Sure, you could call Steve Lambert a prankster, but that would be too simple a title. Lambert’s shenanigans are intelligent. They have the viewer, victim, participant, or unwitting citizen question something, then answer it as well. Questioning, Lambert believes, is only the beginning. He’s far more interested in what happens afterwards.
In one project, Lambert manned a table on the campus of UC Davis, among other organizations campaigning for different political and religious causes. His cause was simply stated on a sign, “I WILL TALK WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING.” In another project, Lambert shut down every McDonald’s restaurant in Manhattan by having volunteers fan out across the city and place his handmade “Closed for evaluation” signs on all the front doors. Whether it is just initiating dialogue with a stranger, closing a restaurant chain, or creating a video game that rewards players for relaxing, Lambert’s work has consistently served as a bridge for people to walk across and experience an entirely different world – one less concerned with the passivity of everyday life as it is the domino effect of action.
So yes, Steve Lambert is a prankster some of the time, but he’s also an artist, an adjunct-lecturer, former class president of a high school he never graduated from, vintage scooter enthusiast, and an anti-advertising executive. Judging by the careful planning and execution of his projects, however, a more apt title might be “scientist.”
Lately, Lambert has been wearing a new hat, that of CFO and founder of the Anti-Advertising Agency, an organization dedicated to transforming culture’s advertisement-saturated landscape by subverting, co-opting, and appropriating the very tools and strategies used by the advertising industry.
Recently, Lambert took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about parallel lines, mass communication, and his newest endeavor, Add-Art – an extension for Mozilla Firefox that replaces internet advertisements with artwork of contemporary artists. What follows is a mash up of two phone conversations Lambert and I had, one after midnight and a six-pack of tall boys, and the other on a bright and chipper Sunday afternoon.
James H. Ewert, Jr. : Do you have a nice cardboard box for when the great depression hits?
Steve Lambert: No. It freaks me out and it’s angering and everything. I’m constantly going through my head and inventorying whether or not I’m ready for it.
JHEJR: Are you an activist in the sense that you go to protests?
SL: This is the second time today someone had “activist” next to my name. In the first interview I ever did, someone asked me if I was an activist, and I was like, “No, I have other interests.” I have this very narrow definition of [activists as] singled-minded and not fun. That’s not fair, but it’s the picture in my head. I try to do a whole lot of other stuff that I think will have an impact, but you never know what’s being looked at.
JHEJR: You were recently at a demonstration protesting the Wall Street bailout. How did that go?
SL: It was a protest.
JHEJR: Did anything come of it?
SL: I was with Aaron Gach from the Center for Tactical Magic and the guys from Red76, and we were talking about ways to end a protest with honor. There needs to be some way the whole crowd can do that, like, “Alright, we did it—high-five.” Because the way those things end, the crowd gets smaller and smaller until the cops on scooters can wrangle people, and then someone pushes someone, and then it turns into a conflict, and a couple people get beat up or held or go to jail or whatever. There needs to be some loud way were people can say “We’re done” and take a bow and everyone just runs in every direction.
JHEJR: Perhaps have everyone take acid to spice things up?
SL: We were trying to get the crowd to chant, and for a brief period, we did “Christmas is totally fucked.” It was Sam Gould’s idea. So we’re marching going, “Christ-mas-is-totally-fucked!” and the woman who had the bullhorn was trying to chant something else, so I went up to her and was like, “Come on, Christ-mas-is-totally-fucked, come on, let’s do it.” So she started chanting it as did everyone else, but she had her list of chants that she came up with beforehand and “Chist-mas-is-totally-fucked” is not on message, but really it sort of is.
JHEJR: Would you say you practice in pranks?
SL: I think its part of what I do, but not all of what I do. I call them intelligent pranks. That was a thing I came up with last year: Intelligent Pranks.
JHEJR: What was the first prank you ever pulled off?
SL: In 8th grade, I realized that if I ran for class president, I got to give a speech in front of the whole school, and they had to listen to me. I ran really just so I could have a couple minutes to talk to the whole school with a microphone.
JHEJR: Did you win?
SL: No, but I kept running every year. I ran for president of my high school when I was a freshman, which nobody did because you didn’t know anyone. I ended up being sophomore class president right before I dropped out.
JHEJR: How did the Anti-Advertising Agency begin?
SL: I had been living in this neighborhood right on the edge of a commercial area, so in that area you could have billboards and all of them were facing our neighborhood. I was right on the edge, so whenever I would go out I would see those. And then there was also a lot of construction going on in San Francisco at the time, because of the earthquake, and also the dot com boom, so there would be construction walls covered in posters. I knew all these muralists who were just looking for walls, and when they’d find one it would get covered over with Heineken ads. So I was like, “Why are we scrounging for space for art when there is all this space, and why do the advertisers have it when the stuff they’re putting up is illegal or dilapidated?” In the mission where I lived, the ads were falling off the billboards because no one would rent them, so they’re be one for a March of Dimes Easter benefit and it’d be September and the thing would still be up there. We’d pull them down, the print collective would be putting stuff over them, and I decided that I’d do it too.
JHEJR: Have you ever gotten caught?
