Off the back of his awesome bus-shelter keys initiative, PublicAdCampaign, Jordan Seiler is taking back the streets and taking on the ads in the virtual world as well as the physical. Pioneering the way for real-life ad blockers, Jordan has spent years researching and mapping out all the New York subway adverts so they can easily be digitally replaced by a carefully curated selection of art from over 50 (and growing) different international artists. We spoke to him to get the lowdown on his subversive new app: NO AD.
VNA: What is the NO AD project all about?
JORDAN: This all came out of this anti-advertising ad takeover and my interest in augmented reality came out of that; how do I do the same work that I’m doing on the street without having to physically touch the ads? It’s an experiment, with the expectation there’s going to be a time and a place where we’re all living in the heads-up display world. So we’ve been researching this for the past three or four years now, knowing that heads-up display will become a reality. And about six months ago I realised the New York subway system was this perfect opportunity for this. There’s just a shit-load of ads, they’re all repeated in these four hundred and sixty-eight stations, there’s only about a hundred of them at any one time, and there’s a lot of users that are sitting there waiting idly for the train. So about six months ago, we decided to get our feet wet with it to see if it worked, and it did. And we went ahead and contacted fifty street artists, photographers and other artists that are friends of friends of ours. And that’s how we got the initial curation in line. What we’re planning on doing, and how I see the heart of the app being, is a constantly changing curation. So if the user goes and downloads the app today and checks out the street art, they’re going to get bored with it pretty quickly. They’re going to see a lot of the work and then put the app away and it’ll be done for them. So as a way of creating an app so it can become part of everybody’s daily experience, we’re inviting institutions to come curate the project. The first expected institution is the International Center of Photography, so they’ll be taking the app on October 15th with a photography exhibition of their collection. And then hopefully the month after that we’ll get into other institutions which will allow us to change the content really drastically so that users are presented with alternative content pretty much on a monthly, if not bi-weekly, basis.
VNA: Obviously you have touched on some more subversive projects and perhaps slightly more legally ambiguous projects. Is this a step away from that for you?
JORDAN: It is and it isn’t. I think it’s an anti-advertising project in that it uses the ad infrastructure to create a new exhibition space, which is somewhat subversive. But I’m not unaware of the fact that using the app requires you to pay more attention to the ads. And that’s something that is just the nature of what we’re doing right now. Once heads-up display comes out and is more ubiquitous, this becomes more like a real-life ad blocker, cos the ads disappear before you even see them. So, in the future, it’s much more of a true ad blocker and subversive project. But the way it currently exists I see it as by chance using the ad infrastructure to create a new exhibition space; a new environment for artwork to exist. And hopefully a new audience that wouldn’t normally come to art – there’s a lot of riders on the subway. I’m a New Yorker and I get to a museum once a month, maybe once every two months, so hopefully this will be an opportunity for us to bring more culture to the average citizen, which I like.
VNA: The first few things struck me about it were that it had massive potential to be a real-life ad blocker, but not sort of negating the ads, it was just replacing them. And obviously once heads-up comes in, it wipes out this constant stream of crap that comes at us every day. For me that’s a beautiful thing. Then you get into the realms of how much control you guys have over what people view. And then you reach the question of whether you sell advertising space within the program.
JORDAN: That won’t happen. There’s two things I’d like to answer there. Physical street art work that takes over advertising locations, if it’s going to be successful and widespread, it has this incredible hurdle to cross that there’s just a shit load of fucking advertising out there, right? And there’s absolutely no way that we can make a dent in that. So one of the things the app does well is that it does a lot of it. Like most of the ads in the subway station are removed. And where, say, Poster Boy might go and flip one or two ads at the weekend, this can go and take over the entire system. I really like that aspect of it. So the other interesting thing about AR is that AR is an opt-in technology. So let’s say we’re all living in a heads-up world, in the same way we stream our internet content down to a blog reader, heads-up displays and AR together will allow us to do a similar thing in a public space. So if somebody wants to see all the HBO ads as video content and have a more intense experience they can do that. While simultaneously I’m running the NO AD app and blocking all the ads. So there’s this semi-problematic aspect of AR that allows us to all personally curate how a public space is going to look. I don’t have plans, obviously, to monetize the app, but if an advertiser came to us and said ‘we want to use the infrastructure you’ve created for an advertising campaign’, I probably wouldn’t do that, but I feel comfortable saying I could without feeling like I’ve undermined my morals and my ethos. Cos I can simply then say to everybody, ‘we made $50,000 off Bud Light, don’t download that app, it’s terrible (laughs).’ Instead download some other artist’s or institution’s app that’s providing interesting content. So it’s like a digital song file, it can be shared among people. And this digital infrastructure we’ve created can be shared amongst multiple media platforms, etc.
VNA: And can you explain a little more about how it works, or is that a trade secret?
JORDAN: No, what we’re doing is relatively simple. We spend a lot of time photographing and cataloguing the ad inventory. We load that into our system and the app is looking for those specific ads that we’ve photographed once you run the app. When it sees one of those it replaces the content with something that we’ve determined. And that’s about it.
VNA: I’ve seen stuff work with QR codes before and also some work from Jumbo in Sydney with entire building wraps where there’s some kind of app. There’s some kind of aquarium background and you hold the phone up to it and there’s fish swimming in it, for example.
