by Thomas Chambers
"Every time some odious politician or irrelevant celebrity is apparently no-platformed the media inevitably hails it as an ‘attack on free speech’. It often isn’t."
In the last few years there has been a growth of digital new left media in the UK with sites such as the Canary or Novara Media enjoying increasing success.
While these left-wing challengers are good at providing an alternative news cycle, cultural content has been lacking. That may now have changed with the London launch of the US-based subscription service Means TV at the end of February. Offering “worker-owned, anti-capitalist entertainment free from advertisers and extractive financing”, there are a range of shows covering everything from Marxist gaming to sport. A particular highlight of what’s on offer from this new service is the mini-documentary Subvertisers For London.
Subvertisers for London (2019) - Dog Section Films
Premiering last year, Subvertisers For London is the first foray into film by the publishers Dog Section Press. The production complements several of their publications around the theme of ‘subvertising’: the subversion of advertising spaces, including a how-to guide, an adbusting manifesto, and others showcasing the work of prominent subvertisers.
The documentary is split into key sections that begin with an introduction to several prominent London activists, such as Special Patrol Group and Dr. D, who explain their motivations and critique the advertising industry. The following sections include an animated do-it-yourself guide and a discussion around the ethicacy of advertising. The moral argument for subvertising rests on the imperative to clear up the visual pollution of, what the artist Darren Cullen calls, the “psychological nightmare” of the modern advertising industry.
Some of the subvertisers featured regard advertising and, to use a phrase popularised by the Situationists, its détournement as a free speech issue.
Free speech is the hot topic right now. Every time some odious politician or irrelevant celebrity is apparently no-platformed the media inevitably hails it as an ‘attack on free speech’. It often isn’t. In fact what it boils down to is a particular audience choosing not to listen to the person in question who inevitably has a wider platform to express themselves anyway.
While these hyperbolic debates usually hinge around the ‘rights’ of a particular privileged group of people to be heard over everyone else, what's never discussed is the flip side that the public are generally forced to engage with mass propaganda on a daily basis. Cullen points out that subverting the ubiquitous advertising spaces highlights how one sided this freedom to communicate really is. It is largely the preserve of huge corporations or mega-rich individuals such as Murdoch or the Barclay Brothers.
Two of the subvertisers featured, Hogre and Double Why, have been charged under blasphemy laws after replacing advertisements in Italy. Despite this the legal expert interviewed for the doc suggests that, while it’s a bit of a grey area, it is laws around freedom of speech and expression that a defence of subvertising rests on.
Whether it is critiquing the government’s response to Grenfell, nuclear arms, or gentrification, subvertising presents an alternative to the monolithic propaganda machine of capitalism. Like all advertising campaigns, the hope is that an effective intervention goes viral. Subvertisers For London brings the ad-free cultural remit of Means TV full-circle, from the web to the streets and back again.