Re+Public; Collaboration between B.C. (Heavy) Biermann, Ean Mering & Public Ad Campaign’s Jordan Seiler.
This case study will look at Re+Public’s AR | AD Takeover in New York’s Times Square in July 2011. It will analyze video documentation of the event, along with artist statements and critical writing by the authors of the project, in addition to analysis by external sources. It will break down the goals of the project and develop a relationship between those aims, the actual outcomes and my personal vision for the capacity of this technology to intervene in corporate power structures. It will ask, what does this artwork intend to do and how does it succeed and/or fail at those goals.
Many of The Heavy Project’s other augmented reality works are beautiful and interesting, comprising mainly of augmented experiences of graffiti and architecture, which are animated, layered through time, and engage participants in an interactive experience of urban spaces. However, the project which arguably has the most conceptual strength is Biermann and Mering’s collaboration with Jordan Seiler’s Public Ad Campaign, run under the banner Re+Public. The Public Ad Campaign is a long-term activist project which reclaims the power dynamics of urban advertising space. On their website, they note that they “act on the assumption that public space and the public’s interaction with that space is a vital component of our city’s health. By visually altering and physically interacting with the public environment, residents become psychologically invested in their community… By monetizing public space, outdoor advertising has monopolized the surfaces that shape our shared environment”. As such, they take on projects that alter existing advertising spaces, and question the corporation of our public spaces through graffiti techniques that legally and illegally alter advertising in the city. Usually modifying advertising placed in a public space falls on the vandalism side of the legal line, therefore their collaboration with Re+Public opens exciting doors for legal (for now) modification of our public spaces and offers a possibility for personal control over how we experience the world around us. One especially exciting project, called the Augmented Reality Advertising Takeover (AR | AD), consisted of advertising modifications on several images in New York’s Time’s Square in July 2011. By using a mobile application that implemented feature tracking, the project recognized specific advertising and replaced it with artworks by street artists Ron English, John Fekner, PosterBoy, Dr. D, and OX. When the user activates their mobile application, they are able to scan it around an environment just as they would if they were shooting video or still images with their device. They would see real-time images of the space around them, as it exists in reality. However, upon finding one of the images with feature tracking, the real-world advertising image is replace with a virtual one (The Heavy Projects).
The idea of easily replacing advertising in our daily world is an exciting one. We are constantly bombarded by corporate culture, both in reality and online, and most people lack the ability to control it on an individual basis. It is the clearest example of corporate entities shaping our environment (it would be a fallacy to think it is the only way they do so however), and it is fairly obvious that advertising is not designed for the benefit of all the people exposed to it on a daily basis… it benefits the people making money off it, and possibly the people who can afford to access their products, but
everyone else is cut out of the equation. In his essay, ‘The Battle of Los Angeles Part II”, Biermann equates some advertising (specifically the practice of illegal billboards, placed without permits around urban spaces) with a type of vandalism. Like graffiti (a practice which most cities consider a blight, criminal activity and destructive act), these illegal billboards not only damage public space, but unlike graffiti, they make money off that practice as well. The illegality of these billboards are essentially ignored by many cities (Biermann uses Los Angeles as a case study), because they create wealth for a number of interested parties, often associated with the city or who have threatened expensive legal action against any impediments to their business. Drawing on Focault, Biermann equates corporate advertising to bio-power, and notes that it is often used as a “mechanism… to control populations” (1). This aspect of taking a stand against nu-necessary or un-wanted control of the general masses is where the Augmented Reality Advertising Takeover (AR | AD) shines. Assuming that working within legal boundaries is more positive than taking illegal action (some might disagree), the AR | AD doesn’t make the compromises that other legal advertising interventions often have to. Purchasing advertising space for art is often too expensive for most artists, and also plays within the same system that perpetuates the power systems of advertising culture, whereas donated space in regular advertising cycles also allows the advertisers to retain power.
In works such as The Toronto Urban Film Festival’s screenings on subway screens, as well as electronic billboard interventions such as “Please Stare” (May 17-August 9, 2013; Neutral Ground Contemporary Art Forum, Regina) or “Digital Natives” (April 2011), the artworks often have to share space with regular advertising, whether the space is donated or not. In my opinion, this often sidelines the art, burying it within the masses of other advertising that is still running alongside and over-top of it. An artwork will get 30 seconds to a minute within a program that includes five to ten minutes of regular advertising, often which has more financial backing and can repeat the same ad for multiple spots within that cycle. In essence, the art is buried by corporate interests.
