When the mainstream cultural narrative is dubious, dim-witted, tiresome or downright disturbing, as often is the case, don’t despair. Change the script. Act up. Act out. Disrupt, subvert, humour, and pervert the course by any means necessary. You may save yourself and others from the slow grip of insanity or much worse, the acceptance of said affairs, or heaven forbid, apathy.
Some like to call it culture jamming; others call it activism; some even look upon it as simply poking fun at the ridiculous. No matter what your motivation or persuasion, the general notion is to disrupt, subvert or “improve” the dominant narrative (provided by mass media, cultural institutions, corporations, politics, the rich, the powerful) with new content, subtext, critique, and satire.
Lodown reached out to Jack Napier, co-founder of Billboard Liberation Front (BLF) and Käthe Kollwitz, co-founder and active member of Guerrilla Girls, both integral operatives of two long-running collectives who have achieved considerable reach and impact with their efforts. Interestingly, both rate humour over moralizing rants as the way to win people’s favour. Here is what they have to say.
BILLBOARD LIBERATION FRONT
“He who controls the Ad speaks with the voice of our Age.” Jack Napier, John Thomas BLF
The now disbanded Billboard Liberation Front was a collective of urban explorers well versed in the art of billboard modification. For 34 years BLF worked on “actively improving drive by advertising”. The group’s ideologies and motivations reflected its diverse and shifting membership. While some members of the group claimed that “advertising is theft”, an infringement on human consciousness. BLF’s general position was not anti-advertising per se, just anti bad, unimaginative, and misleading copy. Humour underlined all BLF “improvements” and ninja operations.
Jack, what was the catalyst behind the group’s formation?
The Suicide Club was the catalyst and the predecessor organization. The Club motto was a secretive urban adventures and pranks group. “Live each day as though it was your last.” was the motto and basic philosophy. Many individuals and groups in San Francisco were inspired by it, people and groups that later defined San Francisco’s underground scene. Based originally on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson entitled The Suicide Club, the main premise of the group was that any member could organize almost any idea or fantasy that inspired them as an “event”. Club members would then “vote with their feet” attending and participating (or not).
Some adventures proved quite popular, some were poorly attended, some dangerous, many educational, others silly; more than a few proved to be ethereal and, on occasion, sublime. Some of these “events” included urban climbing; live action games, costumed role playing games, explorations of weird urban, suburban or rural sites or attractions, infiltrations of cults, political groups and/or social organizations, walking tours, media pranks, literary salons, etc.
The Billboard Liberation was taken from an idea that Suicide Club founders Gary Warne & Adrienne Burk made into an “event” that was listed in the Club newsletter in September of 1977.
My first experience altering billboards was on a Suicide Club event entitled “Enter the Unknown”. Attendees were blindfolded and taken to an industrial rooftop alongside a freeway in San Francisco. Gary Warne and Adrienne brought along paper, paint, glue and other supplies necessary to make large lettering. We, the 24 recently un-blindfolded players then voted on how to alter the two roof mounted Max Factor billboards in front of us. The old caption read: “Warning, a pretty face isn’t safe in this city. Fight back with Self Defense, the new moisturizer by Max Factor.” After the Suicide Club completed its midnight editing, one board read: “Fight crap with Self Respect,” and the other board, more to my personal taste, had been improved to read: “Fight back with Self Abuse, the new mutilator: Ax Factor.” David T. Warren (another of the Suicide Club founders) and “Simon Wagstaffe” were also on this event. We were inspired to start a group that only did billboard “improvements”.
What was the crux of your mission?
Our mission, since the group’s inception in 1977 has been to creatively improve the state of outdoor advertising and, by example, encourage other midnight advertisers to improve their efforts in this field. The BLF always seemed to attract inquiries as to our motivations; how we see our place (if any) in relation to various art “movements”; why we “hate” and want to attack advertisers and corporations.
Firstly, our little group has had well over two hundred people involved since its inception. Every single one of them is an individual with very individual beliefs, opinions and politics. Motivations in this ongoing parade of lunatics, anarchists and Republicans are typically in the direction of the refrigerator and the next can o’ beer. Specific billboard improvements are generally chosen contingent upon caprice and serendipity. Of course, it’s also necessary for the idea person to coerce, cajole, plead, threaten, and do whatever else it takes to motivate the rest of us to tear ourselves away from our favourite computer games and TV shows long enough to plan and execute a successful “hit”.
Secondly, we are not part of a movement unless it be as Blank DeCoverly so evocatively put it: “that most truly democratic of all human fellowships: The Bowel Movement.” We are certainly aware of many of the fine artistic cabals of the Twentieth Century. My associates doubtlessly hold a variety of opinions about these groups and the many individuals that comprised them.
Was it your intention to disrupt or subvert?
