Culture Jammer's Guide to Enlightenment
A talk with Adbusters' Kalle Lasn
by Gabriele Hadl (from KJ#46: MEDIA IN ASIA)
Flashbacks from the not-so-distant past: in the Philippines, an anti-Marcos demonstrator slips a flower into the barrel of a policeman's rifle. In Tianenmen Square, a Chinese dissident stands determinedly in the crosshairs of a tank. "A gesture like that becomes a metaphor, living forever," Kalle Lasn said in a recent interview. Lasn, founder and director of Adbusters, holds that such defining moments in history transcend their time and place, and provide inspiration for "culture jammers" around the world.
"One day soon," he predicts, "people will get sick of fast food, fancy cars, fashion statements and shopping malls. They will stop buying heavily advertised products because advertising is coercive, tawdry and just increases the cost of the product. And our children will gaze back aghast upon our own time, a period of waste and abandon on a scale so vast it knocked the planet out of whack for a thousand years."
Merely a rant? Think again. For ideas that pass through Kalle Lasn’s hands have a way of spreading like wildfire: No Car Day, Battle in Seattle, Buy Nothing Day, First Things First designers’ manifesto, Big Tobacco in Big Trouble. It is hard to imagine how many of these could have transpired without the wild, funny actions sparked and promoted by his magazine Adbusters Quarterly and its Culture Jammers Network website. There is the Baking Brigade, whose members throw pies in the faces of bigtime US politicos under the slogan "to their lies we respond with pies," billboard liberators whose deft spraypainting turns glossy ad campaigns inside out, hackers who jam corporate websites, counter-shoppers who rearrange goods on supermarket shelves. But these guerilla tactics are only a thin slice of what is dubbed "culture jamming." What Lasn calls "the top half of the pincer" includes more conventional strategies of raising public awareness through information campaigns, paid TV spots, magazine "subvertizements," rallies and lawsuits.
With his gentle voice, its Baltic accent intact half a century after he left Estonia, Kalle Lasn hardly seems to fit the part of a media guerrilla. And in fact he only began to channel his impulse to insurgency after decades of living the "good life" -- working for Australia’s Defense Department, founding a Tokyo market research firm, and ultimately emigrating to Canada to devote himself to filmmaking. In 1989, by then a well-established, award-decorated documentarian in Vancouver, Lasn produced a TV spot rapping the ruthless logging of the Pacific Northwest’s virgin forests. When no TV station would sell him airtime, Lasn was shocked. It was, he says, "an epiphany," the realization that "there is no democracy on the airwaves." Since then, Lasn and his cohorts have ceaselessly waged a battle for the "human right to communicate." Prime targets have included brands, networks, GNP-based economics, the beauty industry, overconsumption, and the muscular engine of the consumer system -- advertising itself. Picking fights with some of the world’s most powerful corporations, like Phillip Morris ("My mortal enemy whom I vow to take down") is much more for Lasn than a subversive game. His firm belief is that yes, we can and must change the world.
Gabriele Hadl: You are based in Canada, but I understand Japan has played abig role in your life.
Kalle Lasn: Yes, I lived in Tokyo in the late sixties and early seventies. I was struck by how well Japanese society and culture worked in those days. It was so much better than anything I had experienced up to that point in my life. People were intelligent and accessible, and the whole culture seemed not just safe, but well grounded and spiritually robust. Those were some of the best years of my life and I wanted to tell the world about it, and so I made a series of glowing TV documentaries on Japan. And then of course, those "miracle" years came to a close and a malaise set in. I saw it as a sort of Western invasion of the Japanese psyche: a growing narcissism, a movement from the "we" to the "me." People started trading in what was great about their culture for consumer goodies. Dazzled by foreign brands and products they crammed their apartments full of stuff. Suddenly, high school girls were selling themselves after class for $150 a trick to buy jeans and handbags. I am still puzzled by how Japan got itself hijacked by the West. Of course it's not just Japan. American cool is a global phenomena - everywhere, communities, traditions, heritages, whole histories are being replaced by a barren American monoculture.
