Jordan Seiler: Curating the City

Cities are increasingly dominated by advertisements. In 2007, the mayor of the Brazilian city of São Paulo passed a ‘clean city law’, forbidding any form of commercial communication outdoors. And as a result, artists started to occupy walls with colors and shapes. But legalities aside, globally, people are retaliating against the capitalist domination of free space by ad-busting and hacking billboards to un-clutter public space.


Jordan Seiler (on the left) taking a break in the city. Photograph by Daniel Wiess


Jordan Seiler is an inspiring NYC-based artist who actively reclaims public spaces from advertisements. He curates the PublicAdCampaign and recently helped create an augmented reality app called Re:Public to re-imagine public space. His actions are often collaborative and participatory. He runs Truth in Advertizing—a program that grants money for billboard hacks—and organizes international events like the Madrid Street Ad Takeover, Toronto Street Ad Takeover and International Billboard Hacking Day. Read our interview below.




What is the Public Ad Campaign?

PublicAdCampaign is an umbrella project for personal and collaborative projects that challenge the use of our shared visual environment. I stumbled upon street art and public space activism in late 2000 after putting some of my work over advertisements in a NYC subway. Since then, I have explored public space and advertising issues through numerous illegal and legal projects in New York and abroad.

The goal of my project is to make people think about how we choose to curate our public spaces and what effects that curation might have on our collective society by altering and removing outdoor advertising from our city streets. This ranges from simple illegal advertising takeovers—which see the removal of advertising and its replacement with my personal work—to large-scale civil disobedience projects—which involve the coordinated actions of many to create public dialogues surrounding advertising and public space usage.


"I believe what I am doing is right. I use my full name and am open about my responsibility for everything that I have done. I do not hide behind pseudonyms or attempt to hide my identity. I do this because what I am doing is a protest."


Through the PublicAdCampaign I have also organized communal civil disobedience projects which started in NY but have expanded to Toronto and Madrid in recent years. The problem with advertising in public spaces is a social one that does not have borders. The worldwide advertising industry has integrated seamlessly into our public lives and un-rooting that hold is not a transformation made by a single city, but by society as a whole as we come to realize the negative social benefit of surrounding ourselves with images of consumption and self-fulfillment in an environment reserved for community and collective interests.

As a proponent of civil disobedience targeted at outdoor advertising, I run a blog which catalogs other artists' actions and attempts to discuss a wider range of issues surrounding the subject. I have also been working to develop augmented reality mobile applications which resist private property boundaries and democratize the use of our shared visual environment.


How do you describe your work and process?

Because I am uninterested in critiquing individual advertising messages but rather questioning the medium's relevancy in a healthy public space, my work aims to question the venue rather than the particular ad. As a result, my imagery is often simple graphic design, which I hope is incongruous with what a viewer has come to expect from a location that usually holds advertising.

When a viewer comes across my work, I want them to notice that there has been a takeover of that advertising space, and to then judge whether the resulting omission of that advertisement has improved the space in which they are viewing it. If that thought process can be achieved then I have made someone question the validity of the venue, which is a question I think people rarely ask themselves. Advertising seems to be a fixture in public space and my work aims to question that expected relationship.


Do you plan your actions or are they very spontaneous?

Sadly, I am not a spontaneous guy when it comes to my work on the streets. For my personal work, I pick my locations by weighing risk and visibility. But I also spend a lot of my time doing larger organizational projects like New York Street Ad Takeover (NYSAT). These projects take months of planning and can end up being more militarily exacting than joyfully exuberant. While there are some notable artists who are able to work very spontaneously over advertising, I would say the majority of anti-advertising work is highly pre-meditated considering you are essentially choosing some of the most highly visible real estate on the streets.

Where do you choose to work and how do people respond to your actions?

I work anywhere there is advertising on the streets, although I prefer to work in cities where there is a large enough population that there is an abundance of advertising. I have personally done advertising takeover work in several US cities, and recently as far away as Stavanger, Norway.


Signs made by PosterChild for Truth In Advertising's Under One Hundred project. Started in February 2010, grants are given to submissions that interact with outdoor advertising and cost under $100.

