Adbusters Kalle Lasn

April 10, 2012

There’s a quickening to Kalle Lasn’s speech as he describes how much he’s looking forward to spring. Maybe he’s thinking of the five acres in Aldergrove where he lives with his Japanese-born wife, Masako Tominaga. The walnut grove springing into leaf. Blossoms on the apple and nashi pear trees. Hard work in the vegetable garden that will pain his chronic back but lead to a bountiful harvest.

Then again, maybe not.

“Young people are looking into a black-hole future. With the ecological, financial, and political crises, they’ll never be able to pay off their student loan, never have the kind of life their parents did. That’s a very powerful thing to have in the pit of the stomach,” says the co-founder, editor, and co-publisher of Adbusters magazine. “After the flowers start budding, then I can see some of that passion bubbling up in a powerful way.”

Yes, the blossoming Lasn is looking forward to is of the Occupy phenomenon, which went into semi-planned semi-hibernation over the winter. He has been keeping a close, fatherly eye on the movement, even if he isn’t quite Occupy’s dad, as one might think after reading about him in media outlets ranging from the New Yorker to the New York Times to the Guardian to the Independent. Realistically, the 69-year-old Lasn is more like its granddad. Last year, amid the Arab Spring, he and a few others connected to the magazine watched the activity in places like Cairo’s Tahrir Square and decided to insert a call to Occupy Wall Street into their summer issue and on Adbusters.org and its RSS feed.

These days Lasn increasingly shares editorial command of Adbusters with senior editor Micah White (who resides in Berkeley, California, even as the magazine’s creative director, Pedro Inoue, lives in Brazil), but it was Grandpa who came up with the arresting visual of a ballerina balanced on Wall Street’s charging bull. And later, weeks after loose groups of activists first coalesced in New York’s Zuccotti Park on exactly the day commanded, it was he who played a big role in coaxing out the central demand of a Robin Hood tax.

For all that, Lasn hasn’t been any closer to the Occupy action than a walkabout of the VAG grounds, where Vancouver’s version arose last fall. On many days he doesn’t even come into the Adbusters office on West Seventh, now confined to the basement of a vestigial Edwardian house nestled among condo buildings. Running the magazine, inspiring the Occupiers, doing interviews—most of these can be carried out from the farm, where Lasn sleeps well and rises early, exactly as an old man should. None of which should lull corporate executives, advertising honchos, and conservative politicians (or, for that matter, liberal ones) into thinking that Kalle Lasn isn’t still around to stick it to them.

By now the outlines of Lasn’s life are well enough known. Born in Estonia during the Second World War, he spent several years occupying a different type of camp, a refugee camp, before being taken to Australia, which he came to see as incredibly remote and way too sporty and beer-drenched. He left as soon as he could, for several years lived in Japan, where he worked in advertising and founded a market research firm, then landed in Vancouver and began to make films for the National Film Board and the U.S. Public Broadcasting System. During his early travels he also visited Central America, where he bristled at the influence of American power, and spent a devastating six months in India, where he watched people die in the street. In 1989, concerned about the way B.C.’s old-growth forests were being clearcut, he made an anti-logging commercial, then, after TV stations refused to run it, co-founded (with his cinematographer, Bill Schmalz) the Adbusters Media Foundation, its primary activity being the production of the ad-spoofing, culture-jamming magazine.

That’s where the biographical outline grows sparser. Working as the co-publisher and editor of the magazine (which, incidentally, recently published its 100th issue) has consumed the past 23 years of Lasn’s life. More importantly, for a significant proportion of the Occupiers who camped out in about 700 cities worldwide, Adbusters has been a formative media influence, their Rolling Stone. Of course, Jann Wenner’s magazine was focused primarily on rock music, which perhaps goes some way toward explaining why movements similar to Occupy fizzled out so quickly in the 1960s. Adbusters, on the other hand, has always concerned itself with radical cultural, political, economic, and aesthetic transformation. So when Lasn talks about the magazine struggling through some tough times but now enjoying a moment in the sun, he’s referring to a lot more than the crispness of the writing and the quality of the art direction. Occupy has drawn renewed attention to the magazine.

