Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Contesting the war on graffiti: Zero Tolerance, Uprock and Outpost

OK, so this is my first post here for ages ... it's been a crazy few weeks! Hopefully I've now got some time to catch up on various things that have been going on around the place.

First up, graffiti stuff. Back in October and November, I ended up talking on graffiti and street art at three different events. These three events were really interesting examples of different approaches to trying to contest the escalating war on graffiti -- one was the launch of a book documenting a legal graffiti project trying to advocate on behalf of alternative policy approaches, one was a group small of graffiti writers at a hip hop summit trying to figure out collective strategies, and one was at a giant state-sponsored exhibition of graffiti and street art in Sydney which attracted over 50,000 visitors. So, here are some extended reflections on it all...

Zero Tolerance - The Blue Mountains Street Art Collaborative

The first event was the launch of Zero Tolerance, a book published by the Moutains Youth Service Team about the Blue Mountains Street Art Collaborative (BMSAC). BMSAC is a collective of Blue Mountains street artists that has sought to negotiate legal opportunities for large-scale graffiti and street art. The project was coordinated by Jarrod Wheatley, and it has had quite a bit of success. As the book shows, BMSAC has produced lots of terrific work, and in the process it has gained positive press in the local newspapers and won a Greater Western Sydney Community Services Award.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupying Wall Street: "Don't be afraid to say 'revolution'"

Posters at the Zuccotti/Liberty Park Occupation (source: demotix)

There's been lots of discussion in the media about the risk of 'debt contagion' over the past few months. It would seem that mass protest against austerity is contagious too...

For several weeks now, a protest camp has occupied Zuccotti Park, around the corner from Wall Street, in New York City. The occupation has inspired several other similar actions in other US cities. It has taken explicit inspiration from the occupations of squares and parks in Tunis, Cairo, Madrid, Athens, London and elsewhere that have been underway over the past 12 months. 

Today, on the same day that thousands went on strike and marched in Athens against austerity measures, several unions joined the Wall St occupiers in a march through New York City, which Anjali Mullany of the New York Daily Post tweeted as a 'game changer': "The energy is thru the roof & the message is united." We'll see if it's a game changer, but it's certainly a good excuse to post some resources and reflections on what's going on...

The Occupy Wall Street website contains useful information about the occupation. It is self-described as the "unofficial de facto online resource for the ongoing protests happening on Wall Street", put together by an affinity group involved in the protests. On that website, Occupy Wall Street is described as a:
leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.
We are the 99% is a website where all sorts of folks are uploading pictures of themselves holding up some words about why they are fed up with the status quo:
We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we're working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.
The thumbnails of all the pictures and messages posted so far are achived here, in what to me is a really powerful image which visualises the diversity of folks involved...

Screen Grab from We are the 99% website

The action on the ground is being 'organised' through 'NYC General Assemblies'. These Assemblies are facilitated through an on-line networking tool, which those involved describe as:
an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times.
As the actions spread, the Occupy Together website is collecting and disseminating information about occupations taking place in other parts of the United States.

And those who tweet could follow: #OccupyWallStreet

For some reporting on events, The Guardian in the UK has published a few articles reporting on what is going that are worth a look: check this one from September 21 for a bit of an introduction to what has been happening, and this page which collates all their reporst and articles on the protests.

Keeping up with all mass occupations and protests happening across the world over the past 12 months would be a full-time job in itself! But here's a few thoughts-in-progress ...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Coalition-Building in the City: the Sydney Alliance Founding Assembly

On the 15th of September, the Sydney Alliance had its Founding Assembly. Over 2000 people packed the Sydney Town Hall for the occasion, drawn from the ranks of the 45 member organisations made up of non-government organisations, trade unions and religious organisations.

The stated goal of the Alliance is to "bring together diverse community organisations, unions and religious organisations to advance the common good and achieve a fair, just and sustainable city." It's part of the wider international network of citizen coalitions affilliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which includes coalitions such as the Seattle Sound Alliance and Citizens UK. It was seed-funded in 2007 by Unions NSW, the peak body for trade unions in NSW. With its strong trade union involvement, the Sydney Alliance also explicitly positions itself within an Australian tradition of community-union alliances such as the green ban movement of the 1970s.

The Founding Assembly was an exciting night for me, on lots of levels. The National Tertiary Education Union has joined the Alliance, and I was one of several NTEU members there on the night. I've also been actively involved in the Alliance's Research-Action Team on public transport for a few months now, and had a small speaking role in the Assembly on behalf of that Team. They are a fantastic bunch of people, and it was a real thrill to represent them on the night and watch the whole thing go down from up on the stage. (Yay Team Transport!!)

More broadly, I think it was also an exciting night for the city. The Assembly very publicly staged the Alliance in all its diversity and ambition. In this regard, two moments stood out for me. The first was the opening "roll-call" in which someone from each of the 45 member organisations stood up to deliver a brief message about their organisation and why it had joined the Alliance. As members of each organisation stood and spoke to cheers and applause from the crowd, I actually got chills ... it was a powerful display of unity and common purpose across difference, and a real highlight of the night.

