The Rise of 'Visual Pollution' and the Fight to Stop It

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The feature documentary This Space Available began as a discussion between a corporate branding guru, Marc Gobé, and his daughter, Gwenaëlle Gobé, a filmmaker who is passionately against advertising in public space. The debate blossomed into three-year investigation of outdoor advertising and its effect on communities, from São Paulo to Toronto, and what activists, street artists, and cities are doing to stop it.

Gwenaëlle Gobé, who directed the film, discusses the evolution of the project in an interview below. She also shares the trailer and an excerpt from the film, about activists whitewashing illegally placed billboards in New York City (and ironically, getting arrested for their efforts).

This Space Available (Trailer), courtesy of Emotional Branding

The Atlantic: What inspired you to document this topic?

Gwenaëlle Gobé: Well, I come from a very opinionated family. Marketing and the international promotion of brands were definitively a hot topic at the dinner table, since my dad, Marc, has developed the branding for huge companies around the world. I feel he has a post-WWII, rosy view of brands saving the world from destruction and decay. He still sees corporations with a “Helvetica” innocence of neutrality and righteousness. He would say, “Look at the all the colors, the emotions, and social change they are involved in.”

Obviously I strongly disagree; I feel brands infiltrate our space, our privacy and our health without asking permission. Everywhere we go we are treated as potential consumers. There needs to be a place for everything, and we, as a culture, as individuals, are many other things besides consumers. It’s important to create and maintain public and private spaces that respect the citizen. Things are a bit out of control in Los Angeles; when I go for a walk sometimes I think, there is a virtual pick-pocketing going on.

Marc wanted to make videos for his website about the future of branding. He’s considered an international branding guru, has written many books on the subject, and thought it would be fun to make videos about his favorite topic. He read in the newspaper that the city of São Paulo had passed a law to take down all billboards. He was shocked. I was thrilled. He asked me if I could make the short film on the subject.

The film started a three-year debate on the topic, resulting in a groundbreaking transformation: we finally agreed on something.

 

This Space Available (Excerpt), courtesy of Emotional Branding

How did you approach building a feature-length story around a non-narrative topic?

There is a very compelling set of conflicting interests here and I use them to tell a story of a world in flux. This film is about how we arrived at the current state of commercial excess and the people who are doing something about this crisis. The film asks, what kind of world did our previous generation of advertising artists dream to create, and what is the result today? Who are the people raising awareness about visual pollution and how are they going about it? Everywhere around the world, in every city, someone is standing up locally to excessive outdoor media, either in the courtroom or in the streets. The passion of the people we met throughout our journey around the world, are our inspiration and our thread to telling the story.

Did anything surprise you in the course of making the film?

Remember, we did not set out to make a film, so everything was pretty much a surprise, every step of the way. The longer the debate between Marc and I lasted, the more footage we accumulated. Suddenly I was reviewing city laws, and reading a lot of books about public space and branding. There are many laws on the books restricting billboards that are just not being enforced. The billboard lobby is enormously influential. Let’s say my eyes grew wider by the day. 

Another big surprise was upon our return to the States, when we noticed the amount of billboards in Los Angeles. The contrast with São Paulo, a city that had just pulled down all their outdoor media, was startling. Then we discovered these very pro-business oriented Republicans in Houston fighting billboards because it lowers land value. Finally, we met street artists in New York who were replacing ads with art. Their fervor was so impressive. Here were two distinct groups, opposite in so many ways, who shared a very similar disdain for visual pollution.

What camera did you shoot with?

We used a couple of different cameras. We started shooting on tapes on the Sony V1U. When circumstances required something more discreet – like when we shot in the São Paulo sewers – we used a little consumer Canon camera. After a couple of years, we upgraded to cards, using the Sony EX3. 

How has the film been received so far?

I am so very pleased, because I think we are getting the best response I could ask for. My goal was to make a movie to pull the veil away, and raise the audience’s awareness in this critical arena regarding their quality of life.  When we leave the responsibility of the quality of our environment to others who are out only to sell us something no matter what the place or cost, the results will be somewhat ruinous.

We premiered this year at Doc NYC and look forward to six to eight months on the U.S. and international film festival circuit. We will follow that up with a limited theatrical and institutional distribution and of course DVD sales.  This Space Available is quickly finding both an expanding core audience of urban planners, street artists, design schools and the vast world of advertising and branding. More than anything we know that This Space Available can generate the same kind of dinner table discourse that lead to its creation.

What's next for you?

Keeping in touch with the people we met and continuing our collaboration together. Reading more books about the shared environment. Finishing a comic book I’ve been drawing on and off while making this documentary. You can see a couple of pages on my website. And of course threading together a new film on a topic I feel very passionate about; it’s a narrative feature this time, following the footsteps of my grandfather, the master storyteller and matchmaker of the family.

For more information about This Space Available, visit http://thisspaceavailablefilm.com/. For more work by Gwenaëlle Gobé, visit http://gwenaellegobe.com/. For updates, follow the film on Facebook or Twitter.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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