It was after braving the crush at Kramer's to buy the latest Harry Potter book
that I sat down on an enormous concrete planter in Dupont Circle and noticed that I was staring straight at a black stenciled face.
It was one of the pieces of graffiti by 18-year-old art student John Tsombikos, aka Borf
, that have proliferated across the District.
Until his recent arrest, Borf produced scrawls and pictures, almost all of a scowling boy and most accompanied by a bizarre slogans like 'BORF WRITES LETTERS TO YOUR CHILDREN
,' or 'BORF IS GOOD FOR YOUR LIVER
He wasn't just kooky, he was ubiquitous. He has been held accountable for vast amounts of graffiti, not just in the District, but across the whole country, and beyond — in Raleigh, N.C., in New York, in Los Angeles, and<
even in Athens (that's Greece, not Georgia).
Sitting there, it hit me — Borf wasn't an isolated guy; he was a phenomenon. People from L.A. to Europe have assumed his identity and turned it into a group endeavor
, subverting popular cultural images in a practice that my twenty-something contemporaries call 'culture jamming.'
This kind of collective identity (which is a kind of anonymity, if you think about it) is my generation's reaction to having been spoon-fed advertising and
having had identities marketed to us. We've been led to believe that to be
homogenous and fit into certain characteristics is safe and desirable. Even
correct. Crudely put, culture jammers represent the way people my age feel
about modern society: that its images don't relate to us; that we won't or
can't engage with what we've been told we should be; and that all we can do
to make ourselves heard is to twist these images back on themselves
In a sense, I'd got to know Borf before I came to America from Britain
three weeks ago. He"s the American incarnation of British graffiti artist
Banksy, who is notable, among other things, for creating pictures of
with a green mohawk. Banksy has been pulling much the
same stunt as Borf, in much the same stencil style, and for longer; and he
has maintained his anonymity (although he has an agent and a bank account).
Major stores have even released posters of his images, making him rich
along the way. It's commonplace now in small British towns to see what
could only be described as Banksy knock-offs: graffiti mimicking his style
and passed off as originals. Just as Banksy's identity has been co-opted
into a collective body, so too has Borf's.
Both tap into ideas articulated by the American graphic artist Shepard
, whose bold, stylized pictures of the late professional wrestler
Andre the Giant, which are plastered up in public spaces, are juxtaposed
with slogans like 'Obey' or 'Giant.' Fairey says that in his project
(called 'Andre the Giant has a Posse
') the medium is the message. What
Fairey produces looks like trendy advertising but is in fact a deliberately
empty message. He"s therefore engaged in the subversive distribution of a
meaningless thing; it's anti-marketing, anti-singularity, anti-message.
Maybe the reason why apparently empty messages like these resonate with
my generation is that we don"t really have any icons of our own. We don't
have an Alan Ginsberg
, or a Jack Kerouac
. I mean, we don't even have a
Douglas Coupland — the writer who articulated the idea that the main
characteristic of the "90s" generation was that it had no characteristic.
We have no Bob Dylan, no Bruce Springsteen. When someone recently asked
me why people my age (I'm 21) listen to bands from our parents' generation,
I had to explain that, with a few exceptions, we don't have any real
musicians any more. What music we do have only exists because it"s been
marketed to us; without massive advertising campaigns, a lot of the 'music'
you can buy today, like Beyonce, wouldn't exist.
We're a voiceless generation. We have nothing
we can point to and say 'This is us, this is where we stand.' We're lost and silent and we don't
know what to do about it. We're sold a parody of culture which we buy
because, well, what choice do we have?
Even the generational angst I'm engaging in now is stolen. This is the
cry of the generation before mine, the Lost Generation, Generation X
Coupland's kids. People 10 years older than I am cornered the market in
existential meanderings and, self-indulgent though it is, at least it's a
flag, something to rally round. What have we got? Beyonce and Harry Potter
— both created and sold to us by people our parent' ages. Not that I've
anything against Harry Potter; I enjoyed 'The Half Blood Prince
But it isn't us. It's not who we are.
