Culture jamming (sometimes guerrilla communication) is a tactic used by many anti-consumerist social movements to disrupt or subvert media culture and its mainstream cultural institutions, including corporate advertising. It attempts to "expose the methods of domination" of a mass society to foster progressive change.
Culture jamming is a form of subvertising. Many culture jams are intended to expose questionable political assumptions behind commercial culture. Culture jamming makes use of the technique détournement, which uses the language and rhetoric of the mainstream paradigm or culture to subversively critique the paradigm or culture. Tactics include re-figuring logos, fashion statements, and product images as a means to challenge the idea of "what's cool". Culture jamming often entails using mass media to produce ironic or satirical commentary about itself, commonly using the original medium's communication method.
Culture jamming is employed as a reaction against social conformity. Prominent examples of culture jamming include the adulteration of billboard advertising by the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF), and contemporary artists such as Ron English. Culture jamming may involve street parties and protests. While culture jamming usually focuses on subverting or critiquing political and advertising messages, some proponents focus on a more positive (often musically inspired) form which brings together artists, scholars, and activists to create new types of cultural production that transcend – rather than merely criticize – the status quo.
The term was coined in 1984 by Don Joyce of the sound collage band Negativland, with the release of their album JamCon '84. The phrase "culture jamming" comes from the idea of radio jamming: that public frequencies can be pirated and subverted for independent communication, or to disrupt dominant frequencies. In one of the tracks of the album, they stated:
As awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life grows, some resist. The skillfully reworked billboard... directs the public viewer to a consideration of the original corporate strategy. The studio for the cultural jammer is the world at large.
According to Vince Carducci, although the term was coined by Negativland, culture jamming can be traced as far back as the 1950s. One particularly influential group that was active in Europe was the Situationist International and was led by Guy Debord. The SI asserted that in the past humans dealt with life and the consumer market directly. They argued that this spontaneous way of life was slowly deteriorating as a direct result of the new "modern" way of life. Situationists saw everything from television to radio as a threat  and argued that life in industrialized areas, driven by capitalist forces, had become monotonous, sterile, gloomy, linear, and productivity driven. In particular, the SI argued humans had become passive recipients of the spectacle, a simulated reality that generates the desire to consume, and positions humans as obedient consumerist cogs within the efficient and exploitative productivity loop of capitalism. Through playful activity, individuals could create situations, the opposite of spectacles. For the SI, these situations took the form of the dérive, or the active drift of the body through space in ways that broke routine and overcame boundaries, creating situations by exiting habit and entering new interactive possibilities.
The cultural critic Mark Dery traces the origins of culture jamming to medieval carnival, which Mikhail Bakhtin interpreted, in Rabelais and his World, as an officially sanctioned subversion of the social hierarchy. Modern precursors might include: the media-savvy agit-prop of the anti-Nazi photomonteur John Heartfield, the sociopolitical street theater and staged media events of 1960s radicals such as Abbie Hoffman, Joey Skaggs, the German concept of Spaßguerilla, and in the Situationist International (SI) of the 1950s and 1960s. The SI first compared its own activities to radio jamming in 1968, when it proposed the use of guerrilla communication within mass media to sow confusion within the dominant culture. In 1985, the Guerrilla Girls formed to expose discrimination and corruption in the art world.
Mark Dery's New York Times article on culture jamming, "The Merry Pranksters And the Art of the Hoax" was the first mention, in the mainstream media, of the phenomenon; Dery later expanded on this article in his 1993 Open Magazine pamphlet, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of the Signs, a seminal essay that remains the most exhaustive historical, sociopolitical, and philosophical theorization of culture jamming to date. Adbusters, a Canadian publication espousing an environmentalist critique of consumerism and advertising, began promoting aspects of culture jamming after Dery introduced founder and editor Kalle Lasn to the term through a series of articles he wrote for the magazine. In her critique of consumerism, No Logo, the Canadian cultural commentator and political activist Naomi Klein examines culture jamming in a chapter which focuses on the work of Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada. Through an analysis of the Where the Hell is Matt viral videos, researchers Milstein and Pulos analyze how the power of the culture jam to disrupt the status quo is currently being threatened by increasing commercial incorporation. For example, T-Mobile utilized the Liverpool street underground station to host a flashmob to sell their mobile services.
