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(You can’t) meet the Billboard Liberation Front

By Summer Burkes
Thursday, July 12, 2012 6:12 EDT
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In the mid-’90s, one day soon after having migrated from Dixie to San Francisco, this writer stumbled upon an odd and interesting advertisement whilst strolling the Mission District near the armory. A billboard on the side of a Victorian corner-store prominently featured a saluting soldier in dress blues, captioned with the header: ‘MAKE A DESPERATE CHOICE.

The ‘Paid for by U.S. Army’ fine print left as-is at the bottom of the billboard led to a closer inspection. Fake?! Rather … liberated. Someone, of their own volition, had come to measure whatever the original headline said, only to go home and re-create the same font on their computer, returning in the dark of night to wheat-paste their little printed slice of rebellion for the world to see on the morning drive down Van Ness Avenue. I gave thanks, having moved to a place so wired on clever dialogue, art, spectacle, and performance that revolutionary beauty and lay-philosophical surprise lurked around every corner.

Skip forward a few years, when, on assignment as arts editor for the paper, I finally met and interviewed “Jack Napier” of the covert, leaderless prankster organization either directly or indirectly responsible for the soldier’s desperate choice: the Billboard Liberation Front, or BLF, for short. (Connections are left vague and confidential with this crowd, but let’s be safe and call them the outdoor media arm of the Cacophony Society.) Who knows who’d liberated that particular U.S. Army billboard — the BLF’s rakish midnight ad-alterations have been an understood jewel in San Francisco’s underground crown since the late ’70s. Because of the Billboard Liberation Front, both word-of-mouth legend and the instructions on the Internet have allowed any and all comers handed-down access to the DIY technology. Way before They Live became the greatest Reaganomics-rebellion B-movie Shepard Fairey grew up on.

“Napier”‘s reasonings for liberating billboards were simple. He told me something like (and I’m paraphrasing heavily):

My beef is not with capitalism. I enjoy being able to go to the supermarket and choose from 50 different kinds of toilet paper. The free market is wonderful. My beef is with the constant barrage of advertising messages in public space where art should be. No free person should have to endure that type of programming without their consent. When people realize advertising is NOT a one-way street — that this is a liberated country, and dialogue is expected — then the market will truly be free, and on top of it, the world will be a more fun place to live.

All players involved are just doing their jobs. Advertising people try to sell product. Billboard liberators dutifully respond as consumers and as pranksters to the messages we’re given. Cops are there to protect property, not people, so they should be treated as such, and disarmed with a genteel attitude and raised hands if you’re caught. If you’re not, always leave behind a whiskey bottle for the billboard-company guys who get paid by the hour to take down your artwork and restore the company’s bottom line. Never interfere with anyone else’s experience in a negative way, but try to make people laugh, and then think, when they’re stuck in traffic.

Above all, he seemed to say, be smooth. Easy does it. Keep it light. No posturing. Maintain hilarity. Vandalism? No, no. Never anything slapdash or taggy, either. Sublime visual entropy must be occasionally indulged in a grotesquely consumerist society, that’s all.

Skip a few years again, when this writer becomes trained by Cacophony Society co-founder John Law in the nebulous art of Cop Whispering, and even was selected to serve as Cop Whisperer at Law’s legendary facilitation of Ron English and the Billboard Liberation Front’s prank, “To Serve Man,” for Ronald McDonald’s 50th birthday. (See footage of that event here, here, and here. Bonus: a two-minute video about the BLF from Negativland).

Noted modern pop artist Ron English has “come out” as the other founding father besides “Napier” of the field of billboard liberation. Non-art-world-people generally know Mr. English as the guy who did the “McPaintings” for Morgan Spurlock‘s American-engorgement documentary Super Size Me. Mr. English lives in New York, and trailblazed a prolific billboard liberation career — over 1000 “improvements” — through the underground and around the globe, starting in the ’80s, at the same time graffiti artists were similarly learning to respond to the dreariness of “Concrete World” by brightening up town in imaginative, provocative, game-changing ways. His documentary, Popaganda, which features the BLF in the finale, is certainly worth the popcorn.

… as fifty Cacophonous pranksters dressed like Ronald McDonald overwhelm the Haight-Ashbury’s fast-food chain store for “To Serve Man,” with onlookers gathering and police sirens in the distance, the baby Cacophonist prepares for her first solo cop-whispering flight. Sorry to use a picture of myself in the column like an asshole, but this is the only way not to implicate anyone else in this non-crime folks didn’t do that day.

It’s 2012 now, and in most major cities, one finds “street art” everywhere — but it wasn’t always that way. Surely, corresponding anti-capitalist anti-programming movements also arose independently in Europe and beyond, in the heady days of punk rock and graffiti culture, but this is the American proto-story. The Billboard Liberation Front is but one long and slithering tentacle of San Francisco’s Cacophony Society, which spreads darkly now over the subculture, morphing and twisting and heaping teaspoons of e.coli into the planet’s primordial soup (as the saying goes).

Here’s another ice cream scoop: Indirectly, the BLF helped cause #Occupy. From their short-but-sweet Wikipedia:

The Billboard Liberation Front practices culture jamming by altering billboards by changing key words to radically alter the message, often to an anti-corporate message. It started in San Francisco in 1977.

And from the Wikipedia for Adbusters, creators of the #Occupy movement:

The Adbusters Media Foundation is a Canadian-based not-for-profit, anti-consumerist, pro-environment organization founded in 1989. … Activism also takes many other forms such as corporate boycotts and ‘art as protest’, often incorporating humor. This includes clever billboard modifications, google bombing, flash mobs …

Yepski.

I’m not saying the BLF and/or the Cacophony Society — who were themselves arisen from the ashes of Gary Warne‘s Suicide Club, and influenced by the Charlatans, the Merry Pranksters, Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone” concept, Dadaists, junkyards, Proust, punk and new wave, surrealism, cyberpunk, and Situationist International — invented everything from culture jamming to Banksy, but … they kind of did. Hive mind activity is a powerful thing. The Ramones and the Damned sprang up independently on opposite continents in two tandem punk rock scenes at the same time, for example.

Nevertheless, now you know a bit about the some of the thought-crime which led to people gathering peacefully in public assemblies where you live — people who hold up snarky messages to make people laugh in traffic, and who dare to assume the town square belongs to the town.

To Serve Man photo by Scott Beale of Laughing Squid.

Summer Burkes
Summer Burkes
Summer Burkes is a converted Cacophonist SubGenius who spent five years writing about music, nightlife, and the lowbrow arts underground as a columnist at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She lives in Northern California.
 
 
 
 
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