David A Cox on 30 Oct 2000 00:11:53 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] notes on culture jamming

Notes on Culture Jamming 

By David Cox

"Culture-jamming," a term I have popularized by articles in The New York
Times and Adbusters, might best be defined as media hacking, information
warfare, terror-art, and guerrilla semiotics, all in one. Billboard
bandits, pirate TV and radio broadcasters, media hoaxers, and other
vernacular media wrenchers who intrude on the intruders, investing ads,
newscasts, and other media artifacts with subversive meanings are all
culture- jammers."
Mark Dery 

Damn the Networks! Victory to the Imagination!

Yogi in Craig Baldwin's "Spectres of the Spectrum"

Spectres of the Spectrum: A Culture Jammer's Cinematic Call to Action 

In his recently completed collage essay film "Spectres of the Spectrum"
San Francisco's Craig Baldwin posits a time traveling telepathic media
pirate called BooBoo who enters a wormhole and sees all the TV shows from
when they first began to be broadcast. She travels through all of the last
century's decades of broadcast media history. A psychic media archeologist
and angry, intrepid chrononaut, BooBoo witnesses the gradual takeover of
the electromagnetic spectrum from within by both the U.S.
military-industrial complex and Big Business. 

Pioneers and brilliant inventors like Nicola Tesla were robbed of their
ideas by financially more powerful entities. Philo T Farnsworth's radical
television ideas were appropriated by a team led by David Sarnoff, head of
RCA, who then used them to finance the development of national television.
As BooBoo traverses the airwaves, she is guided by her father, Yogi, who
keeps her updated with dispatches from his illegally broadcast pirate TV
station code called TV Tesla.

BooBoo eventually 'crashes the system' of the New Electromagnetic Order
(NEO) by retrieving a hidden message from her mother in and old episode of
"Science in Action" , flying into the sun and redirecting its 'free'
energy to destroy the infrastructure of the military/entertainment
complex.  The film itself is made from the materials the onscreen
characters themselves examine for clues: corporate training and
propaganda, educational materials and old TV programming.  Haunting and
strange, early television pictures were once recorded on 16mm film from a
TV tube, via a process known as kinetoscope. Never destined for use
anytime beyond the days they were broadcast, 1950s black and white shows
like "Science in Action" and "Korla Pandit" ended up on the trash heaps
and landfills of post cold war era television. 

Cutting Comments: Baldwin at Work

Building from the ground up out of film text and graphic materials at
hand, Baldwin makes the collage/essay film as an assembly. His work
comments on the circumstances of its own production. Baldwin urges the
film viewers to take heed from Spectres of the Spectrum's conclusion: that
electromagnetism is a free energy source, which should be available to

One Day Son, All This Will be Yours

Culture-jammer work looks ruefully around at the contemporary landscape
and sees little other than visual and sonic evidence of a world made ugly,
dull and boring by the all-pervasive influence of commerce. Ads and
posters for products dominate the streets, company logos adorn every other
piece of clothing, cars and buildings. Less and less can be done in a
contemporary city without a healthy amount of money in your pocket, and of
course, access to the facilities of electronic banking, point of sale
purchasing, credit cards and so on. 

We live in a highly electronically mediated urban environment. Almost
every single activity we perform is made available only if we key in a PIN
number, use a key or if we in some other way identify to some unseen
authority who we are. Anonymity is becoming a scarce resource in urban
areas bristling with security cameras equipped with face-recognition
software. The need to identify with a culture outside the global spectacle
is being felt by young people all around the world.

Boring Media

The mainstream media is characterised by a middlebrow liberal/reformist
humanist worldview. It is essentially at its core middle class, middle
aged in editorial orientation and on the whole politically conservative.
In delivering audiences to advertisers, mainstream media profits reflect
the interests of the global corporations. As Noam Chomsky points out
mainstream papers always have a "business" lift-out section but hardly
ever a "labour" section. Business interests are those reinforced by the
media most strongly as these reflect the ethos of those who commission the

Events such as the recent September 11th protests in Melbourne with few
exceptions are as a rule framed as out of control, violent and hostile.
On commercial television news, only clashes with police make up the
content of records of popular protest. A climate of urban threat generally
frames commercial reportage of public displays of opposition to global
corporate control. People at demonstrations with a point of view are
televised in contexts in which seldom fails to link the aspiration for
social or economic change to the idea of imminent violence and incursion.