The second moment was the speech given by Amanda Tattersall, the Alliance's Director. At one point, she noted that we the people had been "sliced and diced and categorised" in various ways by political parties and the media and corporate interests --- as 'Howard's Battlers', as 'working families', as 'consumers', etc. "But from tonight," she concluded, "we go by a new name. We are the Sydney Alliance!" I think this part of Amanda's speech spoke to one of most important aspects of what the Alliance is all about -- the creation of a new political subject in and of this city.

All of which brings me to the subject of coalition-building in the city more generally. This issue has re-emerged as a central concern of recent urban activism and theory concerned with rights to the city and/or spatial justice. So, in what follows I want to offer a few thoughts on the on-going work of the Sydney Alliance through a dialogue with two recent books by Ed Soja and Mark Purcell. Both of these books strive to move beyond critique of neoliberal urbanisms by thinking about the kinds of movements that might articulate (and hopefully even realise!) visions of a more just and democratic city.

Friday, September 9, 2011

How to get more graffiti on trains...

Along with taking on the public sector unions, here in Sydney the NSW State Government is also planning to introduce yet another round of tougher penalties for graffiti offences, including the removal of driver's licenses for repeat offenders.

N4T4, May Lane
As I've argued elsewhere, anyone who knew anything about graffiti would probably not think that forcing more graffiti writers onto public transport is the best way to reduce graffiti!

Anyways, ABC Television screened a story on the issue tonite, featuring an edited version of a short film called 'Unrequited Art' made by Merryn Calear and Jake Lloyd Jones.

It features some great pics and interviews, and a bit of footage of some middle-aged academic trying to sound like he's down with the kids (... yes, that's me ... cringe!).

Various bits and pieces, May Lane
Here's hoping that Labor and the minor parties stick to their guns, and reject this legislation for the second time next week.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Public Sector Rally in Sydney

Today in Sydney, around 30,000 public sector workers and their supporters gathered in the Domain and marched on Parliament in protest against public sector job cuts and pay cuts.

School teachers across the city and the State went on strike for the day, and industrial action was also taken by significant numbers of nurses, fire-fighters, police, and ferry staff.

Rally at the Domain, Sydney ... a decent turn-out for a drizzly day!
As in other parts of the world, here in New South Wales we are beginning to see (the return of?) a more punitive phase of neoliberalism. This has involved a simultaneous attack on the both the levels of state expenditure and the working conditions and unions of public sector workers.

Last month, the newly-elected conservative Government passed legislation giving itself the power to cap public sector wages growth to no more than 2.5% per year without productivity offsets. With inflation running at around 3.6%, that is a significant pay cut.

Earlier this week, the Government announced there would be 5000 jobs cut from the public sector. This was accompanied by the usual weasel words about the bulk of these jobs being 'back room' jobs which will disappear painlessly through natural attrition and voluntary redundancies. But of course, this is rubbish -- there will be forced redundancies, and the workloads of staff left behind will inevitably rise. And given that many workers in Australia are already feeling the harmful consequences of the 'productivity squeeze' in their everyday lives, this is no small matter.

Gotta love a rally involving fire-fighters ... look at all those trucks! My son was impressed with this pic...!

I'm not the first person to point out that such cuts to state spending on public services stand in stark contrast to the generous taxpayer-funded bail-outs and guarantees provided to the private sector during the GFC.

While some other Australian states have been relatively sheltered from the fall-out of the GFC thanks to income derived from the on-going mining boom, the NSW economy was more seriously exposed, due to its dependence on property prices, tourism, retail, and globally-oriented service industries for revenue.

Predictably, the Government would prefer to blame its budgetary problems on a public sector wages blow-out, which it says was allowed to occur by a rotten Labor Government. While the Labor Government sure was rotten, so too is the claim that public sector workers in New South Wales are overpaid -- as demonstrated by this bit of research conducted by the Sydney Uni Workplace Relations Centre earlier this year.

Anyways, it felt good to be in a big and rowdy crowd today. Surprisingly enough (for me at least), the best speech of the day was given by a representative of the Police Association. In an effort to head-off concern about its public sector wages policy, the Government exempted police from the new arrangement. But the Police Association aren't having it, and were well-represented today. And in her speech, the PA rep argued that even if police were exempt from the pay cuts, they were not immune from public sector cuts more generally. She went on the list the ways in which a range of of social issues -- like domestic violence, mental health, and school truancy -- end up becoming police issues when there aren't social services, teachers and nurses to deal with them appropriate. In my frequent rages against the ways that police often do intervene in these kinds of issues, it's easy to forget that the police staff themselves have their own critique of criminalisation. (And the fact that police were involved in the rally meant that the policing of the rally was pretty low key compared to other large protests in Sydney recently! It also meant that for once, union and police estimates of the crowd were actually the same!)

