Ambient Television : Visual Culture and Public Space

A. Basic Stuff

A1. I've read the newspaper accounts of the Commuter Channel project and I heard your interview on Marketplace . Can you describe how and why you chose the commuter channel/BART station as a site for this project? Did you consider using other media in the station (i.e. billboards)?

I was standing in a BART station one day staring at a Commuter Channel screen when a colorful ad appeared encouraging people to place ads: "Advertise Your Business", it pleaded. That planted a seed. I'd noticed that passengers either checked the screens frequently for train destination information, or stared at them blankly and continuously, like me. People wanted to catch their trains. They needed to look at the screens. The screens needed to be subverted. People don't have the same reason to look at billboards. There was never any question that I had to do something on the Commuter Channel.

Since San Francisco State University and Citibank censored my "Citybank" project (see enclosed press) I have been very interested in testing the limits of free speech. The BART system is publicly funded, and therefore covered by the First Amendment, while the Metro Channel, being a private company is not. On aspect of the project was seeing how this public/private partnership would cope with a controversial message.

A2. I'm curious about the process of creating the slogan "Capitalism stops at nothing." Could you describe how the phrase was determined? What factors governed your choice? Was it a collective decision? How important was humor? What phrases, if any, did you reject?

"Capitalism - Stops at Nothing" was the first thing that came into my head (as Andy Warhol advises the first thing you think of is usually the best). It summed it all up, yet was relevant to the station setting. Another slogan considered was "Capitalism Will Not Stop", that would be designed to match the sign used when an out-of-service train comes though the station: "Train Will Not Stop". The problem with this idea was that an out-of-service train was too rare for many people to be familiar with that type of sign.

A3. How many people participate in Together We Can Defeat Capitalism? Are others professionals like yourself? If so, does that make the process of realizing these projects easier? (i.e. someone who works in media can produce the video for the spot, etc.)

"There are no such things as individual statements, only statement-producing machinic assemblages" (1000 Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattarri).

I doubt the existence of individual production. I see everything as a monstrous interconnected system. I think this is because of my interests in artificial life (particularly cellular automata), Deleuze and Guattari (particularly 1000 Plateaus), and hallucinogenic drugs (particularly one mushroom trip in Thailand).

Having said that, it's generally me who initiates projects and then whoever else wants to take part. For the BART project, I would include as members of TWCDC people who viewed the piece, friends who discussed it with me, BART officials who let it happen, and definitely John Winter of Metro Channel, who was such a good sport.

Hopefully, many millions are involved in the defeat of capitalism. I feel I am part of this group of people, but not in any formal sense.

A4. I couldn't tell from the NPR report whether the ad played only in the Embarcadero station, or whether ran "system-wide". If the former, was there a big difference in rates between the 2 options?

The ad ran at Montgomery Street, in the heart of the financial district, and at Powell Street, in the heart of the shopping district. The cost to run the ad at one station was $399 and there was a two station minimum requirement, hence my outlay of $798. The cost to run the ad at all six stations that have the monitors was $1,995. Not all stations had the monitors, just the busiest ones. See attached rate card.

A5. When you were planning the project, did you spend any time in the BART station observing the space and people's reactions to the commuter channel? If so, what did you notice, and how did you observations shape the final form and content of the ad?

See answer to Question 1. People paid most attention to the train destination signs, so I chose to do my ad in the same format.

B. Institutional Issues

B1. Can you describe the experience of negotiating with MetroVision? What kinds of format guidelines were you given by MetroVision at the outset?

I almost always talked with John Winter at the Metro Channel and found him to be very helpful during implementation of the project. I don't think he was interested in the defeat of capitalism -- more intrigued by a situation outside of the normal day-to-day routine of his job.

Initially, I called John Winter and told him I worked for a company called Conceptual Designs and I had some clients who might be interested in advertising on the Commuter Channel in San Francisco; from past experience I know that saying you're interested in doing an art project is not very productive. I asked him to send me a rate card and sample agreement, which he did. The Conceptual Designs "corporate veil" remained down until the ad was running. When the controversy started, I told John that I was a member of a group of artists, and this didn't bother him.

The guidelines given to me were very basic. There were requirements for image size and type (I sent them a tiff file), and a few lines of contract (see attached). They mentioned no restrictions on what could be shown on the Commuter Channel.

