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Alan Moore, "Culture Jam 101" at Grassroots Media Conference

Alan Moore writes:

"Culture Jam 101" at Grassroots Media Conference

Alan Moore

I visited the NYC Grassroots Media Conference, an annual gathering of community-oriented media in New York City (April 9-10, 2005; http://www.nycgrassrootsmedia.org/) at New School University just for the panel called “Culture Jam 101: You Are a Thinly Veiled Threat.” This was William Etundi Jr., of Complacent.org, Swoon who is with Toyshop, and Reverend Billy (Bill Talen) and his partner Savitri D. Promo:


“Here we are in the thick of a culture grown complacent on consumerism, complicity and coercion. A sustainable movement is empowered by confronting and evolving the cultural assumptions of the moment – a goal not easily achieved through traditional protest. Here lies the world of culture jam, of renegade art, of guerrilla actions aimed at shaking the foundation of Apathetic America. This hands-on workshop will ‘teach’ you nothing. Our goal is to awaken the brilliance you already have. Short video introductions and brief anecdotes of our experiences in the street will open to an interactive dialogue on the logistics, challenges and possibilities in cultural evolution. We will explain the tools we use while working with you to build your own seditious solutions – after all you are not a consumer, you are a thinly veiled threat.”Okay. I arrived as Will Otundi was talking about engaging people directly with his work. He’s a very good great speaker, reducing and punching his message well. The website has samples of his rhetoric: http://www.complacent.org/index2.shtml. He was in the middle of a video showing him showing videos on the streets in Harlem during the 4th of July fireworks, so his projection was on a building in front of the fireworks, using them as backdrop. “Anybody can do this,” he said. You need only a laptop, power source, and a projector.

Numerous substantive conversations with passersby came out of this action. Then, said Will, “take a photo, take a video and put it online” and people will see it in remote places and then they can copy your actions (emulation). Build your email list – that’s your audience. “I hate the word ‘culture jam’,” he said. “It’s about no definitions.” (Throughout this panel I got the sense of these people trying to slip definitions that have already been laid down about what kind of work this is and how it operates.)

Will said don’t worry about what kind of effect you are going to have on the wider world. You will change your life and change the life of your friends. On the practical side, “you’re going to get arrested if you do anything interesting.”


Cali (aka Swoon) had trouble with her laptop, so Will took questions. His work, he said, is not always specific in content and intention. He will “just try to wake people, shake people,” affect their perceptions and get them thinking. I asked what was the difference between what he did and art. He said, “I exploit art. I’m not an artist.” (This categorical denial of artisthood is not unfamiliar among artists…) “But I say that I’m an artist sometimes when the cops talk to me,” since that can sometimes help him avoid arrest!


Cali, aka Swoon, is a street artist who works with Toyshop Collective (http://www.toyshopcollective.com/). She is, she says, absolutely an artist. She does not culture jam – she ignores the mainstream, and creates a “direct parallel” with her actions. She disparages conventional political art – “You know what it is asking you for” when you see it. That “creates a closedness.… I want to break with that relationship.” She is into a parallel culture which you create with your own hands. She makes woodblock and linoleum prints on painters’ tarps, cuts them out and pastes them on the street. (She softens the linoleum with an iron, making it easier to cut.) She is inventive with materials, and does “deface” billboards by pasting up rolls of pre-decorated “sign writer’s bond” paper. She also wheeled away free news distribution boxes, painted all over them, and replaced them on the street with new content! She observes, “Collective action is really powerful.” She urges all to be “active citizens and physically changing your city.” She loves to see walls on the street get attacked. “As soon as the first tag goes up it’s open season on that wall.” She showed a community art project where the work the kids did on paper rolls was immediately pasted over a nearby billboard. Clearly the Toyshop bunch has lots of fun. She showed a slide from a street party they put on where they constructed a giant xylophone out of junk metal and wheeled it through the streets.

She referenced John Berger’s book Shape of a Pocket. “Empathy and compassion are outside commerce,” she said. “If you can make that, you can make something outside the system.” (That’s the pocket Berger speaks of.) She also recalled the legendary hijack of the Staten Island ferry where Toyshop boarded dressed as pirates and demanded, “Take this boat to Staten Island!” (What could the ferry crew do but comply?)
Reverend Billy and Savitri spoke next for Church of Stop Shopping. (Bill of course is a world famous dynamic speaker and writer: http://www.revbilly.com/ ). He concentrates on “the micro gesture,” and “the gesture of talking and listening.” Again, this is the kind of interaction that cannot be commodified. Savitri: “We do into transnational stores and do work.” They use a three part analytic system of 1) broken gesture, 2) volume, and 3) content. (I cannot really explain this better.) Bill: “There’s nothing as charged as a human violation of a transnational chain store.” And of course, “We love to deny that we are artists.” Savitri: About Starbucks – “they are the culture jammers,” they do it better than we could dream of. Starbucks finances studies of conditions in the growing regions. They gather the data, and then it doesn’t come out (although study results are posted: see http://www.coverco.org/), and it certainly doesn’t effect their operations. According to Global Exchange, only 2% of the coffee Starbucks uses is fair trade (i.e., produced under reasonably equitable conditions that do not impoverish workers). They spend more advertising that they are ecological and into fair trade than they do realizing those corporate objectives. Church of Stop Shopping seek to “break up the rote gesture of shopping,” and “get people to recognize the labor history and resource history of products.” Both Billy and Savitri are rooted in the theater. He returned to the idea that “talking and listening is the most basic kind of media.” He extolled the “blessed state of embarrassment” when “the commodity wall” is breached. When the line, or barrier is crossed and dialogue begins. It’s not really about face offs and breaking the law, Savitri said, it’s about “how to life the line.”

Bill then led the panel and audience to a nearby Starbucks to undertake a “shoplifting” action – that was to be enter the store, take up a product (any physical object in the store), and think about its past, where it came from. Then lift it up and “curse the distance” between its presence in the store and the site of its production…
This action sounded almost like political metaphysics, not an illegal confrontation, and I wanted to go. But I ran over to the panel “Beauty and the Beast: Aesthetics in the Era of Global Activism” where I caught the tail end. They were thick in a discussion of advertising as and versus activist cultural work. Problems like the “recuperation” (as the Situationists called it) of activist strategies, like the new MTV2 stencil ad campaign which is based on activist graffiti. Paul Chan, who worked with Friends of William Blake (the 18th century printer-artist) on the Peoples’ Map for the RNC protests (see http://www.rncguide.com/about.shtml ), and who is an up and coming artist (see his website http://www.nationalphilistine.com/). He, like Swoon in the other panel, drew a distinction between advertising and activist cultural work (work with signs, art, what have you). He spoke of the 1968 rising in Czechoslovakia (put down by the Soviets under Brezhnev) where activists changed traffic signs, painting them white. The intention was not to communicate, but to “create anxiety and confusion.” We need to see progressive media differently than conventional media work or advertising. A redhead I take to be Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films reminded the audience that “advertising is not an aesthetic – it’s defined by its function.”

I went to the afterparty hosted by Clamor magazine (at http://www.clamormagazine.org/ ), but they weren’t very friendly so I blew. (Probably thought I was a journalist or something.)