Culture vs  Commerce

Academic institutions, whose once much larger cultural influence have been
made to conform in the 1980s and 1990s to the economic rationalist agenda
of conservative governments. The liberalism which prevails in the
corridors of cash-strapped academe far outstrips that in the world of
industry. To work for a company, particularly a media company is to be
forced to agree to non-disclosure agreements which effectively curtail
freedom of speech. 

Federally backed restrictions on who can publish what on the Internet via
universities has effectively silenced most students from publishing
formally through a university world wide web server. Students rightly
argue that this state of affairs is an outrage in a time when the Internet
has been identified as the key factor in the success of economies
worldwide. An appalling John Howard led Australia-wide cut in University
Humanities and student union funding reinforces the view that the
powers-that-be would much prefer a culturally unaware thinking population.  

The distinction between information technology (I.T.) and the broader
socio-cultural domain of media education could not be broader. To focus on
a life based on computers the IT industry has effectively limited the idea
of a life with computers as part of the broader global e-commerce agenda.
Media education on the other hand promotes creative self-expression over
the technical and administrative conventions of the I.T. departments of
major banks, insurance and securities firms. When IT students find access
to the more creative side of media production, the experience can often be
a pleasant shock.

Worker vs Hacker

The theme of work and the workplace are the dominant discourse in the
computer mainstream. From the retail outlet sales pitch, to the ads on TV
for software, using a computer is equated with the idea of the 'office in
the home' rather than the plaything for the hobbyist. In its original use,
the phrase "to hack" meant to open up and investigate, to be curious, to
experiment, to play and to discover. This broad definition of hacking is
the most useful in understanding what differentiates computers as media
from computers as work implements. Hackers play with the technology of
computers as and end in itself. As a creative form of experimentation,
hacking opens up technology to innovation and revision. For many hackers
'work' if done on a computer means play.

This spirit of experimentation and play is at the very core of the
culture-jammer aesthetic. The collage/essay style of film making for
example, takes delight in the actual process of film assembly itself, and
makes this explicit within the film's structure. A growing creative youth
movement is emerging which identifies with open systems of all kinds. The
rise of the Linux computer operating system is a good example. Unlike
Microsoft Windows or Macintosh Operating System Linux is free and
available to anyone. "Shareware" culture of this type reflects a broader
sense in the community that ideas, like software and a good joke are there
to be shared, circulated and made available. 

The D.I.Y. or "do it yourself" movement had its correlates in the punk
scene of the seventies and prior to that in the 'homegrown' media
production culture of the anti-Vietnam war counter-culture. Here
"low-tech" and "hands-on" techniques for music and self publishing became
very popular and widespread. When I studied Media Studies at college in
the early 1980s, many values of the counterculture were still in
circulation: principles of 'take a camera and shoot' and 'go out and
publish your own magazine'. As the eighties unfolded, gradually cuts to
the liberal arts by the then treasurer John Howard hulled the media
education sector of its former liberalism. Outside centers of learning,
arts funding has recently favoured youth led festivals and events, of
which the Newcastle Electrofringe/Young Writers Festival is exemplary.

Culture-jamming for many is an entire way of living. Its advocates
generally reject the notion of the citizen as merely consumer, and the
idea of society as merely marketplace. The culture-jammer and media
activist approach to life questions the underlying social relations which
govern the place of media (and by extension, capital) in our culture.
Culture-jammer methods are strategies for self-empowerment. They embrace
self-publishing in all its forms. Self made magazines (or "fanzines" or
just 'zines), techno music done by teenagers in bedrooms, personal web
site production,  graffiti, hacking, billboard alteration and other forms
of popular media resistance to the mainstream can reside under the broad
banner of media activism. 
Reversing Racism

As the photo-montagist John Heartfield discovered while working under the
shadow of Nazi rule, a racist's rants are so loaded and antagonistic that
the only real way to 'jam' them is to rework them so that the same
venomous words now reorganized, become burlesque nonsense. 

