You may or may not have noticed, on your trip to and from work this morning or the day before, some unusual posters in the advertising space usually reserved for city break deals, West End theatre and sexist currency exchange companies.
Across the tube network and at bus shelters too, artists from Banksy's satirical theme park Dismaland have been hijacking ad space for an anti-militarist poster campaign criticising the biannual Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) fair – the world's largest arms exhibition – which opened yesterday morning at the ExCel Centre in London Docklands.
This year's fair – widely criticised by campaigners – features delegates from all the usual authoritarian regimes as well as states currently engaged in brutal wars. For instance Saudi Arabia, now leading a bloody aerial campaign in Yemen. It's usually just tanks and fighter jets being shipped off to repress dissent and arm child soldiers, in the past people have been able to find weapons that specifically violate UK law: In previous years Amnesty International has discovered cluster bombs, electric stun batons, shock irons and gang chain. Oh and the best part? It's part-funded by the taxpayer.
Anti-militarist groups have spent the past week doing as much as they can to disrupt the event, blocking the entrance and forcing armoured vehicles to turn back while Dismaland artists are hoping to raise awareness even further by fly-posting the London transport network. We managed to track down one of the artists behind the campaign, Darren Cullen, and asked him what the group is hoping to achieve.
VICE: Hi Darren. So who exactly is behind this campaign?
Darren: There's a few artists and designers resident at Banky's current exhibition – Dismaland – who wanted to do something about the DSEI arms fair. I'm working there with my Pocket Money Loans installation, which is a payday loan shop for kids but I took a break from giving children advances on their pocket money at 5000 percent APR to help. Strike! magazine have a stall here and they've been distributing these bus stop adshell hack packs with the Special Patrol Group – a sort of shadowy militant wing of Strike! magazine – which give demonstrations to the public on how to break into advertising space. Along with the Museum of Cruel Designs – an arms-trade exhibition at Dismaland – they thought it was a good idea to put the two things together. So we designed the posters and the SPG and their small army of volunteers took them to London.
Can you tell us about some of the different poster designs and the criticisms they are making?
A lot of the posters are pointing out very under-reported or ignored facts about the UK's hypocrisy when it comes the arms trade and what we supposedly believe about democracy and not murdering people all the time. It's completely perverse that our government wrings their hands and bleats half-convincingly about all the terrible conflicts which kill and displace millions around the world, but then simultaneously signs off on weapons and ammunition sales to those exact same regions, often arming both sides in the same conflict.
My own poster is one about the UK government's planned renewal of our Trident nuclear weapons programme. It points out all the potential benefits of a nuclear war, which I think are often over-looked when politicians are talking about the practicalities or costs of arming our country with the most appalling weapon mankind has ever created. When we're deciding whether to blow £100 billion on a weapons system that could lead to the destruction of life on this planet it's a good idea to spend a little time contemplating just what the consequences of that decision could be.
Why did you decide to target the tube and bus network? I guess the arms trade isn't something your average commuter tends to think about on their way to work?
I think there's a lot to be said about disrupting the monotony of the daily commute for its own sake, even better if you can do it about something worthwhile. The arms dealers who are currently slithering through London would much prefer their horrible conference to pass by without any real scrutiny. By doing something like this, we're able to draw commuters attention to the fact that some of the world's worst dictatorships have come to London to pick out their preferred instruments of torture and murder.
My rationale is that anything that annoys terrible people is probably worth doing. The organisers of the DSEI are among some the worst type of awful bastard, so if we're able to send any annoyance or bad publicity their way then we can count it as a job well done.
Ad-space hacking seems to be growing in popularity at the moment. There was the anti-Metropolitan Police ad campaign and the "bullshit jobs" thing recently. Do you see this as a useful form of protest?
Anything that takes corporate advertising off the streets is a good thing. Our public spaces have been privatised so that only institutions or individuals with large advertising budgets are allowed to have truly free speech. The ad space hack packs are a great way of democratising these places where we spend large parts of our day.
Advertising tries to shape culture and tell us the types of things we should be concerned about as individuals and as a society. By removing them and replacing them with our own messages we can subvert that relationship, we can put forward the issues that we think we really should be concerned about, which in this case is the fact that it is possible to make large amounts of money from the brutalisation and murder of innocent people.
The TFL has called the poster campaign an "act of vandalism"? What do you make of that?
Adverts are pollution, visually and psychologically. Replacing them with art is an act of tidying up.
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