Adbusters

The Aesthetics of Activism

Siobhan McGuirk of Red Pepper magazine talks to Kalle Lasn about the upcoming Carnivalesque Rebellion and the need to put the magic back into activism.

On newsstands across North America, the UK, Australia and now even India, Adbusters cuts quite a niche. The thick, glossy magazine places lengthy philosophical musings alongside succinct polemics and activist briefings, combined with striking and occasionally shocking images. Concerned with the ‘erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces’, it is refreshingly devoid of advertisements.

The fiercely independent magazine has its roots in environmental activism. In 1989, co-founding editor Kalle Lasn was involved in campaigns in British Columbia. ‘We went head to head with the forest industry on television with our own adverts. TV stations refused to sell us air time so there was this big battle between the industry, the stations, the public and Adbusters,’ he recalls. ‘Out of this campaign we started our newsletter which then grew into a magazine.’

The aesthetics of activism are central to their outlook, and wordless sections are devoted to unusual and everyday images, from the mundane to the sublime, carefully arranged for poignant effect. Spoof ads are another vital element for the magazine’s popularity and political outlook. ‘Taking adverts and altering or answering them escalates the dialogue. Having an article about how terrible the media is is one thing, but to give people a really provocative, empowering subvert that makes them laugh and hits against the powers that be is something that the left really needs right now.’

Kick-starting a movement

Unifying and inspiring the left is what the Adbusters Media Foundation, the not-for-profit producers of the magazine, was set up for. ‘One of the things that came up really early, twenty years ago, was the realisation that the political left was [using] old style, knee-jerk politics and the same old slogans at protests. Something was fundamentally wrong, we were running out of big ideas,’ explains Lasn. ‘We want to build a movement.’

Big ideas define the Foundation, which describes itself as ‘a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age’. It is the root of international campaigns like Buy Nothing Week and Blackspot open-source branding.

Media literacy is high on their agenda, making Media Empowerment Kits available to schools since its inception. ‘We see it one of our mandates to create a media literacy lesson – not just for high school students but for the whole world,’ says Lasn. ‘We sent complimentary issues to every high school in Canada, and a huge percentage started subscribing and using the magazine in the classroom.

‘A good spoof ad or TV spot that speaks back at the advertisers is the kind of provocative thing that teachers like to use and students love to see. It gets people into subvertising – even if that’s just tearing pages out of magazines or writing stuff with a big black pen on top of it.’

Another of the Foundation’s education-based campaigns is ‘Neoliberal Economics – Kick it Over!’ aiming to remind students, teachers and institutions that another economics is possible. For Lasn, the approach is vital for the movement. ‘We are trying to create a paradigm shift, from neo-classical economics to a new, biologically, ecologically driven approach. It is the sort of new vision for the political left around the world that makes a lot of sense.’

A black spot?

With their ideology posted front and centre, Adbusters has come in for criticism in one area: its own product range of shoes, books and flags. For Lasn, the true message and worth of their Blackspot anti-brand has been overlooked. ‘A lot of people don’t understand that Blackspot was an attempt to launch something new and to go head to head with a big bad company like Nike; start taking their market share, stealing their logo and doing some brand damage.’

For a non-profit, anti-corporate entity, the approach to merchandising is novel. ‘You can either look for money from big funders or you can launch your own entrepreneurial venture that’s a new way to look at capitalism, like grassroots capitalism,’ reasons Lasn. Ever keen to stress the importance of building alternatives, he is clearly frustrated by the ‘sell-out’ accusations.

‘We’ve had advertising agencies offer to pay us $15,000 for our back cover and we always tell them to go to hell. Once you start selling out and having that kind of advertising feel, it just takes the piss out of activism.’

Their latest campaign idea is Seven Days of Carnivalesque Rebellion, a grassroots-led week of international, coordinated civil disobedience set for 22–28 November. Lasn sees it as an opportunity to rejuvenate the movement.

‘We started up around the time that the Soviet Union fell and through the Iraq wars and the Bush years and even now, with Obama, it feels like the left still doesn’t have its act together; doesn’t have a vision. Some really kooky right wing people, like the Tea Party, seem to have more verve and more passion than we do.’

Throwing down the gauntlet to groups across the world, he concludes: ‘We have to come up with the big ideas that would rejuvenate the political left and put the magic back into our activism.’


This interview originally appeared in Oct/Nov 2010 issue of Red Pepper magazine.

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Comments on the article “The Aesthetics of Activism”

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Mother Voices

There is no Mother voice in your publication. I like your publication- I buy it, read it, talk to friends about it, talk to strangers about it when it is approriate. I think your ideas are important and the non-consumption at the core of your ideas is key to weakening the Beast of corporate power and influence.

But there is no Mother voice in your publication and if your publication seeks to inspire a movement to improve the human and environmental condition, there will be no Mother voice in that movement. The difference between decent human centered and sustainable cultures and corporate centered and unsustainable cultures is typically that there is no role for or voice speaking for mothers and children.

You seem to have swallowed the rhetoric of modern society that says men, young, angry men have changed the world only and always and always will. Men write your articles, men are central to your "meme" images, men are held up or held down in your works.

