Artists Make Places: Toby P Lloyd

For the first in our series Artists Make Places, Newcastle-based artist and researcher Toby P Lloyd proposes a radical rethinking of public space, reclaiming advertising hoardings as sites of cultural exchange. Forgoing grand and costly capital schemes, his Ad Free Zone instead offers a sleight of hand in which the use of space is changed — taking on the hierarchies not only of an imposed consumer culture but some of the binaries of the art world itself in the process.

Ad Free Zone

I propose to remove all advertising from a designated zone in the city and replace it with artworks and interventions made by local artists. This will transform the look and feel of the area, establishing a platform to present culture being created in the city, and allow residents and visitors to reimagine the role that art and public space plays in our lives. 

Adverts are a form of visual pollution. They shape our environment and influence the way we interact with it. Every available surface of the urban landscape has become an opportunity to promote a product or sell a service to us. The main reason public phone boxes have not been removed is because they are prominent places to display adverts, not because they provide a necessary public service for those without access to a mobile phone.  

Many of us use ad blocking software on our computers and phones, but the adverts in the physical world are impossible to ignore: something advertisers are aware of. Clear Channel Outdoor states that: “When brands advertise on our street structures, they become part of the public social space, entering people’s thoughts and conversations. Even if we think we are ignoring their messages, research has shown that adverts influence us on a subconscious level by playing to our emotions and feelings rather than our knowledge and beliefs. Whether their purpose is to generate a desire for things we don’t need or to reinforce dominant brand recognition of multinational businesses, adverts have a subliminal drip drip effect on us, reinforcing the message that we must consume to be happy, which has a negative impact on our mental health. 

The way that advertisements are displayed is also having an increasingly negative effect on the environment. Traditional static billboards are being replaced with electronic ones, while new digital signage boards are becoming a common part of the landscape. These electronic signs use as much energy as three domestic households, (with larger screens consuming even more energy) and create huge amounts of light pollution.

My proposal has been inspired in part by the work of artists and activists known as ‘subvertisers’, who hijack advertising spaces to make work that highlights the negative impact of adverts and undermines the corporate messages they contain. This form of ‘brandalism’ or ‘culture jamming’ is extremely effective, because it is placed where we expect to see adverts and uses the same visual language of the subject it is critiquing, making us question the messages that we walk past and take in subliminally everyday. However, because of this, their work will always be seen in direct relation to the adverts that they undermine. The ad-free zone project goes beyond merely critiquing adverts or replacing them with art, however: its purpose is to enable us to reappraise how we use public space. Art can play a role in shaping it, by creating new exhibition spaces and opportunities for both artists and non-artists to show their work to the public outside of established art institutions. 

After removing all the adverts from the zone, the spaces they once occupied will be left empty for at least one month. This would be an act of cultural placemaking in itself, dramatically changing the atmosphere in the zone creating a small oasis for residents to visit, allowing them to experience the city in a new way and enable them to realise the real impact that adverts have on them. My hope is that this will have a similar effect as the moment in John Carpenter’s film They Live, when central character Nada puts on the sunglasses that reveal the mass media’s subliminal messages exhorting citizens to consume, reproduce and conform.

John Carpenter, 'They Live' (clip), 1988

At the end of the first month, new artworks by local artists and community groups will slowly be introduced into the area. Later, artworks will appear on bus stop hoardings and the other empty spaces in the zone. 

The creation of new exhibition spaces for showing art will demonstrate that the city values the artwork being created and the labour of the people making it. The exhibition spaces will also allow more people to see contemporary artworks outside of galleries and museums, removing the physical or psychological barriers that prevent many from engaging with it. This will help to democratise the city’s art scene and widen audiences for it. 

The project will also seek to ensure it is as inclusive as possible by establishing a commissioning body for the new exhibition spaces which includes members of the public and local community projects, to avoid replicating artworld hierarchies and enable more people to engage with the project and take ownership of it in a meaningful way. 

The project budget of £5 million is not a huge amount of money in the advertising world. Hiring the advertising spaces would enable only a short-term intervention — and effectively mean nothing but a transfer of arts funding to the owners and advertising companies. It would make no difference to them whether the billboards are empty or filled with art, as long as they are getting paid. In order for the project to be successful, the city council would need to use its powers to compulsorily purchase the advertising spaces. Taking the advertising spaces into public ownership means that the project will be a real statement of intent, making an investment in cultural infrastructure and showing residents that the city values public space and the impact art has on it.

Of course adverts would not be completely eliminated. Radio, newspaper and email spam will still exist. However, the project will benefit the city by demonstrating that the city is somewhere where it is possible to think differently: a place which values public space and celebrates the creative talent of its residents. If the project is successful, the longer-term aim is to spread out into neighbouring zones and other areas in the city and to build a network with other like-minded cities. This would become a form of cultural exchange, enabling Newcastle to invite artists from around the world to show their work here, and for local artists to exhibit in other cities. ♣︎

Main image: John Carpenter, ‘They Live’, 1988. Still from video.

About the Author

Toby P Lloyd is an artist and researcher based in Newcastle upon Tyne. His work is primarily socially engaged, creating projects that involve performance, moving image and installation.

Lloyd recently completed a practice-based PhD in the Fine Art department at Newcastle University which explored the potential of participatory arts practice to challenge complex societal issues and imagine alternative futures. Alongside this research he has been campaigning for Universal Basic Income and is the co-founder of UBI Lab Arts.

He works collaboratively with Andrew Wilson as Lloyd & Wilson. Their work borrows the architecture of the public house to create environments that encourage others to communicate with one another. Outside of making art he enjoys drinking real ale and listening to music. His favourite band is The Fall.

Back to top