Due to certain whereabouts this text about Culture Jamming and Semiotic Hacking got lost on its way to vienna… So ‚monochrom #26-34 – Ye Olde Self-Referentiality‘ is missing it… For your pleasure it is blogged below, probably in poor english 😉
The Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, Austria, is located on the right side of the river Donau, vis-à-vis the Ars Electronica Center. Due to this geographical axis the idyllic small town is supercharged with digital chique, postmodernism and global communication. The perfect place for the exhibition ‘Just Do It! – The subversion of signs from Marcel Duchamp to Prada Meinhof’, which took place in spring 2005. Here the history of Culture Jamming, the deconstruction, appropriation and détournement of signs, was compiled for the first time. But what is the properly meaning of that twisted and often used term Culture Jamming?
The term Culture Jamming has been coined by the US-American avantgarde-band Negativland.
To jam – which means techniques to limit the effectiveness of an opponent’s communication or detection equipment in a military context – was to Negativland to take existing communication codes and reload them with new meaning. However, this cultural technique is not new, the first known example is Marcel Duchamps „Mona Lisa“, the picture of the Gioconda on which Duchamp has painted a moustache and wrote ‘Elle a chaud au cul – She has a hot ass’ on the lower side of the picture. This is an early jam, let’s say a political jam, because Duchamp changes the semantic perception of the Mona Lisa and was bringing out a deeper truth, like Naomi Klein demands in her book No Logo. The truth that Leonardo da Vinci was gay.
A more current example of Culture Jamming in the Lentos Kunstmuseum was given by the project vote-auction of ubermorgen.com, aka Hans Bernhard and lizvlx, from Austria. To whom – like me – the didactical tension between the exhibits and the exhibition catalog is only a bit of a yawn, it was difficult to decode the ubermorgen.com-installation: Two big black and white prints of symbols containing e.g. the words „The Agency“ and „Vote-Auction“, two giant heaps of paper and a tv-screen playing the CNN-Show „Burden Of Proof“. However, a closer look on the installation turns out, that ubermorgen.com did a spectacular prank, using the American election system:
vote-auction was an internet platform on which American electors were able to sell their votes online during the election George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in the year 2000.
In a web mask the citizens were able to fill in their personal data and offer their vote for sale. Due to the fact that it is highly illegal for American citizens to offer their vote in any way, those people had to be protected. So the data that was filled in the form was erased immediately. It moved into digital nirvana. The whole action was at least a ridiculous game with some pixel ubermorgen.com arranged on the screen, claiming to buy and sell votes online. The highlight of vote-auction was a half-hour CNN-Feature ‘Burden Of Proof’ with seven attorneys, two technicians via video-stream, Hans Bernhard on the telephone and some politicians and journalists in the studio. But ubermorgen.com are insisting on the fact that they don’t have any ideological aim in their actions but doing ‘Researches in the living organism of global communication’.
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For ubermorgen.com it is always a big problem to serve unintentionally as a system justifier or optimizer. On the one hand criticism can be used as to balance the public opinion about – and the trust in – the corrective maintenance of the system. On the other hand criticism can improve the American election system, – like in the vote-auction case.
‘But you can’t do anything about it. You have to accept it, because the consequences are to stop your work. And I won’t do it!’, says Hans Bernhard considering that topic.
The project Google Will Eat Itself or short gwei is not located in the political but in the economical field, or let’s say in Web2.0. It is a collaboration between ubermorgen.com and the Italian based project neural.it.
GWEI is based on a simple strategy: There is a showcase-website called gwei.org and there are some hidden websites running Google text advertisements – little google-ads one can earn money with. Every time somebody is visiting gwei.org the IP-address is hijacked and used to visit hidden websites. This is generating clicks, hence money. This money is transferred to a Swiss bank account and gwei is buying Google shares. These shares will be distributed to the online-community by a shareholder company called GTTP (Google To The People). So at the end the circle is closed: Google Will Eat Itself! And the circulation of virtual money is short-circuited.
The company Google, whose shares raised from 80 to 445 US$, was not lazy of course and they shut down the ads on the showcase-website gwei.org. Blogs like guerilla-innovation.com promoted the website which led to an overrun on the website, because here’s a realistic amount of clicks on google-ads which is related to the amount of site visits. If everybody who visits a site clicks on an ad, Google assumes fraud. That was the reason why Google stopped the ads on gwei.org.