You cannot fight a battle for humanity's future while ignoring mothers when more than half the world are women and we are supposed to be grounded in fair dealings with future generations- whose health and wellbeing are inexorably linked to their mothers. You cannot fight a battle for the Earth, for the Mother, for Pacha Mama while ignoring mothers.

There is no movement and no future for a resistance if mothers are are not raising the next generation of resisters and fighters- including but not limited to angry young men. When you do not include and acknowledg revolutionary mothering in your analysis, when you unthinkingly herald the resistance of muslim fighters with no concern for the torture women suffer under the Sharia law those fighters inspire to install, for example, you cut yourself off at the knees.

I have a daughter who at under 10 is interested in governments and how they get money to run, from whom and why- that is a function of my consciously parenting her to give her access to Questions so that she can be a critical thinker and a resistant citizen of the world. I have a son who, at under five-like many children- loves weapons, guns, swords, any weapons. How he choses to focus his passion to battle and the inherant contrariness that belies, will be a function of what I daily seek to teach him about right and wrong and the rights and responsibilities of warriors in relation to their people.

You need to include mothers and their voices, and by extention families and children. You need a recurrent montly article on family, parenting, mothering resistantly, on how people are, or can, teach their children survivance of the corporate occupation of our land and minds and commons.

The right has laid claim to the idea of a right-winger Mama Grizzly, embodied by Sarah Palin. The resistance needs to see the power of supporting a pro-people and enviroment Mama Wolf. Wolves live in communities, the mother's are partnered to the father, they rely on the support of their community to care for the young, they depend on the health of their own range for food and shelter, the pups are the central focus of all the resources, affection and attention of the whole pack, for the good of the whole pack, amen.

Later, one of many Mama Wolves

Mother Voices

There is no Mother voice in your publication. I like your publication- I buy it, read it, talk to friends about it, talk to strangers about it when it is approriate. I think your ideas are important and the non-consumption at the core of your ideas is key to weakening the Beast of corporate power and influence.

But there is no Mother voice in your publication and if your publication seeks to inspire a movement to improve the human and environmental condition, there will be no Mother voice in that movement. The difference between decent human centered and sustainable cultures and corporate centered and unsustainable cultures is typically that there is no role for or voice speaking for mothers and children.

You seem to have swallowed the rhetoric of modern society that says men, young, angry men have changed the world only and always and always will. Men write your articles, men are central to your "meme" images, men are held up or held down in your works.

You cannot fight a battle for humanity's future while ignoring mothers when more than half the world are women and we are supposed to be grounded in fair dealings with future generations- whose health and wellbeing are inexorably linked to their mothers. You cannot fight a battle for the Earth, for the Mother, for Pacha Mama while ignoring mothers.

There is no movement and no future for a resistance if mothers are are not raising the next generation of resisters and fighters- including but not limited to angry young men. When you do not include and acknowledg revolutionary mothering in your analysis, when you unthinkingly herald the resistance of muslim fighters with no concern for the torture women suffer under the Sharia law those fighters inspire to install, for example, you cut yourself off at the knees.

I have a daughter who at under 10 is interested in governments and how they get money to run, from whom and why- that is a function of my consciously parenting her to give her access to Questions so that she can be a critical thinker and a resistant citizen of the world. I have a son who, at under five-like many children- loves weapons, guns, swords, any weapons. How he choses to focus his passion to battle and the inherant contrariness that belies, will be a function of what I daily seek to teach him about right and wrong and the rights and responsibilities of warriors in relation to their people.

You need to include mothers and their voices, and by extention families and children. You need a recurrent montly article on family, parenting, mothering resistantly, on how people are, or can, teach their children survivance of the corporate occupation of our land and minds and commons.

The right has laid claim to the idea of a right-winger Mama Grizzly, embodied by Sarah Palin. The resistance needs to see the power of supporting a pro-people and enviroment Mama Wolf. Wolves live in communities, the mother's are partnered to the father, they rely on the support of their community to care for the young, they depend on the health of their own range for food and shelter, the pups are the central focus of all the resources, affection and attention of the whole pack, for the good of the whole pack, amen.

Later, one of many Mama Wolves

Dominic

this had never occurred to me, being an angry young man... thanks for enlightening me! i hope adbusters take notice

Dominic

this had never occurred to me, being an angry young man... thanks for enlightening me! i hope adbusters take notice

Canadian Tired

At 6+ billion and clearly in overshoot, what is partly needed is a revolution in un-mothering...Adoption should be encouraged: help save a kid living in dire conditions, bring him/her up to be the best he/she can, and do not willfully bring more innocents into what will prove to be catastrophic conditions. To those who say that this is true at any point in history but that humanity endures and does go on, I daresay that "This time is different"...

Canadian Tired

At 6+ billion and clearly in overshoot, what is partly needed is a revolution in un-mothering...Adoption should be encouraged: help save a kid living in dire conditions, bring him/her up to be the best he/she can, and do not willfully bring more innocents into what will prove to be catastrophic conditions. To those who say that this is true at any point in history but that humanity endures and does go on, I daresay that "This time is different"...

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