It was after braving the crush at Kramerbooks to buy the latest Harry Potter novel that I sat down on an enormous concrete planter in Dupont Circle and noticed that I was staring straight at a black stenciled face. It was one of the pieces of graffiti by 18-year-old art student John Tsombikos, aka Borf, that have proliferated in the District.
Until his recent arrest, Borf produced scrawls and pictures, almost all of a scowling boy and most accompanied by a bizarre slogans like "Borf Writes Letters To Your Children" or "Borf Is Good For Your Liver." He wasn't just kooky, he was ubiquitous. He has been held accountable for vast amounts of graffiti, not just in the District, but across the whole country, and beyond -- in Raleigh, N.C., in New York, in Los Angeles, and even in Athens (that's Greece, not Georgia).
Sitting there, it hit me -- Borf wasn't an isolated guy; he was a phenomenon. People from L.A. to Europe have assumed his identity and turned it into a group endeavor, subverting popular cultural images in a practice that my twenty-something contemporaries call "culture jamming." This kind of collective identity (which is a kind of anonymity, if you think about it) is my generation's reaction to having been spoon-fed advertising and having had identities marketed to us. We've been led to believe that to be homogenous and fit into certain characteristics is safe and desirable. Even correct. Crudely put, culture jammers represent the way people my age feel about modern society: that its images don't relate to us; that we won't or can't engage with what we've been told we should be; and that all we can do to make ourselves heard is to twist these images back on themselves.
In a sense, I'd got to know Borf before I came to America from Britain three weeks ago. He's the American incarnation of British graffiti artist Banksy, who is notable, among other things, for creating pictures of Winston Churchill with a green mohawk. Banksy has been pulling much the same stunt as Borf, in much the same stencil style, and for longer; and he has maintained his anonymity (although he has an agent and a bank account). Major stores have even released posters of his images, making him rich along the way. It's commonplace now in small British towns to see what could only be described as Banksy knock-offs: graffiti mimicking his style and passed off as originals. Just as Banksy's identity has been co-opted into a collective body, so has Borf's.
Both tap into ideas articulated by the American graphic artist Shepard Fairey, whose bold, stylized pictures of the late professional wrestler Andre the Giant, which are plastered up in public spaces, are juxtaposed with slogans like "Obey" or "Giant." Fairey says that in his project (called "Andre the Giant Has a Posse") the medium is the message. What Fairey produces looks like trendy advertising but is in fact a deliberately empty message. He's therefore engaged in the subversive distribution of a meaningless thing; it's anti-marketing, anti-singularity, anti-message.
Maybe the reason why apparently empty messages like these resonate with my generation is that we don't have any icons of our own. We don't have an Allen Ginsburg, or a Jack Kerouac. We don't even have a Douglas Coupland -- the writer who articulated the idea that the main characteristic of the '90s generation was that it had no characteristic.
We have no Bob Dylan, no Bruce Springsteen. When someone recently asked me why people my age (I'm 21) listen to bands from our parents' generation, I had to explain that, with a few exceptions, we don't have any real musicians any more. Without massive advertising campaigns, a lot of the "music" you can buy today, like Beyonce, wouldn't exist.
We're a voiceless generation. We have nothing we can point to and say: "This is us, this is where we stand." We're lost and silent and we don't know what to do about it. We're sold a parody of culture that we buy because, well, what choice do we have?
Even the generational angst I'm engaging in now is stolen. This is the cry of the generation before mine, the Lost Generation, Generation X, Coupland's kids. People 10 years older than I am cornered the market in existential meanderings and, self-indulgent though it is, at least it's a flag, something to rally round. What have we got? Beyonce and Harry Potter -- both created and sold to us by people our parents' ages. Not that I've anything against Harry Potter; I enjoyed "The Half-Blood Prince" immensely. But it isn't us. It's not who we are.
