Getting the Short End of the Stick - Laboring for Corporate Media in Public Space
I took the picture above because I noticed that after many years, an illegal billboard that once occupied this wall had finally been removed. It was, like hundreds of others around the city, operated by a company called NPA outdoor. PublicAdCampaign, along with the help of hundreds of other NYC residents, had challenged the legitimacy of these ads by painting them white and then covering them with public media in a civil disobedience project called NYSAT some years back. This action was only made possible by the fact that we had discovered that NPA was operating their locations illegally, never having obtained the appropriate permitting from the city of NY. Ultimately, this fact misconstrued the projects intentions in a way that I have never fully addressed, but as you can imagine, our actions were seen as anti-illegal advertising. illegal or not, our intentions were to question corporate media's supremacy in our shared public spaces and gain political agency in the process. The fact that these advertisements were illegal only made it easier to convince average individuals to take up arms against them with a sense of entitlement, instead of reservation. Private property boundaries tend to be incredibly effective invisible barriers, but if those boundaries are imposed illegally, barriers become invitations.
In the end, the focus on illegal advertising was disconcerting and we did not repeat this same mistake in the subsequent MaSAT and ToSAT projects. In Toronto we attacked both legal and illegal advertising equally, hoping for better public understanding of our larger grievances against a public media environment monopolized by corporate media. On some level this worked, and the discussion moved from the illegality of the advertising, to what we had replaced the corporate imagery with. To critics, it seemed we were now arguing for the replacement of ads with our artistic endeavors. As it were, those willing to participate in the illegal occupation of private property for a political statement about the current public media landscape, happened to be left wing nuts and artist types. But the point was not lost on us and the final large scale disobedience project in Madrid removed this ambiguity. Participants in Madrid were asked to simply submit text of their choosing. It was this final removal of individual identity that made clear our demands for a reevaluation of who has, and should have access to our shared public media environment.
While the first two SAT projects failed to be clear about what we were all up in arms about, the unintended demands that they suggested were legitimate, if only to a small demographic. In NY people were pissed off that illegal advertising was taking advantage of public space, making money while not playing by the rules. People got upset about it and it would seem by the timeline of city enforcement, that the cities own action against this company was in some part fueled by the injustice we had help reveal. In Toronto, those concerned with public arts programming argued for our re-appropriation as a meaningful request for public arts opportunities in the face of huge corporate media initiatives. This may not have been our intended goal, but citizens rallied around these interpretations. I have for a long time wondered what other injustice gleaned from these types of actions, could reach a larger demographic than illegality or the right to public art, while allowing our criticism to remain about corporate medias dominance of public space more generally.
Since these projects happened several years ago, I have read a lot about media literacy and media education in an attempt to understand my gut feeling that a public media landscape, monopolized by a corporate agenda, is problematic for our public environment and our democracy in general. I recently finished a book called "The Spectacle of Accumulation: essays in culture, media, and politics" which gave me new insights into how we might rally a larger public constituency against public media monopolies. Unbeknownst to me until now, we are all laboring unintentionally for outdoor media companies every time I step onto the city streets. It is this extraction of value from our own visual labor that we can all rally against by demanding compensation from those who benefit from its use.
Overly simply put, media corporations make their money by selling an audience to companies who wish to reach those audiences with goods and services. Cable television, movie production houses, news outlets and all other media providers remain economically viable by increasing their audience size, or by targeting micro audiences, both of which are of value to corporations with products to sell. In the case of TV, it is well accepted that the "cost" of television is the watching of commercials. Corporations buy advertising space which funds the production of programming with the understanding that you will consume those messages and in the process the products associated with them. Cost analysis has made this process quite refined and depending on the audience being offered, and the scope of their purchasing power, corporations are willing to pay very specific amounts of money for your attention. The value of your viewing labor has a very specific price tag.
If we accept this media support model, our next question should be how much does it cost to produce a specific piece of media so that we can determine how much of our attention, or labor must be given to commercials to make that programs production economically sound. It is here that we begin to see our attention, or our labor, beginning to be exploited. Like all capitalist endeavors, the media provider takes more value from your labor than it gives back in programming, or in wages as with other more traditional capitalist ventures. This really isnt anything new to most people, particularly when speaking about television. We know we get the short end of the stick when we are forced to watch 32, 15 second commercials for every 22 minutes of content we get in return. In fact we might pay extra money for cable channels which dont have advertising, preferring to pay for our content instead of to labor for it. However destructive this model might be to a democratic media environment, it is one we have come to accept as a society, for better or worse.
What I find most interesting is that this same model of labor value extraction can be applied to public space where we are less inclined to see the personal benefits of our laboring for media companies that control our visual environment. Take for example, NPA outdoor, the illegally operating billboard company first targeted in the original NYSAT project. This company occupied a large amount of public space and sold that space to advertisers on the auspices that you would labor for them by paying attention to the messages without any compensation in return. Billboards and other non infrastructure related advertising venues operate under the same expectations, their right to exploit your attentions value is determined by their simple ability to pay for real estate within public view. Many other outdoor advertising companies at least attempt to disguise their labor value extraction by providing payphone service, or bus shelters, or other infrastructure related services which benefit the public generally. That said, like all other capitalist endeavors, they too extract far more value from your labor than is needed to keep said infrastructure operational.
As PublicAdCampaign continues to adress issues of public media inequality and the resulting problems that arise for our public life and democracy, it is this extraction of surplus viewing power that we can all take issue with. We might be willing to overlook our excessive donation of labor to the entertainment industry or media venues which are less crucial to our lives, but public space is uniquely important to our democracy and at the same time an inescapable part of our lives. It is not a service being offered but a integral part of our daily existence. To me it is an extension of our homes and a physical representation of our collective identity. To ask that we labor for corporations with very private concerns when traversing this public landscape is very different than asking us to labor for something less integral to our existence. The expectation that we consume advertising in our shared public spaces is tantmount to asking us to watch a commercial before water will come out of the faucet, and that is something I think we can all agree to fight against.