Much of the essence of street art and conscious living in general has the reclamation of our warped public spaces at its core. The endless perversion of our realities by apathy and advertising alike has slowly eroded a sense of self defined community and a creative pride in the world we live in. Yet while many artists pirate the medium of public advertising to sow seeds of self questioning, few have been as dedicatedly activist as New York’s Jordan Seiler and his Public Ad Campaign. From hijacking legal advertising to creating forums for open and enlightened debate to taking on the behemoths of vested interest themselves, he has tirelessly worked to open up the conversation about the nature of our society and shine a light on indifference and conditioning. He spoke to us
In a deeply individual world, what is public space and why is it so important
I would define public space as the shared areas of our society going beyond public parks, streets etc and encompassing transit systems, the walls of private buildings that are viewable from other more traditional public spaces, and perhaps even public schools And why is it so important? It’s important because it’s the single and only space where we define ourselves as a society, all of us as individuals get together and create something that we call a society or civilisation. It’s a very important thing to be defined. You need a place where we can all say yes collectively, say this is who we are.
What is the link between the manner in which we as individuals treat public space and our inner selves ?
I think that we as individuals we don’t consider public space to be this important community space in which we are forced to interact with the people who inhabit this earth with us or share this city with us. We don’t consider it to be a place in which we can express our individual identity, and especially in major metropolitan cities you get a loss of identity in public space a lot of the time and people move from point A to point B without having any sense of ownership of that space and one of the things that I think helps to contribute to that problem is outdoor advertising controlling the way in which that space is used. It’s used for commercial messages and turned into something that is more a commercial in itself
We opt in to magazine advertising and TV advertising because it funds the content we choose to watch. How is it that we have reached the point in society that we accept billboard advertising, public advertising where you can’t even opt out ?
Well that is the reason that I feel like I am allowed to go out and destroy outdoor advertising, because the option hasn’t been given to me. And how we have come to accept that… I just don’t know. There are some cities that have decided that it is unacceptable and have made laws that ban it and other cities that don’t. The level of apathy on the part of the viewer perhaps, but it’s also testament to how much advertising in general whether or not it be in print or on TV etc has actually infused itself into our lives and we consider it to be a medium that is inescapable and just inherently a part of the capitalist system. What I don’t think people understand is that making the decision to remove advertising from public spaces would only come with the realization that advertising has hyper militant tactics and interests in creating desires that you may or may not have initially and that if that is the case then we might want to take control of that medium as a society in some way and say listen there are defined places and there needs to be a choice as to whether or not we need to be looking at this stuff and when it’s entering environments where we don’t have a choice we need to be very wary of allowing it to do so.
I think it was recently that the world became 51% urban. We are moving towards a large portion of us living in a metropolitan environment so we are going to need to figure out ways in which to define our spaces more correctly. The thing about this project is I don’t consider it to be a small issue I consider this to be a very serious social health issue on par with whether or not we all have health care, the homeless problem, affordable housing, things like that.
Because advertising has such a psychological effect on our society and works on a lot of our behaviours, allowing it to do so in a public space is really permitting it to have an influence over our society that we don’t necessarily want, I mean I don’t think that anyone is going to sit there and say advertising encourages a large portion of our more interesting goals for ourselves as a society like community, taking care of our children correctly and education. Advertising doesn’t address those things it deals with our base needs, our ego, and our desire for purchase, so when you allow it to proliferate in that environment you are really saying that we are OK with having a society based on Hummers and diamond rings and when you start to look at that issue then you start to realise that maybe this is about defining the world we would ideally like to live in.
Basically I started this project in late 2000 and it initially started as an art project very similar to street art, typically repasting stuff, but I was targeting advertising and I was doing it for no apparent reason and over the last 8 years it’s developed into something much more of an activist project and I am much more intent on questioning how public space is used and presenting alternatives to advertising. I do projects which involve up to 100 people going out and taking similar action all at once. I still do individual takeovers of specific advertising locations such as phone booths, subways, billboards etc The project has really spread out, I also keep the blog which has been an incredibly positive forum for getting in touch with people all over the world regarding their own personal issues with outdoor advertising and contact with students and teachers, architects and public planners looking for a venue to have a conversation about it. We are getting deeply involved with the legal stuff to the point where we are in court with one of the largest advertising companies in New York City and that’s been a situation where I’ve had to focus on developing my legal knowledge to a far larger degree
How do you feel about the internet bringing together like minded individuals in a way that we were incapable of 10 years ago ?