Devaluing the currency of the authoritarian is to turn the tables not only
on the words, but the speaker, and by inference, the broader
authoritarianism system itself. The shocking rise of public racism in
Australia as evidenced in the rise and fall of the "Pauline Hanson's One
Nation" party was the target of Sydney sound collage artist 'Pauline
Pantdown'. The resultant song "I Don't Like It" edited Hanson's words into
hilarious gibberish.

The Australian gonzo journalist and media prankster John Saffran staged a
series of larrikin stunts including one involving dressing as burger clown
Ronald McDonald. This was to deliberately pre-emp and hence overshadow the
arrival of the official Ronald McDonald at a "New McDonald's Restaurant
Opening" in suburban Australia. The event was videotaped by a nearby crew.
Fearing a holdup, the staff at the restaurant apparently then called the
police. Armed police surrounded Saffran immediately. Stories and images
like these disrupt the normally squeaky clean image of the McDonald's
global restaurant giant, processed as it usually is by slick production
values of the commercial channels. 

Pranks like this (as well as the well circulated video records of the
events) offer up the at least the possibility of reversing the flow of
media, if only for a brief moment in time. Media interventions represent
potent symbolic challenges to the sanitized filtered mainstream
advertising horizon which would otherwise dominate the airwaves, as well
as the streets and magazine pages of our lives. Culture is thus truly
'jammed'; interrupted, and the process of doing so reveals much about the
inner workings of society. 

Another theme of the movement is the public display of overt contestation
of  sites of cultural and political power. In Australia, as writer Mark
Davis, author of "Ganglands" points out, one could be forgiven for
thinking that based on the daily press and broadcast evidence, the
mainstream media favour the middle aged and affluent over the young.  

Globalism, Politics and Bandwidth. 

	Bandwidth is political. Those countries who own the thickest
network data pipes are usually also the most well-off in national economic
terms. Germany and the United States between them hold the most bandwidth.
Global media power is linked to global political power. Media magnates
today can actually partly advise governments or at least negotiate at
election time personally with heads of state in exchange for positive
press coverage. At the World Economic Forum, attending an event surrounded
by protesters from around the world, Bill Gates was prompted to wonder if
the rate and acceleration of change in the world brought about by
telecommunications might be occurring too fast after all. Whose backing
off now?
New Generation of Media Savvy Activists

	The media activist movement incorporates aspects of the techno and
electronica music underground as well as the punk/D.I.Y. 'zine subculture
and the computer hacker subculture. Linux and freeware advocates are high
in number as are the proponents of the culture-jammer movement itself as
exemplified by film maker Craig Baldwin in San Francisco. Other jammers
include the collage music band Negativland, and more locally John Saffran.
It borrows heavily from the legacies of the beat movement, the punk scene
and other bohemias which privileged self expression as a form of social
and political empowerment.  

Generational Cultural Battlezones

In his book "Ganglands", writer Mark Davis paints a portrait of a cultural
climate in Australia where the same media 'pundits' who rose to prominence
in the early and mid 1970s seem to dominate the contemporary opinion
columns, editorial pages of mainstream media. Youth are routinely and
casually framed in the media as hostile, lazy, ungrateful and marginal.
Police in major cities will often automatically question and harass groups
of young people gathered in malls and shopping centers. Young people,
particularly those who choose to dress unconventionally are routinely
stopped and questioned, and targeted for disproportionate levels of police

Young people are charged at the turnstile for almost every daily urban
experience. Fewer and fewer spaces in the contemporary city allow for the
convergence and use by teenagers, let alone access to the means of
communication. What were once public spaces are increasingly leased
holdings, patrolled by private police and owned by private companies.
Young people seldom appear in the news unless they are framed as 'grunge'
or in some other way defined by how they do not fit into the broader media
scheme of things. As humanities departments suffer cutbacks, closures and
a gradual financial asphyxia, the cultural sphere is moving into the
domain of the media activists.

