Up in smoke

The billboard-liberation movement gathers to celebrate 20 years of ad "improvement" and smoke on the Marlboro Man's grave.

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Most nights, it wouldn’t seem particularly weird that the guy stamping hands
at the door of CBGB’s 313 Gallery in New York was toting a pack of
Marlboros. But at “The Billboard
Liberation Show”
— celebrating two decades of guerrilla art attacks
on outdoor ads, above all cigarette billboards — there was a touch of
irony in the gesture.

Last Wednesday night, the gallery was packed with downtowners –
dressed-for-the-office young women with pierced eyebrows, a guy bustling
around with a Starbucks sticker on his head apropos of, um, some
statement — viewing more than 1,000 adulterations of outdoor signage by the
Billboard Liberation Front (BLF), Cicada, Ron English and other
practitioners of “culture jamming,” put up temporarily and photographed
for posterity. (Those unable to catch the show, through May 21, can find
many works at the BLF home page — which,
fair warning, includes one of the most irritating audio files on the
Internet.)

The timing couldn’t have been better, considering that not two weeks
earlier, cigarette
billboards
from coast to coast were replaced with anti-smoking ads
as part of the state tobacco settlement, effecting perhaps the country’s
largest act of billboard liberation — and depriving these very artists
of their favorite targets. (The exhibit is riddled with Joe Camel
desecrations — Joe as a dinosaur, Joe in a coffin, etc.) Or it couldn’t
have been worse, for the same reason. With the Marlboro Man supplanted by state-sponsored adbusting, with
ad alteration becoming an-ever-more-popular amateur
pastime,
with Conceptual artist Barbara Kruger having done ads for
the Economist, what’s a culture jammer to do nowadays?

In 1977 the Billboard Liberation Front in San Francisco performed the
first of what it calls billboard “improvements” on a Max Factor
ad,
changing the billboard slogan “A pretty face isn’t safe in this
city. Fight back with Self-Defense” to “Fight crap with Self-Respect”
and “Fight back with Self-Abuse.” Over the years the group — which
doesn’t espouse a political agenda so much as a playful humor and the
belief that “everyone should have their own billboard” — refined its
methods, crafting elegant overlays to plaster on signs at night, and
later moving on to electric
signage.
(In a gesture of solidarity, the BLF leaves behind 12-packs
of beer for the billboard workers who clean up after them.)

If you read alternative weeklies, you know where it goes from here.
Other groups and guerrilla artists began making raids across the
country, some heavy-handed (“New World Order” over Picasso’s
“Guernica”), some whimsical (“Masturbation Is Murder”). By the ’90s,
articles on billboard pranksters — the artist stealing out at midnight,
the quote about the “commercially-induced
‘American Dream,’”
the flustered response from some
middle-management advertising straw man — were as reliable an
alternative-rag fixture as “Life in Hell” and the top
ten censored stories
report.

Billboards, as BLF notes, are probably the only major medium created for
and dedicated to advertising; and billboard alteration is a
distinctively American
art/protest form, equal parts Jenny
Holzer
and Ogden Nash. Outdoor
ads are ubiquitous, often invasive, and they’re also our own public art,
our capitalist frescoes; the artists here found a way to make relevant,
accessible art by turning a massive monologue into a conversation.

A good billboard alteration is jarring, creepily hilarious (“If you’re
looking for a sign from God, here it is. Kill yourself”). A great one
can be thought-provoking, even beautiful: A Smokey the Bear ad with a giant
lit match becomes a haunting memorial to the Los Angeles riot: “Amber
Waves of Flame: LA ’92.” The worst are sophomoric
or drip contempt for all those brainwashed robots filling their big
suburban houses with crap: “WARNING: Sabotaged propaganda may be
dangerous to apathetic minds.” (Does my art shock you, sheep?)
It’s an attitude that — surprise — cropped up in some of the CBGB
audience. “They could only get away with this in New York City,” a man
purred to his date. “In Kansas they’d get arrested.”

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The earlier works, from when ad-busting was less of an AlternaWorld
fixture, are the more vital and arresting, up through Artfux’s searing
Gulf War protests (“I WANT YOU to die a horrible, meaningless death to
sustain a lifestyle that will ultimately destroy the Earth”). Today, the
enterprising ad-buster competes with advertisers parodying themselves, intentionally
or unintentionally. (Last year, just two blocks from CBGB, Combat roach
traps put up a billboard with the Grim Reaper and the slogan “Got
Death?” spoofing the famous dairy campaign — obliviously, directly
above the Buen Pastor Funeral Home.) You find ever more artists riffing
on a few usual suspects: “Think
Different,”
Joe Camel, Marlboro.

For instance, Charles Manson’s image, the ketchup of ad alteration, is
imposed on both Levi’s and
Apple
billboards. (The BLF’s online
how-to-parody manual
lists ad-buster chestnuts like so many household
spices: “Some ads lend themselves to parody by the inclusion of a small
image or symbol in the appropriate place [a skull, radiation symbol,
happy face, swastika, vibrator, etc.].”) Well, we all know Manson is
way transgressive. But what statement does this make, exactly?
Levi’s and Apple have used dead historical figures to plug their
products. Some dead historical figures were good. But others — aha! –
were evil. And … and …? In the San Francisco Examiner, D. S.
Black
called it a reaction to Calvin Klein’s heroin chic, a
Debordian detournement. It comes off, though, as frustrated
flailing at monoliths — at just everything, you know, that everybody’s
always trying to sell you.

The show’s best exhibitor, actually, is a media artist who doesn’t work
in billboards: hoaxster Joey Skaggs, who in 1994 passed off
a press release claiming to be from a Korean company canning dogs for food
(“Dog no suffer. We have quick death for dog”) and in 1995 burned
CNN
by posing as a scientist who had invented a computer program
that found O.J. Simpson guilty — playing into whites’ longing for a
bloodless rebuttal to the “irrational” Simpson jury. Skaggs shows a
complex understanding of the workings, assumptions and prejudices of
modern media and society, something a “Got Sperm?” billboard just
doesn’t quite nail. (Today, some online sites like Chickenhead are
also doing especially sharp parodies.)

But if some of the liberations are old hat, two decades of plugging made
them that way. Hammering Big Tobacco is pretty much a two-foot putt now,
with everybody from advertising pros to schoolkids getting into the act;
with the New York Times announcing
last week
it would refuse tobacco ads; with state-sponsored anti-smoking
messages indistinguishable from counterculture pranks (one shows a
cowboy telling another, “I
miss my lung”
). It wasn’t so common in 1977, when the BLF targeted
the weirdly named Fact
cigarettes, changing a billboard’s text from “I’m realistic. I only
smoke Facts” to “I’m real sick. I only smoke Facts,” with an arrow
pointing from “Facts” to the Surgeon General’s warning.

You could perhaps see the mixed results in the CBGB crowd, which was
mostly in Garanimals back when the BLF started out and has since
absorbed commercial skepticism like many Americans have: which is to
say, kind of. Lingering around the walls full of doctored booze ads and
defiled Joe Camels, the young rebels with thick-framed glasses — just
like admen wore in the ’60s — flirted, drank beers and smoked, one
cigarette after another after another after another.

“The Billboard Liberation Show” is at CBGB’s 313 Gallery, 313 Bowery,
New York, though May 21, 1-6 p.m.

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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