Culture jamming is a form of disruption that plays on the emotions of viewers and bystanders. Jammers want to disrupt the unconscious thought process that takes place when most consumers view a popular advertising and bring about a détournement. Activists that utilize this tactic are counting on their meme to pull on the emotional strings of people and evoke some type of reaction. The reactions that most cultural jammers are hoping to evoke are behavioral change and political action. There are four emotions that activists often want viewers to feel. These emotions – shock, shame, fear, and anger – are believed to be the catalysts for social change.
The basic unit in which a message is transmitted in culture jamming is the meme. Memes are condensed images that stimulate visual, verbal, musical, or behavioral associations that people can easily imitate and transmit to others. The term meme was coined and first popularized by geneticist Richard Dawkins, but later used by cultural critics such as Douglas Rushkoff, who claimed memes were a type of media virus. Memes are seen as genes that can jump from outlet to outlet and replicate themselves or mutate upon transmission just like a virus. Culture jammers will often use common symbols such as the McDonald's golden arches or Nike swoosh to engage people and force them to think about their eating habits or fashion sense. In one example, jammer Jonah Peretti used the Nike symbol to stir debate on sweatshop child labor and consumer freedom. Peretti made public exchanges between himself and Nike over a disagreement. Peretti had requested custom Nikes with the word "sweatshop" placed in the Nike symbol. Nike refused. Once this story was made public over Peretti's website, it spread worldwide and contributed to the already robust conversation and dialogue about Nike's use of sweatshops, which had been ongoing for a decade prior to Peretti's 2001 stunt. Jammers can also organize and participate in mass campaigns. Examples of cultural jamming like Perretti's are more along the lines of tactics that radical consumer social movements would use. These movements push people to question the taken-for-granted assumption that consuming is natural and good and aim to disrupt the naturalization of consumer culture; they also seek to create systems of production and consumption that are more humane and less dominated by global corporate hypercapitalism. Past mass events and ideas have included "Buy Nothing Day", "Digital Detox Week", virtual sit-ins and protests over the Internet, producing ‘subvertisements' and placing them in public spaces, and creating and enacting ‘placejamming' projects where public spaces are reclaimed and nature is re-introduced into urban places.
The most effective form of jamming is to use an already widely recognizable meme to transmit the message. Once viewers are forced to take a second look at the mimicked popular meme they are forced out of their comfort zone. Viewers are presented with another way to view the meme and forced to think about the implications presented by the jammer. More often than not, when this is used as a tactic the jammer is going for shock value. For example, to make consumers aware of the negative body image that big-name fashion brands are frequently accused of causing, a subvertisement of Calvin Klein's 'Obsession' was created and played worldwide. It depicted a young woman with an eating disorder throwing up into a toilet.
Another way that social consumer movements hope to utilize culture jamming effectively is by employing a metameme. A metameme is a two-level message that punctures a specific commercial image, but does so in a way that challenges some larger aspect of the political culture of corporate domination. An example would be the "true cost" campaign set in motion by Adbusters. "True Cost" forced consumers to compare the human labor cost and conditions and environmental drawbacks of products to the sales costs. Another example would be the "Truth" campaigns that frequented television in the past years that exposed the deception tobacco companies used to sell their products.
Following critical scholars like Paulo Freire, Culture jams are also being Integrated into the university classroom "setting in which students and teachers gain the opportunity not only to learn methods of informed public critique, but also to collaboratively use participatory communication techniques to actively create new locations of meaning." For example, students disrupt public space to bring attention to community concerns or utilize subvertisments to engage with media literacy projects.
Culture jamming is sometimes confused with artistic appropriation or with acts of vandalism which have destruction or defacement as their primary goal. Although the end result is not always easily distinguishable from these activities, the intent of those participating in culture jamming differs from that of people whose intent is either artistic or merely destructive. The lines are not always clear-cut; some activities, notably street art, will fall into two or even all three categories.
Recently there have been arguments against the validity and effectiveness of culture jamming. Some argue that culture jamming is easily co-opted and commodified by the market, which tends to "defuse" its potential for consumer resistance. Others posit that the culture jamming strategy of rhetorical sabotage, used by Adbusters, is easily incorporated and appropriated by clever advertising agencies, and thus is not a very powerful means of social change. Yet other critics argue that without moving beyond mere critique to offering an alternative economic, social, cultural and/or political vision, jams quickly lose their power and resonance.
