Kalle Lasn: Finding Himself in the Mental Environment: And Being Fully Armed

There is a new environmentalism brewing – a movement that fights not deforestation and fossil fuels but the depletion and pollution of public and private space. Its members are not tree huggers but culture jammers who target the new pollutants: billboards, print ads and commercials that clutter cityscapes and cloud minds. Instead of thwarting whaling boats or tying themselves to redwoods, these mavericks challenge corporate ideals and use advertisements to promote non-consumption.

There is a new environmentalism brewing – a movement that fights not deforestation and fossil fuels but the depletion and pollution of public and private space. Its members are not tree huggers but culture jammers who target the new pollutants: billboards, print ads and commercials that clutter cityscapes and cloud minds. Instead of thwarting whaling boats or tying themselves to redwoods, these mavericks challenge corporate ideals and use advertisements to promote non-consumption.

It is this metaphor that spurred Canadian-based activist Kalle Lasn to christen his magazine Adbusters: Journal of the Mental Environment. As founder of The Media Foundation, an organization he dubs “the Greenpeace of the mental environment,” the former documentary filmmaker is one of the most outspoken critics of rampant consumerism and its tangible manifestation, advertising.

“Consumerism is now our religion in a sense, and advertising is very emotional,” Lasn says. “It preys on your insecurities the way the old religion preyed on your desire for salvation. The pitches often make you feel inadequate in some way. Nine out of 10 women have bad feelings about their bodies, and the fashion people prey on that. They say, ‘Yeah, that’s right, there is something wrong with your body, but if you buy this product, you’ll feel better.'” And like Prozac, he says, most folks swallow it whole.

The connection among shopping sprees, anti-depressants and Soma, the valium-like drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is not lost on Lasn. “We pride ourselves on democracy and freedoms, but it’s actually a corporate state where the laws in Washington are the laws that the corporations want,” he says, echoing the concerns of the World Trade Organization protestors in Seattle. “We’re used to an Orwellian oppression – like the Soviet Union, where everyone knew what was going on,” he says, referring to Big Brother and George Orwell’s nightmarish 1984. “But now we have a Huxleyan oppression, where the power brokers are giving you what you want – the Soma of entertainment, fast cars, thousands of choices in the supermarket. Huxleyan oppression is a much more sophisticated type – it’s oppression with a silk glove and most people just love it.” These sentiments Lasn refers to are evident in slogans like a recent BMW G3 Roadster campaign: It not only satisfies your need for motion, it satisfies your need for emotion.

While such promises may be more than a tad far-fetched, Lasn’s proposals (though good-hearted and on the right track) can be nearly as sweeping and simplistic. His “predictions” are often unrealistic hopes (In ’95 he told college journalist Victor Hyman, “We think that advertising in the ’90s will move away from product ads to idea ads.”) and his arguments often bend to his ideals rather than the facts. He bristles when recalling how television stations refused to air his “uncommercials” between spots like car and clothes ads. “Magazines [who also refused Lasn’s ads] are private entities. But the airwaves are public. CBS has to operate in their own commercial interests, but this has to be balanced against the public interest and their right to the airwaves. We have to keep those higher values in mind.” Of course, the equipment to broadcast over said airwaves is privately owned, and Volkswagon would probably yank their ads (and their dough) if an anti-pollution ad from The Media Foundation followed it. But that is no excuse for Lasn. “We don’t have the right to walk into a TV station and buy 30 seconds of air time? I don’t see how we can call ourselves a democracy if we don’t have access to our own airwaves.”

Still, it is that indomitable spirit that energizes those he inspires. Napoleon would never have gotten anywhere if he’d mentioned the odds of beating those Russian winters. And when Lasn discusses the current scope of the movement, his ideas are firmly rooted. Culture jammers can only succeed when they achieve balance, he feels, both in their actions and in their diversity of membership. “Every movement needs its philosophers and its writers, but if a movement cannot go from analysis to action, it’s useless.” The Media Foundation incorporates both by publishing ideas (through Adbusters and Lasn’s first book, Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America, released last year) and promoting events like TV Turn-off Week and Buy Nothing Day. “That’s exactly what went wrong with the environmentalists and the left,” he continues. “They finished up just talking with text after text and magazine after magazine, flooding the Internet. It’s all just bullshit. It wasn’t until the World Trade Organization protests, where 70,000 people got out into the streets that something important happened.”

That day was important to Lasn and the movement, he says, for other reasons as well. It proved that anti-corporate sentiments are not relegated to one niche group. “One of the really big things that came out of Seattle is that labor and environmentalists finally locked arms and marched together,” he says. “Many environmentalists had a low opinion of laborers – that they’re only worried about a bigger paycheck – and laborers saw environmentalists as freaky tree huggers. Now we have a common ground.” But Lasn feels the movement must cross more boundaries if it is to gain enough momentum to make a palpable difference. Only protests that have attracted several cross-sections of a society and focused on a few key goals have made headlines. “Culture jammers are really the beginning of a new social activist movement. We have lefties, feminists, punk rockers, old Situationists, environmentalists. Many of the issues of our time are actually beyond the right and the left. They have nothing to do with it. Genetic engineering, media control – what do these have to do with right and left?”

Author: Kristin Fiore

News Service: Mister Ridiculous

URL: http://misterridiculous.com/features/interviews/kallelasn/