At the recent S-11 protests (in what are very much public streets), people
critical of globalism of all ages were being at first tolerated by police
as a vocal but harmless group, then in a sudden change in police tactics,
brutally attacked over the subsequent days. Police wore no identifying
badges or markings, a move that was presumably designed to foil legal
observation workers present.  Culture Jammers had taken the popular song
by John Farnham "You're the Voice" and posted it on the S11 website,
claiming it as the 'official anthem' of S11. In response, Farhnam's record
company sent a 'cease and desist' letter insisting the song be removed
from www.s11.org.au. The exchange between the web site authors and the
record company became the hub of discussion on the web site, and in so
doing the culture-jammer aesthetic accompanied the broader protest. 
Collage Essay Film Making.

Cut-up film making has a long tradition. It includes the work of the beat
era film maker Bruce Connor and his onetime student Craig Baldwin. It
includes the films of Phil Pateris, Jesse Drew and Greta Snider. Material
is found in dumpsters, in donated film cans, from stuff thrown out from
secondary schools and colleges, and mail order sources, to archives and
libraries from around the country. The footage is painstakingly watched
and material taken based on it's a) strength visually b) context
narratively and c) potential as a part in a mosaic. 

Few shots taken from an old film reel can find their way into the montage
unless it in someway bolsters the argument of the film maker: if it is not
visually directly relevant to what is being said on the soundtrack it
might illustrate by way of analogy the idea. For example a shot of a man
closing a giant safe door could be used to illustrate someone talking
about how the Internet is being closed down by corporate interests (Sonic
Outlaws, 1995, by Craig Baldwin) . A giant company can be shown as a large
clunky fake robot from a 1940s World Trade Fair sequence (Spectres of the
Spectrum 1999). Stories are built up from the material available, and the
material itself helps direct the script.  The film makes itself from the
availability and relevance of the material to the subject and the subject
makes itself from the types of footage available.

This two-way conversation between a culture-jammer's materials and his/her
overall argument or worldview is at the core of the aesthetic. Junk, funk,
trash, and cast off stuff becomes transformed and alchemically its
meanings are re-arranged. Media become the ventriloquist's doll for the
film-maker, saying what s/he wants it to say, doing what the film maker
wants it to do. 


The rise of the photocopier in the 1970's and 1980's led to an explosion
of printed matter by non professional publishers. Private desires and
opinions become public expression. The circulation might only be the
writer's peer group, or it may extend over a number of countries. 'Zine
publication in Australia represents a badly undervalued and healthy
channel of unofficial under-the-radar cultural production. 'Zines are made
available to people by their peers, and offer up private commentary in a
public sphere, by way of satire, parody, jokes, calls to action,
confessions of often painful honesty. 

Sticker Culture 

Few artists who find a roll of blank stickers (especially skate punks) can
resist the temptation to use them in creative ways for self-expression.
Many gangs in the USA use stickers to mark out turf on buses and trains,
quick 'tags' on 'Hello My Name Is" stickers liberated from retail outlets
find their way into the public domain.


Stencils came to prominence during the youth uprising of May 1968. Based
often on photographic portraits and slogans, stencils are bits of
cardboard, with the imagery cut out with sharp knives. The stencils are
placed up against brick walls or on the footpath and a spray paint can is
used to almost permanently emblazon the space with its message.

Audio Sampling

Audio collage by groups such as Negativland, John Oswald take materials
from as many sources; scanned mobile phone conversations, old radio
serials, and material off the internet. The Tape Beatles took out a patent
on 'plagiarism' as a technique. By copying materials by the Beatles, the
Tape Beatles intend to discredit the idea of the originality of the
artist. The record companies interpret copying of any sort as bootlegging,
despite the fact that most copies of music is not made for resale. The
battle between companies and culture-jammers reached its zenith in the
early 1990s when Island Records sued Negativland for using a sample of a
song by the megagroup "U2"  in a parody. The film 
"Sonic Outlaws" by Craig Baldwin chronicles these events in great detail.