I don’t even see an alternative at this point. 10 years ago I wasn’t trying to communicate with as many people as I am now. I am super excited about it. When I plan projects because they are often illegal in nature, the internet has become a wonderful resource for me. It allows me anonymity in some ways, it allows me to converse with people without having to force them to give their names, their official titles etc. It allows a level of anonymity whilst still allowing an open channel of communication . Other than that it has become an amazing resource for me to look at other cities as well. Toronto happens to be one of the major examples that I try to keep on top of. Toronto has a crew of activists that have been really battling with outdoor advertising and its’ use and abuse of public space and without the internet I would be far behind.
Tell us about the phone box project. Why phone boxes ?
They happen to be a nice simple format and they also happen to be everywhere in NYC. I think we have about 20.000 of them which means there are about 60.000 ads changing every month. They are simple to get in to and it is just a ubiquitous form in NYC that people don’t even use for their phone calls. They are just advertising venues at this point because everybody has a cell phone. But one of the nice things about them is that they are still legal advertising and one of the problems with doing large scale projects against illegal advertising it starts to look like Public Ad Campaign is concerned with taking out illegal advertising in the city and that is not the case, we are really much more interested in getting people to think about advertising’s use of public space in general so if we are only attacking illegal advertising obviously it looks as if that is our gripe so phone booths allow me to continue to do small level work over legal advertising and gets that point across
Yes absolutely and this is one of the reasons you see such apathy when you talk to people about outdoor advertising. It is just a form that makes sense in a society where we expect commercialism to fulfill our needs and to be the panacea to our problems so absolutely. I think everybody has gotten far to comfortable with the idea that happiness can be bought and that ultimately you are what you have. That is just a sad state of affairs.
We really need to question these things and I think that this project attacking outdoor advertising is just a way in to that discussion and it’s really a much broader and larger issue on our society’s health. This just happens to be a way to begin to get people to talk about these things. If I put up a piece of artwork in a phone booth the reaction I would ideally like to get out of the viewer would be ‘What is that ? That is not advertising and why is that there ? Do I like that more than the advertising that was there? And was the advertising then appropriate if I like this more ? Once you go through that sort of sequence of thought then you get to a point where if advertising wasn’t the appropriate thing to have there why are we allowing it to proliferate in our environment ? What is it doing that I don’t like ? And that starts to get you on to the trajectory of thought of consumerism and living our lives according to the capitalist ideal
Do you find that people are so anaesthetised to images bombarding them every day that they don’t even notice the difference between your stuff and advertising ?
Absolutely, the difficulty that I’ve grappled with most as an artist is trying to get people to see the work and when you talk to people on the street you often will hear them say ‘Well I don’t look at any of that stuff, it’s not a problem, I don’t see advertising’ and in a lot of ways the fact that they often don’t see my work is a testament to the fact that they are either not looking at the advertising spaces or they are so conditioned to see advertising that they see my work as being advertising in some way. When people say I don’t look at any of that stuff, it’s another testament to the fact that they are completely unaware of its manipulative qualities. Advertising would not be in our public space if people didn’t look at it. They are not paying millions of dollars to advertise stuff to us and not getting the message across. That is another level of not understanding from the viewer that we are trying to get across. You are looking at the stuff and it is influencing your psychology and you need to be aware of that and you need to question whether you are OK with that
One of the most dangerous things that is happening now is media integration. Products from a film – TV shows and news shows all integrated and creating a synergy around one product I think the most difficult thing that we are going to start to have to deal with you will not notice that you are being advertised to and that is very problematic. I personally don’t think I can stop that in any way – media will integrate a product and we will not have any control over that . One of the reasons I continue to do the Public Ad Campaign project is because I think public space is one of the last vestiges of sacred space that we can still take control of . So you can be outside of the media machine when you are in public space. Our last territory to fight for. If it keeps going the way it is now and product and news and media all integrate so heavily you are not going to know when you are being advertised to yet all the desire creation machines are still going to be taking hold of you.
Kind of all over the place – as we were saying before a lot of people are confused by it, they try and figure out what advertisement it is and what product it is trying to sell. Generally when people do get it, when the layman gets that there is something there besides advertising they are happy with it and excited that it is something different. Often people when you really get down to it they don’t love advertising – they understand its insidious nature – they understand they are being manipulated and so they’re happy to see some sort of critique of it. Whether or not they walk away from that experience any brighter or better informed is definitely a question but as an individual I can only do so much. I feel that even planting small seeds like that is very important
Where do you get the themes for your campaigns from ?
