Urban Hacking (3): Hacking Advertising Space

Voices of City Residents – the SMSligshot Project

By Hanna Lutz

“Ιmages and characters hang, stick and flap whereever we look. Advertising on advertising pillars and billboards, on bus stops and in buses, ads in elevators, on taxi roofs, on sidewalks, advertising on the highest high-rise buildings […] Advertising has taken the visual dominance, their images dominate the appearance of towns [….]. This is a principle of Advertising: It must constantly surpass itself. Some of the giant poster that cover entire houses are as big as a football field [and] create their own overwhelming reality. When placed in front of one feels transformed from a subject into an object. It’s not that You look at the big poster, but the poster at the little You.” (1) [My translation]  I came across this words of a ZEIT article the other day and found them very suitable for my Urban Hacking series and its third part about hacking advertising space.

In this blog entry, Urban Hackers appear as Adbusters, Guerilla Gardeners and Street Artists. What they criticize is the advertising industry and their dominant omnipresent codes within the public space as well as the lack of opportunity for city residents to place their own messages into the public space. What Urban Hackers do are playful and creative actions against this dominant (symbolic) occupation of the public space by companies’ logos, signs and advertisement screens, billboards etc. What Urban Hackers share is a philosophy well reflected in the – just recently published – appeal of Banksy: “Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head” .

Banksy on advertising

There is a variety of practices that evolve around this topic. First of all I would like to give an example that can be seen as typical Adbusting – the creative redesign of commercial advertising signs, billboards, logos and slogans for the purpose of a “counter-advertising”: The Bubble Project. Initiated by the American artist Lee Ji in 2002, the Bubble Project aims to break the aggressive one-sided communication of advertising by giving the New York City population the opportunity to respond to advertising messages. 50.000 empty speech bubbles were mounted on billboards so everyone could write their own message on it. On the website of the artist you can still find the “Bubble Template” to print and stick onto billboards in order to deconstruct the semiotic regime of the advertising industry.

The Speech Bubble Project applied on an Apple advertisement

A rather Street Art like project is the SMSlingshot which is a digital intervention, wherein a SMSlingshot “throws” any text message as a kind of colour bomb on urban areas (preferably advertising screens). The SMSlingshot is an “autonom working device, equipped with an ultra-high frequency radio, hacked arduino board, laser and batteries. Text messages can be typed on a phone-sized wooden keypad which is integrated in the also wooden slingshot. After the message is finished, the user can aim on a media facade and send/shoot the message straight to the targeted point. It will then appear as a colored splash with the message written within. The text message will also be real-time twittered – just in case.” (2)  This intervention targets to literally “shoot” and “paint over” omnipresent billboards and screens and the city image is “reconquested” by means of digital images and texts that return a “voice” to the citizens of the city.

Another Urban Hack I’d like to present can be considered both Guerilla Gardening and Adbusting: Poster Pocket Plants. The Canadian guerilla gardeners Eric Cheung and Sean Martindale cut origami pockets into the layers of advertising pillars and small postern and equip them with plants that are scattered all over the advertising space. The  pursue  is both a physical as well as a symbolic occupation of public space. Using plants billboards are  retouched and ​​their message are made unrecognisable.

Poster Pockets

The given examples of Urban Hacks show different ways of dealing with the omnipresence of advertising messages and the limited articulation ability of urban residents in public spaces: The Bubble Project works directly with the advertising signs, encourages city residents to take a rise out of them and deconstruct their genuine messages. The SMSlingshot project uses the the advertising industry’s spaces by temporarily occupying their advertising screens and facades with the city residents’ messages. The Poster Pocket Plants “destroy” entire billboards, make the message unrecognizable and – as a nice side effect – create unexpected green spots in the city.

Even though all those Hacks only allow short-term measures (as the conversed advertising messages will just be replaced by new ones), by means of the Hacks, city residents are made ​​aware of the semiotic regime in public space and are encouraged to imagine or even create a different and “commercial-free” urban space within they have the say.

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