Throwing Clogs in the Machine

Society is highly structured. As I discussed in previous posts with the ideas like hegemony and cross media ownership, it can start to feel like everyday, something or someone else is telling me how to think and act. This is what makes up the mainstream: people thinking and acting in the same ways all the time. However, some would say that it’s best to steer clear of the main stream, to step off of the beaten path to experience new ideas and ways of thinking. Some would say that society is too structured, and that it needs to be shook up and rattled. Some would say that billboards need to be hijacked and advertisements need to parodied. Some would say that graffiti needs to go on every building and that important figures need to get pies in the face.

To others, these acts might sound like anarchy and creating deliberate chaos, but for the people who are doing these acts of activism, they are simply culture jamming.

Culture jamming is a rebellion against convention. It comes as a critique of the many orthodox that drive our culture, such as commercialism, consumerism and corporate ideologies. Although they can come in almost any form through art or pranks, their foundations are rooted in the same objective: to inspire a different way of thinking.

As semiotics has shown, any good advertisement uses sets of well-established symbols and concepts. They use them to sell their products, and as Roland Barthes would see it, to add their image into a socially understood and accepted myth. However, many culture jammers use this same tactic. They apply the same social myth and twist in another way.

“An Adbusters parody of Calvin Klein’s “heroin chic” ads of the mid-1990s, for example, features a female model hunched over a toilet, vomiting, presumably to maintain her waifish figure. The ad tells viewers that women are dissatisfied with their own bodies because “the beauty industry is the beast” …. The Gap’s infamous appropriation of the likenesses of counter-culture heroes Jack Kerouac and James Dean to sell khaki pants inspired a similar response from the adbusting community. To the Gap’s claim that “Kerouac wore khakis,” a group of Australian subvertisers responded with the likeness of another 20th century icon who wore khakis as well—Adolf Hitler. As such, Gap khakis were recoded as a means not to rugged individuality but genocidal totalitarianism—the conformist impulse writ large” (Harold).

As Christine Harold describes in her work on media activism, these acts all “introduce noise into the signal.” Like a game of broken telephone or Daniel Chandler’s discussion on encoding and decoding, culture jamming looks to skew the mainstream messages that people are bombarded with everyday.

However, not every act of culture jamming has to be nearly as rebellious and subversive. Some, like Newmindspace, just act as an opportunity for people to do what they wouldn’t normally do. Started in 2005 by Lori Kufner and Kevin Bracken, Newmindspace organizes large-scale transformations of cities. Past events have included subway parties in Montreal, pillow fights in New York City’s Time Square and games of capture the flag throughout the streets of Toronto. Everyone is invited and the only goal is to have a good time. Newmindspace turns cities into “urban playgrounds” as they look to replace “passive, non-social, branded consumption experiences like watching television,” resulting in “a global community of participants in a world where people are constantly organizing and attending these happenings in every major city in the world” (“Urban”).

Newmindspace and other culture jamming initiatives give people the chance to think and act in ways that aren’t shown everyday; to sabotage the ordinary.

“The Urban Playground Movement.” Newmindspace. 20 Nov. 2008. <;.

Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners: Encoding/Decoding.” 19 Feb. 2001. Aberystwyth University. 25 Sept. 2008 <;.

Harold, Christine. “Pranking rhetoric: ‘culture jamming’ as media activism” Critical Studies in Media Communication 21.3 (2004). 26 Nov. 2008 <;.


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