I can only speak for myself. The BLF eschewed obvious politics in our work, and individual members were very diverse in their personal politics. Personally, my intentions were (and largely remain) to climb around at night on buildings and structures that are forbidden, with good faithful, intelligent, and intrepid comrades, playing at being “ninjas”. With five dollars worth of materials we could completely change the meaning of million dollar advertising campaigns, making fun of the often nasty corporations that control so much of the mental landscape.
Why is culture jamming imperative?
I don’t know that “Culture Jamming” is imperative. “Culture Jamming” is a slogan. It is a slogan that was first used by the marvellous sound collage group NegativLand. Later AdBusters Corporation began to use the slogan to advertise their magazine and their anti-commerce products and foundation. The BLF used slogans as propaganda through the process of pranking corporations. We never ever took our slogans seriously. While “Culture Jamming” is far from imperative in my mind, what IS imperative is playing hard and true with good friends and comrades and ALWAYS determining just what the control sectors and “bosses” want or demand that you do and saying fuck that and doing what YOU want to do. Here’s a slogan for you that I came up with a couple of years ago: “FIND OUT WHAT YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO DO AND THEN DO SOMETHING ELSE.”
What was your best weapon?
And how did you achieve the biggest impact/best results?
“Simon Wagstaffe” (nomme de guere) was a journalist and suggested to me during our first official BLF action in December 1977 that we prepare and deliver press releases immediately after we finished the nine billboards on our list. At that early time you had to hand deliver paper press releases in an envelope immediately if you wanted press attention. There were several billboard hacking groups and individuals in the San Francisco area at that time, some that were as funny and prolific as the BLF. We got international press attention almost immediately because of our press releases. A local paper printed a picture and a lot of copy that Simon gave them that was mostly made up bullshit! They printed it with statements like this: “the BLF has 300 members” and “most members are advertising executives”!! I couldn’t believe it. I learned right then at such a young age to NEVER believe anything in the press!
Do you consider your work vandalism?
Absolutely not. The BLF improves existing advertising. We are a free service to the corporations and their amateurish advertising agencies. We go to great pains to not damage the existing billboard surfaces and structures.
What was your most memorable hit/intervention/campaign?
The two most elaborate “hits” or “improvements” as we call them were the Joe Camel and the Ronald McDonald campaigns. I guess my personal favourite was Ronald. We worked closely with my old pal, world-renowned painter and prankster Ron English. He and I were talking about the upcoming 50th anniversary of McDonald’s Corporation and realized we simply had to do SOMETHING to celebrate. In the course of our conversations, we realized that as young boys (Ron and I are the same age) we were both enamoured of a Twilight Zone TV episode called To Serve Man. In the show, a very advanced alien species comes to Earth and seems to be very benevolent and interested in “helping” mankind to a calmer and more productive existence than was common throughout our millennia of warfare, oppression, starvation, class inequality, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Many people are relieved and thankful for the positive if controlling presence of the powerful aliens. They begin transporting thousands of people to their home planet ostensibly for the humans to view their advances, culture, and infrastructure in order to return to Earth and use this information to better humankind. One scientist however, is suspicious after a few weeks have gone by and none of the people have returned yet. Many of the aliens carry around a large book with them at all times, consulting it periodically. The scientist steals one of these books and manages to translate enough of it from the alien language to realize it’s a cookbook and that humans are on the menu!
With this wonderful TV episode as an inspiration, we came up with the story idea that McDonalds Corporation was in fact started by aliens “set loose” on Earth with the directive to grow exponentially while serving food that was cheap and very attractive to humans because of high fat, sugar, and salt content. After decades, most humans would have eaten enough McDonalds to have intrinsically changed their body chemistry making them more tasty to their alien overlords. Then 50 years to the month after starting the self replicating McDonald’s process, the aliens would return to Earth to start harvesting their “crop”. Ron painted a wonderful fat alien facing a fat Ronald over the phrase “TO SERVE MAN.” Ron’s wife Tarssa and several of my friends made around 30 Ronald McDonald costumes & several “Hamburglar” ones as well. BLF made a seven-foot tall animatronic Ronald figure and a fat kid on his knees. We installed these two figures on the billboard structure with the Ronald electrically controlled to move his arm holding a giant hamburger and shoving it repeatedly into the kid’s mouth. The entire episode was a large-scale theatre piece that took place in broad daylight in a supermarket parking lot two blocks from the neighbourhood police department. About 20-30 of our friends sat across the street on a park lawn picnicking and watching the whole process. After finishing the billboard, Ron and I along with our two helpers drove away in our support van, parked and put on our own Ronald costumes and make-up joining the other thirty McDonalds clowns on the street. As a finale, all of the Ronalds went into the McDonalds restaurant that was across the street from the billboard and tried to collectively buy ONE PACKAGE OF FRENCH FRIED POTATOES. Between the thirty clowns, we could not collect enough money (around $2.50) to buy the one package. By this time the police had arrived and threw all of us out of the restaurant. Shortly after, the police “arrested” the Ronald and fat kid mannequins.
