Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Neutron Bomb

Altered Billboard, 1st Ave. and Bell Street, Seattle. Photo postcard by Mark Sullo

One evening in the middle of August, 1981, I was working in the studio and listening to NPR when it was announced that President Reagan had authorized the renewed production of neutron bombs. A neutron bomb, or Enhanced Radiation Weapon, while less explosive than an atomic bomb would release increased radiation meant to destroy people while preserving property. I found this news very disturbing so I left the studio and walked back to where I was living at Second and Bell. When I got to First and Bell I stopped in my tracks. There on the north side of Egberts was a billboard proclaiming "Hollywood Bowled Over By Kent III Taste!" Instantly I was struck with a stunning idea: simply appropriate one 'death ad' and convert it to a big anti-death message that would confront the news I had just heard. 
I announced the idea when I got home, and with a couple of compatriots laid out the plan. We dubbed ourselves SSS. The library provided a signed press photo of Reagan from "Bedtime for Bonzo," which was enlarged to fit over the cigarette pack. Appropriate type was painted to fit the space, and in the very early morning of August 18th, the conversion was completed in approximately 2 minutes. A quick call to a press contact landed the image in the local papers and on the AP wire where it was circulated around the country.  Surprisingly one SSS member appeared in that photo.  Rarely is the turnaround from idea to results so quick and gratifying. I and others found this strategy useful in the following years. I will share some of those projects in coming posts.

A clipping from The New York Daily News

I want to acknowledge that I became aware of this strategy more than a year earlier when I visited artist Mark Pauline at his junkyard studio in San Francisco. Mark had been doing this kind of work there sometimes brazenly in the light of day.
Also, I recently found online an interesting article, "Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs" by Mark Dery, that mentions the neutron bomb billboard under the heading "Billboard Banditry." You can find it here.
For more on billboard alteration, check out the Billboard Liberation Front.

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