Day 396: Pump Up The Culture Jam

originally published January 30, 2013

Are you tired of being controlled and manipulated by mass mainstream media? Do you find yourself zoning out and actually getting concerned about the toilet paper shrapnel clinging to the child-bear’s ass-fur in those Charmin commercials? Are you planning on purchasing a flat of Budweiser for this Sunday’s big game because you know the Bud commercials will probably be the best of the bunch again?

First off, don’t do that. Budweiser is flavorless pap, wrung from the rags of the Prohibition Gods in an effort to make us all hate beer. Second, you may want to shoot back a hot espresso-size cup of culture jamming as a tweak to your hippocampus, a reminder that we are only slaves by choice. Culture jammers try to muck up the system, wake us up by refocusing our attention – just for a moment – then leave us be, our perspective a little skewed and hopefully a little wiser.

The term was born in 1984 (coincidence??? Actually yeah, that’s probably a coincidence), from the notion of radio jamming – commandeering a radio frequency in a true act of on-air piracy. A sound collage band from California called Negativland allegedly concocted the term. These guys deserve their own article someday, but today is all about some of the great media mind-trips of the culture jamming movement.

Years before Stephen Colbert had mastered the art of faux right-wingery, a group calling themselves Billionaires For Bush pretended to be the wealthy and entitled elite they believed were benefiting most from modern-era politics. It started as a campaign called ‘Billionaires For Forbes’ when Steve Forbes announced his candidacy for the 2000 presidential election. Clutching a supportive banner (“Forbes 2000: He Wants YOU To Win!”), they were even invited on stage before the cameras at a Forbes rally. Once Forbes hit the high point of his speech, the subversive group turned their banner around. The banner now read, “Billionaires For Forbes: Because Inequality Isn’t Growing Fast Enough.” They were tossed off the stage, and most of the news cameras ditched Steve and followed them.

The group, founded by Andrew Boyd, trained their sites on George W. Bush and Al Gore, believing neither would provide an environment conducive to non-wealthy citizens. They dressed up in tuxes and gowns and marched wherever they felt they needed to. The group was even infiltrated by NYPD undercover officers in the weeks leading up to the 2004 Republican National Convention. Personally, I’m in favor of any protest movement that results in more top hats and monocles being worn in public.

Over in England, rather than dress beyond one’s financial station, the coolest protesters in town do it up clown-style. That’s the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, a group that seeks to use greasepaint and squirtguns to get their point across. As expected, CIRCA is generally left-leaning and non-supportive of a lot of the British government’s foreign or domestic policy decisions of the last ten years.

Clowning is catchy – CIRCA has branched off into Ireland, France, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Israel. I’ve really got to hand it to their foreign cousins, the Smile Liberation Front in Israel. In a region where foreign policy is often measured by counting how many gun barrels are pointed at you at any given time, slapping on a honking red nose and buffooning it up takes cajones.

Another fun group from the UK. The Space Hijackers aren’t looking to overthrow the government, but they’d like British citizens to know how the world around them can be seen a little differently. They post pictures of playgrounds beside the architectural drawings mounted on luxury buildings. Where public benches have been yanked away by the City of London, these guys haul them back and bolt them down. They set up temporary office space beside parking meters because why not? They paid for the space.

The Space Hijackers have also hosted a number of Circle Line Parties – a reclaiming of space on the London Underground. These groups will provide refreshments, snacks and music, then launch into party mode once the train has left the station into the tunnels. Once the next station comes closer, they wind down so as to avoid drawing attention. The largest of these took place on May 31, 2008, the last night Londoners could legally consume alcohol on public transit.

Wait – you could drink on Tube trains five years ago? That’s just awesome.

A Google bomb occurs when someone finds a way to manipulate the results of a Google search, simply by knowing how Google googles. After US Senator Rick Santorum spurted out some anti-gay rhetoric, columnist Dan Savage harnessed his audience and ensured that googling ‘Santorum’ would reveal a brand-new (and wholly grotesque) definition of the word.

 A French group in 2009 manipulated the system so that a search for “trou du cul du web” (“the asshole of the internet”) would lead one to the page of French president Nicholas Sarkozy. Even my sweet damsel, Wikipedia, has been bombed. In 2011, Anti-abortionists arranged for the #2 result of a Wikipedia search for “murder” to be the article for abortion. Keep your hands off my woman, you activist bastards.

That’s Reverend Billy (not a real reverend) from the Church Of Life After Shopping. Billy – who is actually Bill Talen – is an exquisite culture jammer. He has protested against militarism, the Iraq War, environmental decimation, and perhaps most brilliantly, the evils of consumerism.

In a Disney Store, Billy and his associates walked around, talking on phony cell phones in loud voices about the evils of Disney and its products. He was arrested for singing anti-Disney songs on Main Street, USA. He was arrested again for reciting the First Amendment through a megaphone at police in Union Square, Manhattan. Reverend Billy wants us all to stop feeding money to large corporations and mass media.

I bet Reverend Billy steers clear of Budweiser.

Jamming, I believe, is an essential part of our culture. We need reminders of where we are and what we’re doing, and why some of our patterns could use a little nudge. We need Reverend Billys to remind us that Walmart sells products made in sweatshops, or a posse of clowns to point out the absurdity of war.

Mostly I think we need to start throwing those subway parties. That might yank some people free of their smartphones and make the ride home a lot more interesting.

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