The movement replacing ads with anti-capitalism
The first reaction is surprise. Passers-by stare at objects that they’ve grown increasingly accustomed to – but something is not quite right.
Then comes the amusement – the realization that those familiar objects, advertising spaces, billboards and the like, have been turned against their initial function. Instead of encouraging ravenous consumption, this Black Friday a billboard next to an electrical clearance store in Ancoats, Manchester bears quite a different message.
It now depicts a city teeming with trash, with people of colour working to extract raw materials from electrical waste, while others stand in a queue, waiting for their turn to buy. A young girl points to an invisible storefront.
‘It makes the invisible sides of our consumerism visible,’ says Bill Posters, the street artist and activist behind it. ‘It unites disparate communities connected to these cycles of consumption, and puts them face-to-face, collapsing space and time.’
Bill says the artwork was inspired by New Internationalist’s latest issue, focusing on waste, and it’s called ‘Everything must go’. ‘It asks people to pause and think on their commute: where is your waste going, and what’s your impact on the environment and social issues of faraway communities?’
Challenging corporate power
Bill Posters co-founded Brandalism, an award-winning international collective of artists that challenge corporate power, greed and corruption around the world. They do it through ‘subvertising’, a portmanteau of ‘subverting advertising’ – a creative form of civil disobedience.
Armed with keys, a high-vis jacket and posters, ‘subvertisers’ replace consumerist ads and corporate influence in public spaces with art daring us to dream of a better world – or face the stark reality of the one we live in.
‘Corporate advertising influences every aspect of our modern lives: from how we feel about ourselves; our bodies; our understandings of gender, race and class,’ says Posters, which isn’t his real name.
Through subvertising, advertising spaces, the very symbol of that influence, become platforms to amplify the social and environmental justice issues that consumer capitalism exacerbates. The movement’s origins are rooted in the history of contemporary art, from Dada to Situationists, and has been growing rapidly. Five years ago there were only a handful of subvertisers in the US and UK – then it spilled over into other cities, countries and forms.
In an impressive campaign during the COP21 Paris Climate Talks 2015, 80 artists from put up 600 posters in Paris to protest against the role of corporations, in the talks and in climate change. In 2017, the first #SubvertTheCity action saw 60 creative actions take place 38 cities in 18 countries.
And today, ‘we get several requests a week from artists wanting to learn how to access ad spaces,’ says Bill Posters. What’s the reason behind this constant growth? Bill Posters quotes a ‘growing discord with corporate power’ and the realization that governments are failing to take action on the worst crises facing our planet.
‘Everything must go’ is part of a series called ‘Waste World’, which looks at the biggest global retail event of the year from a different angle. It points to the true consequences of the world’s rubbish – from clothes to plastics and e-waste – as well as those most affected by it.
The various billboards, which can be seen on Brandalism’s Twitter account, take aim at corporate fashion giants for their role in exacerbating consumption. The images are photomontages from various investigative journalists who have visited dumps and landfills in the Global South.
One place that keeps popping up in Posters’ work is the infamous electronic waste dump Agbogbloshie in Ghana, West Africa, ‘where young men like Alhassan (the person seated on the LHS) eke out a living mining old computers and car batteries for raw materials’.
There are over 15 million people like Alhassan and Lia, the 14-year-old girl on the front cover of New Internationalist’s latest issue, who earn their living as waste pickers, literally sifting through Western waste offloaded there to clean up our countries. The majority are women and children.
But the waste keeps growing. The world produces over two billion tonnes of waste a year today – but that figure is expected to grow to 3.4 billion by 2050.
This year Earth Overshoot Day – the day when we have used more from nature than can be renewed in a year – fell on 1 August. Next year it’s predicted to fall in July. Posters’ hope is that if the pervasiveness of corporate power has pushed things in this direction, some surprising, thought-provoking art might make us reconsider.
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