Culture Jamming for Social Change

Why Shaking Up Everyday Life is a Useful Protest Tactic

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, and the pace and volume at which we consume.

Recently, culture jamming has been applied in a more serious way to the widespread social problems of sexual violence, racism, and police brutality. “Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight” by Emma Sulkowicz and a recent performance of Civil Rights anthem “Which Side Are You On?” by protesters at the St. Louis Symphony powerfully illustrate the change-making potential of carefully crafted and executed culture jamming.

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 attention to and protest the university’s mishandling of disciplinary proceedings for her alleged rapist, and its mishandling of sexual assault 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 vows to “carry the weight” in public until her alleged rapist is expelled or leaves campus.

Emma’s daily performance not only brings her alleged assault into the public sphere, it also “jams” the notion that sexual assault and its consequences are private matters, and the fact that they are often hidden from view by the shame and fear that survivors experience. Refusing to suffer in silence and in private, Emma has 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 serves to vanish the taboo on acknowledging and discussing the widespread problem of sexual violence by disrupting the social norms of daily campus behavior.

Emma has received a heap of media coverage for her work so far, and has seen fellow students and alumni of Columbia join her in “carrying the weight” on a daily basis. Of the social and political power of her work and the widespread media attention it has 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.”

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 Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Wilson has 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 form of protest makes 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.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.