Why do you call Adbusters a "Journal of the Mental Environment"?
When we started Adbusters in 1989, the environmental movement was blossoming. People were recycling and reusing and becoming environmentalists in droves. But the other side of the coin, the mental environment, was being ignored. We thought it was absurd to recycle and ride your bicycle and do all the right things, and then, at the end of the day to sit down in front of your TV set and allow your mental space to be polluted by pro-consumption propaganda. So our mission became to launch an environmental movement of the mind.
So TV is a polluter?
In a McLuhanesque sense, I don't have a problem with the medium per se. I've spent a good part of my creative life making TV documentaries, a dramatic film, and a host of TV commercials. I love the medium, but I think it has fallen into the wrong hands. It has become a mass merchandising tool. Corporate sponsors now do all the talking on TV and dissident voices like mine are simply excluded.
What would you like to see on TV?
It should be a free marketplace of ideas, where the big issues of our time are openly discussed. We should be debating how best to move ourselves around. Should it be predominantly in cars like now? Or trains and bikes and scooters? And how best to design our cities to fit our needs. We should be arguing about the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to and what's really sexy and cool in our culture. We should be creating our culture from the bottom up. But instead we let the big corporations do all the talking. Television has become a choir that sings in complete unison, pumping out the same message day after day after day: "Go out and buy all these cool things!" TV and the mass media are to the mental environment what factories are to the physical environment. A factory dumps pollutants into the water or air because that is the most efficient way to produce plastic or wood pulp or steel, and the mass media pollute the cultural environment because that is the best way to produce audiences.
Your book is called "Culture Jam - The Uncooling of AmericaTM"
Yes, it's based on the premise that America is no longer a country but a multi trillion dollar brand, and that this brand is now taking over the world. To stop this psychologically corrosive and ecologically murderous culture, we have to start by jamming it.
What kind of culture do you imagine replacing the current one?
Oh, I could ramble on about creating a culture with a noncommercial heart and soul, about sustainable ecosystems, true cost markets, radical democracy and the new human right to communicate that I think is essential in our information age... and in my book I explore many of these "metamemes" (1) that I hope will take root in this first global culture in human history. But you know, a vibrant culture is wild, chaotic and unpredictable. Instead of figuring it out in advance, I think we should stop analyzing and just live it - create it as we go. And of course my generation of jammers and the new generation often feel quite differently about what kind of culture we want to create.
I sensed something about this divide among culture jammers when I read an article in a recent Adbusters that said: "You can lie, cheat, steal, and still tread lightly on the planet". . .
I ran that story, but really hated it. It shows a kind of relativism that I just cannot fathom.
I thought it was interesting because it puts emphasis on getting results and not getting too wrapped up in your own spiritual progress.
But I would argue that you can only go so far with that kind of attitude. For me it has to be about more than just putting my can of Coke in the right recycling bin.
In your book you talk about your encounter with Zen while shooting a documentary on Japan. How has that influenced your thinking?
When I was shooting a film in Japan called "Satori in the Right Cortex," I asked the head monk of a Zen monastery in Kamakura if I could take footage of his disciples meditating. Yes, he said, but first you must meditate. When I emerged after a few days of physical and psychological torture, something really had happened to me. The monk had forced an interruption of my easy routine, and I came out the other end humble, euphoric and changed. Maybe only when you are shoved into a new pattern of behavior like that, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the way life could be. Culture jamming is based on the same concept. It's a way of stopping the flow of the consumer spectacle long enough to adjust your set. And I think that's why culture jammers and Zen masters alike often use an element of surprise.
So acts of culture jamming, like a billboard with its commercial message subverted, a bike sticker saying "one less car", or a man in a Santa Claus suit urging you to buy nothing can be like the Zen master's stick?