B2. Did BART officials know about the ad before it aired? If not, how did they first become aware of it?

Soon after I sent Metro Channel the image file, John Winter left me a voice-mail saying the image looked "controversial" and he had sent it to BART for review. At this stage, I thought the project was dead. I was certain that BART would cancel it because the sign looked too much like theirs and, in their opinion, might be some sort of safety hazard, or something. My original plan was to sneak it into the system through Metro Channel, have it show for a short while before BART took it down and then get back most of my $798 for the time that the ad had not run -- when the ad was sent to BART for review I thought the game was up. I was amazed and delighted when a couple of days later John Winter called me to tell me BART had given it the "green light". Metrochannel's contact in BART was Dennis Muchamp, Director of Marketing.

B3. Can you describe how the controversy unfolded, and what kinds of concerns the BART and MetroVision personnel expressed in particular? How would you characterize their reactions to the project -- bemused, annoyed, hostile?

The ad started running on Wednesday, July 1. Another TWCDC member, film-maker Gabriel Guzman, and I were filming in the BART station at about 11am that morning when the ad disappeared from the Commuter Channel screen. I checked my voice-mail and John Winter of Metro Channel had left me a message informing me that the ad had generated some controversy, with several people contacting BART and complaining, and had been temporarily removed from the system. I called Ron Rodriguez, BART spokesman earlier this year, and he told me that as stated above, the BART Marketing Department approved the ad, however when it appeared, BART Central and Publicity knew nothing of it. The theories circulating in BART were that it was either an ad for Forbes magazine with a missing second page, or that it was something that had accidentally leaked into the system from one of Metro Channel's east coast stations.

I called John and he said that the issue had gone to the top level in BART, and that they now wanted to run a disclaimer before my ad saying: "The following paid advertisement does not necessarily reflect the views of BART, Metrochannel, or their employees." Initially, I resisted the disclaimer on the grounds that no other ad has to have one. John Winter replied that all the other ads were "non-opinionated". As an example of an opinionated ad I mentioned an ad announcing that "Christ and the Masters walk among us now". According to John Winter this ad was not a problem because there had been no complaints about it. I said I'd have to think it over and call him back.

I realized that the disclaimer would actually add to the piece by drawing more attention to it. Also, I was more interested in having the piece run for the month rather than risk removal by BART/Metrochannel and being left with a freedom of speech issue to exploit, which is of secondary importance to me; the main thing is to get the message out there.


I got this info from Ron Rodriguez at BART:

1991 - "MetroVision - The Commuter Channel" signed contract with BART to

install and service equipment. BART got share of advertising revenue.

1998 - Changed name to Metro Channel. Went bust.

1999 - BART removes Metro Channel screens from stations.

Ron Rodriguez says the project is still talked about at BART HQ. He's very chatty and would probably love to talk with you.

P.O. Box 12688
Oakland, CA 94604-2688

B4. Did you sense any friction between BART and MetroVision over policies for use of public space?

No, although I suspect that there was friction within BART over the approval process for ads in the system. Ron Rodriguez told me that they are putting together freedom of speech guidelines to address this type of thing and that they were "very complicated".

B5. What does MetroVision say its daily audience is, and how do they measure it? Do they quote you site-specific numbers -- i.e. average daily audience in the Embarcadero station, or BART stations in general? Or do they base their claims on some general notion of, say, how many people use mass transit per day in Northern California? In other words, to what extent does MetroVision seem concerned with , or aware of, the local particularity of the space? (I'm asking this because I've yet to successfully acquire their rates packet!)

See attached blurb from MetroVision; it is quite enlightening (and scary). On the BART system they claim the screens at the six stations where they were installed reached 85% of the BART ridership.

C. Reactions

C1. Did the ad contain info, and did you get any spontaneous feedback from people who saw it?

There was no contact info on the ad.

Spontaneous feedback from passengers watching the ad on the station platform came from three sources: interviews by Reece Ehrlich, the freelance journalist who did the NPR piece; interviews by July Lynem for the San Francisco Chronicle (see attached); and interviews by me for the Stops at Nothing video (video included).

Some people hadn't noticed it; perhaps they thought it was just another destination on the BART system. Some were confused, some were angry and some thought it was great.

