Squatters Project is an interdisciplinary collective that has been covering advertising marquees since 2008 to transform corporate messages and dispute meanings. The “squatters”, a Creole version of the European countercultural movement, also join social organizations to intervene in public debates from the Wetlands Law, to frontal labeling and food sovereignty.
An alternative communication strategy. A tool to occupy the public space colonized by corporate marketing. A counterpropaganda movement. All of this at the same time is the Squatters Project, according to its founder, Julián Pellegrini. “The common thread is the injustices of a system of oppression that is expressed through issues of gender, minorities, everything related to the countryside, food, food sovereignty”, says the founder of the squatters.
The beginning of the Squatters Project
He competed in 2008 in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires. A group of young people began to walk the streets with the aim of intervening in publicity actions on the public road. From La Paternal to Liniers or Villa Luro. Two, three people, with some paint, some paper ready to be stuck between the glue and the original advertisement.
Motivated by the need to convert the powerful communication tool that advertising represents, these young people organized themselves to recreate the spirits of the European invaders. A creole version, self-managed, community and rebellious.
Pellegrini lived for a while in squats, communities of people who do not identify with the values of the capitalist system. The squatters are very diverse characters, anti-systems by definition, occupying everything from abandoned houses to factories in response to an apparatus of social organization that prioritizes the real estate business rather than meeting the housing needs of thousands of people. In these lands, as in Spain, they are known as “squatters”.
When he returned to Argentina, all his knowledge in visual arts, communication, advertising and psychology was combined into a single channel. They needed to be transformed into something collective, a tool for reframing. It disputes meanings, resignifies messages, uses means to change ends. “In counter-propaganda movements we use creativity, a persuasive communication strategy, but with a social perspective, focusing on human rights”, explains Pellegrini.
Project Squatters, Creole counter-advertising
What started out timidly as a blog, where the sharing of actions, texts and information related to counter-propaganda movements ended up becoming direct action on the streets, in workshops at schools and campaigns on social networks. And this timidity also became a contagion force that reached universities, social movements and some non-profit organizations. The objective: to replicate in any part of the country what was happening, not only in the city of Buenos Aires, but also intervening in other walls of Argentina.
Some call this “artivism,” a discipline that combines art with activism. But, according to Pellegrini, they do not intend to classify themselves or do this with any of those who adhere to the actions. Calls are open, regardless of academic background or political party. The aim is to transform the urban landscape. “Transform corporate messages and, ultimately, occupy the public space colonized by marketing so that it is once again at the service of the common interest’ he points.
Pay attention to consumption
Dimensioning the scope of what we permanently see on the streets is really an exercise. “You need to be aware of the implications of your consumption. For example, what does it mean to consume a Coke for people living in vulnerable communities? Well, they feel that they are not so far away, that they are part of a social game that they are usually shown on the outside. This construction is made based on advertising”, warns.
Occupy public space to circulate another discourse. This is also what the counter-propaganda attitude of the members of the project is about. Messages that are not exclusively those that promise us happiness for consuming such a product or wanting what corporate power has established through ultra-modified drawings or photos.
“Counter-propaganda serves to provide a community response to the monologue of power, companies, political corporations, which constantly tell us how to think about reality. It is a way of questioning what we are told and giving new meaning to those messages that we constantly consume both in the public space and on social networks.”, points out Pellegrini.
From green or pink makeup, they unmask corporations
Coca Cola, YPF, Barrick Gold, Burger King and McDonalds are just some of the companies chosen by the group to transform the advertising message. With creative semiotic twists, they manage to mutate the staging of the companies while inviting them to join and replicate the action on the advertising marquees of each city against the green wash —misleading messages to showcase the brand in favor of environmental policies— or the pink wash —misleading messaging to brand pro-gender politics—and any other practice that threatens critical thinking.
viralize the actions
With this objective, social networks become of vital importance for the viralization of actions. An example of this strategy were the joint actions with social organizations and groups that work for food sovereignty, during the year 2021, with a view to the debate and subsequent sanction of the Frontal Labeling Law. articulated squatters with nutritionists and activists such as Ignacio Porras, as well as lawyer Marcos Filardi and journalist Soledad Barrutti, who had been promoting the enactment of the Law.