In addition, as demonstrated by “Digital Natives”, utilizing corporate advertising space also holds the very real risk of censorship (Rob). By circumventing the permissions aspect of advertising takeovers, Re+Public has designed a new system of intervention that is both (currently) legal and refuses to share power with the entity that it is designed to circumvent.
However, one could easily imagine how corporate power might not want this sort of intervention to occur, especially if as Re+Public envisions, it becomes possible for any individual with a device to regularly alter the world around them, blocking any advertising and implementing whatever reality they have designed in its place, and how those corporate interests might move to stunt or limit this sort of engagement. In an interview with Brian Wassom, Biermann describes his vision for a future where people wear AR glasses to “filter their environment according to their interests”. This would imply that a set of filters would automatically manipulate elements like advertising into something else, be it art, text, information, blank space or other entertainment. This dream seems a far cry from the current implementation of the AR | AD project, where the interface device is an awkward, hand-held object, which requires special software and effort to activate. It is also limited to a small pool of features for replacement, and the images that the advertising is replaced with is selected or “curated” (The Heavy Projects). This establishes another type of power dynamic, one with a gatekeeper that selects what is appropriate for the user’s experience. In addition, the work is also currently attached to a specific place and series of images that occurred in a specific time. Although updating the features database would be intensive work, one could imagine that a common advertising image would be similar worldwide, and therefore this augmentation need not be limited to a certain place; however there is no information on the project which seems to indicate that the augmentation would work outside of that original situation. Granted, this is the first iteration of this type of work; it is limited by the technology that is available to it and curating a selection of works to replace the advertising is an interesting and valid act, if only in a different manner than Biermann’s imagined utopia.
Finally, democratization is clearly important within this project. It is designed to shift power from corporate structures to the everyman, and Biermann’s other projects like the “Occupy AR” channel (Wassom) seem to indicate that his interests are aligned with that of the Occupy movement. However it is also important to recognize that the technology that he is using is inherently non-democratic in some ways. The devices are expensive, and requires ongoing resources like internet connection, software updates, phone and wireless bills. The ability to invest in technology is not something that is available to everyone, and even if they could purchase the device, access to reliable wireless networks and the other resources necessary to operate them is not easy. The virtual is a privileged space, which simultaneously opens and denies access to many people.
Biermann, B.C “Heavy”, Ean Mering and Jordan Sieler. Re+Public Re+Imagining Public Space. Re+Public. Web. 6 October 2013. <http://www.republiclab.com/projects>.
Biermann, B.C. “Heavy. “The Battle of Los Angeles Part II: Graffiti, the Self and the Reappropriation of Semiotic Space”. Public Ad Campaign. 30 October 2010. Web. 6 October 2013. <http://www.publicadcampaign.com/BattleofLApartII.pdf>.
“Digital Natives”. Digital Natives. Other Sights for Artists’. April 2011. Exhibition. 6 October 2013. <http://digitalnatives.othersights.ca>.
The Heavy Projects. “Augmented Reality Advertising Takeover (AR | AD)”. Vimeo. Vimeo. 7 August 2011. Web. 6 October 2013. <http://vimeo.com/27216208>.
“Please Stare”. Neutral Ground Contemporary Art Forum. Neutral Ground. 17 May – 9 August 2013. Exhibition. 6 October 2011. <httpwww.neutralground.sk.ca/? page=eventdetail&year=2013&id=201320913233444>.
Rob. “Digital Natives Controversy (Vancouver, BC)”. The “C” Word: a blog on censorship and other challenges to literature. Blogspot. 7 April 2011. Web. 6 October 2013. <http://censorshipdown.blogspot.ca/2011/04/digital-natives-controversy-vancouver.html>.
Seiler, Jordan. “Personal Projects & Collaborations”. Public Ad Campaign. Jordan Seiler. N.d. Web. 6 October 2013. <http://www.publicadcampaign.com/index.php>.
“Toronto Urban Film Festival”. Toronto Urban Film Festival (TUFF). Toronto Urban Film Festival. 6- 16 September 2013. Exhibition. 6 October 2013. <http://www.torontourbanfilmfestival.com>.
Wassom, Brian. “[Interview] BC “Heavy” Biermann: Taking Back Public Spaces with AR.” Wassom.com: Discussion on the law of social and emerging media. Brian Wassom. 31 January 2012. Web. 6 October 2013. <http://www.wassom.com/interview-bc-heavy-biermann-taking- back-public-spaces-with-ar.html>.