But as ever, it's hard not to leave a rally asking: what's next? Given the legal difficulties of taking conventional industrial action these days, I think there's a lot of work to be done to figure out how public sector workers can make their presence felt politically. I wonder if there are ways that we can work, as well as refuse to work, in ways that demonstrate the significance of public services by cooperating with 'the public' while not cooperating with the state? For example, years ago Jack Mundey asked whether bus drivers would have more political impact if they drove buses and refused to collect fares, rather than going on strike? What are the equivalent opportunities today across the public sector?

Meanwhile, one issue to keep an eye on over the next few days will be the immediate ramifications of the old-fashioned industrial action that was taken today. The NSW Teachers' Federation strike was declared illegal by the Industrial Relations Commission, after an application by the Government (yes, the same Government that has just denied public sector unions access to the Industrial Relations Commission for the purposes of settling wage disputes!) Today, the Government talked tough about imposing at $20,000 fine on the Teachers' Fed. And the Fed vowed it would fight any such action. I think/hope that any attempt to impose this fine will generate a lot of heat. Clarrie O'Shea revisited? Probably not! But ...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Commentary on the Riots in England

Riot On! The British Looting Tradition. From doodledubz collective

Not surprisingly, when riots happen in London and other major English cities, they attract plenty of commentary by the 'heavy-hitters'. This is partly because they were significant events involving thousands of people over several days, and it's partly because events in London are assigned 'global significance' thanks to London's pre-eminent position in the network of capitalist 'global cities'.

So, here's some links to commentary pieces on the riots in by some high-ish profile left-leaning academic folks, mostly sourced via other blogs and lists. I think I found the Gilroy and Hatherley pieces the most interesting, probably because they are the ones that are most engaged with some of the actual places where this stuff went down...

-- Zygmunt Bauman says the riots are "consumerism coming home to roost" here ...

-- George Ciccariello-Mayer makes a case against the denigration of those involved as an irrational mob here ...

-- Richard Florida argues that riots are "a feature, not a bug, of cities in the global era" here. His solution: extend the promise of creativity to all ... of course! (OK, not so left-ish I know, but very interesting to see Florida rage against the inequality of the "corporate remaking of cities"...

-- Paul Gilroy considers the differences in context between the 1981 and 2011 riots here ...

-- David Harvey argues that the problem is not feral kids but feral capitalism here ...

-- Owen Hatherley writes a really interesting piece on the urban geography of it all here, noting the particular geographies on inequality in English cities where rich and poor are spatially proximate to each other, and yet don't really live in the same 'place'...

-- Owen Jones argues that the conservative right are likely to be strengthened by the riots here ...

-- John Keane situates the riots within a wider malaise of representative democracy undercut by the marketplace here ...

-- Naomi Klein discusses the "nighttime robbery" of the riots alongside the "daylight robbery" of privatisation, bail-outs, bonuses and austerity here ...

-- Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson (authors of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone) respond critically to the notion that family breakdown is a causal factor in the events here ...

-- Nina Power writes on the context that should not be ignored here, and on how David Cameron is making things worse here ...

-- Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen make the link between budget cuts and broken windows here ...

-- McKenzie Wark gives a Situationist take on the logic of riots in the society of the spectacle here ...

-- Slavoj Zizek argues that both conservative and liberal interpretations fail to see what's really going on here, suggesting that the enigma of the riots is that they "demanded nothing" ...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Right to the City: a Virtual Reader

A few posts ago, I wrote up an account of a conference held here in Sydney recently on the ‘Right to the City’. In putting together a paper for that conference, I re-read parts of Lefebvre’s Right to the City for the first time in a while. I got heaps out of it … as with most of my previous efforts to read Lefebvre, I found myself not quite sure what the hell was going on in some passages, and completely inspired by other passages. Not only was it really helpful in interrogating some of the do-it-yourself urbanisms that were the subject of the conference, but I’m sure it’s also going to be incredibly productive in approaching the green bans as I continue to work my way through the archival material on that.

Anyways, I also started putting together a bit of a list of secondary sources on the concept and how it is being approached and used today. So, I thought I’d post that list here (in chronological order), just in case it’s useful to anyone else.

I haven’t made my way through everything listed below, and it’s by no means an exhaustive list of people who have engaged with the ‘right to the city’, but it’s not a bad start. I've tried to keep the list to pieces that engage with the meaning and politics of the 'right to the city', rather than pieces which mention the 'right to the city' only in passing (of which there are lots).

So, if you think I’ve missed anything, let me know. And of course, it goes without saying that if you have trouble accessing any of these in your neck of the woods, get in touch:  kurt[dot]iveson[at]sydney[dot]edu[dot]au

Rosalyn Deutsche (1999) Reasonable Urbanism, in Michael Sorkin (ed) Giving Ground: The politics of propinquity, New York: Verso.

Engin Isin (2000) Introduction: democracy, citizenship and the city, in Engin Isin (ed) Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City, New York: Routledge.

