While reading both Wark and Raley, I found myself thinking quite a bit about the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF), which is one of the first acts of détournement I can recall encountering. I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out, but the BLF seem to epitomize the core aspect of détournement, which Douglas B. Holt describes as “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” (252). By defacing or replacing billboards, which remain omnipresent in American society and, in the words of comedian Bill Hicks, help to “turn everything into a dollar sign,” the BLF hijacks the public face of the capitalist machine and thereby challenges the consumerist ideologies that serve to perpetuate economic inequality, climate change, and more. The group is giving a proverbial thumb to the eye of corporate America and critiquing the profit-driven motives that disregard ecological sustainability and human health in favor of a never-ending quest for more money.
The BLF demonstrate the sort of playfulness advocated by the Situationists and Letterists, conceptualizing their activities as pranks (in fact, in a 2003 article appearing in SF Gate, Sam McManis referred to the group as “merry pranksters”). Much like the film They Live (John Carpenter, 1988), which Bijan mentioned in class recently, the BLF alter (or, in their terms, “improve”) existing billboards to reveal the sinister motives that lie behind seemingly innocuous capitalist institutions such as technology, fast food, theme parks, and more.
Now more than ever it seems as though we are living in Marshall McLuhan’s “Age of Anxiety,” especially given that media has become more pervasive than ever before. As McLuhan writes in The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences, they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered” (26). This quote becomes particularly relevant when looking at the early years of the 21st century, a time when social media bombards users with political messages of all stripes, 24 hour news networks conflate facts with opinion with alarming regularity, and billboards (which are increasingly becoming digitized) dot the landscape to an unprecedented degree. This constant mediation has left people feeling ever more anxious and depressed, especially as elected leaders appear to ignore the will of the people and instead opt to advance corporate interests, even in the face of encroaching ecological disaster.
Ultimately, this modern moment demonstrates the need for the playful revolt practiced by radical art groups like the BLF, Guerilla Girls, and monochrom. Their actions highlight the exploitative nature of capitalist enterprises while revealing the destructive implications of consumerist ideologies. At the same time, however, their revolutionary tactics appear to have been appropriated by conservative activists such as James O’Keefe and Alex Jones, both of whom have engaged in performative actions meant to advance ultra-Right-Wing philosophies (such as O’Keefe’s efforts to defund the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now or Jones’ entire Infowars persona). Such actions only serve to advance capitalistic tendencies and contribute to the environmental degradation and human suffering wrought by consumerism. Yet, given the current widespread support for progressive causes such as reversing climate change, implementing stricter gun laws, and protecting reproductive rights, it seems that the messaging of the BLF and similar groups is winning out. Nevertheless, leaders seem more reluctant than ever to take radical action on issues like impending ecological collapse and the widening inequality gap, suggesting that urban guerrilla groups like the BLF have a lot more work to do and need to continue their playful yet vital actions.
Holt, Douglas B. Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands.Oxford University Press, 2010.
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Gingko Press, 1967.
McManis, Sam. “Massaging the Message: Using urban guerrilla tactics, Billboard Liberation Front ‘adjusts’ ads.” SF Gate. August 24, 2003. Web. February 23, 2019.