3 min

Jam the man

And activate your soul

DOES CULTURE JAMMING WORK? Media guerillas discuss the usefulness of parodies like this National Post spoof.

Activism has never been so fun. Gone are the days when someone could simply denounce Exxon’s oil spills or Seventeen Magazine’s skinny models. If you believe culture jamming to be the new mode of protest, then you know that an earnest message that simply tells of corporate abuses is not be enough. The public needs parody and wit.

“The style of culture jamming should be entertaining. That’s what pop culture thrives on,” says Hal Niedzviecki, organizer of Canada’s largest ‘zine fair and festival of alternative culture, Canzine ’99.

How effective is culture jamming? That’s up for debate this year. Niedzviecki has put together a panel discussion, “Dissidence Or Distraction? Does Culture Jamming Work?” (held at 5pm on Sun, Oct 3). It will explore whether culture jamming is merely stylish posturing or a useful force of anti-authoritarian activism.

This well-stocked panel includes jammers and jammin’ specialists like Naomi Klein (author of the upcoming book No Logo), Noam de Plume (member of Vancouver’s Guerrilla Media, who’ll also lead a workshop on cultural activism at 2pm) and Jesse Hirsch (founder of the web network, Tao Communications).

Often these culture jammers use the structures of an advertisement or a corporate logo to create their own political message, usually denouncing the dominance of corporate control in our culture. “It’s kind of like a judo flip,” de Plume says. “You turn their energy and you use it against them.”

Although culture jammers usually target corporations and advertisers, Niedzviecki cites an artist who has a fake bank machine as an example of culture jamming. “You put your card in and instead of money you get a little poem or a drawing.”

Culture jamming itself has its roots in the 1930s. “This was the last time there was a wave of militant anti-corporate activism,” says Klein. “People were feeling completely betrayed by corporate America because of the Depression.” Photography was the main medium of culture jamming at this time. One popular photograph shows a line of down-and-outers standing before a Better Living billboard of a happy, middle class family.

“These photographers were the culture jammers,” says Klein. “They would juxtapose the happy promises of corporate America against the reality of the Depression.”

Then why does culture jamming have such prevalence today? After all, Adbusters, a magazine dedicated exclusively to culture jamming and parodying advertisements, has just been named Canadian magazine of the year. “It’s the dominance of technology,” says Hirsch. “Activism has fetishized technology to the extent that they’re thinking it’s the new ray gun, the new super-duper tool that will liberate us from the evil of corporations.”

Most panelists agree that we are steeped in media culture. The approach to this new saturation should not be to flee technology, but to become interactive with it. Talk back to your media. Love your TV, love your internet, but make sure that increasing corporate control and influence in our lives do not go unquestioned. That’s the general message.

Culture jamming’s success in the ’90s has occurred for the same reasons advertising budgets have skyrocketed. People enjoy the transgressions of culture jamming as much as the new Gap ad. “I like to have fun when I culture jam,” says de Plume.

Activism now needs a dose of entertainment to make messages palatable to the public. “If you said sweatshops are bad and tell Nike to stop exploiting Indonesians, nobody would be paying attention,” says Klein. “To be a good culture jammer, you gotta be a good marketer.”

It’s not such a bad thing. Both advertising messages and culture jamming are accessible. In some high schools, culture jamming is part of the curriculum. “When I was young and involved with feminist, consciousness-raising stuff,” Klein recalls. “The only message we got was that this ad was bad; it makes us feel bad about ourselves. Culture jamming says, ‘Make your own ad! Mess with the idea!’ Culture is not a one-way transaction.”

Although culture jamming appears more and more, there are as many predictions of where culture jamming will go as there are newspapers owned by Conrad Black.

“Culture jamming will be big bucks,” predicts Hirsch. “It will go the way of hip hop – from underground to mainstream.” He sees the future resistance to corporate control in hacktivism. “Computer hacking will be the activism of the future.”

Canzine ’99.

Free. 1pm-1am.

Sun, Oct 3.

Big Bop.

651Queen St W.

(416) 538-2813.