Billboards and commercial messages dominate the public space like never before. Are the efforts to reverse this trend signaling a movement?
In This Space Available, filmmaker Gwenaëlle Gobé says “yes!” Influenced by the writing of her father, Marc Gobé (Emotional Branding), this new director brings energy and urgency to stories of people around the world fighting to reclaim their public spaces from visual pollution.
From 240 hours of film, 160 interviews, and visits to 11 countries on five continents, This Space Available charts a fascinating variety of struggles against unchecked advertising and suggests that more than aesthetics is at stake. If Jacques Attali once called noise pollution an act of violence, is visual pollution also such an act? Should we also consider, as one Mumbai resident says, “which classes of society can write their messages on the city and which classes of society are marginalized?”
Gobé offers a canny generational analysis of visual pollution, laying blame not just with the advertising juggernaut but also an entire generation of Baby Boomers whose consumption-based culture has implicated them in the environmental fallout. She argues that it’s her generation left to do the cleaning up that is now leading the fight back.
But the filmmaker also recognizes the history and politics behind this fight. Turning to such legislation as the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, Gobé shows how the enforcement of this landmark law, designed to regulate outdoor advertising on America’s roadways, has steadily eroded. And today, public space activists like Jordan Seiler faces harsh penalties for covering outdoor ads with art – while officials turn a blind eye to illegally erected billboards.
Still, the film strikes a hopeful tone. A standout interview features Gilberto Kassab, the popular mayor of Sao Paulo, who threw a stone into the quiet pond of the billboard industry by successfully banning outdoor media in his city – the eighth largest in the world. The move is not without precedent: Houston’s 1980 billboard ban was also a deliberate tactic to improve its flagging image, economic competitiveness, and quality of life.
In the end, This Space Available challenges audiences to recognize that aesthetics and beauty go hand in hand with responsibility. Gobé asks “Why do brands continue to be allies with an industry that cuts down trees, hogs energy, and spends its profits in courts and statehouse lobbies, especially while younger consumers push for improved corporate citizenship?” And is everyone equally to blame for enabling the spread of visual pollution? And how can we support the humble individuals that have the courage to show that “it is” possible to reverse it?
The film navigates these issues without promoting a universal solution. Gobé instead weaves together stories reflecting diverse local responses to an increasingly global condition. This Space Available compels audiences to consider these stories long after the film ends, or at least to remember them each time we speed by a billboard.
Quotes from the film:
“The billboard industry has a tremendous lobby and they have a ton of money…the billboard issue is a quality of life issue.” Carmen Trutanich, L.A. District Attorney
“The advertising industry is indicative of how we treat our society in general, we treat it as a commercial space…It is up to the public to retake control of our public space.” Jordan Seiler, Public Space Activist
“The establishment of a mutual sense of responsibility is what creates a urban culture.” Ronald Lee Fleming, author of The Art of Placemaking
“Our industry, I’ll say it flat out, has been greedy.” Rick Robinson, billboard executive
“Advertising has always been trending towards the excessive because of the nature of competition.” Steve Hayden, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy and Mather
“It was not about banning billboards in the city of Mumbai…it was just about the rules and regulations that needed to be followed.” Dr. Anahita Pandole, Mumbai resident
Produced by Emotional Branding
Gwenaëlle Gobé, Marc Gobé
States of Sound
Dr. David Allan
Stephen L. Klineberg
Ronald lee Fleming
Pablo Da Selva