Mark Purcell (2002) Excavating Lefebvre: The Right to the City and its Urban Politics of the Inhabitant, GeoJournal, 58(2-3): 99-108 (this is one of several great articles Mark wrote before his 2008 book came out – see below).

Mustafa Dikeç (2002) Police, Politics, and the Right to the City, GeoJournal, 58(2-3): 91-98.

Eugene McCann (2002) Space, Citizenship and the Right to the City: a brief overview, GeoJournal, 58(2-3): 77-79.

Don Mitchell (2003) The Right to the City: Social justice and the fight for public space, New York: Guildford.

Tovi Fenster (2005) The Right to the Gendered City: Different Formations of Belonging in Everyday Life, Journal of Gender Studies, 14(3): 217-231.

Edésio Fernandes (2007) Constructing the ‘Right to the City’ in Brazil, Social and Legal Studies, 16(2): 201-219.

David Harvey (2008) The Right to the City, New Left Review, 53: 23-40.

Mark Purcell (2008) Recapturing Democracy: Neoliberalisation and the struggle for alternative urban futures, New York: Routledge.

Liette Gilbert and Mustafa Dikeç (2008) Right to the City: Politics of Citizenship, in Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom and Christian Schmid (Eds) Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, New York: Routledge.

Peter Marcuse (2009) From critical urban theory to the right to the city, City, 13(2-3):185-197.

Jackie Leavitt, Tony Roshan Samara and Marnie Brady (2009) The Right to the City Alliance: Time to Democratize Urban Governance, Progressive Planning, 181: 4-12.

Margit Mayer (2009) The Right to the City in the context of shifting mottos of urban social movements, City, 13(2-3): 362-374.

Marcelo Lopes de Souza (2010) Which Right to Which City? In defense of political-strategic clarity, Interface, 2(1): 315-333.

Edward Soja (2010) Seeking Spatial Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Margaret Crawford (2011) Rethinking ‘Rights’, Rethinking ‘Cities’: a response to David Harvey’s ‘The Right to the City’, in Zanny Begg and Lee Stickells (eds) The Right to the City, Sydney: Tin Sheds Gallery.

Andy Merrifield (2011) The Right to the City and Beyond: Notes on a Lefebvrian reconceptualisation, City, 15(3-4).

There are also some relevant collections, for instance:
·      the special issue of GeoJournal in 2002 (58: 2-3) on Social Transformation, Citizenship, and the Right to the City, edited by Lyn Staeheli, Lorraine Dowler, and Doris Wastl-Walter (in which a couple of the articles above were published);
·      International Public Debates: Urban Policies and the Right to the City, UNESCO, 2006;
·      Ana Sugranyes and Charlotte Mathivet (2010, eds) Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City, Santiago: Habitat International Coalition.

And of course, there are some great books out there on Lefebvre which provide some broader intellectual and political context for the concept – I’ve enjoyed both Stuart Elden’s and Rob Shield’s books on Lefebvre.

Update #1
Tony Samara wrote to let me know that in Feb 2012 a new collection is coming out, edited by Michael Peter Smith & Michael McQuarrie, called Remaking Urban Citizenship: Organizations, Institutions, and the Right to the City, Transaction Publishers. Thanks Tony!

Update #2
Following James Duminy's comment below, I found the following two pieces:

AbdouMaliq Simone (2005) The Right to the City, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 7(3): 321-325.

Susan Parnell and Edgar Pieterse (2010) The ‘Right to the City’: Institutional Imperatives of a Developmental State, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 34(1): 146-162.

Unlike most of the pieces in the list above, neither of these explicitly engage with Lefebvre's work on the topic ... but as James' comment hints, the fact that I have applied this criteria has produced a list mostly restricted to northern theorists (although Marcelo's piece on the list above is an explicit attempt to rework Lefebvre's concept from the perspective of urban social movements in Latin America and Africa). Thanks for the heads up on those pieces James!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

London, July 31: "There'll be riots"

Part two on London ... check this video, a street vox pop with some young people about youth centre closures which was done by The Guardian on July 31, just a few days before the riots kicked off. Definitely worth watching all the way to the end.

And here's a follow-up The Guardian have done with Chavez Campbell, who appeared in that first video predicting the riots, taking us on a bit of a tour of his neighbourhood and talking about his own life in London...

British PM David Cameron: "we have to show a lot more love"

So, I know there's been a flood of opinion and some analysis of what's been happening on the streets of England in the last week. I don't have a whole lot to add to that. But in trying to wrap my head around what's going on, I've come across a few things that seem like they are worth sharing...

First, here's the full transcript of a speech given by current British Prime Minister David Cameron back in 2006, a few years before he was elected. It was referred to in a recent Guardian editorial as his "hug-a-hoodie" speech. It reads in part:

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Augmented Reality Ad Takeover, NYC

I'm getting increasingly interested in the various possibilities afforded by new mobile media technologies for different forms of public address.

Here's an application of augmented reality that I can get behind!

