One of my key interests in mass media (after all, it’s my major) is this concept. It’s very important to me to discover new ways to utilize and exploit various types of media. I believe this is how the public can be challenged to re-examine their beliefs and behaviors, and then be motivated to re-invent society. Because of that, I have an interest in culture jamming and various types of alternative media methods, including tactile media. When Wikileaks broke with Bradly Manning (someone I believe was heroic, even if no one is truly a hero), I thought that would be it; public opinion would shift, the US would slowly begin the retreat from the Afghanistan war as it grew more unpopular. Alas, the authorities were quick to respond with lots of PR and noise over the summer, so I was disappointed when my expectations failed.
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t media warriors out there: the ideas exist and the techniques are like kata practiced by masters in secret (or in the open, but so effectively no one is the wiser). One of these ninja is Krzysztof Wodiczko, an artist who believes “disrupting the complacency of perception is imperative for passersby to stop, reflect, and perhaps even change their thinking; so he built his visual repertoire to evoke both the historical past and the political present.” On his methods, he wrote
I try to understand what is happening in the city, how the city can operate as a communicative environment… It is important to understand the circumstances under which communication is reduced or destroyed, and under what possible new conditions it can be provoked to reappear. How can aesthetic practice in the built environment contribute to critical discourse between the inhabitants themselves and the environment? How can aesthetic practice make existing symbolic structures respond to contemporary events? – Perspecta 26 (1990): 273
I was reading this interview the other day and thought it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Wodiczko created a functional vehicle for the homeless population of New York City – it folded out into a sleeping compartment, held recycling, stored personal items and let the user wash themselves. They both addressed the issue of homelessness in NYC and served the needs of that population very effectively. However, “they were confiscated by the city when they were introduced on the streets because they brought so much attention to the issue” (according to this author). A bit of digging found this paper which cites a defunct news article that said “A law was passed in New York City in 1999-2000 stating that any structure standing in excess of 3.5 feet above the ground that is capable of housing someone inside is considered a tent, and the use of this on city property is considered illegal camping.”
So Wodiczko made a useful and utilitarian contribution to a disenfranchised element of society, and the city (threatened by the attention generated by this gesture) clamped down on it, further exacerbating the need for focus on the topic? Win-win! Except for the homeless, of course.
In this interview, Wodiczko talks about how far artists can go in disrupting the public consciousness. I hate it when stuff like this is just lost by the internet, so I’ll paste it here.
Audience Member – I have a question. I read in one of your books that you defined the role of the artist as ‘someone who disrupts the regulation of everyday life’. I was wondering how far an artist can go, in your opinion, in disrupting that administration of everyday life? For instance, there are artists and activists who charge enormous credit card bills which they will never pay, nor do they intend to pay. But they do very good work and it supports them. Otherwise they would not be supported. So I wondered if you could say something to that, what do you think of that?
K.W.– Well, if you’re talking about the tradition of hackers and the old school parasites in the system, who diseminate something – it depends on the project.
Audience Member – Are there circumstances where it’s warranted?
K.W. – If its part of an artistic project and ultimately includes the act of being arrested and put on trial – then its all part of a complex project that will shift everyone’s imagination and perception – then it will qualify to be in the category of some situationist project. I still cannot judge though. We would have to use a specific example for discussion.
Dan Cameron – I don’t know if it’s what you have in mind, but the whole E-toy vs. E-toy a couple of years ago….. E-toy was a Swiss artists collective, 3 to 4 people who create challenged spaces on the internet and use the internet in an activist way. They came up with the name E-toy back in the dark ages of the internet and when the E-toy retail company emerged on the internet, one of the first things they did was to claim the activist E-toys web domain invalid and they filed a lawsuit. While this was being worked out through the courts, the artists group found themselves in a position to empower and activate a community around the world, people who would jam up corporate E-toys lines and computer systems, creating a form of economic terrorism against the company until they backed down. In fact, before the trial, the company did back down. That’s an interesting case of economic….
K.W. – maybe not ‘terrorism’.
D.C.– not terrorism, but economic damage where the free flow of capital is disrupted by a small group of artists.
K.W. – To disrupt, we have to have a good reason. We have to measure the price of the disruption versus what we gain. But one piece of advice, in case you are masterminding something, please have a lawyer.
The Miller Test for liable obscenity includes the famous SLAP test – if the obscene material has scientific, literary, artistic, or political value, than it isn’t obscene (or at least liable by legal standards). But that only applies to expressions that would offend most people’s sensibilities. Are there artistic protections on people who otherwise “disrupts the regulation of everyday life” through unconventional methods? Should there be or would that invalidate the art? Civic disobedience is about purposefully breaking unjust laws with the knowledge you’ll probably get caught and arrested and go to jail. But that’s all a part of the protest.
Today, you’re probably more likely to see unconventional media messages used by corporations desperate to break free from pervasive and oppressive traditional marketing practices. Viral marketing, undercover marketing, even new and social media is just a way to sell you the same old stuff, but in a way that you don’t instinctively ignore the companies attempts to have you buy their shoes or whatever. And is it just me, or when you see something unique, user-driven and independent, and then find out Burger King is behind it? That example was actually mentioned in one of my recent classes, without that understanding of the fast-food company’s sponsorship, proving it’s effectiveness.
But if nobody knows who is behind it, then why is this form of subversive advertising so insidious? Because the honesty of a message and it’s purposefulness outside capitalistic goals (making money) is corrupted when the message is co-oped by a profit-seeking entity. E.G., “greenwashing.” Should companies clean up their environmental impact on the world? Yes. Greenwashing is where they compensate in perfunctory gestures that do little to actually change things, but make a big deal out of it anyway. Does that diminish the importance of changing the behavior? Absolutely, because in the public’s mind, attention has already drifted and unless you’re going to be super critical about it, you’ll think something has already been done! This is related to unconventional media because we’ve already learned to ignore mainstream and traditional advertising. If businesses co-opt the subversive method for their own purposes, the public will eventually become immunized to yet another medium of communication.