LSD Magazine interviews Billboard Liberation Front

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
Issue Seven – Made in Space
May 9th 2011

Dontcha just love it when monochromatic ideas are subsumed by kaleidoscopic shades of grey? Accepted counter-cultural wisdom would apparently have it that advertising is intrinsically corrupt, corporate, illegitimate and a searing indictment of our attitudes to social responsibility. And yet the Billboard Liberation Front, original hoarding pirates, scourge of the corporate ‘message’  since 1977 and one of the most influential forces on the understanding of modern street art, would argue a very different case. Advertising is not inherently wrong – in fact it’s intrinsic to human conceptions of identity and an ingrained social matrix since man began grunting seductively at a buxom cave-woman. To advertise is to human, and the real scandal is not the medium itself, but the corporate hijack of public space that should be everyone’s to advertise whatever they see fit, and the appalling waste of beauty and creativity poured into multinational beomoths convincing us that our lives are empty wastelands without their latest product. The BLF have generously and selflessly offered their talents to such corporations as a freelance improvement service where existing imagery is shot through a prism of twinkling honesty, ludicrous meaning is silkily prised away from the aesthetic and suddenly the glittering prides of urban place are set ablaze with the wry realism of conscious engagement. Pioneers of irony over the bully pulpit, a shadow corporation in their own right and dyed in the DIY head-space of positive activism, we caught up with CEO Jack Napier for a cosy neon-side chat.

On a chicken and egg note – do you think that overproduction drove advertising or vice versa

Depending on how you define it, I would argue that advertising is as old as human interaction itself. People have put up fronts when dealing with other people, socially, politically and economically, in order to achieve certain goals, since we were Neanderthals; I consider that to be advertising. A woman putting on makeup is advertising… the manner in which we carry ourselves, the way we dress, are all forms of advertising. I don’t see advertising as merely the bastard child of the industrial revolution.    I think it existed long before that.

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In light of what happened in Egypt, do you think we’re seeing a post ideological generational shift in attitudes to power and freedom, and the means to circumvent the tired, heavy handed control structures of the 20th century

It seems so, although I’m in my 6th decade and having seen a lot of things go very differently  from original assumptions about how they might go, I’m withholding judgement for 3 or 4 years to see how the Egyptian situation pans out, although it looks sorta positive so far. What’s happening there seems driven in large part both by technology and by an emerging class of young, educated people who see through the baloney and the sales pitch that claims their only options are a strong-arm dictator or a rabid Islamic republic. So I hope the rebellious youth of Egypt can bring something new to the equation: it doesn’t seem like the ruling cabals have total control.  Things have become more restrictive now than in the 70’s and 80’s but  still not completely rigid. The game’s not over and the “evil capitalist cabal” or whatever you want to call them certainly don’t control everything yet. But I’m no political scientist, I’m an outside observer.

I believe in small business capitalism which seems to work on a local level where you have individual owners, small companies and people who deal with one another on that level. The big stumbling block is gigantism when too much economic power is controlled by too few hands and I’m not sure how to keep that from happening other than education. That’s what happened in Egypt which is why the authorities weren’t able to squash the revolt immediately as they would have at any time in the last 30 years. More people are more educated and have a means to communicate provided, but not entirely controlled by the corporate plutocracy.

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Keeping people in fear is what the governments need to do in order to divide the populous and keep as much power as they can. The idea of the public having real democratic power is a terrifying concept to those with disproportionate ownership stakes in the economy. Mob rule can be catastrophic, looking back at history. It’s gone both ways in the past. The majority of people in Britain decided that slave trading on the high seas was morally unacceptable. It took them 100 years to force the issue, but finally the British navy started interdicting slave ships in international waters and were the main instrument that strangled the trade. That was a morally driven populist movement right there. It came from an extremely religious core, but you never know who your allies are going to be when trying to change things for the better.

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I feel that our role politically, socially – whatever label you put on it, is to use the tools of communication as they exist and hopefully inspire others to realise that they can do the same. If there is anything that the BLF has ever done that’s worth a shit it would be encouraging a 16 year old kid to say ‘Wow, that ad is talking to me way beyond the surface communication, there’s something behind that. What are they really trying to say to me’.