Yes, in both cases, the point is break out of a trance. But culture jamming works on a social scale - a whole culture's satori is at stake. The web is full of anti-commercial koans, there are more and more uncommercial "mindbombs" on TV, bicycle rallies in the streets, there are more and more crazy pranks and shenanigans that jammers pull off during Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week and many other campaigns like that... and then of course there's all those "Battles in Seattle" now happening spontaneously whenever the world leaders now meet... when all this cognitive dissonance reaches critical mass in our collective unconscious, our minds will open, the old consumer culture will heave its last.
Unfortunately, the techniques that Western culture jammers use do not translate very well to Asia. For example, in Japan, irony does not seem to work. When I showed my Japanese friends the Adbusters calendar picture of the baby in the MacDonald's suit, their reaction was, "cute!" It did not strike
them as weird that a baby would be raised on French fries instead of mother's milk. Then there's an ad for a cigarette brand called "Hope" that shows a famous actor chainsmoking. Nobody seems to think that a subvertizement.
Up to now, culture jamming has developed almost exclusively in response to the very aggressive kind of advertising and branding that's going on in North America. European jammers are now developing their own, less aggressive style. Japanese culture jammers will obviously evolve along their own path. Love of irony and the thrust and parry of Socratic debate are not part of the Japanese tradition, so it will be interesting to see what kind of cultural detournements (2) emerge.
So what would culture jamming mean to developing countries and rural areas? No matter whether you are in rural Japan or Bankok, what most people long for are brand T-shirts and cell phones.
Yes, right now corporate consumerism is triumphant almost everywhere. The global corporate image factory produces most of the movies, the music, the magazines... corporations run the airwaves. Those communities not yet engulfed have to be warned that this cool breeze coming their way is actually a typhoon that may wreck their culture.
Here in Japan, most people do not think of corporations as the evil other. In a way they are seen as part of the family.
When we got started ten years ago, it was the same here in North America. In 1989 when I walked into the CBC Network here in Canada and tried to buy airtime for our uncommercials, they laughed me out of the office. They could not believe that anyone would actually want to talk back at consumerism and its corporate sponsors. And in present-day Japan, if you go to TBS for example and try to buy a 30-second timeslot for a Buy Nothing Day announcement, or a message targeting, say, Matsushita, the same thing would happen for sure. But things change. CNN Headline News now airs many of our uncommercials and the fact that the CBS, NBC and ABC networks have refused to sell us airtime is now becoming a real thorn in their side.
There are now hundreds of thousands of jammers here in North America. Last November 50,000 of us stopped the WTO meeting in Seattle. This "Battle in Seattle" was the beginning of an activist wave that I think is really going to move things. Japan especially seems ripe for jamming. The North American society of spectacle is like a multi-headed hydra, hard to attack head on and very robust. The Japanese consumer culture, on the other hand, feels very top down and monolithic to me - very brittle. It seems like it would not be too difficult to jam. All it takes is one good campaign to really shake things up.
I read a lot of books about environmental issues, and corporate culture, but they always leave me feeling, "that's really horrible, I wish I didn't know all that." Your book is totally different. You really are optimistic.
Fact is, there is plenty of money to be made by criticizing the system. That is why sociology professors write books that tell you everything that's wrong with consumerism, and communications pundits tell you everything that's wrong with the media monopoly, but they never say much about how to fix these problems. I think Edward Abbey nailed it when he said: "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." I don't understand why people are so cynical. There is plenty we can do. We still have some time before global warming and other ecological crises get really out of hand, and before the global economy spirals out of control. If you start despairing, you have lost everything.
1 In analogy to a gene, a meme is the smallest unit of an ideology
2 detournement is a term coined by the 1960s French Situationalist movement meaning "a perspective-jarring turnabout in your everyday life" (KL), now used interchangeably with "subvertizing."
Gabriele Lasn studies media literacy at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, and helps organize Japan's "Buy Nothing Day" in November each year. She is also KJ's Circulation Manager, and Volunteers Coordinator.
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