In general, people who come across PublicAdCampaign projects are sympathetic to our cause if not slightly confused by our passion for the issue. While media theory has shown us through extensive research that the images which we surround ourselves with have serious affects on our behavior, we have yet to take a close look at the avenues of dissemination, and how those avenues can be used to curb our ingestion of potentially harmful material.

What is your favorite work or most memorable hack?

I have several favorite personal works, but my most memorable moment by far was halfway through the first New York Street Ad Takeover (NYSAT) project when I realized that we had successfully buffed 20,000 square feet of illegal advertising from 23rd street to the bottom of Manhattan in broad daylight, and gotten away with it.


The NYSAT targeted a single company that had been operating illegal street-level billboard advertising in NY. Because they were operating illegally I was able to convince 30 regular citizens to join me in a coordinated buff, which would turn over 100 advertising billboards into white canvases. These canvases were then painted on by other artists who volunteered to bring their work to the streets as part of this civil disobedience project.

Walking around the city watching the public openly use 100 billboards for their own purposes gave me a sense of satisfaction that I have yet to match. Not only was the project personally fulfilling for all of those involved, but it resulted in a serious response by the NYC government and a harsh crackdown on illegal advertising in NYC.


I AM's work, part of the NYSAT project, on 11th st. and Avenue A.

Artwork created by Ji Lee.

Check out more on the NYSAT project map.

What inspires you?

Today, there is a whole sub genre of artists who work over advertising on the street and who I follow closely. Artists like OX, Robert Montgomery, PosterBoy, Peter Fuss, Vermibus, etc. Alongside these artists are groups around the world like Brandalism and V-Tarp that are taking large scale civil disobedience projects into their own hands, while a steadfast group of activists are chronicling the inner workings of the outdoor advertising industry on the web. I take inspiration from actors involved in what I see to be a small, cultural revolution that is yet to take hold, but that is aiming for some serious advances in how we choose to curate our public space.


Billboard takeover by French artist OX.

Do you think of yourself as an activist, artist or a street artist?

I am an artist, but my definition of artist might be broader than the typical definition. I do ad takeover work on the street, so maybe I'm a street artist. I do gallery work which uses stolen advertising structures such as frames, so maybe I am an artist. I organize large scale civil disobedience projects, so maybe I am a curator. I keep tabs on the advertising industry and wage campaigns against them when they break the law, so maybe I am an activist. I write extensively on the subject of public space and advertising, so maybe I am a writer. I work with new media and digital technologies to figure out what the next step in the curation of our public environment will be, so maybe I am an entrepreneur.

That said, through each of these endeavors I am exploring my main interest: how public space is used and for whom. Together they form a much more coherent thought process despite each project investigating various aspects of a larger issue. My definition of an artist is much more fluid than hanging work on a wall, and through all of my work I hope to be interrogating the same issue from different points of interest.


I am a 33-year-old man who illegally buffs advertising and replaces it with artwork. I have enemies within the industry that spy on me both online and on the streets, I cannot speak with city governments to take up my cause because I operate illegally, and I have little recourse if the law decided to come down on me hard for my ten years of 'inappropriate' behavior. Suffice to say, I have reservations about my continued ability to operate as I have for the past ten years.


"Advertising seems to be a fixture in public space and my work aims to question that expected relationship."


That said, I believe what I am doing is right. I use my full name and am open about my responsibility for everything that I have done. I do not hide behind pseudonyms or attempt to hide my identity. I do this because what I am doing is a protest. I have serious questions about the viability of commercial messaging in public space. I want to interrogate those questions earnestly and amongst a larger crowd. By using my full name, my actions are not demands, but invitations to a conversation that I as an individual want to have. Knowing where to find me is an important part of allowing that conversation to happen.

Moscow faces illegal pavement graffiti used by advertisers and millions of pull away fliers offering credit and rentals that cover almost all visible infrastructure. Any suggestions for a response?

Each city has its own rules and regulations regarding outdoor signage. In each city, advertisers will try their hardest to push those boundaries and infiltrate more and more territory in an effort to completely monopolize the messaging that happens in public space. What is important is that we not draw distinctions between each format like billboards and sidewalk stencils. Each of these is yet another infiltration that should be seen as part of a larger systemic problem that needs to be dealt with. Mainly, advertising in public space has negative social effects, and through monetization of our public walls and infrastructure it is positioning itself to be the only form of visual media that the public ingests.


All  images from:
Public Ad Campaign