JORDAN: Yeah, we’re doing something very similar. What we’re essentially doing is treating the ads as giant QR codes basically. And on a slightly different point, one of the nice things is that right now we’re running two dimensional images but the beauty of digital content is that we can present video content now, we can also present sound. So in the future, part of our curatorial process will be talking to record labels and having them run fifteen to twenty second portions of songs. So you might expect to be getting a two dimensional image as that’s what you’ve had for the past three months of curation, but suddenly the app flips and now you’re getting sound out of it. And every ad is a new soundscape or band or whatever. So we’re really excited about taking the content to the next level.
VNA: So you could have a silent disco with everybody in a live gig. Or the debut of someone’s album in a subway station. Or even, say you’ve got a few ads in a row, you could have some moving content through three adverts.
JORDAN: The ads are randomly placed in the subway so lining up some sort of narrative becomes difficult. But John Feckner did a project where you search out his name and it brings up a random assortment of words that he’s created – like a random poetry generator – so what I’d like to do is to have him provide content for the app. So as you’re walking down the platform you’re randomly generating a story or a poem, which allows it to be more narrative without it relying on an expected sequence of ads to follow each other.
VNA: So you’ve got over fifty artists you’re working with you right now?
JORDAN: We’ve got around fifty in the app and more contacting us to add content to it. It’ll probably run til October 15th provided the ICP comes through. And so all the street art will disappear and photography content will come in.
VNA: So who’s funding the app?
JORDAN: This is a labour of love at this point. What I’d love to happen is as institutions come on they give us some small honorarium to have their month. That’ll allow me to pay the people who go out and photograph the ads and every Sunday I’ve got to spend six hours updating the app, so small amounts for that. But, beyond paying our operating costs, I’m not concerned about monetizing it. Though I do feel that if the right opportunity comes along with a brand collaboration then I will be willing to… Actually, talk about that because it’s opt-in, and if there’s a way I could without…
VNA: Selling out?
JORDAN: Yeah, so if Bud Light came to me and said, ‘hey we really love your anti-advertising campaign. We want you to create a Bud Light subversive campaign – go rip out all the Kenneth Cole ads and turn up these illegal Bud Light ads. I would never do that because I would be physically subjecting people to these Bud Light ads. Whereas if they came to me and asked me about the AR option I can guarantee to myself that I’m not subjecting anybody against their will to that content. So if there is a way to use that funding to then keep the art app going and work with really alternative curators and work with people that can’t afford to put an honorarium in, I think that’s worth it, the push and pull we all go through.
VNA: What are the next steps for you with this project?
JORDAN: In the next week we’re going to try to build a user base. With institutions when we go to them, this is such new technology they want to know do people use it and is it worth our time and investment. So, build a user base; we want to get up to five to ten thousand users to start. Then the next step is to begin curating the next few months and to really create a long-term schedule for this app so that people can see it our website and say, ‘oh man, next month is the Brooklyn Museum and they’ve just had this great exhibition that I missed. I want to see what content they have,’ etc. So building that timeline is really important. And obviously I’ve got a whole bunch of subversive projects I’m working on at the moment. A public access project that’s basically building all the keys to crack open all the bus shelters in the world, that’s something I’m still working on. I’ve been trying to get those keys out to as many people as possible so they do real, physical takeovers. You know, all those things are still operating.
VNA: How does that sit with you in a legal perspective, if you’re supplying these keys for people to do these subversive actions. Have you come up against any resistance so far?
JORDAN: No, I haven’t been called by the companies. I’ve been pretty open about it on Instagram and my website. Maybe when I get my full website up, which will kind of be a one-stop shop for keys around the world. You’ll see a world map, you’re in Sydney, it’ll show you the key you need, you click on it, do you want to buy it for thirty bucks, boom, done. Maybe when that’s gone up I’ll get some resistance. But after talking to a few lawyers, it’s not illegal to own the keys, it’s not illegal for me to give them to somebody, the only real legal thing is using them. So I’m within my boundaries by just distributing them, I don’t think that’s a problem. It might cause unwanted attention to me but I’m not one of those street artists that’s hitting the street every weekend and if somebody puts a tail on me is immediately going to catch me and throw me in jail. So I’m less concerned about being followed and being really sought after and more concerned with just getting the keys out to people. Because, honestly, they’ve been being used by hundreds of people. They’re being used around the world. People email me pretty much every other day requesting keys and I’m sending them out. So I think the project is worthwhile continuing and we’ll cross that bridge when we get there (laughs) and then I’ll lawyer up.
NO AD is a collaboration between PublicAdCampaign, The Heavy Projects and Jowy Romano of Subway Art Blog under the umbrella of Re+Public.
Currently it has over 50 artists involved, including: Adam Amengual, Amy Arbus-Beau Stanton, Caroline Caldwell, Dadi Dreucol, Dal East ,Dan Bergeron, Daniel Jefferson, Dr. D-Elizabeth Winnel, Elle, El Tono, Faith 47, Hugh Lippe, Ian Strange, Icy and Sot, Influenza, Jay Shells, Jeff Stark, Jilly Ballistic, John Fekner, Jon Burgerman, Jordan Seiler, Know Hope, Leon Reid IV, LNY, Logan Hicks, Luna Park, Mario Brotha, Michael Alan, Michael De Feo, Mobstr, Neko, Noxer, Nuria Mora, OX, Pedro Sega, Peter Fuss, Poster Boy, Remi Rough, Ron English, Rone, Saber, Sean Martindale, Sheryo, Skullphone, Stikman, Stormie Mills, Tara McPherson, Tod Seelie, Trap, Vermibus, WK Interact and Work Hard Be Nice…