C2. Did you observe the ad at different times of day (with presumably different audiences?) Did any group's reaction stand out? Was there an observable difference in the reactions of say, commuters and club kids?

I mainly observed the ad during commuter times, with the reactions described in C1.

C3. From your observations, would you say that many people saw the ad as they waited? What percentage of BART users ignored the screens altogether?

I think most people saw the ad as they waited because they had to (see A1), whether they all actually noticed that something odd was going on is questionable.

C4. What kind of feedback did you get from other artists and activists in the area? Did you publicize the project in this or any other community beforehand?

I publicized the project by sending out a postcard to people on my mailing list (a postcard is enclosed). About 25 people showed up on the platform of the Montgomery station on Thursday, July 2 during commute hours for the "opening reception". At the reception we handed out "July 4th survival kits" which included: patriotic cookie, flag toothpick, flag napkin, red white and blue balloons, a commentary on freedom of speech, and extracts from the US laws on desecration of the flag.

This event, in some small way, destabilized the BART station space by holding a public event that was outside of its normal use as a regulated transportation system. People seemed bemused that we were just hanging out there fooling around and cheering from time to time when the Capitalism ad appeared. Several people asked for more information about what was going on, and a few were very appreciative of our efforts (and received survival kits).

In general, the project seemed to be viewed very positively by both the art and activist communities, and this, for me, was one of the biggest successes of the project. I would like to think that my art can somehow bridge the gap between the often dogmatic rhetoric of the activist community and the questioning and uncertainty that is inherent in most contemporary art-world art. People should have the tools to think, not be lead like sheep, and for this reason I'd much rather be called an artist than an activist.

D. Conceptual Issues

D1. Can you describe the "mission" of Together We Can Defeat Capitalism? Does all of your work appear as advertising in public space?

"The mission of TWCDC is to encourage discussion of the contradictions of late 20th Century capitalism and have some fun too."

All art in public space is advertising.

D2. (This amy overlap with the above question) In your view, what are the differences between making political art for public spaces , as opposed to more private spaces like galleries? For example, if galleries are part of the art world economy, does this diminish the political force of the social critiques that the work sets out to make? But are there other advantages to working within the gallery system?

On one level, there is no difference between political art in public spaces and in galleries; both are part of a marketplace of images and ideas.

On a second level, whether it likes it or not, all art launched into public space or a gallery aims to use its power in some way (to get across a message or be desired) and is therefore political.

In my work I like to create situations that might reveal something about the power structure in which the situation occurs; so unless I wanted to address the structure of power in the art world, I feel no strong desire to exhibit in galleries.

However, it is very important that the type of work I do to be accepted as art by the art world, because I believe that what I'm doing is representative of much hacker-like art that is severely under-reported in the mainstream art press (or anywhere else for that matter). I like looking at gallery art, but I am often saddened that such amazingly thoughtful work is contained by the white cube or the collector's living room. I have a (perhaps romantic) vision that art can somehow effect real social change, and I see there's more potential for this outside of the gallery space; outside of the art crowd; outside of the big cities; in a big shopping mall on the outskirts of Little Rock, for example.

Still, acceptance in the art world almost always requires exhibiting in galleries, museums, künsthalles, whatever. I need to find a way to extend my work into these environments without feeling constrained by them. This may not be possible.

D3. This piece seems very savvy in its play on the concept of "message". Given that this term is both a common "euphemism" for a sales pitch and a key issue in popular perceptions of the content of political art, would it be fair to say that your project works to collapse distinctions between art, advertising, "propaganda"?

Yes. I cannot imagine any space not being permeated by late 20th century capitalism -- its where were at right now. In five hundred years time, or sooner, commercial advertising, as perhaps the meaning-making medium of the 20th Century, will be viewed as the high art, in much the same way that renaissance art advertising religious dogma is viewed as high art today. It is a depressing thought that capitalist propaganda should be elevated to such a level. In using advertising, I am conscious that my work is very much part of the end of art as a non-capitalist revolutionary practice -- if that practice ever existed. My work operates at an intersection of hope and despair.

D4. To what extent do you want your work to change public space, and in what way? Or, alternately, would you say that public space is already altered by the presence of various advertising systems, and that your work is an extension of these alterations?