Nevertheless ubermorgen.com continues to open new google-accounts and to use them on the hidden websites. If your IP-adress has been hijacked yet, is one of the secrets of ubermorgen.com and neural.it.
A more classical than virtual form of Culture Jamming has been staged by Eva and Franco Mattes from Bologna, Italy aka 0100101110101101.org. Their prank „United We Stand – Europe Has A Mission” is a promotional campaign of a non-existing blockbuster.
Their campaign started with the production of a poster, which features five actors only to name Ewan McGregor and Penelope Cruz. In the mid of the poster is a big European flag and under the flag you can see two armies fighting each other: the Chinese and the US-Army. According to 01.org this is a situation that seems predictable in the near future. Many analysts state that in about ten years the United States will have to declare war on China due to economical reasons or vice versa due to the threat of US-‘neo-imperialism’.
The screenplay of the movie is about the European president – a very handsome and charming guy – who immediately calls for a task force: five high-trained specialists known as the German, the Italian, the English, the Spanish and the French guy. This task force has the mission to avoid the global war between China and the USA without brutal force: European Style!
A score that is meant to provoke a reaction from the audience: The movie is supposed to be a European propaganda movie – produced by Europe – to upgrade its dusty iconography and to make people feel the European Spirit. And that’s basically the question of the movie: What should Europe be in the future? Should it be as patriotic and strong as the USA? Or should it show the cultural variety and diversity of Europe?
01.org found out that many people refuse to refer to an genuine European identity. ‘There is no unifying European stereotype and maybe it’ll never be’, says Franco Mattes. ‘Think of Peter Fonda in ‘Easy Rider’, think of his leather jacket with the European flag instead of the US-flag on it. It’s amazingly stupid. Or: Jasper Jones. Imagine his work with the European flag. This makes people laughing. But why? Are we laughing because we don’t need a stupid branding like the USA? Or are we laughing out of frustration, because we don’t have such an image? Or are we laughing because we’re suspecting, that one day we’ll have such an image: A large super-powerful nation instead of small independent countries?’
In theory the strategy of Culture Jamming refers to the Situationist International, an art and activism-group led by French philosopher Guy Debord.
In his main work, the book ‘Society Of The Spectacle’ he describes the life in societies “where modern conditions of production prevail (…) as an immense accumulation of spectacle.’
His assumption: ‘Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’. The term ‘spectacle’ is often used to describe or criticise mass media like television or internet, but Debord insists on the fact that even whole societies can be spectacular. The G8 summit for instance can be described as a spectacular political event to hide the fact that the real decisions are made behind closed doors.
Nevertheless digital spectacular media, like internet and videogames, are an important tool to inject ideology into an adolescent peer group. Completely ignored by mainstream-cultural controversies, the often complex and non-linear storytelling videogames are a cultural enfant terrible due to their supposedly senseless waste of time and energy. The gamedesigner and game theorist Gonzalo Frasca is asking himself:
‘Could videogames be more than simply fun and amusement? Is it possible to design games that are dealing with social and political issues?’
According to Frasca the new NintendoDS-Game ‘Super Princess Peach’, is an example for ideology-soaked game-design. Princess Peach, a typical damsel-in-distress-character in the Super Mario World is known for hanging around until Mario shows up and rescues her. Now Princess Peach is the protagonist. Rather than been rescued, it is now her turn to rescue Mario and Luigi who were being held prisoners by the evil Bowser. Her special weapons: Rage, Joy and Gloom! Thanks to these „female features“, she becomes a super heroine. Frasca ist shocked: ‘Am I reading too much into this harmless game? After all, it’s just a game, right? If we are going to be serious about games, then we need to take them seriously first. While I am not crazy about Mario, I like the series, just like many millions of players around the world. Still, that is not an excuse for Nintendo to get away with reinforcing stereotypes on children’s minds’, he is writing in his column at seriousgamessource.com.
On the website watercoolergames.org, Frasca founded with American game-researcher Ian Bogost, they are introducing games that are trying to impart knowledge or to question popular world views. The medium ’computer game’ is very special in the way the player is led to draw consequences. He directly witnesses the dirty tricks and crimes that are usually blamed on economical and strategic ‘practical constraints’.