Even the most conventional of magazines has recognized that something
is up. Vanity Fair
has an essay competition in its current issue titled,
'What"s on the minds of America's youth today?' It asks young writers to
explain, for a prize of $1,500 and a Montblanc fountain pen, just what is
going on . As Vanity Fair"s editors see it:
'More than 30 years ago, young people across the country staged sit-ins
for civil rights, got up and protested against a misguided, undeclared war,
and actually gave a damn if a president lied to them. Today it seems as if
the younger generation of Americans are content to watch their MTV, fiddle
with their game players, [and] follow the love lives of Brad, Jen, Jessica and Paris. What has changed? What is going on inside the minds of American youth today?'
What's funny is that this hailing of 'American youth' displays a
paradoxical lack of awareness of our generation even as it tries to pin us
down. There's no such thing as 'American youth' — or British youth, come to
that, these days. That's exactly what we're not — a body, a set.
At the other end of the magazine spectrum is the international
. Achingly hip, painstakingly designed and printed on
recycled paper, Adbusters is the flagship magazine of the counter culture
movement, such as it is. The Adbusters manifesto states the magazine's
purpose boldly: 'We"re the ragtag remnants of oppositional culture — what's
left of the revolutionary impulse in the jaded fin de millennium atmosphere
of post-modernity in which revolution is said to no longer be possible.
What we share is an overwhelming rage against consumer capitalism and a
vague sense that our time has come to act as a vague collective force.'
So there you have it — I bet you never thought defining a generation
was so easy! Seriously, though, this is about as close as anyone gets to
saying what culture jammers
are all about.
The idea of the collective is one that has always captured the
imagination of young people — remember all those '60s communes? The most
fertile ground for collectivism today is the Internet, where identity is
automatically annulled. Anonymity allows collective projects to flourish
with no individual gain, only collective gain. The collectivist writing>
is a site run by people you may never meet or talk
to, and that specializes in creating fiction or journalism. One user,
identified only as 'loquacious
,' puts the collectivist ideal this way;
'[The site] is the way the internet was supposed to be. [It] is a reference
collection, a novel that writes itself, poetry that reads itself, and the
shiny toy that never grows dull. It is the potential to exceed the sum of
its parts.' As such, it"s a project that will always slip away from any
effort to capture it.
'Grown-ups are obsolete'; 'Teenagers are Invincible
'; 'Andre the Giant
has a Posse.' It's heady, apocalyptic
, meaningless even. You can probably
sense here that I'm struggling to say what it is that I mean, but that's
precisely because the movement, such as it is, is undefinable.
This idea of slippery collective identity is nothing new — in Italy it
dates back to 1994, when a band of disaffected youth chose to call
themselves Luther Blissett
, assuming the name of a former soccer player. In
the words of one of the Blissetts: 'The group considers identity to be the
prison of the self.'
The Blissett phenomenon acquired a certain notoriety in 1997
'Blissetts' were caught traveling on a train without a ticket. When asked
about this in court, the four replied that 'a collective identity does not
travel with a ticket.' They were acquitted. (The soccer-playing Ur
Blissett, though bemused, appears not to have cared. 'It's rather funny,'
he said, 'but I don"t mind these people using my name — whoever they are.')
In attempting to do the impossible and define for you this enormously
earnest brand of collectivism, I feel both ambivalence and sadness. Like any fringe movement, culture jamming rests upon its politically
oppositional nature. Culture jammers are caught, on the one hand
dissatisfied and willing for change to happen, but on the other depending
for their existence on the status quo's never changing. Of course, the
people who can afford Adbusters at $8 a pop are the very people who don't
need the 'liberation' from conventional culture that they so sincerely
advocate. And who needs the pseudo-babble of such hardcore identity
as the Blissetts?
Saying that his goal was to 'show the public how to fight a dishonest
media' one Blissett claimed: 'We are a collective ghost — a myth which
finds reality in those who take part.' Frankly, this makes me run for cover
— it"s glib, and its heady intellectual detachment is about the least
appealing mask a movement can wear.
I far prefer the end of the Adbusters
manifesto: 'At the simplest level we are a growing band of people who have
given up on the American Dream
.' Until we can find our own vision to aspire
to, maybe Borf and Andre the Giant are all we have.Mad props go to IWhoSawTheFace, templeton, and everyone else who has sent me kind words. In a fit of brattishness I considered noding the pre-edited article.