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.