A little over a week ago PublicAdCampaign and The Heavy Projects launched the AR I AD Takeover in Times Square, NY. The Augmented Reality Junaio channel used 5 separate ad campaigns to trigger their own replacement with the artwork of 5 of our favorite public space artists including, Ron English, John Fekner, PosterBoy, OX, and Dr. D.

Check out the short project video here...

Augmented Reality Advertising Takeover (AR | AD) from The Heavy Projects on Vimeo.

For more details, see the PublicAd Campaign website:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Reclaiming Public Space"? Australian Parliamentary Inquiry reports on Outdoor Advertising

A few weeks ago, I posted here about a controversy over the censorship of an outdoor advertising campaign for safe sex. At the end of that post, I mentioned that the Australian House of Representatives' Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs was in the middle of an Inquiry into the regulation of outdoor advertising. The Inquiry was established in response to a series of controversies about outdoor advertising in Australian cities in recent years.

Well, that Committee has now finished its Inquiry, and has published its final report, called Reclaiming Public Space. You can see the report online here.

The Inquiry was overwhelmingly focused on the content of outdoor advertising. But of course, as with all forms of public address, questions of content cannot easily be separated from questions of form. Outdoor, by virtue of its location in the urban public realm, is a unique form of advertising. Precisely because of its form and location, advertisers can't really use the 'freedom of choice' arguments that they typically mobilise against any efforts to regulate advertising in other media more heavily. As outdoor media companies are usually the first to boast in pitching their media to advertisers, "it's the only medium you can't switch off". This means that they can't use the old "no-one's forcing you to look at it" rebuttal that is used with regard to advertising in magazines, newspapers, television and the like.

The importance of these questions of form is (sort of) reflected in the Committee Chair's foreword to the report. MP Graham Perrett says:
Community sentiment supported the Committee’s opinion that there is a need to reclaim public space from any wayward interests of commercial advertising. ... Public spaces are for the use of all members of the community—men, women and children—and the right to enjoy the amenity of a space should not be compromised by an advertiser’s array of inappropriate images. This report has listened to the Australian community and, on behalf of the Australian community, it says enough is enough. It is time to reclaim our public spaces.
Perrett's foreword also makes reference to the growing 'dominance' of advertising in public spaces, and the potentially harmful consequences of 'increasing, sustained and cumulative exposure' of 'inappropriate' imagery. So, how exactly do they suggest that we 'reclaim public space' from the advertisers?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra

A couple of weeks ago, I spent three days in Canberra attending a conference about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy ... and I'm pretty sure it's the best conference I've been involved in! So, here's a bit of a report back, featuring: a brief history of the Tent Embassy; a rave about how good the conference was, and; some more structured reflections on the 'cities and citizenship' themes that emerged from the conference.

Sign and Sacred Fire next to Tent Embassy, 2011

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was first established on Jan 26, 1972, when four Aboriginal activists - Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie and Bertie Williams - hopped in a car with a non-Aboriginal photographer from Tribune (newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia) and drove from Sydney to Canberra, planted a beach umbrella on the lawns across the road from the Commonwealth Parliament House, and called it an Embassy. They were responding to a speech on Aboriginal affairs given by Prime Minister William McMahon on Jan 25, in which he had rejected any moves towards recognition of Aboriginal Land Rights. They were soon joined by plenty of other Land Rights supporters from around the country, black and white, many of whom camped in the tents that had been established on the site.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Clive Barnett and John Keane on the Arab Spring

Clive Barnett at Pop Theory has recently posted a great piece on how the Arab Spring uprisings have been theorised by various folks.

These events have been a powerful example of how cities and citizenship can intersect ... right from the way in which the self-immolation of street trader Mohamed Bouazizi helped to kick things off in Tunisia, to the way in which political claims about democracy and citizenship have been staged through the (highly mediated) occupation of streets and squares like Tahir Square in Cairo.

In his piece, Clive has compiled a whole range of public commentary on these events from various social and political theorists. This is a fantastic resource in itself. He also provides a really interesting analysis of how these commentators have responded to 'the events' in quite different ways. Definitely worth a read...

In memory of Bouazizi, Tunis, Jan 22 2011. Source:

[And as a side note, another commentary on these events that might be of interest to readers of this blog has just been published by John Keane here.]

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The politics of outdoor media in 'branded cities'

Earlier this week,  a controversy erupted in the city of Brisbane when Adshel, the outdoor advertising company contracted by Brisbane City Council to provide its bus stops, removed a safe sex advertisement featuring two men cuddling ("Rip and Roll") from Brisbane bus stops. It said that it had done so in response to community complaints.

"Rip & Roll" advertisement ... offensive, right?!

After an outcry, and a small demonstration led by the organisation that had placed the ad (Queensland Association for Healthy Communities), the decision was reversed and the ads re-installed. Adshel CEO Steve McCarthy acknowledged that his company had been the target of a co-ordinated campaign by the Australian Christian Lobby for the ad's removal.

