The Billboard Commandos

The power struggle of the future may indeed take place in cyberspace, but some of today’s most visible culture jammers are co-opting two old-school conduits of corporate and commercial communication: billboards and photocopy machines. These low-tech activists subvert authority in quietly insidious ways, scaling billboards at night to alter advertising messages or hitting the “Print” button right under the boss’s nose to run off a ream of counterculture flyposters.

Everyone has seen billboards crudely defaced by vandals or blunt activists; a smaller, select audience has been exposed to the more considered, quirkier messages of billboard “liberators,” as they often call themselves. San Francisco’s Billboard Liberation Front is one of the oldest such organized outfits in the country; according to The Bear Essential (Summer 1995), the BLF “has been ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ drive-by media for 18 years.”

The BLF is more mischievous than strident, altering outdoor advertising messages with an agenda that is sometimes social and political, sometimes simply idiosyncratic. Thousands of San Franciscans have undoubtedly done double takes at the sight of BLF projects that have turned “Marlboro” into “Marlbore,” or left a post-oil-spill Exxon billboard reading simply “Shit Happens.”

Billboards, which The Bear Essential likens to “chronic cultural acne,” are a natural target for alteration because they are constantly in our faces: “Averaging 20 by 30 feet, they steal space in our lives, transform our visions, and control our perception.” And “nearly anyone can pirate an outdoor ad space”–unlike television and radio advertising–“if one is willing to risk second-degree felony.”

The billboard industry makes no distinction between activism and vandalism. Kippy Burns, spokeswoman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, whose 600 members control 80 percent of the nation’s billboard space, says, “This is an illegal act. Any violators should be punished to the full extent of the law.” (Burns points out that the association’s members annually donate 10 percent of their inventory to public service advertising.)

The experienced liberators of the BLF go to great lengths to avoid detection and maintain their high standards of quality. They photograph, measure, and chip paint colors from targeted signs, monitor traffic activity in the area, and temporarily disable lights before pulling off their orchestrated predawn operations. “The results,” reads The Bear Essential, “are alterations that masterfully mimic existing advertisements” color and design, but that profoundly modify their messages without damaging property.”

Adbusters Quarterly, a “journal of the mental environment” whose raison d’être is to mock and modify vapid or offensive advertising, regularly celebrates billboard provocateurs in its pages. The “Billboard Liberation” feature in its Summer 1995 issue spotlights the work of Cicada, a group of artists in Newark, New Jersey, who added a new graphic element to a “Forever Kool” billboard: a sheet-covered body with a morgue tag on its toe. Adbusters calls Cicada “masters in their field.”

“Seizing a billboard is like the Boston Tea Party,” Cicada member Adam McGovern tells the magazine. “It’s like a little revolution.” The Cicada group has produced a video documentary about billboard liberation; it’s available for $30 from Harvest Moon Productions, 307 Stegman Parkway, Jersey City, NJ 07305.

If billboard alteration represents culture jamming on a physically large scale, photocopied flyposters are its featherweight–but equally influential–opposite. We’re all familiar with those hundredth-generation jokes and cartoons, many of them sexist, racist, or just plain dumb, that perpetually infiltrate our offices. But the tactic can be used to disseminate more provocative, subversive bits of dissent and satire, as Alternative Press Review points out in “Flyposter Frenzy” (Spring-Summer 1995). Author Matthew Fuller, who has written a book with the same title, explains the populist appeal of the medium: Most people have access to a photocopier; very little skill or training is needed; copies can be made as they’re required; and “what is . . . sweeter than company time . . . spent producing weirdo literature using the company’s paper?”

The flyposter examples accompanying the article range from whimsical to ominous, artistic to amateurish. A blocky graphic of a wrench dropping between meshing gears bears the message “Work rate too fast (apply resistance).” A row of graves accompanies a deadpan caption: “We have found new homes for the rich.” And McDonald’s logo and clown mascot, Ronald, are co-opted in a shrill mock ad that urges a boycott of the fast-food empire.

Fuller, a member of the British-based poster collective Anticopyright Network, views the flyposter in an analytical framework: “The flyposter’s intervention in public space–in physical terms, disruption–is minimal. It is gone almost as soon as it is placed . . . The flyposter formalizes a necessary impermanence–its brief presence attempting to stimulate the viewer into self-activity by denying itself fixity, interested in diffusion and not central points. The flyposter asks of itself: ‘What is it? Who made it and why?'”

The next time you head toward the Xerox machine like a technodrone, spreadsheets in hand, consider Fuller’s call to action: “We want more posters, we want better posters, we want more people getting involved. Let’s wallpaper the world.”

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