August 15, 2022

Culture Jamming 2.0

In Early 2020, as the pandemic shut down the world and drove everyone deeper into cyberspace, word began to spread online about a massive and sinister cover-up. One that ought to have every every freedom-loving American very afraid. Had you heard? Birds aren’t real. Those feathered things in the sky are actually government surveillance drones. The CIA wiped out all the real birds in a secret military mission starting in the Sixties, and replaced the birds with bots to spy on Americans. They assassinated Kennedy because he refused to go along with it. You wanna go deeper? How much time ya got?

The whistleblower remained in the shadows until the New York Times finally smoked him out – a very un- Deep Throat-ish twentysomething graphic designer from Memphis named Peter McIndoe. Soon the young truth-teller was appearing on nightly news programs looking like a latter-day Abbie Hoffman: bed-headed, unshaved, t-shirt and jeans. He had the air of someone who got a phone call and had ten seconds to flee the premises. Speaking sof tly, torquing up the sense of menace, he laid out the whole conspiracy in granular detail. How birds were systematically killed with poison gas launched from high-altitude bombers over Area 51. If he met skepticism, he doubled down. Online, believers leapt to his defense, eager to unmask the inquisitors as part of the real conspiracy: “This is a psyop to discredit the Birds Aren’t Real movement,” one poster on Twitter put it.

Meanwhile, over in the UK, another merry prankster was spreading FUD on the streets of Birmingham. Foka Wolf — a shadowy public artist in the Banksy mold (identity unknown; m.o.: in-and-out-before the wheatpaste dries). Unlike Banksy’s, his creations aren’t visual poems; they’re straight-up visual bullshit. Wolf is an apostle of the post-truth apocalypse, just like McIndoe. For these artists, misinformation is their currency and their canvas.

One morning not long ago a series of political ads appeared on London tube trains. In one, the Conservative Party promised to “erase all disabled people by December 2020.” In another, the party pledged to “cut all homeless people in half by 2025.” The ads seemed legit if you glanced at them quickly. But they were of course Foka Wolf creations. Just like the other sharp looking fake ads around town. The vacant-lot billboard announcing a coming condo development (“Erasing History to Maximize Profit”). The PSA giving drivers of Jeeps and other 4x4s the good news that they “may be eligible for a free penis enlargement.” Every one of them is Instagram bait. Every “risograph,” as Wolf calls them, an NFT-in-the-making. The target here isn’t some identifiable corporate villain, like in the fake ads of yore. It’s the culture itself — confused, gullible and chasing its own tail until it no longer knows what’s true and what isn’t, and isn’t at all sure it cares.

CULTURE JAMMING DIDN'T DIE  — IT JUST SKIPPED A GENERATION.

The new Gen Z jammers weren’t even a gleam in their parents’ eye when the Situationists were papering the Continent with their official-looking “Real Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy.” They weren’t yet born when the Yes Men, posing as George W. Bush supporters, urged Americans to sign a Patriot Pledge promising to keep nuclear waste in their yard. They were still in diapers when Adbusters was getting up to speed, and when No Logo was published, and when Reverend Billy started trooping into Starbucks to perform exorcisms on the cash registers. Yet the residue of that old resistance still greases these new gears.

CULTURE JAMMING 2.0 ISN'T NEW BECAUSE THE JAMMERS HAVE CHANGED.

IT'S NEW BECAUSE THE WORLD HAS CHANGED.

As Abbie Hoffman threw handfuls of dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, it was crystal clear what the jam meant: he was disrupting the sacred ritual of institutionalized greed. You didn’t need a playbill to recognize the actors, the audience, the message of the pantomime back then. Now it’s not so clear. Black-and-white has faded to grey. We can’t agree any more what on we’re even talking about. Consumer capitalism was the fat target for years, but in the post-truth era, the jammer’s wedge is aiming deeper, into the root system of the giant bullshit generator of the Internet. How do you fight misinformation? By making even more of it. By sowing confusion. Turns out this works against any argument you want to undermine.

Last May, after the Texas abortion ban, a protest erupted on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. The pro-lifers and pro-choicers were nose-to-nose. It looked like it might get violent. Then the Birds Aren’t Real brigade showed up. They too were pissed. And they too had their chants and their signs. If It Flies, It Lies. And: Bird Watching Goes Both Ways. People were flummoxed. The pro-life protest immediately lost steam, and folks soon started drifting home. Surveying the scene, a Times reporter remarked: “I think Birds Aren’t Real accidentally invented a new form of counterprotesting.”

One that apparently scratches an itch deep within the psyche of Gen Z.

Some of the young followers who took up arms for Birds Aren’t Real talk of how therapeutic it’s been for them to go all Joey Skaggs at a time when everything feels massively unstable, and facts crumble at a touch. “I think a lot of people feel the madness,” McIndoe told the Times, “and don’t really have a way to express it.”

