Postering Public Space: Can DIY Poster Pirates Reclaim Your Downtown?

by Emily Pohl-Weary

I love posters, billboards, murals and graffiti. You can learn a lot about a city from the art plastered on its walls, hydro poles and construction hoarding. They're speedy introductions to the political issues and cultural activities that litter the urban core, and a great way to find out about concerts, movie nights, political actions, forums and discussions. Walking around, I always stop to look at crusty wads of paper peeling off telephone poles. I deliberately take back alleys rather than main streets, and stop to examine hastily scrawled statements like "The revolution will not be sponsored by Murad" scrawled above an exploding television set.

If you're ever exploring a new city and want to know about a neighborhood, use the street art as your barometer. It's free. It reveals a great deal about contentious socio-political conflicts. And there's nothing coming between you and the artist - no curator or editor to mediate with the aim of maximizing market and/or grant-getting potential.

In our sales-driven society, where billboards and advertisements overwhelm us and even encroach on our private space, public art plays an important function. Poster art provides a haven for consumption-weary minds, a reminder that not every source of public expression has to involve buying and selling. For example, the Murad graffiti was referring to a Toronto advertising company that hires graffiti artists to paint ads. While the products of marketing can often be beautiful or stimulating, behind the glitzy facade lurks the bear trap of product. True, some free posters may contain an overt message; nevertheless, the motivation behind plastering images, poems, stories and manifestos on telephone poles around the city is never as simple as getting you to buy the latest fragrance.

So why do people hit the streets of their hometowns armed with nothing but a staple gun and a stack of obscure photographs, art posters or short stories? As part of a group called the Science Friction Action Heroes, I poster neighbourhoods around Toronto with utopic and dystopic fictional visions of the future. Myself and other local radical writers including Nalo Hopkinson, Renee North, Jim Munroe and Dave Wonderbread have all taken part in the Action Heroes' poster campaigns.

We tackle issues like post-gentrification life in Kensington Market, rabid consumerism on Queen Street West and the corporatization of the University of Toronto. Every poster series has a targeted theme, and we each contribute a one-page piece of poster art. Our contributions are nicely laid out and photocopied onto brightly coloured paper. The series of fictional future visions go up in a specific part of the city.

Each of the Action Heroes has a completely different writing style and motivation. However, what we have in common is the desire to make explicit the correlation between science fiction (which is often highly surreal) and its (highly real) political context. According to a flyer which writer Munroe created to accompany the poster series, our actions "bring together radical politics and science fiction to form a new breed of activism". He continues his description of the group on his website (nomediakings.org) "The difference between a creative visionary and a political visionary is smaller than you think. For every 1984 that shows us the horror of governmental control, there's a Mad Max that scares the straights off lawlessness. Speculative writing isn't inherently leftleaning or anarchist. But people who are disenfranchised by the status quo are much more likely to ask 'What if...?' "

The Action Heroes learned quickly that it's most effective to poster late at night, in order to avoid nasty encounters with shop owners. We always work in pairs, and carry only the flyers, paste made out of flour and water (for the flat surfaces) and staple guns (for the wooden telephone poles and hoarding), because anything else gets heavy after you've been postering for a few hours.

Keep your eyes open, because the Action Heroes are certainly not the only group involved in poster art in Canada. During the fall of 1999, a group of people who are all named Bill, William or Will met together in Toronto. Bill Meslin ([email protected]), one of the organizers, commented on the group's motivation: "What about the little Bills? What about average Bills like me? We want to be represented in public space on an equal footing with corporate bills."

In response, they created the Posted Bills series. On behalf of "all repressed Bills in our society", they selected the top 25 Bills, found images of their faces, photocopied them onto 11" by 17" fluorescent colour stock and posted them wherever they saw signs that said Post No Bills. Meslin notes: "Some of the Bills who made it into the poster series were Bill Clinton, Bill Bixby, Bill the Cat, Mr Bill, William Shakespeare, William Penn, William Shatner, Billy Madison, Billy Idol, Bill Cosby, Bill Evans, and my roommate Biljana."