A good example of that would be ghetto kids back in the 80’s in America for whom owning a particular type of shoe was a major status symbol to the point at which they were killing one another for a pair of fucking shoes. However, if one of those kids were to understand where those shoes came from, how they were made, who was profiting from his desire to have those stupid things, if he really understood that whole chain of economic and political and social interchanges that put those shoes on the feet of his neighbor, the kid he’s going to knife to get them……if he understood that, then he and his buddies would get together, go to Westchester County and kill Nike’s corporate president. That’s knowledge, that’s understanding and that’s what people need. And that’s why the dynamic in Egypt is so interesting because you’ve got a preponderance of people who actually have an idea of what’s going on and they’re able to communicate despite the fear that those communication networks may be monitored or shut down.

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The rise of digital technology such as social networking sites and information sites like Wikileaks is a leveling mechanism where individuals acquire an enormous amount of power over a short period of time, although I’m sure it won’t take the powers that be long to figure out how to shut this shit down. How to re-control it: that’s what they do. I don’t even know if it’s always out of malfeasance – maybe sometimes it’s born of the idea that they are doing the best thing for the poor stupid people that can’t be trusted with decisions. And sadly, there is some validation to that point of view because so many populist uprisings have resulted in fresh waves of brutality. The job of the BLF is to make fun of these corporations. I figure that’s all we can do. If the BLF was doing anything that they felt really threatened their bottom line they would squish us like a bug and that’s a fact.

It’s interesting because there’s this perception of what you do as being straight up anti advertising but it runs much deeper than that. Could you give us a little insight into the idea that everyone should be given the right to advertise.

They shouldn’t be given anything, they should take it. I guess I’m conflicted in a way because I am a believer in property rights and in small businesses and people empowering themselves, I hate that word, but people taking control of their lives through self direction and learning how to do things to benefit themselves, their family and their community; this can only be positive. But that’s not how the current model of capitalism plays out on the ground. I look at these fucking fabulous gigantic signs incorporating incredibly beautiful images that if you can just separate from the message, you can free them from the chain of control that is there to influence your decisions. I personally believe that huge cities should be filled with loud noises, giant images and flashing lights – a Tokyo or a Gotham. I think people should have  huge messages on their houses drenched in neon – billboards are great – they just shouldn’t be controlled by a handful of corporations. But since these corporations were open hearted enough to put these giant art structures out in the middle of your town, why not go and use them? We wrote a ‘how to’ manual several years ago, and while it’s been revised several times due to technological advancements, it explains to people how easy it is to go out and simply change a billboard to make it say whatever you want.

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Apple did this truly brilliant advertising campaign in the late 90’s using iconic spokespeople like Alfred Hitchcock, Amelia Earhart and the Dalai Lama. As a stand alone piece of paste up imagery, it was genius, but the tragedy was that all this was being used to sell a fucking product.  Now the Dalai Lama was alive enough to sell his image rights, something I frankly found distasteful, but that was his choice to make. The others however, the dead ones like Alfred Hitchcock, Amelia Earhardt and others had no say in the matter. So we started a campaign where we basically took back those images, altered them, and I would say improved them so that when people looked at the billboard, they remembered Amelia Earhart was actually dead and in no position to decide whether an Imac would cater to all her computing needs. And a product like Apple is a perfect example, because so many switched on creative people are so fanatical about their products, it’s bordering on a cult. Delve a little deeper though and some of that adoration may not survive contact with underlying realities.

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There’s a great theatre piece being performed in San Francisco by a guy called Mike Daisy who went to the Apple factory in China pretending to be an American business man and saw how the workers were treated in the Apple factory. And they were more like massive prisons than an organic coffee laced design circle. People work 15/16 hours a day and there’s a steady stream of employees leaping off the roof to end it all because their lives are so dismal. There’s your Iphone and your Imac right there. That’s where they make em. But if more people were aware of these realities, maybe they could pressure Apple to be a little bit more equitable and ethical in their manufacturing cycle. Even I hadn’t realized how much of a sweat shop manufacturer Apple was when we did their billboards – it took Mike Daisy’s monologue to enlighten me – and when even skeptics like me subconsciously buy into a corporation’s projected image, you start to get some idea about the power of subliminally planted assumption vs hard facts.

