Understanding Culture Jamming and How it Can Create Social Change

Why Shaking Up Everyday Life is a Useful Protest Tactic

Adbusters image featuring a man imprisoned by a barcode symbolizes the grip that consumerism has on our lives, and illustrates the practice of culture jamming.
Barcode Escape. Adbusters

Culture jamming is the practice of disrupting the mundane nature of everyday life and the status quo with surprising, often comical or satirical acts or artworks. The practice was popularized by the anti-consumerist organization Adbusters, which often uses it to force those who encounter their work to question the presence and influence of advertising in our lives, the pace and volume at which we consume, and the unquestioned role that consumption of goods plays in our lives, despite the many human and environmental costs of global mass production.

The Critical Theory Behind Culture Jamming

Culture jamming most often involves the use of a meme that revisions or plays off of a commonly recognized symbol of a corporate brand like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Nike, and Apple, to name just a few. The meme is typically designed to call into question the brand image and values attached to the corporate logo, to question the consumer relationship to the brand, and to illuminate harmful actions on the part of the corporation. For example, when Apple launched the iPhone 6 in 2014, the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) staged a protest at a Hong Kong Apple Store where they unfurled a large banner that featured the image of the new device sandwiched between the words, "iSlave. Harsher than harsher. Still made in sweatshops."

The practice of culture jamming is inspired by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which focused on the power of mass media and advertising to shape and direct our norms, values, expectations, and behavior through unconscious and subconscious tactics.

By subverting the image and values attached to a corporate brand, the memes deployed in culture jamming aim to produce feelings of shock, shame, fear, and ultimately anger in the viewer, because it is these emotions that lead to social change and political action.

Sometimes, culture jamming uses a meme or a public performance to critique the norms and practices of social institutions or to question political assumptions that lead to inequality or injustice.

The artist Banksy is a notable example of this type of culture jamming. Here, we'll examine some recent cases that do the same.

Emma Sulkowicz and Rape Culture

Emma Sulkowicz launched her performance piece and senior thesis project "Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight" at Columbia University in New York City in September 2014, as a way to draw critical attention to the university's mishandling of disciplinary proceedings for her alleged rapist, and its mishandling of sexual assault cases in general. Speaking about her performance and her experience of rape, Emma told the Columbia Spectator that the piece is designed to take her private experience of rape and shame in the aftermath of her attack into the public sphere and to physically evoke the psychological weight she has carried since the alleged attack. Emma vowed to "carry the weight" in public until her alleged rapist was expelled or left campus. This never happened, so Emma and supporters of the cause carried her mattress throughout her graduation ceremony.

Emma's daily performance not only brought her alleged assault into the public sphere, it also "jammed" the notion that sexual assault and its consequences are private matters, and illuminated the reality that they are often hidden from view by the shame and fear that survivors experience.

Refusing to suffer in silence and in private, Emma made her fellow students, faculty, administrators, and staff at Columbia face the reality of sexual assault on college campuses by making the matter visible with her performance. In sociological terms, Emma's performance served to vanish the taboo on acknowledging and discussing the widespread problem of sexual violence by disrupting the social norms of daily campus behavior. She brought rape culture into sharp focus on Columbia's campus, and in society in general.

Emma received a heap of media coverage for her culture jamming performance piece, and fellow students and alumni of Columbia joined her in "carrying the weight" on a daily basis. Of the social and political power of her work and the widespread media attention it received, Ben Davis of ArtNet, the leader in global news about the art world, wrote, "I can hardly think of an artwork in recent memory that justifies the belief that art can still help lead a conversation in quite the way Mattress Performance already has."

Black Lives Matter and Justice for Michael Brown

At the same time that Emma was carrying "that weight" around Columbia's campus, halfway across the country in St. Louis, Missouri, protesters creatively demanded justice for 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man who was killed by a Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Wilson had at that point yet to be charged with a crime, and since the killing occurred, Ferguson, a predominantly Black city with a predominantly white police force and a history of police harassment and brutality, has been raked by daily and nightly protests.

Just as intermission concluded during a performance of Requiem by Johannes Brahms by the St. Louis Symphony on October 4, a racially diverse group of singers stood from their seats, one by one, singing the classic Civil Rights anthem, "Which Side Are You On?" In a beautiful and haunting performance, protesters addressed the predominantly white audience with the song's titular question, and implored, "Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all."

In a recorded video of the event, some audience members look on disapprovingly while many clapped for the singers. Protesters dropped banners from the balcony commemorating Michael Brown's life during the performance and chanted "Black lives matter!" as they peacefully exited the symphony hall at the conclusion of the song.

The surprising, creative, and beautiful nature of this culture jamming protest made it particularly effective. The protesters capitalized on the presence of a quiet and attentive audience to disrupt the norm of audience silence and stillness and instead made the audience the site of a politically engaged performance.

When social norms are disrupted in spaces in which they are usually strictly obeyed, we tend to quickly take notice and focus on the disruption, which makes this form of culture jamming successful, as it captured the attention of the audience and the members of the symphony. Further, this performance disrupts the privileged comfort that members of a symphony audience enjoy, given that they are primarily white and wealthy, or at least middle class. The performance was an effective way of reminding people who are not burdened by racism that the community in which they live is currently under assault by it in physical, institutional, and ideological ways and that, as members of that community, they have a responsibility to fight those forces.

Both of these performances, by Emma Sulkowicz and the St. Louis protesters, are examples of culture jamming at its best. They surprise those who bear witness to them with their disruption of social norms, and in doing so, call those very norms, and the validity of the institutions that organize them into question. Each offers a timely and deeply important commentary on troubling social problems and forces us to confront that which is more conveniently swept aside. This matters because viscerally confronting the social problems of our day is an important step in the direction of meaningful social change.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Understanding Culture Jamming and How it Can Create Social Change." ThoughtCo, Apr. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/culture-jamming-3026194. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, April 11). Understanding Culture Jamming and How it Can Create Social Change. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/culture-jamming-3026194 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Understanding Culture Jamming and How it Can Create Social Change." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/culture-jamming-3026194 (accessed November 23, 2017).