The group of Toronto poster artists decided it was unfair that corporations were allowed to put up large billboards and bills - in the name of promoting their products - whereas for most people, postering public space was illegal. Meslin comments, "Some of our posters were gone very quickly, but some stayed up for more than a month. One in particular, a Bill Gates, was up on hoarding near St Michael's Hospital forever. The hospital was renovating its lobby, so they had put up Post No Bills signs everywhere."

"On Adelaide Street, we put up a bunch in front of a bar that was closed. Suddenly this guy came storming out of the bar that was right next door. I was worried because I thought he was going to get mad. Instead, he invited us in and gave us free drinks. It turned out to be the opposite. He hated his neighbour and wanted us to put up more posters."

During the summer of 1998, Toronto's South Asian Visual Arts Collective (SAVAC) ran a highly visible and educational poster art series called "Taking It To The Streets". SAVAC is a non-profit organization mandated to promote and facilitate the expression of contemporary visual arts by artists of South Asian descent. The three posters they used were: "Working for Change" by Kulwinder Bajar, Deena Ladd and Tanveer Sharief, which confronted cutbacks to culture, health care and social services; "It Takes Courage to Imagine Peace" by Beeta M. Jafari and Tanya Lena, which featured poetry by Siva Ramoni about the 15-year long Sri Lankan civil war; and "Gay and Lesbian Human Rights" by Grace Channer, Melanie Liwanag Aguila and Courtnay McFarlane. SAVAC plastered the downtown core with their posters - and the haunting images were emblazoned in our collective memory.

Last year in Ottawa a small group of zinesters posted a series of stories and images in the Bank Street and Elgin Street area of the city under the moniker Violence Against Windows. This public manifestation of the kind of writing and art found in zines seems to be a natural extension of the zine form. It's accessible, cheap (free), directly disseminated by the artists and easy to produce. Jeffrey Otaku, who makes the popular Ottawa zine Otaku, says of the series: "I put up posters of a story from the fourth issue of my zine. I've also done some hand cut stencils of birds, spray painted at 4 am. Some of my friends from photography school wall-papered the city with photos labeled 'violence against windows', which was our weird code name. We only did this on a few occasions."

Other than poster art, there has been an explosion of public art across Canada, such as Toronto's numerous alleys filled with a mixture of hip hop graffiti and fine art, Halifax's public art wall (as documented in an article by Michelle Irving in Broken Pencil issue #10), Vancouver's Adbusters-inspired "subvertisements", graffiti proclaiming "Viva Quebec Libre", and flat-paint art murals along Vancouver's Commercial Drive. In Ottawa, the English Department of Carleton University creates the Graffito Poetry Poster, a series of posters with poems on them that get plastered around the city.

In the US, there are such public poster luminaries as San Diego skateboarder/Rhode Island School of Design graduate Shepard Fairey, who has been putting up posters and stickers across the US which say "Obey Giant", and show the face of Andre the Giant. He's been doing it for 10 years. Fairey says about the series, "I was a skateboarder, so I thought it would be funny to make my skate clique mascot something that was so stupid. At the beginning it was all just about the repetition of the stickers, so people would say 'What is this? Why is it everywhere?' It's amazing how much it just freaks people out that I'm not working for somebody. When the cops bust me and want me to give them the name of my employer, they never believe that I'm actually spending my own money."

Artists who choose to display their work for temporary public consumption are rejecting the idea that fine art and literature are elitist creative forms, separate from our everyday experiences. At the same time, putting up transitional images and texts disassociated from the market place, and not protected by the sanctity of the gallery, museum, or publishing house, can be seen as purposefully obscure and disconnected - even, as Fairey repeatedly discovered, dangerous. Why are you doing this? Who is it for? Who is paying you? How to explain that your motivation is simply to satisfy the post-industrial, egotistical desire to be seen and heard by strangers?

