Last month, dozens of New York artists and activists battled the clutter of consumerism in a guerrilla-style billboard takeover. Mobilized by Jordan Seiler and the Public Ad Campaign, the 24-hour direct action replaced nearly 19,000 square feet of illegal advertising with original, anti-corporate street art.
Blueprints for the ambitious aesthetic revolution took shape years ago, when Seiler found that thousands of New York’s posters and billboards were not properly licensed. Some ads, he discovered, violated bylaws that have been on city books since the 1940s.
“Outdoor advertising is the primary obstacle to open public communications,” Seiler explains on his website, publicadcampaign.com. “Through bold acts of civil disobedience we hope to air our grievances in the court of public opinion and witness our communities regain control of the space they occupy.”
Armed with paint rollers, spray cans and video equipment, activists took to the streets on April 25th wearing florescent orange construction vests. (Covertness, it seemed, was not a top priority). The mixed brigade of culture jammers — ranging from artists and architects to software developers and bio-physicists — swiftly whitewashed 126 of the offending advertisements.
Calling themselves the Municipal Landscape Control Committee, the team turned the newly-buffed billboards into multimedia art. Across Manhattan, walls that formerly peddled electronics, designer clothes and alcohol were reclaimed in the name of peace, laughter and high-fives.
For a fleeting moment, it seemed democracy itself had burst through New York’s thick clouds of visual pollution. Instead of noisy and intrusive ads, passersby freely engaged with refreshing open-source canvasses. It was an artful and symbolic warning aimed at billboard companies that unlawfully reap profits from citizen-owned spaces.
Unsurprisingly, the artistic uprising was not without casualties. One artist, two whitewashers and a videographer were arrested by New York police — one of whom is still fighting criminal charges. And, because of the city’s utter lack of enforcement, many of the same illegal ads were replaced the very next day.
Such flagrant disregard for the quality and character of public space has been met with passionate outrage across the globe. In places like Los Angeles, Toronto and Paris, creative communities are developing new ways to investigate billboards and combat illegal advertisements.
The omnipresence of insipid "buy me" schlock isn't exclusive to the world's metropolises. Indeed, the battle for a clear and democratic mindscape can be fought and won at all fronts. Visit illegalsigns.ca or illegalbillboards.org and learn how you can take back the streets in your hometown.