The Overpass Light Brigade's Remediation of Digital Media to Engage Public/Private Spaces

After eclipsing print a few years ago, internet advertising has now surpassed that of broadcast media. This saturation of digital advertising is evidenced on nearly every web page or with every check of our personal electronic devices. Since the emergence of graphic design, outreach communications has at times returned to more ironic, “analog” modes to create messages that attract attention though the dense media haze. One of these modes has involved the exploitation of public spaces as forums of public discourse. While many of these modes encroach upon public spaces, they often become blurred within the urban landscape in the forms that includes graffiti, sidewalk chalk announcements, and tagging. Engaging audiences that are simultaneously indeterminable yet highly selective, these media offer an intriguing contrast to the targeted messages tailored to address our IP addresses and the content of our cookie jars.

For activism outreach, public spaces are fundamental environments for demonstration and protest. Across America, various factions of the Occupy Movement united under a singular campaign of coopting these spaces. Although many of the public park shantytowns of Occupy have been dismantled, a few of the outcropping campaigns continue to protest. One of these Wisconsin groups, the Overpass Light Brigade (OLB), arose from this movement and continues to draw attention to several regional issues. Most significant of these issues was the 2012 passage of “Act 10” in Wisconsin, which decimated unions’ abilities to negotiate workers’ contracts, prompting thousands of public school teachers, civil servants, and their supporters to assemble at the state capitol building to denounce the radical move by the state’s administration. During the ensuing protest, OLB volunteers held up alphanumeric light-up sign boards to spell out one of many topical mantras across the pedestrian bridges spanning the area's highway systems. During the subsequent campaign to remove Governor Scott Walker from his office, OLB protestors spanned the Bradford Street Bridge in Milwaukee to spell out “RECALL WALKER” across Lincoln Memorial Drive.

Over the two years following the initial fight over Act 10, the open-source activist methods of the OLB have prompted numerous groups across the globe to use similar activities in protest of both local and widespread issues: the Seattle Light Brigade and Colorado Springs Light Brigade both demonstrated against regional energy crises; OLB Chicago railed against the defunding of public schools; “MARRIAGE EQUALITY” was promoted by Light Brigade Maryalnd; the NYC Light Brigade joined several other groups in the OLB network to decry the agricultural giant Monsanto; the chapter in Colgne, Germany has taken OLB's open-source media global.

Wisconsin’s political division has, of late, focused on this administration’s attempt to restrict publicly-owned spaces such as government buildings from being used by individuals and groups to protest. These restrictions have not only generated unique protest groups such as the “singing grannies,” but have also spurred the OLB to further promulgate their message, using social media outlets to augment their broadcasting power. By using the publicly-accessible bridges over busy commuter routes, OLB messages are reaching out to the public in one of the few remaining private spaces: our vehicles. As the usage of texting while driving is regulated in most states, the OLB has remediated this truncated form of communication to not only appropriate the traditional public space but also the typically isolated space of the evening commute. In this way, the OLB takes advantage of the audience’s inability to engage other communication inputs, perhaps even satiating the hunger for media.

Not only have the OLB re/claimed these spaces, but are combining several forms of communication found in traditional and digital advertising, public space communication, and social media. So how does the medium of the public forum affect our interfacing with a medium that evokes the pixelated fonts of OLB light boards? As the OLB continues to grow, its members continue to search for more of the few remaining private spaces that exist. As someone who first heard about the efforts of the Washington D.C. Overpass Light Brigade, has since moved to the organization’s home state of Wisconsin (and participated in a handful of OLB protests), I am similarly concerned with finding these public/private spaces. 

Photos by LightBrigading. 2012. Some Rights Reserved.


What an interesting post!  I especially love your mention of the ads "perhaps even satiating the hunger for media." As a society, we're so tied to the media that many of us find it nearly impossible to not check our phones, even during times when we really shouldn't (driving home from work, for example). Our nightly commutes are a perfect time to highlight a cause, combining a public message with a private drive.  This also gives us a break from traditional advertising we may see, and opens audiences up to more important things than a recent shoe sale or other Facebook-type ad littering our social media. I wonder if there is a space where people can go to figure out what the messages mean?  For example, is there a link on the social media that explains each cause beyond the attention-grabbing light display?  I think this is a great example of combining the digital and the analog, because these ads do make me want to learn more, and so I would be prompted to hunt for more information about the analog space through web searches in a digital space.

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