As we were talking about – How do you get people to see the work? A lot of my art bears that heavily in mind. A lot of my work is turning sculptural these days because that has a physicality to it that can clue people into the fact that is not advertising, Another thing that I do consistently from project to project is to really change very drastically the aesthetics of the work so it’s not an advertisement for myself. There is a typical way in which street artists operate these days, creating something stylistically recognisable and then continue with that process. I can’t do that because if I am fighting advertising the typical reaction is ‘How is this not advertising for yourself’. So the way in which I can get around that is to really change the aesthetics from project to project. It’s all over the place, I do weaving work with foam, I cut up books and paste them back together, it’s all over the place.
I mean, one of the things with this project is I am not trying to critique advertising -that is much better done by other people. I am trying to produce imagery that simply obliterates and through its obliteration questions advertising’s role in our public space. So it often doesn’t use type and is often very graphic and very simple and it is designed in a way that allows the viewer to see that it is not advertising. I try not to use iconography in any way because people will quickly think that if there is a person in there, then that is clearly an advertisement for what that person is doing or whatever. Those are the things that inform my work and inform the process in which I work.
Guys in London pirate a billboard with a very clear and deeply subversive message. You seem to be replacing advertising with straight up art leaving it up to the viewer to reach his or her own conclusions. Is that a conscious thread ?
That is absolutely the way in which I am trying to work. Who are you thinking of ? Dr D for example I love Dr D, but while he takes over advertising space, it’s not necessarily always targeted against the concept of advertising itself but more messages to the viewer that provide moments of self reflection. You know one of the best parts of this movement over advertisement is that people are doing it in such different ways but yet the goal is somewhat similar – to appropriately use public space for public messaging and that doesn’t necessarily have to be didactic and it doesn’t have not to be didactic it can run the gambit of all those things
I am extremely happy with work when it gets rid of the advertisement as long as the advertisement is gone and there is no recognition of product then I think you have actually taken over that space.
One of the people who’s work I really do like but that I have a problem with is Decapitator. He is not putting out any message but often the product or the logo is left behind. If the product or the logo or even the colour pallet of the product is left behind often the advertisement is so ingrained in us that product recognition will still come through. Therefore you haven’t eliminated the product from the space you have merely critiqued it. The viewer is still getting that message and actually the viewer might be getting a message that is more potent for them because you have manipulated the image in a way that now they are looking at it with more interest and recognising the product more distinctly
Can you even sell your soul anymore or can you only just hope to wrestle it back ?
You can absolutely sell you soul some more.. I mean Shepherd Fairey has done it. This is all about creating environments and spaces in which the public has the ability to interact. Street art is illegal whether or not you wheatpaste on the side of a building or really small on the corner of a drainpipe or whether you are doing a massive giant wheat paste on the site of an advertisement. All of it is illegal which means that you are going out because you feel strongly about your need and your right to use that space and that is a very altruistic act. It is about caring for that space and even if you are trying to skirt the gallery scene in an effort to then get into the gallery scene you are ultimately doing something very giving. When you embrace that you can continue to do your work very successfully and not sell out, I think.
An artist who has been successful at this and has managed to ride that line is WK. He’s done crazy commercial projects but when he does a gallery show he still hits the street with large amounts of posters and he still ties himself to the street that way and gets arrested whist he is doing it and he is doing it himself as an individual. He’s not like a Shepherd Fairey who has people on the pay roll doing wheat pasting on the street for him. Which I think is important you have to continue do it yourself because it is ultimately an act of giving and if you are not doing it yourself you are not admitting to that.
The future ? You’ve got the lawsuit. What else does the future hold ?
The future…. I need to get back to my own personal work because I have been so swamped with dealing with the lawsuit and I am hoping to find my way back into some more traditional gallery shows but I am also definitely going to pursue this level of activism and I’m looking forward to the legal battles that I think are very interesting. One thing that Public Ad Campaign is trying to do is establish itself outside of an art context as a public advocacy group and by pursuing this lawsuit and taking on a large national corporation, a few individuals are trying to tell the city we are a force to be reckoned with and if you want to take advantage of the city you are going to have to go through us first and if we can put that kind of foot down hopefully it will allow us to integrate more into the bureaucracy of the city.
We would love to teach media literacy classes to small children, help to do public mural projects with kids from inner city schools. Also I am heavily involved with people like Keith Schweitzer at No Longer Empty who do mural projects all over the city trying to promote public use of public space in very legal ways. Hopefully we will be able to spread ourselves out a little more around the city and really get in to helping more people to deal with this issue.