Here’s something else that’s new. These days, even when the ruse is so outrageous it’d make Jonathan Swift go, “Whoa, pray dial it back, bro,” people just aren’t getting the joke. Doesn’t matter if we’re being sold a bill of goods by corporations, conspiracy theorists … or pranksters. It’s as if the satire filters are kaput — because the truth filters are, too.

In one campaign Foka Wolf cooked up, official-looking signs went up on the doors of the washrooms in McDonald’s: “This restroom is currently out of order. Please use the children’s ball pit.” Instead of folks taking a second to process, going “Eww!” and laughing, they simply turned around and left. At a time when everything is in doubt, many of us have lost the muscle to critically appraise the messages that hit us — especially if they look official. “People will believe anything if it’s packaged and polished a certain way,” Foka Wolf told a filmmaker. “That really troubles me.”

Jamming is an edge activity, by definition. But there is always the chance that if the conditions are right — the center isn’t holding and revolution is in the air — it could seize the imagination of a whole culture. It’s just that no one thought it would happen in China.

In Beijing, during the pandemic, Xi Jinping appeared on state television to deliver the stirring message that “China’s hope lies in youth.” Look at the fight in them! Whereupon a fair number of China’s youth replied by collectively … rolling over and pulling the covers over their head. Tang ping,” the move was dubbed. Literally, “lying flat.”

It seemed Chinese youth had their own message for the “great leader and helmsman”: this dog-eat-dog culture is kicking the crap out of us. For years we accepted the bargain: no gain without pain. But lately there’s been too much pain — and frankly we’re not seeing the gain. The rewards are not as advertised. Where is the gain? Please explain. We can wait, we’re not busy.

When working harder isn’t getting you any closer to your goals, the workaround is obvious: just lower your goals. Eventually you can reach them without even getting out of bed!

As the pandemic eased, Chinese officials were relieved. They would shake out the cobwebs, surely. This is what people do when they’re feeling cut off and isolated: they join wackadoodle movements. Now that everyone’s emerging into the real world again, no doubt that would end the strange, oh-so-un-Chinese behavior.

It wasn’t. The resistance just shifted into a new phase. Tang ping gave way to bai lan.

Which translates to something like: “let it rot.”

This is more serious cheese.

The phrase bai lan is actually borrowed from professional basketball. There comes a point in a losing season when you say, Fuck it, it’s over. Let’s basically give up and be first in line for a high draft choice next season. In the West we’d call it “tanking.”

The difference is, tanking in sports is strategic. You raise the white flag today so that you can roar back stronger than ever tomorrow. But this economic bai lan of the young Chinese seems to have no such endgame. The message is, We refuse to co-operate with the official narrative … until the narrative changes.

If tang ping was a cry for help on a personal level — a rebuke to the constant urgency, the exhausting, socially mandated drive to work and work and scratch and claw for status — bai lan is a more global yawp. It’s a verdict against a whole system — a judgment that go-go capitalism is an idea on the wane. As bai lan bites in, another Chinese phrase keeps coming up that conveys the depressing fatalism:

"DEAD PIGS ARE NOT AFRAID OF BOILING WATER."

In China, the greatest urban migration in history — and the biggest mass movement of poor to rich — clearly didn’t deliver on its promise. Instead, a lot of young Chinese believe they were led into the temple to pray to a false god.

The Guardian quoted a 29-year-old creative from Beijing named Sal Hang. He’d been a flight engineer but moved to the city to pursue his passion in the music industry. It didn’t pan out. Which made him wonder if, now, such a dream can ever pan out. “We cannot make any long-term plans for our lives any more,” the young man said, “because we do not know what is going to happen to us even five years down the road.”

So this is culture jamming in 2022: a chameleonic response to a shifting landscape. The resistance is comical, it’s absurd, it’s cryptic. It’s as forceful as the turn of a monkeywrench and as passive as a protester gone limp in the grip of a cop at a forest blockade. Success is measured by the volume of smoke blown back in the eyes of the spreaders of lies. And the amount of fun the jammers are having. And the fact that we are all still here.

Last spring, a dozen elephants were spotted walking out of a game reserve in China’s Yunnan province, their ancestral home for generations, and heading for the city. People began tuning in for live, real-time news feeds of the rogue elephants of Yunnan. Night-vision cameras caught them tromping moonily across the landscape, through car dealerships and people’s back yards, casually flattening clotheslines and barbecues, crossing major highways, oblivious to bylaws, road signs, property boundaries hundreds of kilometers behind them now. Motive: unknown. Destination: unknown.

Scientists were divided on what exactly was going on. Something had awakened these animals’ wild instincts. Or maybe the elephants were detecting man-made changes in the landscape — plantations just over the horizon — and the olfactory rush was drawing them out.

Whatever the reason, young Chinese watched, rapt.

The breakdown of order was intoxicating.

“You can watch the world change in front of you,” one commentator said, “if you have enough battery life to stream it.”

Bruce Grierson

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