilled, and bland with visitors from outer Paramus. This could be called Consumer Theater, whose leading actors perform on the shoulders of Diane Sawyer or Bryant Gumbel, while those in the chorus jump up and down waving to their grandmothers in Dubuque. You couldn't have in that shot, for example, a middle-aged black man monologuing to no particular audience. Arrest those characters before they get in the frame - that was the point. Now the lights of Broadway shine for shows that are nothing but long commercial breaks…Broadway is a single show now. It's called Consumed! The critics love it. Here's the plot: Life is dramatized as nothing but a commercial break between the unknown before you're born and the death after you've spent it all. (2003: 31-32)
Disillusioned with the "Disneyfication" of Times Square and Broadway (both considered symptoms of consumerism gone too far), Talen created his character to culture-jam the recently-gentrified area, and by extension to theatrically challenge consumer-capitalism itself. In the spitting image of a fire-and-brimstone Vegas-style preacher (complete with collar, white jacket, and passionate fervour), Reverend Billy is known to dramatically barge into any number of monocultural corporate institutions (eg: The Disney Store, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, etc.) in order to conduct theatrical anti-shopping sermons. As the charismatic leader of the "Church of Stop Shopping", he is often accompanied by a "Stop Shopping Gospel Choir" and a host of other theatricians playing various roles invisibly, such as on cellphones. The performance disrupts the carefully stage-managed consumerist mecca, thrusting counter-hegemonic topics (eg: "Disney exploits children in third world sweatshops to manufacture overpriced toys") into the otherwise bland and hegemonic consumer-oriented discourse (eg: "Oh! Little Karla absolutely needs that $95 Mickey Mouse doll!"). Counter-hegemonic playing meets hegemonic being. In a Starbucks coffee shop at the newly-gentrified Astor Place in New York, the former site of a family business that was coercively evicted from their location by Starbucks' lawyers, the Reverend, with a host of characters (choir singers, deacons, invisible theatre, etc.) sermonizes to stunned coffee-drinkers:
"I COME BEARING GLAD TIDINGS: YOU ARE NOT REALLY BUCKHEADS! YOU'RE JUST IN HELL, THAT'S ALL - Hell defined as sitting here fibrillating on minor drugs surrounded by fake avant-garde wallpaper: Is there anyone here, children, is there anyone here who is not SICK TO DEATH OF GOOD GRAPHICS? …Where is Starbucks? IT'S NO PLACE. In fact, we are tourists in our own lives, there's a disconnect. Our words have a barely discernible echo. We have the same relation to living real lives that these art-school Starbucks graphics have to the real artists who lived on this street. WE'RE IN THE FAKE CAFE, AND WE CAN'T KNOW THE REAL COST OF THAT LATTE!" (14)
The Reverend Billy character Talen brings to the setting has the effect of challenging the carefully sculpted "reality" associated with the Starbuck's brand image. The reaction, as usual, is swift:
Now the manager's lip's are spraying spit in my ear as he mouths, "Police!" The congregation before me is dividing into several camps: There are the unrepentant sinners who frown and concentrate hard on their Frappuccinos, there are the loving-this people who clap along with the choir, the ubiquitous cellphoners who turn away to face the wall. Then there are those for whom we are New York characters to be captured on their tourist cameras, and a more sinister group who are also, recording us on film - the corporate executives who will view the surveillance tapes at Starbucks' Seattle HQ. The manager has turned up the volume of the Muzak machine. But that's naive, I'm loud. The choir is irresistible. We are ripping open this thick, gauzy mood. Who and what is this preacher? …"Now, let's talk. Children, I live here. Can I talk to you without a corporation's mediation for just a moment? Let's make a decision. Do we want to cooperate with them?" I decide to keep moving, following the deacons who are handing out the flyers. I channel the flyer, I sing the flyer electric: "Starbucks has a long history of buying coffee from plantations where they employ families at slave wages, where the monoculture-and-pesticides approach to raising coffee has replaced shade-growth biodiverse farming… then they add unhealthy genetically altered milk...Howard Schultz…nearing his first billion… has used prison labor to package Starbucks products...surveilling labor reps at the roasting plants. . ." (14-15)
The performance of the Reverend Billy, a fine example of the "Fool's show", raises awareness about unethical business practices, thereby causing brand damage and cutting into Starbucks' profit margin. In this way the Spectacle is deflated a little bit more. With the Spectacle radically challenged, Talen takes inventory as to the reaction:
There is a part of my mind that is watching the coffee drinkers at their little circular tables, mostly those aforementioned Sunday couples, although there are also one or two families with children and strollers, waiting for the wild church to blow over. I don't preach over them. I try to look into everyone's eyes and sometimes it becomes all one eye. A vortex of witnessing and weighing the meaning that they are building in themselves - my argument that we are sitting in a financial bubble that has hurt people who are not here. Once again, the people who are not here. The choir is filing out past the mermaid [logo], back out to the street, singing and hip-rocking like a conga line, the Parisian camera people dancing with them. Vera is staring down the manager, and Tony is standing there like a football coach on the sidelines. And then suddenly several cops are walking towards me. (15-16)
It is an ending Bill Talen has played time and time again, with the good Reverend locked up in the "Tombs" - overcrowded apartheid-esque police cells infested with cockroaches - for the night (Talen, 2003). The performative quality of his jam raises the stakes considerably - instead of merely détourning a corporate representation, he is détorning an ongoing corporate performance. Re-appropriating this "ongoing-ness", the Reverend Billy is a sustained character that continues to be played to this day. In many ways culture-jamming through performance was forseen by 70's Canadian theatre activist Chris Brookes, who wrote in A Public Nuisance:
Just as time runs out for civilised man, time is running out for the theatre. Neither will survive without radical adjustment. It is no longer possible to politely impel a static audience to higher consciousness. What is required is a vibrant responsive theatre form that will spur a community's active development of its own new order. A form that demands reaction. If necessary out of self-preservation to protect themselves from a howling mass of theatricians about to knock inspiration down their throats. (241)
How does the infringement festival Ministry of Culture-Jamming work?
The Ministry of Culture-Jamming is like a cultural commando unit that closely follows cultural news and developments, in anticipation of conducting cultural interventions when necessary. For example, last year a "festival" sponsored by Molson invaded St. Laurent boulevard, ruining the street fair for many local citizens. The Ministry not only made official complaints, but also made attempts to expose the situation by making a video about the harmful effects of reality advertising. Another alternative might have been to demand to speak on the corporate stage, or to deploy a parade of street artists against their parade of corporate dancers. The sky is the limit.
What are the techniques of Culture-Jamming?
Here is a list of techniques that can prove to be useful when jamming:
1) Theatrical Actions
3) Media Actions
4) Electronic Actions
5) Activities & Events
6) Advanced Tactics
To learn more about these, join the Ministry of Culture-Jamming!