Our 4th #followtheteachers post: on subvertisement workshops


“What the §^*! are we doing here?”

A couple of weeks ago, we published a guest post from Eeva Kemppainen describing the ways in which her work for followthething.com and her masters thesis on trade justice pedagogy in the UK and Finland, had led to her work on a ‘Closing the Gap’ project with Finnish pro-ethical trade NGO Eetti . This is Eeva’s second post, in which she describes how she works with diverse groups of students (using followthethings.com as a resource) and shows the kinds of subverts that her students create.

A subvertisement workshop is an enjoyable way to introduce commodity geographies and culture jamming. For the ‘Closing the Gap’ project, schools have asked us to run workshops for 15-17-year-old students in media, history and environmental classes. Students in my civilian service (all young men go to military or civilian service), teacher education and media classes found subvertisements interesting and adaptable. I have worked with diverse classes, who have made diverse suggestions and have given some inspired feedback – brilliant!

A ‘Closing the Gap’ workshop is typically 75-90 minutes and has 6 parts.

First, I say that I will talk for half an hour and then we will get our hands dirty. The introduction is about Eetti, my project and ‘follow the thing’ research. If I want to encourage students to ask questions, this video of Banksy’s Simpsons couch gag is punchy. I ask them to write one or two questions or comments in Post-It notes. Questions like “Is this true?” “Are the companies or the governments responsible?” and “Could we do something?” are easy to group and go through in themes on the wall. Collecting written questions (with a smile and a thank you!) and hearing some of my answers makes asking questions easier.

Second, I tell the students about the production, environmental impacts and working conditions in electronics or garment factories. ‘Made in’ labels and links to news stories on China’s Foxconn factories and Bangladesh’s collapsed Rana Plaza factory are effective, here. However, the topic is quite depressing! So, first, I get  smiles by showing a photo of Eetti’s Christmas tree. Covered with electronic junk and information on recycling, the tree disturbed consumerism in urban space last year. And luckily there are researchers, organizations, politicians and activists fighting injustice!

The third part is to wake students up with the iPhone 4cf and explain the main ideas behind culture jamming, like disturbing urban space and advertising, participating in politics and doing positive activism. I usually show a short video about the French graffiti artist Space Invader and some subvertisements (by students or Voima magazine). These videos subvertisements are also popular (see their followthethings.com pages here and here):

As the fourth part, I give advice about being active by talking about researching products’ origins, emailing companies, participating in political campaigns, buying ethical and recycling, for example. And, of course, by sharing examples of culture jamming!

If there is time, the fifth part involves a gallery of printed subvertisements (like the ones in this blog post). Here students choose an interesting subvert and discuss it. Is the message effective and the artistic style good? Which societal issue is it about? Everyone can comment on if the subverts are cool. The depth of analysis depends on the age!

In the sixth part, I hand out loads of adverts from women’s magazines. Sometimes students also bring their own. For the last 30 minutes, I asks them to make subverts in small groups. Photos, texts and logos get modified by writing, drawing, cutting and glueing. Some sketch out ideas for a subvert on the internet (mobile phones are allowed!) or draw them on blank sheets of paper. If I circulate and comment on good ideas, this seems to help. To finish, the groups present their work and we photograph it to add to our subvertisement flickr set and to show on our project blog.

Click to see the whole subvert gallery

Click to see the whole subvert gallery

All of the subverts produced in these workshops have modified messages or creative drawing. For example, ‘Tom Ford – Can’t afford’ is provocatively drawn. ‘CK – New Syndrome Down Town’ disturbs with an inventive folding. ‘Nissan Micra – Don’t get it’ grabs with an environmental counter-message: “some people dare… to use public transportation. New bus tickets (etc.)”. UGG asks about shoe production with tragicomic sheepExotic birds in a Lous Vuitton ad ask appropriately “What the §^*! are we doing here?”

Humour, criticism and creative skills – we love it! Subvertisements such as these have generated both laughter and serious questions about trade (in)justice and our powers as citizens and consumers.


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