Video Collage.

Video Collage by the Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN),  and film maker
Phil Pateris takes materials available over the airwaves, off videotape
and off cable television. It is then meticulously cut into rhythmic visual
songs. In the case of the EBN, looped sound bites and other audio samples
become complete works not only of video, but of music. The works are often
hilarious takes on the relationship between the media and the military and
end up as videotape compilations and music CDs.

Literary Cutups and Dimensional Travel

William Burroughs popularized the idea of the literary 'cutup' in the
early 1960s. His novels utilize the technique of cutting up and reworking
text to create whole "new" works. Burroughs believed that the many of the
messages contained within his cutup texts foreshadowed actual events. As
premonitions, cutup writings became for him at least a window into a
supposed other dimension.

Dimensional travel of this sort is a recurring theme in science fiction
D.I.Y. media. As materials present themselves for reworking, it is hard to
read into early 60s 16mm educational films anything but evidence of a
society very much into laying down the law, and asserting the centrality
of the authority of government, school and home. In this regard a culture
jam can open up a very real 'time corridor' into the otherzone of past.
The process of understanding the relationship of early media to the time
they occupied is itself a valuable discipline. It is the archivist as
artist and vice versa.

Jamming has become a method of devaluing the cultural capital of the
mainstream, of reversing the one-way flow of media. It is to many an
almost evangelical trajectory, borne by Beat era notions of 'beatitude' a
kind of heartfelt sense of pathos and epiphany through art or artistic
gesture. This has won it critics from people Bruce Connor's work in the
early 1960s on film shows a screen world of beatific menace and threat;
cold war anxiety about nuclear weapons, and trashy cast off material about
hot-rod races, nude dancers. 

When cut together the combination of fact and fiction, rare archival and
Z-grade schlock in Bruce Connor's films opens a window into the hidden
underbelly of postwar US culture. The psyche of America is unveiled as a
vast repository of pent-up desire. The cut-up method was an extension of
the overall beat project; to symbolically defy the claims made upon
everyday life by a post war command economy. The rigidly warlike
hierarchical structure of the militarized government of America in the
1950s was met with an explosion of counter cultural resistance movements,
beginning with the beatniks. As McKenzie Wark and Mark Davis point out in
their books, it is the members of that same once vehemently
anti-authoritarian counter-culture thirty five years ago who today still
jealously clutch to cultural power within the contemporary Australian

Arials vs Roots

McKenzie Wark in a 1998 documentary on Australian intellectual life;
Bohemian Rhapsody invites a group he is with to recite the first lines of
the theme to "The Brady Bunch". He does this in order to find out who
knows the whole song as this tells us much about the time we live in. Many
of us share a vivid history of such themes, ads, and shows from the last
thirty years. Dead media become a kind of common cultural currency,
shared, exchanged and valued. They resonate within the public imagination.
Adbusters is a US based magazine that attacks the culture of consumerism
by turning its own slick advertising tools and tactics against it.
Adbusters expertly employs the glossy tactics of advertising to encourage
people to take part in events such as "Buy Nothing Day" and "TV Turnoff
Week." This diversionary tactic takes the revolution to another level, as
the magazine's publisher, Kalle Lasn, issues a call to arms to "the
advance shock troops of the most significant social movement" of the early
21st century. 
Kalle Lasn, author of the influential book "Culture Jam: The Uncooling of
America" has highlighted the role of culture jamming as a way for the
population to reclaim its collective creative life. In being denied the
cultural space to voice an alternative view, the populations of the big
western economies are flocking to the Internet and its youth are busy
making their own publications, hip-hop records, techno music and so on.
MP Free
The Newcastle Electrofringe events showcase the techno music talents from
all over Australia. As recording artists converge this year, the role of
the MP3 format in altering the stakes in the record industry is a hot
topic. MP3 files have enabled people globally to share music without the
intervening filter of the music publishing industry. This free exchange of
music on the internet has been met with litiginous hostility by the
recording firms who have through legal action shut down web organizations
who have made MP3s available via search and play web sites such as Napster
and MP3.com.
Media (H)activism

	In Australia at present, cracks in the surface of what Guy Debord
called 'the Society of the Spectacle' are appearing.  The recent 'cash for
comments' events in which two major radio announcers were found guilty of
accepting money to promote goods and services in the guise of editorial
comment have opened up debates about what type of media-space really
surrounds us.

