Interview: Art in Ad Places
Ads are everywhere in both digital and physical forms. They are surprisingly effective and often misleading. In most cases there is no avoiding them, especially outside where billboards and signs are in abundance. ‘Art in Ad Places’ is a response to the idea that anyone with a big marketing budget can dictate our environments. The response was manifested by a 52-week campaign that replaced New York City telephone ads with artwork from weekly rotated artists. The ‘Art in Ad Places’ team is made up of co-curators Caroline Caldwell and RJ Rushmore, along with photographer Luna Park. Below, RJ gives us the scoop…
Images by Luna Park
Interviewed by Kenji B.
KB: What is the worst public ad you’ve seen (besides the Brazilian butt lift ad that Caroline saw in Brooklyn)? Any good ones you’ve seen lately?
RJ: A recent campaign for Rebag, a site where people can buy and sell overpriced handbags, really stands out as an egregious example of pointless (and wasteful) consumption of luxury goods. The ads encourage people to get rid of their “old” bags and trade them in for new ones (or, rather, a bag that was someone else’s “old” bag). Why? No real reason, except the constant need to “upgrade” and show off a rotating array of luxury products. That hardly seems like a healthy mindset to be cementing in a person’s psyche.
KB: What was the process like in making ‘Art in Ad Places’ come to life? What was the biggest challenge?
RJ: The process of putting up one poster was pretty simple (artist send over a digital file, we print it up, meet up and do the install, post the photos…), but multiply that by 53, and it’s exponentially more difficult. Documentation was a major unexpected challenge. We tried to coordinate our installations based on the best time of day for capturing reflection-free photos. That was essential, because 99% of our audience experienced the project through Luna Park’s photos, not in-person. Some days, we would walk around for an hour scouting out different options, not because we were worried about getting caught, but because Luna Park wanted the best-possible shot.
KB: So each campaign was carried out without any coordination with cities or companies?
RJ: Right. Why ask permission? As Banksy said, “Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours.” Asking for permission would have meant recognizing that the advertisers have some sort of right to use that space, which we don’t believe they do. At least, no more of a right than you or I have.
KB: What material did you use to put the posters up over the existing ads?
RJ: We could get our posters printed at any copy shop with a large-format printer. Luckily, the ads in payphones and bus shelters don’t need to be covered up. They can just be pulled out of the ad booth, and then you insert your own poster in place of the ad. Like in this video from our friends Special Patrol Group.
KB: Did you learn anything interesting about city politics or urban planning that could be insightful for people who might be interested in tackling like-minded projects?
RJ: If you have a crazy idea, sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. No way the city would have given us the green light to do what we wanted with Art in Ad Places, so we went ahead and did it without asking anyone. If you’re lucky and open to it, maybe urban planners will see what you’re doing and embrace it, like what’s happened with Park(ing) Day.
KB: How would you compare outdoor public advertising versus TV commercial ads in the way that they are forced upon us and take advantage on people’s weaknesses/insecurities? Has your group considered hitting the TV commercial ad space?
RJ: If you want to live in a city, there’s no way to opt-out of outdoor advertising. You’re going to see ads any time you leave your house. And as advertising industry loves to brag, even if you don’t think you’re paying attention to their billboards, you still register them on a subconscious level. You have a choice to watch TV or not, or to pay extra for a service without ads. Television advertising isn’t any healthier than outdoor advertising, but nobody’s forcing you to watch TV.
KB: Do you think that the negative sides of advertising are engrained in its practice or more so rooted in the nature of a particular company?
RJ: Advertising is a tool for influencing behavior and emotions. That’s not inherently bad, but damn, as a society, we sure do tend to use advertising to influence people in negative ways, like encouraging people buy things they don’t need or can’t afford. If you work in advertising, you’re probably creative and clever, but you’re probably using that cleverness to sell sneakers. At the very least, that seems like a waste of talent.
KB: Have you used advertising strategies in your campaigns to promote positive messages and lessons (e.g. sustainability, equality…)?
RJ: Art in Ad Places is absolutely a marketing campaign against advertising. We worked with artists with large social media followings, photographed each installation, selected art that would be eye-catching, reached out to press who might write about us… All standard strategies, but for an unusual aim. As for the content of the posters, that’s largely up to each artist, what they want to put out into the world.
KB: How were the artists chosen for each campaign? What were their reactions towards your project and did the city work with you to compensate them?
RJ: We’re an all-volunteer army. Anonymous donors helped us with the cost of printing posters, and all of the artists donated their time and artwork. Since we don’t work in cooperation the city or the company that manages the pay phones, I think they’re more likely to send us a cease-and-desist letter than a check. So that meant finding artists who were genuinely excited by the opportunity. A lot of those artists have a political message to their work, and that was a plus, but not a requirement. That’s why our artists have been our strongest advocates, and the key to growing our audience.
KB: Does each campaign have specific guidelines or goals, or do you give the artists complete creative freedom?
RJ: No nudity, and nothing that the NYPD might perceive as “anti-police,” because we worried that those messages might get the wrong kind of attention. Otherwise, once we agree to work with an artist, we’ve generally been open to them submitting whatever they like.
KB: How long would each campaign last give or take (or would it depend on the circumstance)?
RJ: It was totally unpredictable. Some work only last 48 hours. Some work has lasted 6 months. On average though, probably 1-2 weeks.
KB: Were you able to retrieve the posters or would they get discarded by whomever was told to remove them?
RJ: We didn’t retrieve any of the posters. We just leave them in place until they’re removed (either stolen by fans, as seems to have happened a few times, or removed and replaced by ads).
KB: What makes street art more exciting than other art forms? Who are some of your favorites as of late?
RJ: When street artists do things that they couldn’t do in galleries or museums, that’s when it gets exciting. Ad takeovers are one example. You (probably) can’t dismantle the outdoor advertising industry from inside a white cube. I’m loving Alexandra Bell’s Counternarratives series, everything Jess X Snow does, Icy and Sot’s sculptures, and seeing Molly Crabapple dipping her toe into wheatpastes and murals.