SL: Never been arrested or ever been fined.
JHEJR: How do you manage to keep your head up when things don’t work out the way you plan?
SL: The trick is not getting discouraged. You’ve to think about what you’re asking from people and what can you really expect. I think it’s just honoring people’s time and level of commitment, whatever it is, and their intelligence. I played in bands, so just getting people to show up to hear you play taught me that lesson. I’ve tried to make people feel like I’m respecting the time they’re giving up, that they’re volunteering. I let them know that they’re affecting the outcome and I try not to be the one making all the decisions and try to let them have a say and let them be a part of it. I don’t want pawns. I want people who want to be on a team. I try not to be someone who’s just issuing orders to a bunch of unpaid workers instead of working together with people who are trying to get something done. There is this fine line of leadership, of not ordering people around and making things fun so people want to do it and be part of it . . . It’s about the level of engagement. I could make an image that you could look at or I could make something that you could do. People learn by doing. If you just look at or read something, that’s one level of engagement. But if you’re having to think about it and consider it and ask questions, then you have a chance for dialogue. That’s how we learn things. You can stand in front of a room and talk at a bunch of kids, but they don’t get it as much as they would if you had them do something.
JHEJR: Most artists are always questioning something, whether its themselves, viewers, art, or a topic; what do you see your work as questioning?
SL: Questioning is the beginning. I’m sick of questioning. Questioning is like, “Let’s talk about this, let’s raise a dialogue about this.” I want to raise a dialogue, yeah, but I want it to change. I don’t want people to just think about it. I want them to think about a result, as an action, as a change in behavior, or a change in general attitude – so that my work doesn’t just cause dialog, but has an impact on the world. Or it creates a domino effect so that other people make the change for the things that they want. Questioning, who cares? I mean, if all people do is question stuff, nothing changes. There’s a lot of work, or activism, or whatever, that points out what’s wrong. Everyone knows that shit’s fucked up. How much more artwork do we need to tell us that Bush is a bad president? Everyone knows; the guy has, like, the lowest approval rating of all time, but there are still people making work that says that. So, what’s the next step? That’s what I want to do. I try to do that. I’m not always successful, but that’s what I want to do . . . It’s not a new idea, it’s not even really my idea. It’s how people use mass communication to create change. I only have so much time on this planet to do what I’m going to do, and only so much energy. I want to be as practical and efficient as possible.
JHEJR: Do you generally seek to modify an already existent situation or set of conditions, or do you try to create your own?
SL: For me, I often talk about parallel lines. There could be two lines sitting on top of each other, and they can run for miles and miles and miles and still run right on top of each other, but if you were to tap it at some point, even in the slightest way, if you go one hundred feet, they’ll start to drift apart. And when you go further, they just drift further and further apart. So I’m trying to think of what I can do if I just tap right here and see either line. What would it be like if I could design games that make you relax? How would that play out? What would it look like? Or maybe I’m just going to replace all the ads on the internet with art. Maybe that’s a bigger bump at some point, but it leads off in some other direction, and I don’t know what that direction is. So it’s definitely more about creating these little mini utopias that are grounded in everyday life, and a world that people can recognize. I’m not interested in the utopia of flying cars and pills for food. If people can recognize it, it doesn’t seem like as much of a fantasy. It seems like something they can have if they want it.
JHEJR: I just got done watching the Beautiful Losers documentary, and it got me thinking about the commodification of art. Do you think the co-opting of artists by corporate marketers is threatening the authenticity of art?
SL: The thing about some of the people in that show is that it’s not appropriated. It’s them making deals with those companies. Geoff McEldridge did a campaign for Pepsi; that’s not appropriation, that’s a business deal. Comedy Central’s logo has some drips in it, and they use a graffiti or hip-hop aesthetic. I think both sides are to blame. It’d be great if companies didn’t do that, but that’s what they do. It’s sort of to be expected. They are going to find stuff that is cool, and they’re going to use it. Do we make laws that prevent that? No, because they’d be crazy laws. The people that are getting asked need to say “no,” and that’s really hard because it’s hard to make a living doing the kinds of things that we do. I think looking at something and saying “no” means having a sort of ethics or something that needs to be taught and reinforced, which doesn’t really happen that much . . . Part of the intent of graffiti has always been fame, and so working with Pepsi doesn’t exactly run counter to that, if that’s the only thing you’re looking at. For me, for ten years now, the thing I realized was that when I make artwork, people look at it. It’s not just me making cool stuff to look at; it’s me communicating to those people. Art is a form of mass communication. Whether or not I’m standing up in front of thousands of people with a mic or on the radio or writing a book that a lot of people are going to read or making something on the street or in a gallery that people are going to walk though and see, its mass communication. It’s all just different kinds of mass communication. I have this opportunity, what do I want to say? Do I want to talk about me? Do I want to talk about how rough my childhood was or feelings or whatever, the way light lands on a bale of hay? No, I don’t care about that. I don’t want to hear people talk about that as much as I want to hear them talk about things that matter, things that are going to have an effect and make a difference. That’s what I think art can be for. Not to invalidate anything else, all that other stuff is important, but for me, that’s what I want to do.
by James H. Ewert, Jr.