By Caroline Caldwell
Advertisements force us to think about ourselves in terms of everything we’re not. I think people should walk down the street and feel filled with everything that they are. So a few years ago, I made the message I wanted to see, put it up inside of a train where an ad used to be, and took a photo. Maybe only a few people noticed it on the train that day, but the photo spread far and fast online; shared over a million times across Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media. It’s been printed in books and magazines, referenced in TED talks, tattooed on a few people, translated into other languages, hung in classrooms and bedroom walls. I’ve read literally hundreds of long form captions reacting to this, interpreting it, contextualising it within that person’s own life. It doesn’t feel like there’s a need for me to explain what this piece is about because it seems like you already get it.
The piece developed a trajectory of its own without me doing anything, and often without my name attributed to it. It spread through a dozen fast fashion companies, printing it on t-shirts and mugs, without asking my permission. It spread when Madonna posted it on her Instagram to promote her tour, through celebrities sharing it without crediting me, even paraphrasing it in interviews as their own. I keep getting cut out of the wealth gained from my own work. I feel like a spectator, watching capitalists profit off a message about overcoming capitalist-manufactured insecurity. There’s a dark humour to it though. My critique of consumerism is spreading through consumerism. I don’t know if that means I’m gaming the system or if the system is gaming me …
Even without my name attached, it’s humbling that something from my heart is resonating with so many people. I wasn’t trying to make a buck or make something viral, and honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about self-love. I just noticed a lot of my insecurities stemmed from not fitting in with a fucked up system (a sexist, racist, Islamaphobic, homophobic, capitalist patriarchy, to be specific). I found a simple way of expressing that and scribbled it on my bedroom wall, then thought: “Maybe other people need to hear this too”.
Shortly after posting my message, I was linked to a viral video by a radical body-positive activist named Amy Pence-Brown that included my words. Amy stood blindfolded in a public square in a bikini, allowing passers by to draw on her body in support of self acceptance. This was her raw reaction to living in a society that told her a woman’s value is her attaining an impossible beauty standard. Amy’s confidence has a contagious effect on others, and thanks to social media and Amy’s other activist efforts, a lot of people are catching it.
If those who control the media control the minds of the masses (to quote Malcolm X), it’s important for us to think seriously about who we give that power to. We never chose to give that power unanimously to marketers, and yet marketers manipulate every aspect of our daily lives – from sponsored Instagram posts for skinny tea, to billboards for ambulance chasing lawyers. Marketers are here to make us feel incomplete. How do we regain control of our experience? How do we escape a system that wants us subjugated as a ‘brain-dead consumer’ to experience something richer, higher, real? Let’s talk about taking back the tools of control. Let’s talk about how art is a powerful tool in our arsenal. Social justice through direct action. Self-empowerment through DIY art activism.
I’ve been doing ad takeovers since I was 16. I felt empowered from a young age by culture jammers like The Situationists, anarcho-punk collectives like Crass, community builders like Swoon, writers like Molly Crabapple. Not only did these activists use their art to draw our attention to corruption, but they actively built something better in its place. It only takes a few challenging the status quo to disrupt the illusion for the rest of us.
In 2017, writer RJ Rushmore, photographer Katherine Lorimer and I started Art in Ad Places, a guerrilla community service project that replaces advertisements with artwork. This project was our attempt at showing what a healthy public environment could look like. It felt important to use this platform to amplify voices of women, immigrants, trans folks – anyone who might be misrepresented or underrepresented in today’s media. Some of the art was political and some of it was just beautiful. And sometimes the beautiful is political. We just wanted to send out good vibes. There are so many amazing people doing this kind of work: Special Patrol Group, Jordan Seiler, Billboard Liberation Front, Brandalism, Thomas Dekeyser (AdDistrotion), to name a few. “Advertising Shits in Your Head” published by Dog Section Press pretty much covers everything you need to know about the perils of public advertising, and strategies for resistance. Basically, the space belongs to all of us. Permission is yours if you take it.
Even at its worst, this world is full of wonder, magic and love. My very existence is the result of an act of love, and that’s what I want to bring into the world. I don’t have to accept any voice that talks down to me, but I don’t want to ignore them either. Tuning out all the vapid media I’m bombarded with might mean tuning out the beautiful and complicated things that make life meaningful – and that’s a compromise I’m not willing to make.
If I want to live in a world I like, I have to help create it.
Caroline Caldwell is an artist and co-founder of the Art in Ad Places campaign. She lives and works in New York.