by ALEC SMART
Subvertising – the manipulation of poster advertisements – is back with a bang, and not since the 1980s when B.U.G.A.U.P. (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) made witty alterations with their spray paint cans has public advertising been co-opted and called to account.
Except this time it’s not intrepid paint can wielding activists cheekily altering lettering under the cover of darkness to criticise cigarette advertising and other noxious promotions, but daytime pirate pranksters with pre-printed posters.
On 30 Jan a group of 20 activists set out to subvert the mass-message medium of bus shelter advertising in selected suburbs of Australia’s three most populated cities. Wearing fluoro orange vests altered to suggest they worked for the company that hosts the adverts – JC Decaux – the pranksters opened the sealed frames that house the posters with hex keys and placed their substitute posters beneath the glass screens.
The publicity stunt was done to draw attention to the Australian Government’s lack of concern for global climate change and its effects. 78 posters, which all contained the hashtag #brandalism, were infiltrated into the advertiser’s frames.
The guerrilla action took place simultaneously in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, in what the subvertisers described as “the nation’s largest unsanctioned outdoor art exhibition.”.
Each colourful A1-sized poster, showcasing the work of 41 socially-motivated artists and ranging from illustrations, graphics and cartoons, featured a bold message beneath the artwork. These included: ‘Donate to our brave firefighters today’; ‘Support our wildlife’; ‘Real climate action now’; ‘Support bush regeneration’; ‘Get out of dirty fossil fuel now’; and ‘Our government won’t act on climate change but we can’.
Unfortunately for the campaign, many of the posters were removed shortly after installation by JC Decaux employees. However, a compilation video documenting the anonymous activists planting the posters was posted to social media and several national newspapers ran the story.
The joint action, dubbed ‘Bushfire Brandalism’, was explained by a statement that was reprinted on The Culprit Club webpage. It said: “Advertising posters have been replaced with bespoke thought-provoking images and messages…
“As a collective group of Australian artists, we have been driven to reclaim public advertising space with posters speaking to the Australian Government’s inaction on climate change and the devastating bushfires. We do not accept that this situation is ‘business as usual’. We are making these issues visible in our public spaces and in our media; areas monopolised by entities maintaining conservative climate denial agendas. If the newspapers won’t print the story, we will!”
Among the artists whose work was used was political mural painter Scott Marsh, internationally (in)famous for his large external wall paintings around Sydney’s inner suburbs, often mocking public figures. Marsh has frequently featured in City Hub and one of his murals of cheeky sign-wearer Danny Lim graced the cover of our Best of Sydney 2019 edition.
Readers probably recall Marsh’s painting of ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair with his hand down disgraced paedophile Archbishop George Pell’s underwear, to celebrate the legalisation of same-sex marriage (the two old friends opposed it).
Two of his murals endorsing same-sex marriage were vandalised by fundamentalist Christians, a third criticising Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s lame response to the bushfires was painted over a few days after it was created.
Marsh’s contribution to the pirate poster campaign was a portrait of Scott Morrison with the words ‘climate denial’ printed across his forehead.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Marsh explained his involvement with the Brandalism action. “I’m frustrated with the lack of action. I got distracted for a while, but you can smell it in the air that now is the time to really push on climate change. If nothing happens now, it’s never going to f***ing happen.”
Meanwhile, satirical poster crew Wowser Nation have stepped up their own brand of subvertising, displaying humorous, thought-provoking stickers and posters on public sites around Sydney. Wittily critical of government abuses of power, this has included ridiculing the NSW Govt’s unpopular Lockout Laws curtailing night time entertainment.
Founded in 2016 by sculptor Clary Akon and psychologist Francis Merson to poke fun at what they perceived were silly regulations, a sign they posted at Bondi Beach in 2017 warning “All joggers must wear a helmet. Fines apply” was so convincing it caused a stir and appeared in British conservative tabloid Daily Mail.
On their Facebook profile they state: “Wowser Nation is a collective which explores the Australian nanny state through subversive street art. We create satirical signs that encourage people to question the increasingly strict rules we are asked to follow. Our work embodies the disquieting suspicion that regulation aimed to improve our lives could be making them worse.”
Stop it or cop it!
In 2019 Wowser Nation launched a campaign to challenge NSW Police’s increasing use of sniffer dogs and strip-searching for drugs, gaining increased public support when it was revealed police were undressing children without parental permission at the entrance to music festivals.
Wowser’s ‘Stop it or cop it!’ poster (which took its title form Transport for NSW’s safe driving campaign launched in Dec 2017), spoofed NSW Police drug deterrent posters with blue and white checker squares, authoritative fonts and simple graphics. In Oct 2019 it suddenly appeared around Sydney’s Central Station and fooled many people into thinking it was a genuine police warning.
Featuring graphics of a glove-wearing police officer about to perform a cavity search on a bent-over person and officers and two dogs arresting or searching prone characters, it warned: ‘Having fun? You will get caught!’
On Australia Day 2020 Wowser Nation returned to Bondi Beach and parked a digital display LED sign in the car park flashing coloured text messages: “Hey You! We said no alcohol! No smoking, no music no dancing. Random cavity searches. Happy Australia Day.”
Another blue and white checked witty Wowser Nation sign appearing on lampposts and walls around Sydney is warning: ‘This area is patrolled by FUN POLICE, protecting Sydney’s citizens from themselves…’
City Hub‘s previous coverage of mischievous mural painter Scott Marsh: http://cityhubsydney.com.au/?s=scott+marsh