In the McDonalds-videogame of molleindustria.it the player has to manage the corporation McDonalds and to choose many variables and to control the production of the meals from the pasture to their brand value using advertising, marketing and PR.
The game offers a realistic point of view on the externalities and the influences on the society and the environment which industrial production especially Fast-Food-Production has. The player is forced to use dirty tricks, like to put industrial waste in the fodder, to inject hormones in the cattle or to use GMO-Soy. Of course a big company is not leaving anything to chance: politicians and nutritionists have to be corrupted to avoid media attention. So the question of ‘What is wrong in the mass-production of food?’ is inevitable.
Another game of molleindustria.it is Tuboflex. Tuboflex is about the flexibilisation and the precarisation of labour. The game is set up in the near future, where a big corporation has invented a ‘staffing solution’: A complex tube/pipe-system to allocate work force in real time. The user has to control a little worker who is continuously sucked up and spitted of by tubes. The aim of the game is to keep him survive in the crazy labour market, which is very near to the everyday experience of the precarious workers. But the game cannot be won and unavoidably it is ending up on the street playing accordion and begging for money.
Considering Copyright most Political or Serious Games are using a Creative Commons License or Open Source, so that everyone is able to use, manipulate copy and remix the cultural work and to spread it in the World Wide Web.
The various options to gain influence on the mediated humans in virtual reality and computer games are of course good opportunities for the trend scouts of the entertainment industry, too. They are already waiting inside the VR e.g. “Second Life’ to meet their potential customers. So called In-Game-Advertisement for Diet Coke and other brands and ‘real’ money transactions on eBay to buy virtual sneakers to wear in ‘Second Life’ are already a fact.
This is the old dream of capitalism coming true: The product has not to be manufactured, its pure image is requested by the hyper-consumers.
So the code itself has begun to create added value. And that is exactly what the battlefield of the 21st century should be about:
Let’s Clash The Codes!
This postulation could also derive from the well known Italian author Umberto Eco, who wrote the essay ‘Semiotic Guerilla Warfare’ in the Seventies and described a ‘semiotic guerilla’ who is ‘prowling from house to house and develops a critical interpretation of media content’. This would mean that the audience could be teached to understand media propaganda and to read the advertisement messages in their way.
But is this really that simple? Advertisement in public space can be simplified as an excitement of carnal desire, which the western philosophers like Platon, Fourier or Huxley claimed as the source of distress, hate and calamity. Their solution was to organise an instantaneous satisfaction in human societies. In our erotic overcharged advertisement culture this carnal desire is encouraged in an outrageous way, but the satisfaction shall be solved in privacy.
The vienna based author and cognition scientist Thomas Raab even goes a step further, by describing the overwhelming effects of the Debordian spectacle as an evolutionary deficit.
‘Esthetic experiences for nearly everyone’ are, according to Raab, ‚the last chance for secular countries to add profit to the metaphysical vacuum which resulted in the raised knowledge of natural science of humanity.’
So the integrated spectacle (of mass media and event culture) would be a twisted version of the mammalian game of protecting itself from hypothetical hazard by simulating affects in a safe environment. The human evolutionary deficit is, according to Raab, used to raise profits in a way that neither the consumer nor the producer can control, even if they are aware of those mechanisms.
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Culture Jamming is a resistance to that status quo. Culture Jamming is a natural instinct of people to take objects that are already there and put them together to make something different out of them: To mix symbols of everyday life and make some creative work out of it, to recharge them with new meanings and to re-appropriate them. It’s somehow like the collages of the historical Dada movement, but using contemporary materials from different directions: Not only visual material, but radiowaves, sounds and stories. The basic idea is: Objects are there and you should be able to use them without asking for permission, because they are Public Domain: Symbols, Ideas, Music, Slogans, Logos etc.
Culture Jamming are all activities that are dealing with the recombination of symbols, media and culture. So it is kind of similar to the work of new media artists like Natalie Bookchin, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre, jodi.org or ®™ARK, who are dealing with topics like surveillance, corporate communication or (cyber-)feminism.
Now as the advertising culture is pushing the boundaries outside the traditional advertising by using guerilla marketing techniques, the subversion of the brand culture has to follow the evolution of the advertising industry and start to work on the expanded advertising: videogames, product placement, street marketing.
„Culture Jamming is about how to surf the contradictions of modern society.“