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It’s far easier to improve the advertising of companies who at least in the mythological public eye are far more obviously villainous – say oil companies. We did an Exxon billboard back in 89 following the huge oil spill in Alaska, but in improving these advertising messages we try to do it in such a way that’s humorous and not ham fisted – you know, we don’t go up and spray paint “Fuck Exxon” on the billboard because that would be stupid.

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You lose the argument right there – the second you start saying fuck this or fuck that – you lose the middle ground.

Unless someone is already of the opinion that Exxon is a monstrous organization and that’s maybe 20% of the population, you’re only preaching to the converted. And clumsily too. Advertising is communication, advertising is a language. What we’re trying to do is promote understanding in those terms so that people school themselves in the language of advertising and enter into a dialogue with these corporations rather than just being passively spoken to.  And you don’t even have to go up and change that billboard, if you just change the message in your mind and know how to identify and flip the layers of meaning, then they’re no longer selling to you and you’re deciding whether you want to buy something or not based on your own reference points. You can factor the kind of information, like Apple using sweatshops, into your decision on what laptop to buy. And at that point, real change starts to rear its head and small business capitalism comes to the fore.

Suddenly, an informed commercial demographic can really have an effect on industry by making moral issues a condition of purchase, and when numbers hit a tipping point – some entrepreneur will step to the plate with a workforce guaranteed a living wage and scoop the sales. Change through capitalism – change through informed consumer pressure – harnessing the power of the marketplace to effect genuine social improvement. We’re nowhere near that yet, but if enough people start thinking this way then maybe we can change things a little bit. But I’m pretty skeptical, not pessimistic but certainly sceptical. Still doing it though!

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Isn’t a fundamental problem that the kid who wants the latest Nikes really doesn’t give a fuck about the niceties of the manufacturing process?

Yes but if that kid knew that fat, rich Phil Knight, Nike CEO was laughing at him and his friends knifing each other to death maybe, maybe something would be learned. They may not give a shit about some Chinese guy starving to death in a Beijing warehouse but if they think they’re the chump, the parameters suddenly shift – that’s the psychology. They might even note the connection they have with the factory worker, that common thread of
being used by the elite.

Do you find humour a far more effective way to try and make a point and shape understanding then mounting the nearest soapbox and heading straight down the direct route

Absolutely. Good God, nobody wants to be moralized at – well almost no one. As soon as somebody has a stilted, strong moral view point and they try cramming it down your throat you switch off whether they’re right or not. Even if their reasoning is profound no one wants to hear that and that’s where advertising comes in. Advertising is based on very elemental emotional and psychological factors, and that’s why it works, it’s a wedge to get in the mental door to promote an idea that will prompt you to make a certain decision. Nobody who is adept at social interaction says ‘Hey listen to me’ in some Stentorian voice. They’ll be labelled a windbag before you can say ‘I’ve just remembered an urgent appointment with the barman’. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing either. Look at it this way, societal politeness that might be considered hypocritical – the middle class concept of general civility – is probably what keeps us from killing each other. In a back handed way that kernel of hypocrisy is a defence mechanism as well as one of the root driving engines of advertising.

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Looking back at the roots of modern advertising there are several people who are instrumental and one of them stands out for me. Eddie Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and, having learned from Freud personally and carefully studying his theories, Bernays became one of the first great advertising men of the 20th century. Let’s take one of his campaigns as an example because it’s so brilliant, so truly nefarious and laden with contradictions. In the early 20th century there were huge suffrage movements for women in the US and in Europe as women started to realise they could effect change and to vociferate that they should have parity with men both politically and socially. There was a huge underground ferment which grew into a populist movement of women fighting to have more power in the world. Now Eddie Bernays saw this current emerge and suddenly saw the perfect opportunity for his client – Lucky Strike who were somewhat in the doldrums as a brand.

