Culture Jamming

Culture jamming 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 purports to ‘expose the methods of domination’ of mass society to foster progressive change.

Culture jamming is a form of subvertising (subversive advertising. Many culture jams are intended to expose apparently questionable political assumptions behind commercial culture. Common tactics include re-figuring logos, fashion statements, and product images as a means to challenge the idea of ‘what’s cool’ along with assumptions about the personal freedoms of consumption.

While most culture jamming focuses on subverting or critiquing political or advertising messages, some practitioners focus on a more positive, musically inspired form of jamming that brings together artists, scholars and activists to create new forms of cultural production that transcend rather than merely criticize or negate the status quo.

Culture jamming sometimes entails transforming mass media to produce ironic or satirical commentary about mass media, using the original medium’s communication method. Culture jamming is usually employed in opposition to a perceived appropriation of public space, or as a reaction against social conformity. Prominent examples of culture jamming include the adulteration of billboard advertising by the BLF (Billboard Liberation Front) and contemporary American artist Ron English and the street parties and protests organised by Reclaim the Streets (a movement against the car as the dominant mode of transport).

Terms sometimes used synonymously with the term culture jamming include ‘guerrilla semiotics’ and ‘night discourse.’ The term ‘culture jamming’ was coined in 1984 by the sound collage band Negativland, with the release of their album ‘JamCon ’84.’ The phrase comes from the idea of radio jamming: that public frequencies can be pirated and subverted for independent communication, or to disrupt dominant frequencies. On the album, they declared: ‘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 cultural critic 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, led by French filmmaker and Marxist theorist Guy Debord. Their main argument was based on the idea 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.

Another cultural critic Mark Dery traces the origins of culture jamming to medieval carnival, which Russian philosopher 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 ’60s radicals such as Abbie Hoffman, the German concept of ‘Spassguerilla’ (fun guerrilla), and in the Situationist International (SI) of the 1950s and ’60s. 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.

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, began promoting aspects of culture jamming after Dery introduced editor Kalle Lasn to the term through a series of articles he wrote for the magazine. In her critique of consumerism, ‘No Logo,’ ‘Canadian cultural commentator and political activist Naomi Klein examines culture jamming in a chapter that cites Dery and focuses on the work of Cuban-American contemporary artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada.

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 (a variation on a previous media work, in which the newly created one has a meaning that is antagonistic or antithetical to the original). Activists that utilize this tactic are counting on their meme (unit of cultural information) 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: 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 first popularized by geneticist Richard Dawkins but later used by cultural critics such as Douglas Rushkoff that 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 memes to 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 Perreti used the Nike symbol to stir debate on sweatshop child labor and consumer freedom. Perreti made public exchanges between himself and Nike over a disagreement. Perreti had requested custom Nikes with the word ‘sweatshop’ placed in the Nike symbol. Nike naturally disagreed. Once this story was made public over Perreti’s website it spread world wide and sparked conversation and dialogue about Nike’s use of sweatshops.

Jammers can also organize and participate in mass campaigns. Examples of cultural jamming like Perreti’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 apparel brands are causing, a subvertisement of Calvin Klein’s ‘Obsession’ was created and played world wide. 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.

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.


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