This is just the latest in a series of censorship controversies in Australia and elsewhere about the censorship of outdoor media. Advertisements by animal rights activists in favour of banning eggs from caged chooks, and by atheists in favour of doing something other than going to church on Sunday morning, have been banned from outdoor media by media companies in Australian cities in recent years. (I had an opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald commenting on one of these episodes.)

I've been conducing research on the changing face of outdoor advertising in our cities for the last few years ... and have developed a fairly unhealthy interest in bus stops, billboards, news and fruit stands, garbage bins, flower stalls, bicycle racks and other bits of urban infrastructure as a result!

Increasingly, these bits of infrastructure are provided by private outdoor advertising companies contracted by state authorities. The companies agree to provide and maintain the infrastructure for 'free' in return for being allowed to sell advertising space. A relatively small number of multi-national outdoor media companies like Adshel (part of the global Clear Channel Outdoor group) and JC Decaux dominate the market worldwide. The companies and the (often cash-strapped) urban authorities say this is a 'win-win' arrangement, but I am not so sure...

In this particular episode in Brisbane, the last line of the Herald's article about the episode is the most revealing:
Brisbane City Council, which owns the bus stop panels, declined to comment on the removal of the advertisements, saying “the council had no involvement in this matter”.
In Brisbane as in many other cities, the power to determine the content of outdoor media is increasingly in private rather than public hands, even on publicly-owned urban infrastructure.

And possibly more importantly, these arrangements are also reducing access to the outdoor media landscape in many cities. These outdoor advertising companies are only profitable to the extent that they can monopolise the outdoor media landscape (it's harder to charge money for your advertising space if other people can get their message up for free somewhere else, or if the ads are vulnerable to hacking and defacement...). So, the private companies and their public sector partners are increasingly clamping down on other uses and users of the outdoor media landscape in order to ensure their arrangements remain profitable.

I think this is having harmful consequences for the use of outdoor media by the kinds of people who use the city as media because it's free -- including artists, activists, and musicians who can't afford (or just don't want) to pay commercial media rates to get their message across.

Of course, these are also the kinds of folks who are unlikely to let the advertising companies have things all their own way! We are certainly starting to see examples of folks push back against the commodification and monopolisation of their outdoor media spaces.

We are also starting to see some urban authorities wind back the amount of commercial outdoor advertising in their cities, and/or make sure that 'free' spaces are provided alongside commercial spaces.

If you think you might be interested in reading more on this... 
  • my submission to a recent Parliamentary Inquiry into outdoor advertising, with some recommendations for how these arrangements ought to be regulated, is here
  • an almost final draft of my article "Branded Cities" (appearing soon in Antipode, and focusing on the contested politics of outdoor media) is here. Thanks to my man Jordan at Public Ad Campaign for hosting this ... you should check Jordan's awesome campaign efforts on outdoor advertising while you are there!
Meanwhile, I leave you with a favourite find from this outdoor ad research ... yes, KFC are even fixing potholes in Louisville, Kentucky, in return for the right to stencil KFC advertisements on the road surface. Go Colonel!!!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Neither consumerism nor carbon taxes: Bob Pringle's vision for a new society and a new city

I'm just back from a couple of days spent in the Noel Butlin Archives in Canberra, looking at papers relating to the 'green bans' that took place in Sydney during the 1970s.

Inside the Noel Butlin Archives, ANU, Canberra...

For those who don't know about them, the green bans were actions in which extraordinary alliances of resident action groups and workers from the NSW Branch of the Builders Labourers' Federation worked together to block a number of major developments across the city. The developments which were banned threatened open space, affordable housing, and architectural heritage (among other things). The green bans involved a range of practices - strike action and industrial sabotage, secondary boycotts and bans, squatting, the construction of barricades, the formation of alternative plans, protest meetings and marches, and much more. Before the bans were finally broken ('s a long story!!), it was estimated that around $3 billion of development in Sydney was being held up by this kind of action.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the first green ban at Kelly's Bush, Nicole Cook and I have organised a session called 'Remembering the Green Bans' at the June conference of the Institute of Australian Geographers. Our agenda is to try to remind folks about these extraordinary events, and to think about their on-going relevance for urban policy and politics in Australian cities beyond the usual 'heritage' angle that has come to be celebrated as the years have passed. In my paper, I'm trying to think on the lessons of the green bans for current efforts to re-imagine the possibilities of urban politics (there's some initial reflections along these lines in recent and forthcoming pieces for City). And so, I've hit the archives in order to get more of a sense of how the bans were conducted and justified at the time by the participants.

Anyways, among the many great finds on this trip, I came across an article called "Consumerism: it’s no way to a new society" by Bob Pringle (b. 1941, d. 1996), published in the National Times on 18 October 1976. Pringle was President of the NSW Branch of the Builders Labourers' Federation during the green ban period. By the time he wrote this piece, he'd been expelled from the Union by rivals in the Federal Executive (along with Jack Mundey and several others who were prominent in the NSW BLF leadership during the green ban period).