The Adbusters Media Foundation is a Canadian-based not-for-profit, pro-environment organization founded in 1989 by Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz in Vancouver, British Columbia. Adbusters 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."Characterized by some as anti-capitalist or opposed to capitalism, it publishes the reader-supported, advertising-free Adbusters, an activist magazine with an international circulation of 120,000 by the late 2000s devoted to challenging consumerism. Past and present contributors to the magazine include Jonathan Barnbrook, Morris Berman, Brendan Connell, Simon Critchley, David Graeber, Michael Hardt, Chris Hedges, Bill McKibben, Jim Munroe, David Orrell, Douglas Rushkoff, Matt Taibbi, Slavoj Žižek, and others.
Adbusters has launched numerous international campaigns, including Buy Nothing Day, TV Turnoff Week and Occupy Wall Street, and is known for their "subvertisements" that spoof popular advertisements. In English, Adbusters has bi-monthly American, Canadian, Australian, UK and International editions of each issue. Adbusters's sister organizations include Résistance à l'Aggression Publicitaire and Casseurs de Pub in France, Adbusters Norge in Norway, Adbusters Sverige in Sweden and Culture Jammers in Japan.Artivism
Artivism is a portmanteau word combining art and activism.
Artivism takes roots or branches off of a 1997 gathering between Chicano artists from East Los Angeles and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. The words "Artivist" and "Artivism" were popularized through a variety of events, actions and artworks via artists and musicians such as Quetzal, Ozomatli, Mujeres de Maiz among other East LA artists and at spaces such as Self Help Graphics & Art.
Artivism developed in recent years as antiwar and anti-globalization protests emerged and proliferated. In many cases artivists attempt to push political agendas by the means of art, but a focus on raising social, environmental, and technical awareness is also common. Besides using traditional mediums like film and music to raise awareness or push for change, an artivist can also be involved in culture jamming, subvertising, street art, spoken word, protesting, and activism.Artivist Eve Ensler stated:
... This passion has all the ingredients of activism, but is charged with the wild creations of art. Artivism—where edges are pushed, imagination is freed, and a new language emerges altogether." Bruce Lyons has written: "... artivism ... promotes the essential understanding that ... [humans] ... can, through courageous creative expression, experience the unifying power of love when courage harnesses itself to the task of art + social responsibility.
By 2008, the term had made its way into academic writing, with Chela Sandoval and Guisela Latorre published a piece on Chicano/a artivism and M. K. Asante used the term in reference to Black artists.There is a chapter on artivism in the book It's Bigger Than Hip Hop by M. K. Asante. Asante writes of the artivist:
The artivist (artist + activist) uses her artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression—by any medium necessary. The artivist merges commitment to freedom and justice with the pen, the lens, the brush, the voice, the body, and the imagination. The artivist knows that to make an observation is to have an obligation.Barbie Liberation Organization
The Barbie Liberation Organization or BLO, sponsored by RTMark, are a group of artists and activists involved in culture jamming. They gained notoriety in 1993 by switching the voice boxes on talking G.I. Joes and Barbie dolls. The BLO performed "surgery" on a reported 300–500 dolls and then returned them to the shelves of stores, an action they refer to as shopgiving. This action resulted in girls opening their new Teen Talk Barbie to hear it say phrases such as "vengeance is mine" and boys hearing their G.I. Joe say "The beach is the place for summer."Billboard Liberation Front
The Billboard Liberation Front practices culture jamming via altering billboards by changing key words to radically alter the message, often to an anti-corporate message. It started in San Francisco in 1977.Advertising executives informed Jill Posener, author of Spray it Loud (1982), that the exectives designed billboards to attract attacks because the changes drew attention to the products. The BLF were aware of this possibility and considered invoicing advertisers including Chiat Day for the BLF's work.In 2013, Complex Magazine named the BLF #27 of The 50 Most Influential Street Artists of All Time.Billboard hacking
Billboard hacking or billboard hijacking is the practice of altering a billboard without the consent of the owner. It may involve physically pasting new media over the existing image, or hacking into the system used to control electronic billboard displays. The aim is to replace the programmed video with a different video or image. The replaced media may be displayed for various reasons, including culture jamming, shock value, promotion, activism, political propaganda, or simply to amuse viewers.Church of Euthanasia
The Church of Euthanasia (also known as CoE) is a religious organization founded by Reverend Chris Korda and Pastor Kim (Robert Kimberk) in Boston, Massachusetts, United States in 1992.As stated in the Church's website, it is "a non-profit educational foundation devoted to restoring balance between Humans and the remaining species on Earth". Members of this organization affirm this can only turn into a reality by a massive voluntary population reduction, which will depend on a leap in human consciousness to species-awareness. According to Rev. Chris Korda it is likely that this Church is the world's only anti-human religion.Its most popular slogan is "Save the Planet, Kill Yourself" and its founding ideology is set in one commandment "Thou Shalt not Procreate", and four main pillars: suicide, abortion, cannibalism (of the already dead) and sodomy ("any sexual act not intended for procreation"). The Church stresses population reduction by voluntary means only.The Church promotes its environmental views mainly via their website and the web. They also utilize sermons, art performances, public demonstrations, culture jamming, music, publicity stunts and direct action to highlight Earth's unsustainable population. They consider their methods similar to those of the Dadaist movement, finding the modern world so absurd that the means needed to reach their message to the public must be absurd themselves.
