Culture Jam

‘We call ourselves 'culture jammers', the advance shock troops of the most significant social movement of the next twenty years.’

By Matt Henry

A brave statement you may think. For who in the Western world could make such a claim when ‘movements’ and ‘revolutions’ are just sooo last century? Apathy is the new black and submission the accessory no boy or girl can ever leave home without. Even the believers don't really believe. Hell, you can even buy pre-packaged rebellion that lasts right up until you're 22.

Yet this statement came not from an embittered old communist high on floor-polish but a sincere and largely sane, middle-aged Canadian who means business. Kalle Lasn is universally acknowledged as a leading spokesman for the ever-growing North American ‘culture jamming’ movement and the founder of Canadian culture jam magazine Adbusters. He predicts the movement will be what civil rights was to the 60s, what feminism was to the 70s and what environmental activism has been to the 80s and 90s. And, he doesn't seem to want for much: ‘to topple the existing power structures and forge major adjustments to the way we will live in the 21st century.’ Heard it all before? Well maybe, but the culture jammers know more tricks than a monkey...

The term ‘culture jamming’ was first used by the San Francisco audio-collage band Negativland on their 80s release Jamcon '84 as a tribute to ham radio ‘jammers’ who clogged the airwaves with Mickey Mouse impersonations and other pop culture ‘noise.’ The term was then employed by cultural critic, Mark Dery, in the New York Times to describe pranksters and piss-takers who wanted more out of life than impressing their mates at CB club with fart noises. Here were characters with far grander designs – genuine, no-frills, root-and-branch cultural revolution. And so were born the ‘culture jammers’: information/artistic terrorists with an impulse dating back to the Beatniks, early punk-rockers, hippies, Situationists, Surrealists, Dadaists, anarchists and anyone else who was up for a bit of artistic social-aggro.

While everyone else in America was propped up on their swelling arses to find out if Ross bangs Rachel, early culture jammers were out tagging walls, liberating billboards, operating pirate radio stations, rearranging products on market shelves, hacking into corporate and government computers and pulling off daring media pranks and hoaxes. All that and still home in time for tea. And their target – America – a nation no longer anything but a brand, with a culture created not by its people but churned out by advertising and media fat cats, and with a populace whose very souls have been whittled away with corporate control. No longer citizens but consumers, these poor yanks became slaves to the cult of consumption with one single demand – surrender spontaneity and follow its programme – sleep, eat, sit in car, work, shop, watch TV, sleep again. A designer life based on a bottomless shit-pit of expansion that planet earth can't sustain and a life of ‘cool’ globally imposed upon nations that really don't know any better.

Right-on, I hear you cry, but what's new about consumer/capitalist/corporate/cultural imperialist critique? Well nothing except that the culture jam movement has a whole new method of attack. Where generations of intellectuals and revolutionaries have assumed that change will come if only we can get the ‘truth’ to people – from the grassroots or from seizure of higher echelons of the media – the culture jammers have come to realise this is simply not enough. Choices are made according to a much wider cultural spectrum; a spectrum long influenced by a complex web of symbols, signs, sounds and images shat out from what we call ‘the media.’ Increasing regulation or freeing up the market – the traditional choices of right and left – are no longer appropriate to change the world we live in. Real change can now come only from a change in culture, and a change in culture can come only from ‘uncooling’ Western icons and the symbols that are rotting our nations to the core.

Culture jamming then, is simply the viral introduction of radical ideas using the establishment's own techniques. ‘Uncooling’ or ‘demarketing’ are nice buzzwords for taking the piss. Be it ‘skulling’ a Pepsi billboard, designing a spoof website for Shell, conducting an Adbusters-style TV marketing campaign or organising global events like ‘Buy Nothing Day,’ the objectives are all the same- free up our culture by causing damage to blind belief in commercial propaganda. The success of Kalle Lasn's own 'Media Foundation' (made up of campaign mag Adbusters and the Culture Jammers network) in North America can be measured by growing corporate worry – Adbusters is now required reading for advertising exec's all over the US. Yet Kalle Lasn is right in pointing to the movements greatest obstacle – all the big TV stations bar CNN are refusing to air his ‘subverts.’ The next stage must be the stimulation of argument about democracy – how can we be living in a democratic world when the greatest vehicle for democratic debate, television, is not open to the public, even when they're willing to pay. Once this last sacred cow is slaughtered the time will have come once again to tune in, turn on and drop out.
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