Jeffrey Otaku commenting on his Violence Against Windows series, puts it this way: "It was part self promotion, part delete the elitism and part willful obscurity that goes hand in hand with making a zine. I wanted to make my writing available to anyone who had the time to stop and read it on a pole. They only stayed up for a few days, but I admit that February in Ottawa isn't the best time to poster."

The act of making public art in an Ottawa winter conveys the way obscurity and a sense of futility can reveal moments of breathtaking clarity and beauty.

In the zine-like artists' book that SAVAC created to document their Taking It to the Streets series, writer Kevin D*Souza comments: "It is such a change to see posters on the street that not only speak of humanity but that shine creatively and beautifully, in a very unique way."

Until there is a paradigm shift in our understanding of what public space is, it will be ads not art that continue to dominate our social spaces. Advertisements are bright, big, in your face, and invading your mental environment. You can't take a walk to the store without dodging them, and often they're in your most private spaces: bathrooms, paperback novels, even shaved onto the back of people's heads.

Oddly enough, the resources of our social structure don't work to rein in advertising and encourage community discussion; in fact, the opposite is true. As a society, we are committed to keeping individuals from countering the ads, and having their say on the streets. Thus Bill Meslin notes: "This is a double standard that should not be accepted. We didn't think it was fair that there were places where people aren't allowed to post bills. We think there are a lot of bills worth posting. As a Bill, obviously it's a very important issue for me. Corporations are allowed to post their bills anywhere they want. The police made us take ours down (note that neither of the officers' names were Bill) or they would charge us."

Does public art really compete with the bombardment of marketing materials? As an Action Hero, I feel it's my duty to put up poster art that provides a respite for those people who want to look anywhere but the ads.

Jeffrey Otaku, on the other hand, comments: "I think there's no way my 500-word hand written story poster could compete with a huge billboard that has only five words of text."

Bill Meslin disagrees: "We like to think our bills compete with the corporate billboards. Of course, our bills are a lot smaller, and the amount of public space is limited. So much of it is saturated with corporate propaganda. It's a war, and the booty is space. We wouldn't have to reclaim it if it weren't already taken from us. I'd hate to think that people see ads as untouchable, that they see a space taken up by an ad as a space where they can't put their posters."

Public postering is an evolving medium of social dissent, community communication and grassroots promotion. Since the Posted Bills series, Bill Meslin has gone on to other things, including billboard liberation (altering corporate ads), the Reclaim the Streets theatre installations which use people as an artistic medium, sunflower installations (anonymously placing potted sunflowers on bus shelters and phone booths). He also turns billboards off by flicking a switch on the back of them, an action which does no physical damage to them whatsoever.

Jeff Otaku, too, has found that public postering has lead to a desire to explore different possibilities of public art. He says: "I think the definition of public art should be expanded to include things like skateboarding, break dancing, graffiti, drawings in the snow, weird conversations, music coming from windows and cars etc. Some of the activities listed I have participated in."

Zinesters like to have complete control over their work. They also want their writing to be accessible and relevant. The Science Friction Action Heroes' postering campaign seemed to be the perfect forum for me to disseminate my opinions about local political issues cheaply and effectively. Posters and public art are ways for independent artists to interact directly with the people who live in their neighborhood. It changes the perception of urban space into something that is shaped and improved by the people who live there, and turns skyscrapers and concrete into a home that visitors quickly identify as a unique and individual community. As Kym Pruesse writes in the recently released book of essays Accidental Audience: Urban Interventions by Artists, "The works are not advertised...They come into our lives by circumstance, accidentally encountered without brackets. Often we pass right by them; other times they penetrate the surface of our consciousness, puzzling our day, or surprising our routine."

Is there a little bit of Action Hero in all of us? As Jeff points out, one time or another, we've all dabbled in spectacle, in turning the personal and private into the public and anonymous. Perhaps we're closer than we think -- just a staple gun and a stack of posters away -- to reinventing main street and, in the process, ourselves.

Emily Pohl-Weary <[email protected]> is a Toronto media activist, writer, translator and managing editor of Broken Pencil.

from broken pencil 13