What’s next? As a “retired” adman, do you have any new pranks/mayhem up your sleeves? Are there any new frontiers that require urgent attention?
I spend much of my creative energy and time nowadays involved in Urban Exploration expeditions with different established UE groups and individuals. I fell in love with UE as a young man in the Suicide Club and have returned to the comforting and mysterious world several times over the decades. Most of those involved in this wonderful pastime are much younger than I am and allow me to accompany them in their secret adventures as long as I don’t slow them down too much! Fortunately, I am very fit and healthy for my age.
And lastly, please put each word into a sentence:
Apathy is a useless emotion employed by callow youth (who if they are lucky outgrow it) and by dissolute and cowardly old people. It is to be avoided.
Why bother with resistance when you can simply do what you want while mocking and parodying the venal and petty ruling class(es)?
The future cannot be avoided, so why not enjoy it?
1985 – present
The Guerrilla Girls is a collective of feminist art activists who for 30 plus years have called out the art world, among others, for their bias, inequality, and lack of diversity. Their premise is, if you only promote the work of successful white men then you aren’t revealing the full picture of the diverse nature and history of art and culture, but are merely perpetuating the narrative of wealth, power, and popularity. A spelling mistake led to the idea to don gorilla masks for anonymity, which has worked wonders for keeping their personality, race, age, and appearance from diluting the issues. They offset high moral ground with humour, the gorilla masks, and advertising slick. Their works of art (wheat-paste posters, billboards, guerrilla projections, campaigns) are bright and bold, text-based works that spin statistical data and facts rather than runaway emotions. For the simple fact that it is harder for people to dismiss facts than it is to dismiss someone ranting and raving. They work internationally within galleries and art institutions, which they happily critique in the process, and outside in the streets.
Käthe, what was the catalyst behind the group’s formation?
In 1985, we got the idea to put up two posters on the streets of NY about the state of marginalized artists in the New York Art world. It wasn’t a pretty picture. But we had a new idea about how to construct political art — to twist an issue around and present it in a way that hadn’t been seen before. The Guerrilla Girls were born — an anonymous bunch of artists who wear gorilla masks in public and take the names of dead artists as pseudonyms. We use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose bias and corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture. We are intersectional feminists who fight for human rights for all people and all genders — and against ethnic and gender stereotypes, homophobia, trans-phobia, war, and income inequality. No one is free until everyone is free.
Since then, we have done hundreds of projects (posters, actions, books, videos, stickers) all over the world, as well as interventions and exhibitions inside museums, blasting them on their own walls for their discriminatory practices. We also do talks, and workshops where we help others craft their own activist campaigns.
What is the crux of your mission?
The world of artists is great but the art system sucks. We reveal the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.
Is it your intention to disrupt or subvert?
Why is culture jamming imperative?
Because the super-rich are controlling culture and politics today — and the rest of us have to speak up.
What strategies/tactics do you employ?
We don’t do political art that just points to something and says, “This is bad.” We try to twist an issue around and present it in a way that hasn’t been seen before, using facts, humour, and outrageous visuals, in the hope of changing people’s minds.
What is your best weapon?
Our sense of humour.
And how do you achieve the biggest impact/best results?
By doing one thing after another. Over time it all adds up.
Do you consider your work vandalism?
We consider it street enhancement.
What was your most memorable hit/intervention/campaign?
Probably our poster Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum? We always try to do something unforgettable. After seeing our Naked poster, you will never go to a museum without counting how many women artists are on the walls.
Why the need for guerrilla tactics and anonymity (and gorilla masks)?
We decided to be anonymous to keep the focus on the issues, not who any of us might be. It’s one of the secrets of our success.
Why do you choose independence over being represented by a gallery?
We have no interest in being part of the fancy art market. Our posters cost so little that galleries have no interest in us either.
More creative complaining. The Guerrilla Girls are doing over 30 street projects and museum exhibitions in 2017-18. This fall, we’re invading the streets of New York, creating interactive projects in Quito and Sorocaba, Brazil, and having a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Art Sao Paolo.
And lastly, please put each word in a sentence:
Apathy is being afraid that you can’t change everything. We say, don’t even think about that. Just do one thing. If it works, do another. If it doesn’t, do another anyway.
Resistance is key.
The future will only be better only if we keep fighting for more human rights for everyone now.
Words / Amber Grünhäuser
Photos / courtesy of Billboard Liberation Front (“Joe Camel” photos by Nicole Rosenthal and “Ronald McDonald” photos by Mark Pauline or Scott Beale) and Guerrilla Girls