Occupy Aesthetics

Kalle Lasn is the founder and editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine, a self-described “global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.” After heading up a corporate market research firm in Tokyo during Japan’s boom era, he moved to Vancouver, Canada, in the 1970s, where he used his filmmaking and media skills for environmental activism. He founded Adbusters magazine in 1989, after mainstream media outlets refused to air his “uncommercials” attacking rampant consumerism and environmental devastation. Adbusters’ call for people to occupy Wall Street sparked a series of global demonstrations and political actions. Greg McLauchlan, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, talked to Lasn about Adbusters and the future of the Occupy movement.

Greg McLauchlan: Adbusters has been an important voice for political activists for several decades, challenging economic inequalities, environmental devastation and what might be called the cultural domination of capitalism. What name would you give this movement? What are its central motivations?

Kalle Lasn: For the last 20 years we called ourselves “culture jammers” and we thought culture jamming, a kind of situationist critique of consumer culture, could be one type of global activism that could change things. Now we may be beyond this, in a kind of revolutionary moment, where it’s quite obvious that the human experiment on planet earth is in crisis and that we’re hitting ecological and psychological and financial tipping points. What we need now more than culture jamming is a kind of global revolution — an “occupy” movement.

GM: “Occupy” is a more affirmative idea — a claiming of planetary space and planetary culture?

KL: Yes, exactly. The political left has been ineffectual for a long time. In our brainstorming sessions, starting a few years ago, we asked how we can move beyond a negative or reactionary response to the status quo. The ideas of “occupy Wall St,” “occupy yourself,” “occupy your local bank,” “occupy the world,” or “occupy theory”— all these seem way more positive. What you’re saying is “I don’t like what’s going on, I’m going to occupy the existing space, and I’m going to change it.”

GM: What role do you see Adbusters playing in relationship to these social movements? Are you a voice for the movement, a strategy platform, a place where activists can communicate? How do you actually work this out in practice?

KL: We have a website, we have campaigns, we have videos, and we have our flagship hardcopy magazine. We now have a virtual Spanish edition. We were the people who catalyzed Occupy Wall Street and we certainly want to keep our finger in the pie. For the hardcopy magazine, we have a feeling the Internet is washing over hard copy magazines. They are going out of business because they’re doing the same old thing, and that doesn’t work anymore. We’re excited at Adbusters because we have creative directors and artists asking: “OK, what does the magazine of the future look like?” After three-quarters of all magazines have fallen by the wayside, what will the magazine of the future do—beyond what the Internet does so well? We’re trying to create an aesthetic of the future, a style, form and feel that takes the old text-driven, whiny magazine of the last 20 years and turns it into a dynamic and inspirational magazine of spiritual insurrection. It’s a powerful question to ask, and we’re trying to find answers.

GM: A print magazine has been central to Adbusters’ identity. Hasn’t the printed visual image been one of your hallmarks?

KL: So far what we’re doing is trying to create this “flow” model of the magazine of the future, where the issue from cover to cover moves through a mind journey, a kind of a comic book flow of information where the whole issue is one big mind bomb—taking you through various permutations and leaving you at the other side—almost like a really good novel.

GM: In your view, the Internet can’t do that?

KL: The Internet’s good at giving you discrete, exciting little bumps, but you don’t want to read anything longer than about 100 words; there’s no real coherence, and the excitement comes from being in fresh new places all the time. But a good movie or magazine of the future will have the strange kind of effect where you get into it. You’re lost in a seamless flow of profound thoughts, and you come out the other end transformed in some way. This is something the Internet will never do.

Coming up with a new magazine aesthetic is one thing, but if you think about it in a broader context, this whole Occupy movement asks the question: “What does revolution mean in our era?” The ultimate task, really, is to change the style of the flow, of the aesthetic of our lives, of television, of magazines. Aesthetics is the deepest meaning of what we all live in, and for the last 50 years we’ve been living in a kind of commercial, corporate advertising aesthetic where everything is slick and poppy and clean and nothing really profound is ever allowed. If you ask me what revolution is really all about, I would say it’s about changing the aesthetic of how we live, of how we get our information, of how we eat — the aesthetic of how we basically exist. To me, that’s the most profound thing we can do.

GM: Where does this new art and aesthetic sensibility come from? Is your staff working on the idea of a new aesthetics?

KL: We have a staff of 10 full time people who meet, talk, and do all the things necessary to keep a website, our campaigns, and the magazine going. Our creative director is in São Paolo, Brazil, our editor Micah White lives in Berkeley, and then we have almost 100,000 people around the world who’ve joined our culture jammers network on our website. These are people who are continually communicating with us; some send in artwork, some send photographs, some send in information about a campaign that’s unfolding in their city — it’s a global network. When we launched Occupy Wall Street it wasn’t just some little thing we cooked up in our office here in Vancouver, Canada. It was actually a global brainstorm of thousands of people who suddenly woke up to the fact that quite apart from a regime change in Tunisia, or Egypt, we also need a regime change in America, and the idea of occupying the iconic heart of capitalism, Wall Street, came out of that. We may have a small core staff, but in some sense we are plugged into the whole world.

GM: Adbusters has recently called for the formation of new political parties and alliances in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. What are your thoughts on the future prospects of that movement?

KL: The occupation of Wall Street and other spaces around the world was a kind of magical moment that lasted for many months; young people met and rubbed shoulders and got politicized and they had a political awakening that reminds me very much of the political awakening I had back in 1968. I think the new phase will be an “Occupy Main Street” sort of thing, where people are involved in various projects, like getting the Robin Hood Tax implemented, or fighting for campaign finance reform, or winning the long, hard fight for a binding agreement on climate change. And I predict that in the U.S. after this November people will begin to see that one of the reasons for America’s decline is the two-party system itself. One of the tantalizing fruits of the Occupy movement will be the birth of a new party that finally starts to engage the radical transformations that are necessary if we’re to survive into a viable future.

An even deeper global project is overthrowing the neoclassical economics paradigm that still rules in every university around the world. I’ve just collaborated on a book called Meme Wars — The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics. It calls for university students around the world to rise up against their neoclassical professors, start needling them and holding teach-ins to begin this paradigm shift to what some are calling “ecological economics” and others are calling “bionomics”— we haven’t got a really good name for it yet. A paradigm shift in the theoretical foundations of capitalism is in order now.

GM: I understand you’ve recently turned 70. I’m curious what culture jammers do in their golden years. Do you have any thoughts of retiring, or are you going to be at this for a while?

KL: I’ll tell you what aging people like me do: they dream of revolution. The biggest transformative moment in my life, an epiphany, was in the aftermath of 1968 when a revolt in the Latin quarter of Paris suddenly gave birth to an explosion in hundreds of campuses and cities around the world. I learned in my 20s that a global revolution is possible. And 40-plus years later, a little revolt in Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park is uncannily similar, giving birth to another explosion of worldwide revolutionary fervor. My dream, even in my 70s, is to build on that, and to finally pull off this thing we weren’t quite able to pull off in 1968.