Museum of Sydney Spotlights Culture Jammers

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking

Culture Jammers
Museum of Sydney
Sydney, Australia
February 11 – June 10, 2012

A subversive spotlight
by Karen Michelmore
3 February, 2012

Sacred cows make the best hamburgers, says the activist who defaced an Australian icon.

It’s been eight years since David Burgess scaled up to the top of Sydney’s gleaming white Opera House and lashed it with bright red paint.

It took three coats before the act was complete. NO WAR screamed the sign.

The highly-visible protest against the looming Iraq war split the Australian community between those who were shocked at the wonton vandalism of the national icon, and those who applauded the message.

Ultimately, it landed Mr Burgess and his activist peer Will Saunders in jail for nine months’ weekend detention for malicious damage.

“I won’t say there were days I didn’t wake up feeling utterly miserable, but you couldn’t really regret what we’d done,” Burgess says.

“A lot of people said it gave them a little bit of happiness or hope on what was otherwise a very awful day.

“I think if we’d had the idea and then not gone through with it we would have wondered or thought we should have done that.

“A punishment is meant to make you think about what you did and they certainly succeeded in doing that, but I don’t regret it.”

The protest was an act of “culture-jamming”, a strategy that political psychologist Emma Thomas says often polarises communities.

Culture jamming is the subject of a controversial new exhibition to be unveiled at the Museum of Sydney next week (February 11).

“The more sensational something is, the more it is potentially polarising so it’s got this double-edged sword element to it,” says Dr Thomas, of Murdoch University.

“On one hand you do gain media attention for your cause…but on the downside it does also polarise public attention.

“It can certainly turn a lot of people against you.

“If people don’t agree with your means then they will often not identify with your cause as well.”

Dr Thomas says culture jamming is a form of social protest, often employed by smaller groups to effect social change, to raise awareness and influence the public and political process.

“If you are trying to create a baseline awareness of an issue you really need to do something a lot more dramatic and that is where culture jamming and other …more radical strategies really come in,” she says.

The Museum of Sydney exhibition features the work of award-winning photojournalist Dean Sewell who followed a small group of Sydney-based culture jammers known as The Lonely Station for four years.

The handful of activists were responsible for up to two dozen culture jamming events across the city, between 2003 and 2007 including unfurling a banner on the maiden journey of a tourist ship from Sydney to Tasmania which said “Woodchipping – the Spirit of Tasmania”.

Museum of Sydney Curator Inara Walden says some people consider culture jamming to be illegal graffiti, while others believe it is a legitimate form of social commentary.

“I think that one of the things that we believe at the Museum of Sydney is that museums can be safe places for difficult subjects to be discussed,” Ms Walden says.

“I think that something like culture jamming, while it might be controversial and some people might see it as illegal activity, or something that is wrong, there will always be other people who will say well what culture jammers do is in fact legitimate political comment.

“It’s a comment on corporate behaviour and often bad corporate behaviour.”
The first culture jamming in Australia happened long before The Lonely Station, and even Mr Burgess’ infamous protest on top of the Opera House.

Ms Walden says the BUGAUP – pronounced bugger-up – was a group of protestors who scrawled anti-tobacco messages on billboards across Australia during the 1970s and 1980s.

Peter Vogel, now 57, was in his early 20s when he took part in the Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions (BUGAUP) campaign.

The movement “refaced” tobacco, alcohol and other billboards deemed harmful to health, adjusting messages like Sterling cigarettes’ “what a Sterling idea”, to “what a stinking idea”, or changing “Marlboro” to “Macho”.

“It was a group of activists who in the 70s were particularly incensed about cigarettes,” Mr Vogel says.

“We decided that we would use the billboards against themselves by turning them into humorous messages that would draw attention to what they were really saying.

“I was driving along and I saw a billboard that someone already had refaced and it just completely captured my imagination and I thought, ‘this is a fantastic way to use the medium against itself and I just immediately took to it like a duck to water.”

The billboard offensive raised public awareness about the extent of tobacco advertising at the time, and gradually led to tighter restrictions placed on cigarette advertising, Mr Vogel says.

Mr Vogel says it was a different environment in Australia back then, well before September 11, when people were more laid back and access to buildings was easier.

“It was a protest that people supported because it was light-hearted and entertaining and people just had to agree with our message more than the advertiser’s message,” he says.

“It was generally not as high risk as it is today.”
Opera House protestor Dave Burgess says safety was paramount during their 2003 act.

“There would be only one thing more embarrassing than being prosecuted for it, (that) would be not even making it in the first place and being injured at the bottom and showing a complete foolhardiness and incompetence,” he says.

“Once we got up…I think we did three paint jobs, sort of rough, neat and very neat, and once I think the second coat of paint was going on and I realised the message had got up there, we were feeling quite emotional I suppose.

“It was deathly quiet up there, the roar of the city was well away and it was exceedingly peaceful on one of those beautiful Sydney days.

“Strangely enough when the police rescue squad got to us we talked about how nice it was up there, and all took a moment to look around before we came down.”

He says even years later, people remain divided.

“Some people utterly supported it while others would argue that the ABC shouldn’t even be giving me the time of day,” he says.

“The first thing I’d say is that it was cleaned up. The second thing I would say is that sacred cows make the best hamburgers.

“We wanted that message to be seen overseas and for people to know that …70 odd per cent of Australians were polling against the war in Iraq.

“A friend of mine who’d been in Iraq at the time, she’d been in a cafe and the television came on with the image on it and she said the whole place cheered.
“And that essentially is exactly what I wanted to achieve out of defacing an Australian icon.”