In John Carpenter’s science fiction film They Live, the drifter hero walks through Downtown Los Angeles wearing sunglasses that allow him to see the world for what it is, a decaying society ruled by aliens in human disguise. With the glasses, he can read the subliminal messages transmitted by billboards: Stay Asleep. Watch TV. Consume. Obey.
I remembered that scene as I stood on the roof of a high-rise in Hong Kong, photographing a billboard that proclaimed one word: CONVEY. Inadvertently (or not), the billboard advertised its own purpose. That became the title image for an ongoing series of photographs examining the unanticipated tensions, interactions, and dialogues between commercial images and the landscapes they occupy, in Hong Kong, Mexico, Germany, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States.
The psychogeography of advertising has long fascinated social theorists. In 1967, Guy Debord announced the dawn of a society in which “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” 1 John Berger later extended that critique to urban advertising:
In the streets where we walk, in the buses we take, in the magazine we read, on walls, on screens, we are surrounded by images of an alternative way of life. We may remember or forget these images, but briefly we take them in. And for a moment they stimulate our imagination, either by way of memory or anticipation. But where is this other way of life? … What surrounds the publicity image is us, as we are. … Behind the paper are hidden our needs. 2
As an urban geographer, I’m especially drawn to photography as a way of understanding processes of urban change. In CONVEY, I seek to capture the ephemeral role of commercial images as they intersect with the city’s transformation. Since 2008, I have been experimenting with a method I call recombinant appropriation — photographing advertisements in their environmental context, looking for juxtapositions and framings that release the signs from their intended meanings. We often think of the billboard as a message from the advertiser to the people of a city. But the city also talks back to billboards, changing their content, subverting their intentions. In this sense, the city is the original culture jam.
The city also talks back to billboards, changing their content, subverting their intentions.
Billboards tend to be decontextualized from their surroundings. They stand apart from, yet within, the landscapes they occupy. In some cases, as observed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in Learning from Las Vegas, they may be the most conspicuous element of automobile-dominated landscapes — more prominent than architecture itself. 3 But you can’t go looking for billboards as you would look for a monument or building; they are best found by getting lost on the city’s fringe. Since they are meant to be seen in fleeting glances from the road, they can be difficult to photograph, or even to view from a stationary position. They occupy the transitory spaces of motion, where it is difficult, and sometimes dangerous, to stop.
Over the last decade, advertising in physical rather than virtual space has begun to feel antiquated. It requires maintenance, repair, and dedicated physical infrastructure. Structures become derelict; messages wear away from wind and rain. In some cases, the infrastructure itself may be re-appropriated and inhabited. On a vacant lot at the site of the former Berlin Wall, I photographed a homeless person’s shelter made from the back of a real estate billboard.
Other urban advertising surfaces interact more intentionally with the environment. The temporary fences that surround construction sites (known as “hoardings”) often project aspirational images of the future — renderings of a new condo development or office building — while concealing the current state of disorder: laborers, machinery, piles of rubble. After the real estate crisis of 2008, many advertised developments never came to fruition. The temporary walls were the most permanent testament to property developers’ desires. 4
It’s intriguing to imagine what a city would look like without ubiquitous advertising.
Another type of advertising, found especially in historic districts, seeks to conceal the maintenance and construction of buildings altogether — a trend I have observed in Edinburgh, Rome, Madrid, and Hong Kong. When scaffolding is erected, the workers install a vinyl covering that offers a facsimile of the building in its “normal” state. Wall textures and fake windows camouflage the building works. I have also visited cities in the north of England where unoccupied storefronts were covered with vinyl images depicting what the use of the property could or should be. Passersby in a car or bus could be tricked into thinking that a vacant high street was economically vibrant, but to pedestrians the effect was that of an uncanny mirage.
It’s intriguing to imagine what a city would look like without ubiquitous advertising. In 2007, Sao Paolo, the world’s fourth largest city, passed an ordinance severely limiting commercial signage as a form of visual pollution. If groups such as the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight have their way, we will see more of this trend. 5 Someday, the billboard abolitionists who seek to “defend our public spaces” and “protect our visual environment,” may be dismayed to find that in a city without commercial advertising, other forms of blight are revealed.