The Church of Euthanasia is also notorious for its conflicts with pro-life Christian activists.Slogans employed by the group include "Save the Planet, Kill Yourself", "Six Billion Humans Can't Be Wrong", and "Eat a Queer Fetus for Jesus".Clothing-optional bike ride
A clothing-optional bike ride is a cycling event in which nudity is permitted or expected. There are many clothing-optional cycling events around the world. Some rides are political, recreational, artistic or a unique combination. Some are used to promote topfreedom, a social movement to accord women and girls the right to be topless in public where men and boys have that right. This event takes place around the World on "20th of June" each year.
Body art (such as body painting) are common forms of creative expression, as well as costumes, art bikes, portable sound reinforcement systems (such as public address systems/bullhorns, and boomboxes), musical instruments as well as other types of noisemakers.
Many of the political rides have their roots from Critical Mass and are often described or categorized as a form of political protest, street theatre, party-on-wheels, streaking, public nudity and clothing-optional recreation and thus attracts a wide range of participants.Cybersquatting
Cybersquatting (also known as domain squatting), according to the United States federal law known as the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, is registering, trafficking in, or using an Internet domain name with bad faith intent to profit from the goodwill of a trademark belonging to someone else. The cybersquatter then offers to sell the domain to the person or company who owns a trademark contained within the name at an inflated price.
The term is derived from "squatting", which is the act of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied space or building that the squatter does not own, rent, or otherwise have permission to use.Détournement
A détournement (French: [detuʁnəmɑ̃]), meaning "rerouting, hijacking" in French, is a technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist International, and later adapted by the Situationist International (SI), that was defined in the SI's inaugural 1958 journal as "[t]he integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres."It has been defined elsewhere as "turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself"—as when slogans and logos are turned against their advertisers or the political status quo.Détournement was prominently used to set up subversive political pranks, an influential tactic called situationist prank that was reprised by the punk movement in the late 1970s and inspired the culture jamming movement in the late 1980s.Its opposite is recuperation, in which radical ideas or the social image of people who are viewed negatively are twisted, commodified, and absorbed in a more socially acceptable context.Flash mob
A flash mob (or flashmob) is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then quickly disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression. Flash mobs are organized via telecommunications, social media, or viral emails.The term, coined in 2003, is generally not applied to events and performances organized for the purposes of politics (such as protests), commercial advertisement, publicity stunts that involve public relation firms, or paid professionals. In these cases of a planned purpose for the social activity in question, the term smart mobs is often applied instead.
The term "flash rob" or "flash mob robberies", a reference to the way flash mobs assemble, has been used to describe a number of robberies and assaults perpetrated suddenly by groups of teenage youth. Bill Wasik, originator of the first flash mobs, and a number of other commentators have questioned or objected to the usage of "flash mob" to describe criminal acts.Guerrilla communication
Guerrilla communication and communication guerrilla refer to an attempt to provoke subversive effects through interventions in the process of communication.
