A Pie in the Face

By Baines, Paul | Alternatives Journal, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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A Pie in the Face


Baines, Paul, Alternatives Journal


Culture jammers re-code, hijack, subvert, un-cool, de-myth and reclaim the cultural sphere

Who would have imagined that Intel engineers would engrave "bill sux" on their Pentium microprocessors, as on-line chat rooms rumoured. In fact, Bill Gates and Microsoft's dominant position in the world computer industry offer an especially fitting target for today's culture jammers.

Indeed, computer software can be used as a metaphor for understanding culture. As a human "operating system," culture normalizes, names and codes the parts and relations of our world, while interfacing the personal with the public, thoughts with behaviours, and ideals with realities.

Like an operating system, our culture is based on a changing set of assumptions about values and needs in an historical, technological and social matrix. The logic or syntax of the system helps us organize and administer everyday life, giving order to the chaos. It works on a multitude of cultural platforms, including language, aesthetics, management theory, media and social conventions. Culture is essentially a sense-making program with a set of human codes that are continuously being written and rewritten.

Jammers try to understand how the formulas work and then undermine them. University students want to get car, beer and credit card ads out of their washrooms, so they paper over Zoom Media ads with their own anti-commercial promotions. Guerrilla Media in Vancouver hijacks existing newspaper networks by wrapping commercial dailies in its own "look-alike" layout that might be mistaken for the real front page, but with mocking, critical content. Or the David Suzuki Foundation splurges on buying billboard space, as it did for the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary last June, featuring an overblown image of a gun-looking gas pump, along with the text "Pollution is Killing Us."

Culture jammers prey on the cultural sphere because they spurn the dominant coding complex with its commercialism, push-button democracy, info-tainment, negative stereotypes, ecological externalities and rationalization of mass poverty man age of extreme wealth. They reroute the power of culture to ignite social change by challenging the legitimacy of pre- and mass-packaged ideas. Culture jamming is like a computer virus that attacks host formats and networks and uses the operating system against itself in a kind of "mass political jujitsu." [1]

The word "jamming" used in this context comes from ham radio language. Originally, it meant illegally interrupting a signal. Now it includes a broad lexicon of recoding, hijacking, subverting, un-cooling, de-mything and reclaiming the cultural sphere.

Mark Dery, author of the booklet Culture Jamming: Hacking Slashing and sniping in the Empire of Signs, analyzes the jammer's methods as follows: they "introduce noise into the signal as it passes from transmitter to receiver, encouraging idiosyncratic, unintended interpretations. Intruding on the intruders, they invest ads, newscasts and other media artifacts with subversive meanings; simultaneously they decrypt them, rendering their seductions impotent." [2]

An important source of inspiration for modern jammers comes from the Situationist movement that started (and more or less petered out) in the 1960s. Shining a light on the "spectacle", which is what they called modern living, the Situationists proposed the turning around or detournement the mental environment to create new ways of living. This movement of artists and cultural theorists was reacting against the essential emptiness of a commercial-based society and the kind of spectacular alienation it engenders.

Kalle Lasn recaptures the Situationist critique in Adbusters, a magazine he founded ten years ago and that has since developed into the culture jammer's unofficial flagship. Author of Culture jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge- and Why We Must, Lasn describes the movement like this:

We jammers are a loose global network of artists, activists, environmentalists, green entrepreneurs, media-literacy teachers, down-shifters, reborn lefties, high school shit disturbers, campus rabble-rousers, dropouts, incorrigibles, poets, philosophers, ecofeminists.

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