Why do we create? Why do we make art, conversation, make children? Since humanity began recording its thoughts the general consensus seems pretty reasonable: once we depart, we hope there will be something of us that remains. We want to die for something, even if it happens centuries after the fact. Bill Snow was an excellent Australian, an artist and an organiser that saw his change.
He died last Thursday on the 8th, capping off a life of demanding a better world for his fellow Australians, and, in many ways, telling those who denied that to fuck off. Bill Snow was instrumental in the founding of B.U.G.A. U.P. (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) which can only be described as the most uncompromising art collective Australia, and maybe the world has ever seen.
Every billboard promoting Cigarettes and Alcohol became a canvas. BUGA UP consisted of anyone with a can of spray-paint and the boldness to use it. The formula was simple: the billboard was manipulated, so its promotional message was turned against itself, and any necessary witty remarks were added. Finally, it was signed: B.U.G.A. U.P.
Isn’t that just Graffiti? Fair question. The discussion between where art ends and graffiti begins is a labyrinth, but considering Sotheby’s has been selling street art for decades (Obey founder and ‘street artist’ Shepard Fairey’s Chinese Banner is set to sell for something between AUD$32,000-$50,000), I’m tempted to say it qualifies.
Another more persuasive reason is that Bill Snow’s collective used techniques that came to define contemporary art, particularly in their use of razor-sharp wit, appropriation, and an invasion of the public gaze. In Rothmans: Licenced Killers, 1980(?) All of these techniques are on display. The brand name is modified (This lives on today with the less tasteful removal of the ‘S’ in Red Rooster stores across Australia) Dollar signs are layered over the goods in question, whether it be cigarette packets, beer cans or coke bottles. To the viewer, the fetish marketers imbue their products with is removed.
In marketing, employees do everything deliberately; the result is an image with multiple messages encoded into it. Bill knew this, he knew the messages were defunct, and he had messages of his own that required no subtlety. BUGA UP become the Fred Hollows of truth, but their surgeries were invasive, and they cured Bullshit.
The result of these artists was concrete, BUGA UP had drawn an ethical line for the public to hold companies and politicians to. Australia responded by leading the world in Tobacco control reforms, only last year the World Health Organisation praised Australia for its global leadership in the field, officially declaring Australia the country of ‘Best Practice.’ Our children are raised in a unique environment in which legislation confirms the value our nation places on their lives.
What makes BUGA UP so unique isn’t so much what they are, but what they are not. They are not identifiable, their work is not for sale, and it is never private. BUGA UP most closely resembles Anonymous: organically collaborative nodes within an anarchic system. We know who Bill is because he was amongst six people who ran their mouth into a Gaol cell. One BUGA UP artists advice: “Go directly to gaol. Do not pass the buck. Do not pay $200” which was the average fine for billboard vandalism. Billy himself relished the opportunity to go to the slammer; it was a great chance to raise awareness within the prison community!
The movement they created went beyond art into the territory of activism. ‘How to’ manuals were created instructing would be BUGA’s on the fine art of creating extension poles for spray paint, creating paint bombs made of eggs and how to ‘answer’ a billboard with a spray can. These manuals resemble the files shared amongst revolutionaries during the Arab Spring, even if theirs was the business of mobile controlled drones and signal hacking.
The late art critic John Berger went to his deathbed begging us to drop art as an object, to look for new ways to liberate a canvas so that it could belong to everyone, and not just a few. He cites the fetish of an ‘adventurous collection’ of art cultivated by the ruling class as the genesis of marketing, and of the materialism we know all too well today. Barbara Kruger famously used design to question this consumerism; Supreme uses her font as its logo now. Da Vinci challenged orthodoxy and attempted to blur the line between science and art; his work is now used by Jeff Koons to sell Louis Vuitton handbags.
BUGA UP exists in polar opposition to this. Notoriously, footage of defacement directly related to BUGA UP wasn’t taken until they had gained the critical mass to commit an act of vandalism that was organised as a spectacle, with a personal invitation invited to all of the Sydney Tobacco executives the collective was able to get in contact with. To me, this action recalls what Švejk said to Hitler in Bertolt Brecht’s Schweik in the Second World War:
“You’re all rotten on top and your bottom is gone
And the east is too cold and the Reds are too red
So I simply don’t know whether to pump you with lead
Or take down my pants and shit on your head.”
What Bill would ask now, were he alive, is what comes next? That’s the question on my lips as I look at the work of Scott Marsh, a Sydney boy who is part Sotheby’s, part BUGA. His work sells for healthy prices, but undoubtedly his most valuable efforts have not been produced to be sold. Most recently, his scathing criticism of Bill Shorten in Melbourne titled Two-Face rightly jabs the Labour leader who, in the face of an atrocious Adani debacle and a blatantly cruel offshore processing scheme need only show some principles to win votes, seems unable to do so.
His murals depicting Tony Abbott over the course of the plebiscite were outright historic. The Happy Ending will outlast the legacy any of Marsh’s paid works will ever create, and it was painted over after only a few days. This is something he should be proud of, intersections between art and politics rarely peak in the way Marsh made them peak in 2017.
Being an artist who is paid nothing for their work is a trope famed for its difficulty, but Bill Snow would ask you consider who your work is made for. BUGA UP is proof that work made for everyone, asking nothing in return, can mean everything for the world of the future. Scott Marsh is talented, but a plethora of us hide in waiting, each with a message bursting from our seams. You and I know very well that today is not a stable day, 2018 is not a stable year, we owe it to each other to make our fears and desires public; and if you’ve got the chops, write them on the walls.