It can be distinguished from other classes of political action because it is not based on the critique of the dominant discourses but in the interpretation of the signs in a different way. Its main goal is to make a critical non-questioning of the existing, for reasons ranging from political activism to marketing. In terms of marketing, journalist Warren Berger explains unconventional guerrilla-style advertising as "something that lurks all around, hits us where we live, and invariably takes us by surprise". These premises apply to the entire spectrum of guerrilla communication because each tactic intends to disrupt cognitive schemas and thought processing.
The term was created in 1997 by Luther Blissett and Sonja Brünzels, with the publication of Kommunication Guerrilla Handbook (originally in German, translated in 2001 to Spanish and Italian). Both pertain to autonome a.f.r.i.k.a gruppe, which includes many people involved in communication guerrillas such as activists and non-artists living in different German peripheries. However, it was used before in 1984 by Jay Conrad Levinson, as a marketing strategy for small businesses.Hacktivism
In Internet activism, hacktivism or hactivism (a portmanteau of hack and activism) is the use of technology to promote a political agenda or a social change. With roots in hacker culture and hacker ethics, its ends are often related to the free speech, human rights, or freedom of information movements.The term was coined in 1994 by a Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) member known as "Omega" in an e-mail to the group. Due to the variety of meanings of its root words, hacktivism is sometimes ambiguous and there exists significant disagreement over the kinds of activities and purposes it encompasses. Some definitions include acts of cyberterrorism while others simply reaffirm the use of technological hacking to effect social change.List of culture jamming organizations and people
This is a list of people and organisations that engage in culture jamming.Media prank
A media prank is a type of media event, perpetrated by staged speeches, activities, or press releases, designed to trick legitimate journalists into publishing erroneous or misleading articles. The term may also refer to such stories if planted by fake journalists, as well as the false story thereby published. A media prank is a form of culture jamming generally done as performance art or a practical joke for purposes of a humorous critique of mass media.Operation Mindfuck
Operation Mindfuck or OM is an important practice in the Discordian religion. The concept was developed by Kerry Thornley and Robert Anton Wilson in 1968 and given its name by Wilson and Robert Shea in The Illuminatus! Trilogy.Provo (movement)
Provo was a Dutch counterculture movement in the mid-1960s that focused on provoking violent responses from authorities using non-violent bait. It was preceded by the nozem movement and followed by the hippie movement. Provo was founded, on 25 May 1965, by Robert Jasper Grootveld, an anti-smoking activist, and the anarchists Roel van Duijn and Rob Stolk. The term was used for the movement as a whole and for individual members. Provo was officially disbanded on 13 May 1967.Subvertising
Subvertising (a portmanteau of subvert and advertising) is the practice of making spoofs or parodies of corporate and political advertisements. Subvertisements may take the form of a new image or an alteration to an existing image or icon, often in a satirical manner. A subvertisement can also be referred to as a meme hack and can be a part of social hacking or culture jamming. According to Adbusters, a Canadian magazine and a proponent of counter-culture and subvertising, "A well produced 'subvert' mimics the look and feel of the targeted ad, promoting the classic 'double-take' as viewers suddenly realize they have been duped. Subverts create cognitive dissonance. It cuts through the hype and glitz of our mediated reality and, momentarily, reveals a deeper truth within."
Subvertising is a type of advertising hijacking (détournement publicité), where détournement techniques developed in the 1950s by the French Letterist International and later used by the better-known Situationist International have been used as a contemporary critical form to re-route advertising messages.
In 1972, the logo of Richard Nixon's reelection campaign posters was subvertised with two x's in Nixon's name (as in the Exxon logo) to suggest the corporate ownership of the Republican party.Whirl-Mart
Whirl-Mart is a culture jamming ritual aimed at retail superstores and described by participants as "art and action".An event consists of a group of supposed shoppers who congregate at a large superstore (usually a Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us, Asda, or Sainsbury's) and slowly push empty shopping carts silently through store aisles. Participants will not purchase anything and seek to form a lengthy chain of non-shoppers, continually weaving and "whirling" through a maze of store aisles for up to an hour at a time. Participants describe their actions as "a collective reclamation of space that is otherwise only used for buying and selling". Whirl-Marters seek to mimic and mock what they perceive as the absurdity of the shopping process.Yarn bombing
Yarn bombing (or yarnbombing) is a type of graffiti or street art that employs colourful displays of knitted or crocheted yarn or fibre rather than paint or chalk. It is also called yarn storming, guerrilla knitting, kniffiti, urban knitting, or graffiti knitting.