You see, it was socially unacceptable in the early 20th century for a ‘polite’ woman to be seen smoking in public anywhere, despite the fact that women smoked quite a bit behind closed doors at the time, and were just as addicted to cigarettes as men. Eddie decided to start a comprehensive nationwide campaign to get women smoking Luckies and the way he did it was to start lavishing the company’s cash onto the suffragette movement. They donated money to different chapters and managed to get the idea going that a woman smoking in public was a political statement and a sign of independence. There was Eddy and his Lucky Strike backers organising massive women’s rallies on the Capitol steps in Washington DC with hundreds of women smoking for ‘freedom’ and Lucky Strike became the premier brand in the country for the following years.

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It’s utterly despicable but you can’t help having a grudging respect can you?

Exactly. Thank you very much. It’s mixed feelings all the way. God damn it women have the right to kill themselves too! The guy masterminded many other brilliant campaigns but that’s my favorite just because of the political implications and the total amorality,- it was wonderful theater too. Many other advertisers  followed in Bernays footsteps with great success using these new psychological theories gleaned from his Freud’s serious medical work.

Do you think that underground or counter-cultural movements that are so instinctively anti anything to do with advertising are missing a trick by not embracing these techniques?

Well I think that the advertisers would just laugh at them. Laugh at us. That’s why people like Banksy and Shepard Fairey are so fucking brilliant – particularly Shepard because he’s using the mechanisms and techniques of advertising to basically just advertise himself. I don’t begrudge him that at all, not least because he’s also advertising the idea of advertising as a wider system of communication and self actualisation – the individual advertising themselves and creating their own brand. When he first started doing his campaigns I was thunderstruck.Banksy uses a lot of the same mechanisms and that’s why those guys are famous. Unlike the Billboard Liberation Front – they have a product! We’re so fucking stupid we never developed one. We’re still broke: that’s how smart we are!!

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Someone like Banksy is, as far as I can tell, using his success and the cash he’s making to do some really interesting stuff and I applaud that. There’s a big collective revulsion among the underground to anyone succeeding and I don’t adhere to that. I look at what the person does when they become successful and then I judge.

But as you say – there is this resistance to success which is instantly defined as ‘selling out.’ You’d have thought that the dream was to push your ideas into the mainstream and try to change things

It’s an ongoing process.  I was 19 when we started the BLF and I had no social history background; I knew nothing much about anything, I was excited by the concept that you could go up on this massive image and just say whatever you wanted I had an almost intuitive and non intellectual reaction to that. That buzz is visceral, powerful and is the core of what tagging is like for a kid – this idea that ‘I can put my mark anywhere, I’m powerful.’ That’s a beautiful thing; it’s a starting point for wondering what your mark might actually mean.That understanding can can spiral into maybe creating a more profound mark.. That’s where people like Shepard and Banksy are quite brilliant because they have taken that idea and thought deeply about it. Look at Ron English who I’ve known for decades. Here was a very talented artist who just couldn’t get a gallery show 25 years ago and he one day, he thought fuck it I’ll just put my paintings up on billboards. Apart from being a stroke of genius, to my mind, it was an extension of the tagger kids desire to make his mark.

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I admire him because he took this concept and was politicized I think in great part by looking at billboards and what was on them and that’s when he started ripping on mostly cigarette billboards rather than putting up purely his own paintings His later re-workings of  billboards were simply brilliant.  But he’s a painter and he creates these objects that he can sell and he’s a really good painter and he’s very ambitious and smart and eventually he got to a position where he was making a good living and I applaud that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all. Then again, some people in the underground will color that deserved success a form of corruption, I’m sure that’s not what it is, to me it’s a process, I guess. You don’t win you just keep fighting.

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BILLBOARD LIBERATION FRONT WEBSITE

INTERVIEW TAKEN FROM
LSD MAGAZINE ISSUE SEVEN – MADE IN SPACE
May 9th 2011[/box_light]