The work couldn't function without existing advertising systems and the power invested in them by viewers. I have no desire to see public space free of advertising; it provides an insight into societal desire to which I can respond. Advertising is not something thatís being imposed on anyone, its part of a system of the fulfillment of personal desires which is the capitalist world in which we live. I often wallow in the spectacle myself. I don't want to change public space, so much as be part of it. Hack it.

D5. Do you think TV advertising "privatizes" public space? If so, how? And would it be fair to say that one of the political results of the commuter channel project is the "re-publicization" of this space (awkward work, I know) -- accomplished by focusing people's attention on the exchange system behind the screen, precipitating debates about the social function of TV in transit places, etc?

TV advertising in public space is part of the continuing capitalist colonization of space and the body: the ultimate outcome will be the realization of the virtual being within the commerce-driven electronic network -- the über-consumer in a world of infinite digital extension, coming on demand. Let them eat cache.

For me it's more a question of re-politicization rather than re-publicization. By "re-politicization" I mean re-empowerment -- by a re-engagement in the (power) exchange system -- a re-opening of the debate.

D6. What other artists and movements, both historical and contemporary, do you align your work with? (The ones that spring immediately to mind are Anti-fascist photomontagists like John Heathfield, Fluxus and Pop, and Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger...)

I align my work with a disparate group of artists, writers, cultural icons, and fictional characters, including:




Influential Quote

Deleuze and Guattari


"There are no such things as individual statements, only statement producing machinic assemblages."

Andy Warhol


"I donít think about making art, I just get it done. I let everyone else decide whether itís good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While theyíre deciding, I make even more art. And I always go after the easiest thing, because if itís the easiest, for me it's usually the best."

Che Guevara


"Under capitalism, man is guided by a cold ordinance which is usually beyond his own comprehension."

Kurt Cobain


"come on people now smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now" (Territorial Pissings)

Courtney Love


"I'm Miss World, somebody kill me."

Guy Debord


"The spectacle is capital accumulated until it becomes an image."

Mary Shelley


"No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world."

Yoko Ono



Timothy Leary


"If we could help people plug into the empathy circuits of the brain, then positive social change would occur."


D7. To what extent do you conceive of this project as "video installation"? Does the term apply at all?

My announcement for the opening reception (enclosed) referred to the project as a "video insertion".

D8. Marx's famous description of the growth principle of capitalism as the annihilation of space through time seems appropriate as an epigram for this project, given that it could be described as an attempt to annihilate capitalist space by buying advertising time... How much do you see this piece engaging with--and exploiting, or perhaps even undermining--the temporal and spatial processes of modern capitalism: the timetable, the queue, the standardized and centralized transit system, the regularized structure of the day?

Yes, it is an attempt to annihilate capitalist space by buying advertising time. The aim is to do this in a way to achieve maximum cost/benefit ratio for the investment: maximum time for minimum dollars. For the individual, in general this can only be achieved with the strategy of détournement; what film-maker Craig Baldwin calls the "jujitsu throw". As BART spokesman Ron Rodriguez said: "For their $800 investment they've got tens of thousands of dollars worth of publicity. Absolutely brilliant advertising".

As far as interrupting the schedule. Yes, I think the project did this to some extent. As I explained above, people rely on the screen for train arrival information and the screens also show advertising. I think the capitalism ad, by placing itself midway between advertising and the train information, caused a rupture in the normal train of events; an interruption in the schedule: perhaps undermining capitalistic processes, perhaps underlining them.

D9. Any other observations on advertising and public space? Future projects?

The internet provides a seemingly infinite digital space into which capitalism can expand. This is the new public space -- at least for those who can afford the technology. This is where power will be negotiated over the coming decades. I want to do some projects here. I'm working on cloning a corporate web site, and hopefully teaming up with some people to do simultaneous pirate radio/web casts.

The often touted convergence of media will result in the merger of the internet and the TV. Systems such as Real Video already allow near realtime live video transmission. I think when we talk about TV in public spaces we need to think about how TV , or streaming video, operates in the public space of the internet. There is definitely potential for increased democratic input to TV on the internet, but also the potential that corporate imperatives will infringe even more into our bodies as more of us go online. I would like to see an alliance of hackers, activists and artists really shake things up online. Even an individual with minimal resources can be a media guerrilla and throw a corporation over her shoulder, a wrench in the works.