Re: freeway-mediatiing-tools & others

From: Phil Chappell (
Date: Mon Jun 21 2004 - 02:57:45 PDT

The BUGA UP (Billboard Utilising Graffittists Against Unhealthy
Promotions) group is apparently still going strong: see billboard from
some kind of archive site whose original text reads: Anyhow, have
a Winfield 25's (popular brand of cigarrettes in Australia). As Jay
says, the group relied on original billboard messages in order to
comprehend the graffittied ones.

Hodge and Kress, in Social Semiotics (1988, Polity Press) use a
similar example (of the quintessential "Marlboro Man") to theorise the
relationship between text and context, and the flow of discourses
around the billboards. If I'm right, they argue that the unit of
analysis is one level above the actual texts - the activity surrounding
the texts produced, or flow of discourses, rather than the discreet
texts (billboards), each of which carries only traces of discourses.
The macho "Marlboro Man" billboards were also vehicles for feminist
critique, such as MM's horse claiming "Poo this macho stinks" -
bringing in parts of suppressed discourses. Complex motives and
activity systems!

To get an idea of the motives, organisation and division of labor, see
their website


On Jun 19, 2004, at 9:28 AM, Jay Lemke wrote:

> 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.
> JAY.
> 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?
>> iraj
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: Judy Diamondstone []
>> Sent: Thursday, June 17, 2004 12:12 PM
>> To:
>> Subject: RE: freeway-mediatiing-tools & others
>> Iraj, I'm not sure how to read your commentary on the site you've
>> cited
>> below.
>> 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?)
>> Judy
>> > -----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
> Professor
> University of Michigan
> School of Education
> 610 East University
> Ann Arbor, MI 48109
> Tel. 734-763-9276
> Email.
> Website.

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