I've reproduced the article in full below because I think it's an extraordinary piece of writing. There's a little bit of analysis after the piece if you make it that far. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Keep Australia Colourful this Sunday...!

[this one's a bit Sydney-centric ... apologies to non-Sydney readers]

This coming Sunday is the second installment of Keep Australia Colourful, a pro-graffiti event that I'm involved in organising in Sydney. It's timed to coincide with Graffiti Action Day, an anti-graffiti event organised jointly by Keep Australia Beautiful and the NSW State Government. We painted some nice walls, a truck, and got some good media coverage for our efforts last year, so we figured it was worth trying this on again ... especially with the new NSW Government proposing to confiscate driver's licenses of those convicted of graffiti offences, and to introduce mandatory jail sentences for repeat offenders. (Yes, they actually think putting graffiti writers on the trains and buses is going to stop graffiti ... brilliant!!)  The futile and expensive war on graffiti shows no sign of letting up...

For a short version of my take on what we ought to be doing instead, you could look here -- a longer version of this was published as "War is over (if you want it): rethinking the graffiti problem" in Australian Planner, 2009, vol 46 (3) ... with all apologies to John Lennon for the title.

So, here's the announcement for this year's event ...


On May 15, Keep Australia Beautiful is teaming up with the NSW State Government for their second 'Graffiti Action Day'. Their aim is to mobilise volunteers all over the state to paint over as much graffiti as they can.

On the same day, we urge you to join us and take a stand on behalf of Graffiti and Street Art as valuable forms of art and culture. The government wants to 'Keep Australia Beautiful' by painting our streets, lanes and public spaces various shades of beige - but we want to Keep Australia Colourful! Let's show people how great our cities could look if there were more places for artists to create pieces legally.

If you want to join us, here's what to do...

Graffiti/Street Artists: find a space, and make it look colouful on May 15.

Whatever you decide to paint, poster, stencil, knit, sticker ... be sure to include a reference to Keep Australia Colourful in your piece. Yes, people ... you can put aside your ego for one day and join the KAC crew, we know you can do it!! :-)  Of course, we are not encouraging you to do anything illegal! Then, upload your flicks on our website:

If you can tell us where you are going to be painting beforehand, even better - we can plug your session on the website/facebook too. And if you want to be available for media comment on the day, send us your details, and we will add them to our press release.

Graffit/Street Art Lovers: write a letter to your local council, and/or to the NSW Attorney General Greg Smith (, telling them why you love graffiti and street art and why you want to see more of it.


A community service announcement, brought to you by Kurt Iveson, Cameron McAuliffe, Spice, Pudl, Mini Graff, Mistery, Roach, Numskull, Saynt


Thursday, May 5, 2011

"I'm just trying to get to the shops...": inside and outside the gates

Check this great little video ... as my mate Adam Holden said when he sent me the link, you could spin a whole talk on public and private space out of this!

I love the juxtaposition between private and public, inside and outside, that this little staged encounter reveals...

Friday, April 22, 2011

Why foreign policy is a matter for local government in a global city...

Note: this post was submitted as an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, so hopefully that explains the style in which it was written. As it happened, Fiona Byrne, the Mayor of Marrickville who was at the centre of this particular debate, wrote her own piece which was published in the Herald instead. I can't imagine why they would have wanted something from the Mayor herself rather than an unknown academic, but there you go...!  Anyways, it's reproduced here because I might as well not waste the work, and I'm sure this blog will soon have a circulation the size of the Herald's... 

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a loud debate in Sydney over Marrickville Council’s potential participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Santions movement against Israel. The debate has drawn attention not only to politics in the Middle East, but also to the role of local government in Sydney.

In arguing against the boycott, its opponents have frequently attacked or derided the notion that a local government should take action on political issues which extend beyond its boundaries – in this case to the other side of the world. Newly-elected NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has told Council in no uncertain terms that the role of local government is to focus on roads, rubbish and rates, and has taken the extraordinary step of threatening to sack the Council if the boycott goes ahead. The Sydney Chamber of Commerce and the Jewish Board of Deputies have also both criticized Council’s involvement in matters of foreign investment and policy. More light-heartedly, a Herald editorial made merry at the prospect of Marrickville Council sending troops to Israel if diplomacy failed.

Whatever the merits of this specific boycott proposal, we should reject the notion that local governments should not action on matters that extend beyond their borders. We live in an increasingly inter-connected and globalised world, and local governments have a vital role to play in helping us to take action on a whole range of issues across a variety of scales.

Squeegee guys: Belinda Campbell's 'Intersections'

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of helping Belinda Campbell launch her outdoor exhibition Intersections. The exhibition involved the installation of 6 large and striking portrait photos of some of Sydney's (in)famous street corner squeegee guys on the fence outside Glebe public school, a very busy inner city street in Sydney. Belinda interviewed the men as well as photographing them, and their portraits were accompanied by their account of how they found themselves cleaning windscreens, and what it's like to perform this kind of work.