“We did several actions, but one particularly cute one was attended by illustrators like Sergio Langer, who was to draw all the mascots of the brand but as if they were villains: the Kellogs tiger, the kindergarten egg, the Nesquik rabbit, the Bimbo bear, the McDonald’s clown and the title was “ultra-processed to malnourise and deceive children“.
What stands out in the joint action for the Labeling Law is the mass achieved by the campaign. One of the strategies was to print the octagonal stamps —since last August already implemented by Law— to paste them on products that should carry these warnings about excess fat, sugar or sodium, when the Law was in force. “It was powerful because self-management spread and became generalized, everyone who wanted to download the labels and stick them on”, he adds.
What is the mission for Project Squatters?
Interventions do not target companies, at least not directly. Intent is defined in the audience that sees that message. The aim is to “modify something in the perception of those who are permanently exposed to these stimuli”, explains Pellegrini, because this group’s interest is in the “effect on audiences, when this is replicated on the street or on the internet” . Ultimately, it doesn’t matter so much that Coca-Cola stops selling, but that people stop consuming. “If you become aware of the implications of consuming Coca-Cola, maybe reduce your consumption”, he reflects.
Oscar Brahim, the seed of Project Squatters
He documentary “Oscar”, by Sergio Morkin, portrays a taxi driver who hates publicity; a family man who takes advantage of his work trips to compete in the public and private spheres, to take a different message from the one that the consumer machinery takes to the streets. In mid-2001, the City of Buenos Aires, like today, seemed to be bombarded by advertisements in squares, streets and subways. A city taken over by advertising. It was in this context that Brahim proposed using the graph to combat. Fight what? “Giving visual battles in the territory of public space”, says the corseted artist in the profile of a taxi driver in the documentary.
Today, as 20 years ago, this territory tends to anesthetize with unattainable ideals of happiness and perfection the mass that transits and looks without seeing what the poster has hidden. For this reason, Pellegrini will say, the focus is on awakening consciences, on critical thinking about what is consumed or naturalized, with arguments that tend to the collective construction of other possible messages.
Same space, different direction
Use the same advertising space, but in reverse: “Denounce oppression, injustice”. Trying to do something about it, as Pellegrini explains, adding that the Argentine counterpublicity movement fluctuates over the years, subject to the individual desires of those who campaign or propose interventions.
“For many years we have held workshops with social organizations, schools and universities to disseminate this practice and make it appropriate for different people”, He points and warns: “If there isn’t someone to motorize, propose and push, it will be punctured”, despite being available and open to the campaigns that arise.
That is why for over ten years they have been offering lectures and workshops in different educational spaces to keep the flame alive and awaken minds. A fundamental part of the counter-publicity movement is based on sharing strategies and arguments that give meaning to the intervention, claiming the enormous value that these spaces have in the construction of critical thinking.
The International Counterpropaganda
In 2016, a group of activists from France and England thought about forming an organization that would bring together all the counterpropaganda movements in the world. A kind of international network that adopted the name of Subvertisers International. They began to communicate via e-mail, sometimes via Skype, to coordinate joint actions despite the distance; such as: the day without advertising.
In 2022, after the pandemic, they decided to go a step further and organized the first counterpropaganda congress in Paris (France). A way to strengthen the international network and coordinate the following objectives. But also, according to Pellegrini, the experience served to focus on regional projects. For years, since Proyecto Squatters, they have wanted to build a network not only across the country, but also in Latin America, taking advantage of the use of social networks to publicize campaigns.
Symbolic resistance against the interests of large corporations then becomes a contestation tool in a context in which the supremacy of the advertising message prevails. Steve Biko, an African activist who fought for the emancipation of black people and the end of apartheid, pointed out in the 1970s that the most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. In a way, advertising works in favor of corporations that tend to reinforce ideals that are far from reality. And the mainstream media also contributes to this game.
“There is a whole media apparatus of the conventional who is all the time saying how things are, even if there are alternative media, they have this power to form an opinion. The counter-publicity movement is part of this communication struggle as a way of positioning another possible discourse and allowing people to think about reality from another place”, summarizes Pellegrini.