At the Site Gallery

Culture-jamming has a long and venerable history. The essay ‘Le détournement comme négation et comme prelude,’ originally published in Internationale Situationniste #3 (Paris, December 1959), described the favoured Situationist tactic of détournement quite simply as ‘the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble.’ In practical terms, that implied, but was not limited to, ‘correcting’ an earlier work or ‘integrating’ disruptive elements into it.

The users’ guide ‘Mode d’emploi du détournement,’ written by Gil Wolman and Guy Debord in the pre-Situationist year of 1956, provided specific laws and clarified: ‘The mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the juxtaposition of two independent expressions, supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy. Anything can be used.’ The User’s Guide identified Duchamp’s painting of a moustache on the Joconde as ‘old hat’ and suggested that the advertising industry produced the most effective détournement unconsciously.

In the late 1970s and 1980s various artists in the San Francisco Bay area of the west coast of America updated the practice of détournement for the Reagan-era. The Billboard Liberation Front set about its mission of ‘the timely improvement of outdoor advertising,’ altering existing ads to subvert their messages to anti-corporate slogans. Negativland’s 1984 tape release JamCon ‘84, an imagined audio documentary from a convention of ‘Jammers,’ collaged material from the group’s Over the Edge radio show, coining the idea of ‘cultural jamming’ as a kind of experimental radio piracy and intervention into commercial radio. Negativland gained considerable notoriety for their release of a recording that spliced a sweary out-take of DJ Casey Kasem with a low-fi cover of U2s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

In the early 1990s, cultural jamming was smoothed into culture-jamming and popularised by the critic Mark Dery, who wrote about Negativland in a series of articles and essays. A key publisher of Dery’s work was Adbusters, the magazine published from Toronto that gave a focal point to the ‘subvertising’ tradition that endured through the anti-capitalist movement of the 90s and later fed into Occupy.

How, then, to update these assorted theoretical positions and guerrilla media practices for the era of surveillance capitalism, whose structure derives from massive online data collection and psychometric profiling to enable targeted digital advertising? That’s one question posed by an installation piece by the pseudonymous Bill Posters (will he or won’t he be prosecuted?) and Dr Daniel Howe. Spectre, named after the online persona of Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, the data scientist who sold 87 million Facebook profiles to Cambridge Analytica (‘Titles themselves,’ wrote Gilman and Debord, ‘are a basic element of détournement’), occupies a space somewhere between an interactive museum touchscreen – ‘swipe right to hear the sound of a zither’ – and the kinds of interactive advertising envisaged in dystopian, near-future SF.

Six black monoliths, 2.5 metres high, face inwards on a circular pedestal, shades of Kubrick, a nod to LeWitt, and strong echoes of the Neolithic henge monuments lurking behind those. Gallery visitors face each monolith, with their backs to the centre of the circle, as if participating in a ritual. Set into each monolith is a screen.

Instructions on the screen invite participants to build a tailored digital-influencing campaign – not before being required to enter their email addresses, an input that acquires an unanticipated queasiness in this unfamiliar context. Selecting datasets from which to target a group of potential voters – credit scores, social media activity, web histories, the cookie crumbs of data surveillance capitalists have been hoovering up for decades – and splicing these with psychometric profiles gleaned from the kinds of tests Kogan had Facebook users taking for fun, the interactive element of the piece allows gallery visitors to put together a political ad targeted to our audience, designed to sway them whichever way we want. If you’re a Farage in waiting, you can paste emotive slogans about control onto images of columns of refugees.

The final section of the on-screen process has caused something of a stir. So-called deep fake videos manipulate a selection of ‘celebrity influencers’ from the worlds of media, art and politics, into endorsing Spectre: Donald Trump, Morgan Freeman, Kim Kardashian (‘when there’s so many haters, I really don’t care, because their data has made me rich beyond my wildest dreams’), Marcel Duchamp (still old hat) and Marina Abramovich (obsessed with death).

When Posters distributed these clips through his Instagram account they went gratifyingly viral, attracting global media attention, despite the fact that they show the present shortcomings of the technology every bit as much as its potential: the mouths don’t quite move as they should – a ventriloquist would not be impressed with the video lip-sync on Freeman – and the Video Dialogue Replacement (VDR) is only as good as the impressionist hired – you’ll hear a better Trump any day on R4. Nevertheless, having Mark Zuckerberg declare his love of profiting from your data on a platform owned by Facebook is a neat gag (interestingly, Youtube have removed the same clips for copyright violation, while they remain on Insta).

There is a strong sense of the original spirit of détournement in the emerging technology of the deepfake – Debord and Gilman wrote that ‘it is obviously in the realm of the cinema that détournement can attain its greatest effectiveness and, for those concerned with this aspect, its greatest beauty.’ The replacing of original with manipulated audio in documentary and news footage arouses considerable fear and suspicion, making this a timely intervention. The biggest questions surround who has access to the tech. Spectre was made in collaboration with CannyAI, a Tel Aviv-based advertising agency. Evidently, the advertisers remain at the front line, albeit more consciously than in the 1950s.

Back in the gallery space, the work is not quite as effective. As is often the case with claims for ‘immersion’, the experience of the piece is no more immersive than using a tablet with headphones, and this might highlight the challenges faced by subvertising in the digital era: surveillance capitalism is already, everywhere immersive and where Wolman and Debord celebrated the low cost of détournement, the barrier to entry in the digital sphere is far higher and the resources of the competition commensurately greater.

The question of how much knowledge can be assumed of audience members in relation to the very idea of how tech companies make their money and seek to influence behaviour is also live. Spectre assumes only a little knowledge, and so a slightly heavy hand leads an LRB-reader through the interactive elements of the on-screen experience that one suspects digital capitalists would disdain: it is, perhaps, insufficiently gamified.

Posters comes from a street art background – the Billboard Liberation Front have been co-opted as street artists after the fact – and this tendency towards the didactic is a persistent failing in that medium, too. I’m reminded of Charlie Brooker’s curt dismissal of Banksy as a “pseudo-subversive” preacher. Certainly, the blunter end of the practice is some way from the subtleties Debord envisaged.

It is striking that the most high-profile culture jamming in contemporary Britain is the more traditional anti-Brexit billboard campaign of the group Led by Donkeys, that re-presents the incriminating tweets of Leave-facing politicians in guerrilla billboard campaigns. The suspicion persists that the gallery context is simply too formal an environment for techniques derived from Situationist practice. Wolman and Debord further envisioned an ultra-détournement that would operate in everyday life. The surveillance capitalists, it seems fair to say, have got there first.

(Hail Spectre! at Site Gallery during Sheffield Doc Fest, June 2019)

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