Even the most conventional of magazines has recognized that something is up. Vanity Fair has an essay competition in its current issue titled, "What's on the minds of America's youth today?" It asks young writers to explain, for a prize of $1,500 and a Montblanc fountain pen, just what is going on. As Vanity Fair's editors see it:
"More than 30 years ago, young people across the country staged sit-ins for civil rights, got up and protested against a misguided, undeclared war, and actually gave a damn if a president lied to them. Today it seems as if the younger generation of Americans are content to watch their MTV, fiddle with their game players, [and] follow the love lives of Brad, Jen, Jessica and Paris. What has changed? What is going on inside the minds of American youth today?"
What's funny is that this hailing of "American youth" displays a paradoxical lack of awareness of our generation even as it tries to pin us down. There's no such thing as "American youth" -- or British youth, come to that, these days. That's exactly what we're not -- a body, a set.
At the other end of the magazine spectrum is the international publication Adbusters. Achingly hip, painstakingly designed and printed on recycled paper, Adbusters is the flagship magazine of the counterculture movement, such as it is. The Adbusters manifesto states the magazine's purpose boldly: "We're the ragtag remnants of oppositional culture -- what's left of the revolutionary impulse in the jaded fin de millennium atmosphere of post-modernity in which revolution is said to no longer be possible. What we share is an overwhelming rage against consumer capitalism and a vague sense that our time has come to act as a vague collective force."
So there you have it -- I bet you never thought defining a generation was so easy! Seriously, though, this is about as close as anyone gets to saying what culture jammers are all about.
The idea of the collective is one that has always captured the imagination of young people -- remember all those '60s communes? The most fertile ground for collectivism today is the Internet, where identity is automatically annulled. Anonymity allows collective projects to flourish with no individual gain, only collective gain. The collectivist writing project Everything2.com is run by people you may never meet or talk to, and who specialize in creating fiction or journalism. One user, identified only as "loquacious," puts the collectivist ideal this way; "[The site] is the way the internet was supposed to be. [It] is a reference collection, a novel that writes itself, poetry that reads itself, and the shiny toy that never grows dull. It is the potential to exceed the sum of its parts." As such, it's a project that will always slip away from any effort to capture it.
"Grown-ups are obsolete"; "Teenagers are Invincible"; "Andre the Giant has a Posse." It's heady, apocalyptic, meaningless even. You can probably sense here that I'm struggling to say what it is that I mean, but that's precisely because the movement, such as it is, is undefinable.
This idea of slippery collective identity is nothing new -- in Italy it dates back to 1994, when a band of disaffected youth chose to call themselves Luther Blissett, assuming the name of a former soccer player. In the words of one of the Blissetts: "The group considers identity to be the prison of the self."
The Blissett phenomenon acquired a certain notoriety in 1997 when four "Blissetts" were caught traveling on a train without a ticket. When asked about this in court, the four replied that "a collective identity does not travel with a ticket." They were acquitted. (The soccer-playing Ur-Mr. Blissett, though bemused, appears not to have cared. "It's rather funny," he said, "but I don't mind these people using my name -- whoever they are.")
In attempting to do the impossible and define for you this enormously earnest brand of collectivism, I feel both ambivalence and sadness. Like any fringe movement, culture jamming rests upon its politically oppositional nature. Culture jammers are caught -- on the one hand dissatisfied and willing for change to happen, but on the other depending for their existence on the status quo's never changing. Of course, the people who can afford Adbusters at $8 a pop are the very people who don't need the "liberation" from conventional culture that they so sincerely advocate. And who needs the pseudo-babble of such hardcore identity anarchists as the Blissetts?
Saying that his goal was to "show the public how to fight a dishonest media" one Blissett claimed: "We are a collective ghost -- a myth which finds reality in those who take part." Frankly, this makes me run for cover -- it's glib, and its heady intellectual detachment is about the least appealing mask a movement can wear. I far prefer the end of the Adbusters manifesto: "At the simplest level we are a growing band of people who have given up on the American Dream." Until we can find our own vision to aspire to, maybe Borf and Andre the Giant are all we have.
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Claude Willan came across Borf while visiting the United States. He is a student at Oxford University, where he is studying English literature.