Creative Activism: Culture Jamming and Video Activism

The word “activist” carries connotations ranging from wardrobe choices to number of jail sentences, wherein the nuances of activism are often lost. Arguably, the major distinction between types of activists can be made between those on the front-line and the spotlight, and auxiliaries handling crucial logistics and organization issues behind scenes.

This distinction holds true across various forms of activism, two of which are video activism and culture jamming. Both these forms have few to no barriers to participation, and hold potential to generate mass awareness and community mobilization.

Video Activism

With the ease of amateur production that comes with high quality, cheaply available handheld camcorders, and even lower quality video recorders integrated into smartphones, video activism is now increasingly inclusive, especially with the presence of grassroots satellite networks.

Of these, the Deep Dish TV network has been operating since 1986, and aims to provide “new, democratic and empowering ways to make and distribute video.” It links thousands of artists, independent video makers, programmers and social activists in a combined effort to challenge corporate mass media and its suppression, agenda setting and framing, and mass manipulation of information.

Logo of Deep Dish TV network. The “deep dish” of the name refers to the pie in the logo, which is replaced with a pizza in some variations.

The role of grassroots satellite networks is crucial in this respect: satellite technology is sold wholesale, inhibiting individuals’ access to it. Yet when collectives such as Deep Dish rent airtime, collect contributed material from a variety of producers and disseminate these through satellite, amateur productions reach a global audience. In this scenario, the combination of amateur production, computers and satellites allows for global exchange between grassroots organizations.

The disseminated productions are a form of “narrowcasting.” They aim for a niche audience. This is amplified due to the lack of technical skill and lower viewing quality characteristic of amateur productions, in contrast to mass media productions. Here, the focus on content increases, since audiences tend to overlook poor quality for mind-blowing alternative content.

Culture Jamming

Culture jamming relies on shock value to appeal to masses and not a niche audience, unlike most video activism. Culture jamming refers to activism that seeks to interrupt and sabotage prevalent power structures, to gain visibility through shock tactics. It aims to jostle its audience into intellectual response.

One of the better known culture jammers, the anti-capitalist AdBusters group based in Vancouver has been linked to the initial call to Occupy Wall Street. This organization “aims to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we live in the 21st century,” and publishes a non-profit reader-supported 120,000-circulation magazine.

Fruit of AdBusters’ “black spot” shoe campaign.

According to the website, its Media Foundation is a “global network of activists, artists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.”

Culture jammers’ tactics range from defacing billboards and corporate property to producing spoof ads, such as Adbusters’ subvertisements that parody corporate ad campaigns, while encouraging critical analyses of the underlying rhetorical and hierarchical structures at work in these media.  These also undermine the public relations tactics many corporations rely on to maintain consumer favour as they engage in ecologically and socially harmful activities.

AdBusters’ “black spot” shoe campaign re-appropriates the style of Nike sneakers, placing a black spot where the Nike Swoosh would appear. The organization says: “Blackspot is an affront to the consciousness of hyper capitalism and profit dominated boardroom policies. Blackspot is about more than marketing a brand or deconstructing the meaning of cool – it’s about changing the way the world does business.”

The campaign enhances this comparison by parodying the Nike slogan, such as “Just douche it” and “sick of just doing it.”  People can participate in this activism just by favoring Blackspot shoes over those often produced by name brands in sweatshops worldwide.

The black spot campaign also elicits comparison with Nike slogans

AdBusters magazine also encourages readers to document and submit their own culture jams, to create a global community based on political pranks and art-production.

Within this form of activism, the difference between front-line and auxiliary activism can be found at work. Front-line activists prefer going out and engaging in culture jams, which carry social and judicial consequences. Auxiliary activists may prefer to engage in the dissemination and coverage of these, for example the editors and publishers of the AdBusters magazine.

Alternatively, activists may choose to work independently, like the UK-based street artist Banksy. As a political activist and graffiti artist, he has gained global recognition for both his artistic skill and the political and social commentary informing his artwork.

While he is not a self-proclaimed culture jammer, his work shows parallels with such activism and showcases the global impact an individual’s culture jams can have. He has gained a massive following as a cultural icon.

However, his success and avoidance of judicial repercussions may well be related to the fact that “Banksy” is a pseudonym. His real identity remains unknown despite his burgeoning fame.

Attempting activism

Video activism and culture jamming are both relatively simple tactics that shift the emphasis from technical skills to creativity. Both hold potential to reach and to mobilize global audiences for a cause, while allowing for the proliferation of democratic production practices.

In this context, collaborating with a like-minded community gains importance, since disjointed fragments often create less of a political and social impact than collectives. Here, AdBusters and Deep Dish provide long-standing examples of the cultural impact of collective collaboration, especially through shared resources – such as airtime and circulation base – that allow for democratic production.

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