Urban and Urbanization

Dismantling the advertising city: Subvertising and the urban commons to come

Subvertising, a portmanteau for ‘subverting advertising’, is the illicit practice of intervening into urban advertising space, from graffiti scribbles and removed adverts, to full-blown billboard takeovers and digitally hacked adverts. In this article, I draw from 24 months of ethnography with subvertisers to suggest that a particular ideal of public space, that of a ‘regime of order’, is folded into the hegemonic spatial management of urban communication by advertising actors. This ‘regime’ relies on separating worlds from common use, that is, on what Giorgio Agamben has phrased ‘consecration’. As an operation with capacities for ‘profanation’, subvertising makes visible the ‘natural’ appearance of this urban regime, and enacts highly temporary placeholder forms for the communicative commons to come. Contributing to debates on the geographies of public space and publicness, subvertisers show that the possibility of common use does not emerge from property rights, shared value-systems or a pre-determined scope of usage. Instead, common use emerges from the deactivation of the very notions of rights, laws, identity and ends. Here I trace subvertisers’ insistence on taking seriously the charge of openness, incompatibility, contestation, excess and the dysfunctional in urban expression as sources of inspiration and (self-)transformation.

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Volume 39 Issue 2

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