RE: freeway-mediatiing-tools & others

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Fri Jun 18 2004 - 19:28:57 PDT

These are very interesting questions in terms of theory.

I first encountered something like this with the BUGGER-UP campaign in
Australia, where people went in the night to paint-over strategic portions
of advertising billboards in cities and along main roads. They particularly
targeted cigarette ads in the period I was aware of them. They would make
clever modifications of letters and sometimes images to change and usually
to reverse the meaning of the billboard, so that it was negative for the
brand image being sold.

In part this depended on the existence of many other copies of the
billboard that were NOT altered, so the originals were familiar to people
and they could interpret and appreciate the few that were "de-faced" by the
activists as referring to the original brand images and marketing.

I think this activity would be most naturally interpreted in terms of
deCerteau's notions of counter-hegemonic tactics in the popular culture
world. It could also be interpreted through Bakhtin's notions of
heteroglossia, and some newer related ideas of my student Caspar van Helden
about "polyvalence", which is a particular sort of strategic
ambiguity/polysemy that depends on the existence of multiple audiences or
audiences that have internalized multiple possible viewing positions and
value systems.

When we add to these discursive effects the contexts of spaces, places, and
media we can appreciate that places and our movement through them (as well
as virtual attentional spaces such as a radio dialogue we may hear as we
drive) are also meaning-making resources of a specialized kind, and which
can be integrated with visual and linguistic signs in a variety of ways to
make special meaning effects. A famous case of this are the "Burma Shave"
roadside signs in the US, mainly in the 1930s to 50s, I think. They were
small, each one only a word or two, and spaced along the road so that, at
the normal speed of driving, they appeared in your visual field at a fixed
rate as you drove -- something like a cinematic effect, but much slower --
and they "spoke" a message, complete in some cases with strategic pauses
for special effect. Usually these were everyday moral sayings, often
Christian in inspiration, or biblical quotations. And the last one always
said simply "Burma Shave" the name of the shaving cream product being sold.
I am sure that some clever teenagers must have modified some of these signs
in interesting and creative ways, to the horror of their elders.

A billboard, or a defaced billboard, is a different experience seen briefly
as we drive past it, or seen steadily at some distance, standing and not
moving. Different again is the effect of a "bumper sticker" that we see
steadily in front of us, but in a small field of vision. The institutional
context of a visual advertisement in a magazine, on a television, or on a
billboard that we walk past everyday in our normal lives is also different.
Some of these are far more intrusive into public spaces that coerce our
vision without any act of consent (buying a magazine we know has ads in it,
watching commercial television likewise), and so acts of resistance to them
have a different social meaning. Similarly, for any group that feels that
they are denied a public voice, or that paid voices are allowed to be
louder with no democratic justification, there will always be means sought
to enter public attentional spaces. Once there, and we are all there, we
find available resources for making meanings, often existing text materials
or technological affordances, which we can then turn to our own purposes,
to put forward our own voices. A bumper sticker also usually carries the
personal voice of the driver as endorser of its message, very different
from a billboard which has no personal voice behind it (no "principal" in
Goffman's terms), which raises interesting questions about the voice which
takes responsibility (cf. Bakhtin on "answerability") for collective signs
of resistance along the road?

I find that commercial advertising calls to my home telephone are already
incredibly frequent (I absolutely must turn the phone off to work at home
or I get up to four such calls an hour, in many cases from institutions
with whom I already do business of some kind, e.g. my bank or cable
television provider). I don't drive with my cellphone, so I wonder if
people are already being deluged by such "voice-spam" calls while driving
the roads? While negotiating multiple attentional spaces as when driving,
having a conversation, listening to the radio, watching billboards, and
answering a cellphone ... is theoretically interesting, it also seems to me
in many cases to put people's lives at added and needless risk. (The recent
effort to allow people to add their phone numbers to a national data bank
of No-Call numbers for commercial purposes was overturned, or indefinitely
delayed in the US, by our conservative courts, which seem to think that
the right to disturb my personal privacy at home or while driving in order
to sell me time-share real estate in Florida is an absolute constitutional
human right ... of the sort that Iraqi children apparently do not have to
be free from "shock and awe" bombardments.)

"Momentary outcomes" of interpretive perception there are in many of these
cases, but we should keep in mind also that many of these signs are
repeatedly put forward to our attention, over longer time periods (a basis
of advertising, and counter-advertising, campaigns), even if each
individual encounter is very brief. And collectively, in most cases, both
the sources of these signs/messages, and their various audiences, are
collective groups, spread out themselves through space and over time.

Many thanks for raising these provocative issues, Iraj.


At 03:33 PM 6/17/2004, you wrote:
>Thanks Judy for your response and Sorry for not being able to say things
>clearly. Let me try differently by asking:
>How does one talk about this kind of public protest in CHAT? It appears to
>me that is part of some 'activity' and it must use 'tools' and does
>something with 'rules and roles.' And all actions occur in their own
>cultural history and geography. And actions produce, respond to, and may
>resolve multiple conflicts --in gesture and speech and meaning making.
>I do not know about history and geography of this kind of action. But it
>seems to me that any protest involves engaging with other forces that
>already have history and geography. A momentary outcome depends on
>'interplay' of forces--what meaning is produced in the mind of a driver on
>the freeway in response to observing a protest sign?
>-----Original Message-----
>From: Judy Diamondstone []
>Sent: Thursday, June 17, 2004 12:12 PM
>Subject: RE: freeway-mediatiing-tools & others
>Iraj, I'm not sure how to read your commentary on the site you've cited
>Or perhaps I should say, I'm not sure how to read your commentary on CHAT,
>by way of the political performance "art" advocated on the site.
>The Los Angelos Art Squad (not sure of the name) used billboards to "talk
>back" to commercialism in the 1970s -- the freewaybloggers are certainly not
>the first, though I think this particular kind of expropriation of public
>sapce did start in California (does anyone know?)
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: IRAJ IMAM []
> > Sent: Thursday, June 17, 2004 11:13 AM
> > To:
> > Subject: freeway-mediatiing-tools & others
> >
> >
> > I came across this interesting site.
> >
> > I will try talk about this in a general way, please excuse my
> > misreading of
> > CHAT.
> >
> > I thought this is somehow related to recent discussions on
> > 'externalization'
> > and on 'bodies, matter, action, and meaning.' These sign postings on
> > freeways (and callings on White hate radios) seem to show people
> > (subjects)
> > taking action using visual (and audio) tools [gesture and
> > speech], breaking
> > formal rules and impose their own informal ones on public spaces (freeway
> > and airways). By taking up a 'new role' and status, as
> > 'offender', they seem
> > to expand on the 'community.'
> >
> > They seem to 'externalize' a kind of 'counter script' and project
> > images and
> > concepts through signs and words that go in the direction of hoping to
> > produce a 3rd space (a la Lefebvre and Soja)--a different 'activity.'
> >
> > Taking advantage of daily spatial practices of a large number of people is
> > not something new. Bill boards and commercials have been polluting urban
> > spaces and airways for so long. These practices and their tools are seen
> > 'normal' through sanctioned 'roles and rules' that have produced their own
> > historical and geographical culture. Using these public spaces
> > for another
> > 'activity' is interesting.
> >
> > iraj imam
> >
> > The Center for Applied Local Research
> >

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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