	At the Young Writer's /Electrofringe festival held in October in
Newcastle, NSW both in 1999 and this year, debates revolve mainly around
the ways cultural power took form in Australia. Issues such as the level
to which mainstream commercial media buttress global and local commercial
interests were addressed, with forums on media access, self publishing and
notions of technological empowerment. 

	A decision was made recently by the Howard federal government to
attempt the censoring of the Internet. Recent legislation which restricts
various types of material which can be made available via Internet Service
Providers (ISPs) demonstrates how out of touch the Government actually is
with the totally global workings of the Internet. That restricting the
flow of data from within Australia can be thwarted by the operator simply
setting up offshore was either a) a fact which the government could live
with and tolerate or b) indicative of a fundamental lack of willingness to
understand the technically uncensorable Internet. The reality is most
likely a strange combination of both. 

Internet History 101

	To understand its significance as a mode for public discourse, it
is important to understand something of the actual history, origins and
current functioning of the Internet.  Politicians and embarrassingly high
numbers of today's 'media pundits' clearly do not. Those born in the early
1980s in contrast, have virtually grown up with the Internet and
understand its role as an extension to everyday life, as a tool for use in
a world where ideas need to be in a process of flow and dynamism to play a
role. The Internet was largely reclaimed from military use by users who
found it a useful extension to everyday life. As a site for chat, informal
conversation and ideas exchange, the Internet, designed for imperviousness
to nuclear war became an open global forum for the Vox Populi.

Artists as Pixel Pushing Cyberserfs

	Art school graduates and freelance artists are enticed to become
graphics software specialists in a climate with an insatiable appetite for
PR gloss and advertising glitz. Creative people who need work are finding
themselves expected to serve the demands of the almost endless appetite by
PR firms for corporate desktop published brochures and web sites. In using
the Internet these companies are sharing bandwidth with the public, who in
the USA at least, actually paid for the Internet via cold war era taxes.
But private and public life alike on the Internet are being squeezed from
all sides today by the corporate imagination. The Internet as a public
space is being ruthlessly zoned for redevelopment to deliver maximum
returns to its increasingly commercial backers and controllers. An
activist might well feel the need to label 'return to sender' Bill Gate's
alleged 'advice' to the Melbourne S11 protesters: Back Off!

Wings of Desire

	Culture-jamming takes that latent desire within a loosed media
fragment, reprograms it, and sends it back into circulation. Forensically
analyzed and judged, a reworked image often transmits more than it
intends. Culture Jamming releases meanings from pieces of the media puzzle
and re-transmits them into new contexts where they can run free. It
removes from the scene of the crime a film, literary, video or sound work.
Lifted from its once fixed intended socio-cultural place and time the
culture jammed media particle is made to throw its voice from the past
into the present. Secrets can be explicitly revealed, hidden stories

David Cox is a film maker, writer and lecturer in Digital Screen
Production at Griffith University's School of Film Media and Cultural
Studies. His films include Puppenhead (1990), BIT (1992), and Otherzone
(1998) his email is d.cox@mailbox.gu.edu.au
Website: http://www.netspace.net.au/~dcox/dcox.html



Baldwin, Craig, USA,  Spectres of the Spectrum, collage/essay film, 1999

Baldwin, Craig, USA, Sonic Outlaws, collage/essay film, 1995

Bohemian Rhapsody, ABC TV 1998


Lasn, Kalle, Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America Quill

Dery, Mark Culture Jammer Handbook pamphlet, 1992

Dery, Mark, Escape Velocity  Grove Press; 

Marcus, Griel Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century
Harvard Univ Pr; 


Sterling, Bruce,  Media Archeology Project  1995 - ongoing 



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