Directed by Gwenaëlle Gobé. STC. 90 min. Opens Aug. 17 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
The proliferation of outdoor advertising—particularly illegal billboards—is something Torontonians are well aware of thanks to the efforts of folks like activist Rami Tabello (who campaigned against rogue signage with his website illegalsigns.ca) and the Toronto Public Space Committee. Three years ago, the attention they brought to the issue resulted in this city updating and harmonizing its billboard bylaws so that the hundreds of illegal signs would finally be addressed. It goes without saying that this is a predicament that spans the world, and one that’s most pressing in cities wherever congestion is at its densest. To the outdoor-advertising industry, where there are more people, there are more eyeballs to see their ads.
This Space Available catalogues a number of perspectives on billboards, from culture jammers to ad execs to the residents of Venice, whose under-construction monuments are currently covered with advertising. Despite a scattershot approach in the film’s early going, director Gwenaëlle Gobé delivers some interesting stories, especially while tagging along with Jordan Seiler, who organized street-art takeovers in both New York and Toronto (where illegal billboards and illuminated ad pillars were either whitewashed or replaced with artwork). The film also offers many stats, but they probably could have been better utilized to frame the arguments, and the occasional default to Adbusters-style rhetoric about how advertising is destroying our sense of self sometimes feels a bit heavy-handed.
Of course, any opportunity to consider how our public space is being used for private commercial interests is always welcome, as this is a conversation that rarely ascends to the levels of government where any change can be made (or where it’s possible for basic efforts to uphold the billboard laws already in place, as was the case in L.A. until recently). As impressive as the massive BMW billboard located right next to the Kremlin may be, it’s hard not to agree with the film’s thesis that more cities should make like São Paolo and rip down all the outdoor ads.