As Engin Isin pointed out in his 2002 book Being Political, contemporary ideologies of what it means to be a 'good citizen' in large western cities are largely founded on the active exclusion of folks like the homeless, squeegee guys, graffiti-writers et al as the 'anti-social' other. Sydney is no exception. Each of the men interviewed had stories to tell about the regular harassment they face from both police and hostile drivers.

I think one of the reasons squeegee guys can provoke such discomfort and hostility is that their actions disrupt the norms of the road for the car driver. Cars are meant to be self-contained, with communication mediated through horns, blinkers, friendly waves, raised fingers and the like -- if contact occurs with others, this is an 'accident', 'collision', 'crash' etc.. Not only to the squeegee guys attempt to communicate with us in another manner, not only do they want to touch our car, but they also initiate this contact right at the moment when we are most vulnerable as a driver -- when we are stuck at an intersection waiting for a traffic light to change from red to green.

But of course, we can choose how to respond in this situation. As the men also reported, they have their regular customers, and each could tell stories of friendliness and generosity too.

The installation of the photos on the street gave the exhibition a real power -- on the day of the launch, lots of passers-by stopped and lingered by the photos and read the stories. I'm sure this was because lots of people recognised one or more of the men in the photos, and were curious to find out more about them. Belinda's exhibition very explicitly challenges us to think about intersections as places were the lives as diverse city dwellers cross paths, not just as places where cars are forced to wait for others.

Real Estate: Mini Graff and Jason Wing

I just managed to catch Mini Graff and Jason Wing's exhibition Real Estate at the Cross Art Projects before it closed. Small but cool.

I especially loved Mini Graff's Superhero Poster. Quite rightly, Mini has a bee in her bonnet about the City of Sydney's approach to graffiti and street art. As the exhibition flyer tells it:
She parodies and challenges the might of the advertising industry and the brand names that invade and claim streetscapes, parks, and schools. While corporations gloat, artists are forced into humiliations of form filling and attending to overseers of 'official' artworks, a censorship not tolerated by any other professional group. Councils wage a continuous censorship vigil and veto art on our streets, temporary hoardings, nooks and crannies - unless deemed 'decorative' or de-facto advertorial for municipal fiat. Mini Graff champions the paste-up brush of street art as an act of daily civil libertarian heroism.
'Humiliation' might be just a little strong as a description of what it's like to fill in a bunch of forms to be assessed by a faceless panel of bureaucrats to put up a work of art ... but I get her point! The City is Sydney talks a lot of talk about creativity etc, and commissions lots of temporary street art if it's part of some event promoting the city, but its processes are overly bureaucratic, and it simply refuses to allow the streets to be mobilised independently of official place-promotion projects.

With its critique of the Council, the poster also reminds me of another great performative critique of the City of Sydney's street art hypocrisy ... check out this video of the 'Scratching the Surface' performance piece by Beastman, Max Berry, Numskull, Phibs and Roach at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Watch until the end. So brilliant.

Scratching the Surface from [weAREtheIMAGEmakers] on Vimeo.

The right to the city...

A couple of weeks ago, I went along to the Right to the City conference organised by Lee Stickells and Zanny Begg at Sydney Uni. The conference brought together a bunch of thinkers and practitioners to explore the possibilities and promises of emergent forms of do-it-yourself and 'micro-spatial' activism in cities.

The keynote speech on the Friday night by Margaret Crawford from UC Berkeley, who talked about her 'Everyday Urbanism' research, was well attended and generated a lively discussion. The good numbers and energy carried on nicely into the conference the next day. I certainly got heaps out of it. As one of the presenters said, it was great to be attending a conference on this theme here in Sydney, rather than reading about one taking place in some other city ... nice one Lee and Zanny!

Of the discussions I was involved in during the day, there were some interesting common themes to emerge....


I know that we are all suffering from information overload...

And I know that it's 2011 already, and that Bruce Sterling has added blogs to his list of 'dead media'...

But here I am, starting a blog. Cities and Citizenship is going to focus on the opportunities and challenges facing those of us who are seeking to democratise our cities. It'll be Sydney-centric, because that's where I am, but hopefully will have something to interest folks in other places too.

The first few posts are now online. One is a report on a recent conference that took place here in Sydney on The Right to the City. Another talks about the recent controversy over an inner-Sydney Local Council's debate on whether to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against corporations and institutions associated with the occupation of Palestine. Another couple reflect on recent public art exhibitions in Sydney -- Intersections by Belinda Campbell, and Real Estate by Mini Graff and Jason Wing.

Forthcoming posts include an attempt to respond to Adam Greenfield's challenge for us to think about the nature of 'public objects' in the networked city, a review of Mark Purcell's book Recapturing Democracy, and some reflections on Sydney's extraordinary 'green ban' movement in order to mark the 40th anniversary of the first green ban.

Thanks for dropping by!