It’s all a far cry from the early 1990s, when Lasn was still a magazine neophyte and the best word to describe Adbusters would have been “scrappy.” “It was kind of a primal scream, a cri-de-
coeur phase,” recalls J.B. MacKinnon, who worked there as a senior editor later in the decade before leaving to write, most notably as co-author of the bestselling 100-Mile Diet. The ad spoofs were well enough done, though, and sometimes borderline brilliant, and it wasn’t long before Lasn the editor and political theorist caught up to Lasn the ad man. It didn’t hurt that in media-deficient Vancouver, the magazine quickly became a magnet for the best and the brightest. Chris Dixon, now art director of Vanity Fair, got his start there, and the list of editorial helpers included prominent authors Bruce Grierson, who co-wrote Lasn’s first book, Culture Jam, and Deborah Campbell, who now teaches in UBC’s creative writing department. One of Gregor Robertson’s senior associates, Lara Honrado, worked there as a fundraiser.

MacKinnon suggests that Adbusters has made four significant contributions to the magazine genre. Along with innovators such as Benetton’s Colors (one of Lasn’s early targets), it pioneered the kind of text/visuals hybrid that is now commonplace. Adbusters’ staunch, early use of a highly subjective voice, as MacKinnon points out, “really does change the relationship that readers have with a magazine.” And from the earliest days, much of the material came from readers, a move toward the democratization of content that has become widespread with the ascension of the internet.
Still, Adbusters has reigned more as a cult favourite than as a critical tour de force. Inventing a whole new kind of publication doesn’t come without its challenges, and some people were put off by the youth-oriented, avant-garde design even as others found the magazine more rewarding to look at than to read. Then there was the difficult balancing act between charging up a constantly regenerating crop of critical thinkers via ever more strident provocations (“propaganda for the good guys,” as Grierson came to think of it) and addressing complicated issues in a nuanced way, as old hands might find more rewarding. This might help explain why the magazine’s harshest critics often came from the left, though another explanation may have to do with Lasn’s oft-expressed frustration with his fellow travellers and his invocation to readers and Occupiers alike to “jump over the dead body of the old left.”

And how far did the magazine want to run with those ad spoofs? In the mid 1990s, Lasn attempted to engage Harpers editor Lewis Lapham in debate after the liberal organ refused to run an anti-tobacco ad, only to have Lapham, among the most prominent American intellectuals of the day, dismiss the entreaty as coming from “the usual gang of idiots at Adbusters magazine.” The slight was an obvious reference to that other great spoof medium (with an even younger target audience), Mad magazine, but Lasn doesn’t feel that he got the short end of the exchange, noting that Harpers ultimately ran the anti-tobacco ad and, whether coincidentally or not, soon stopped taking cigarette ads.

Lasn allows that at times the magazine failed to meet his own standards. “There was a period when there was a certain flakiness,” he says. “We did stories that weren’t that great. We said stuff that wasn’t that great.” The era he most regrets coincided with the rapid rise of the internet around the middle of the last decade. The magazine had been flying high with a circulation approaching 120,000, most of it in the U.S. but also with a significant profile in Europe and Japan. At the time Adbusters was widely considered the most internationally successful Canadian magazine ever. Its offices took up all three floors of the house on West Seventh, and encompassed as many as 20 employees.

But Lasn failed to foresee the significance of online media, he admits, even as circulation of the print edition began to drop. (In recent years that deficiency has been addressed with a vital website, along with other requisite digital accoutrements.) Because the foundation had never been able to obtain charitable status in Canada (unlike the Fraser Institute, he notes), at least 90 percent of its revenues come from magazine sales, and as circulation began to drift down toward the current level of about 70,000, he was forced to cut fees, lay off staff, and give up all but the basement of the house. “When I look at the magazines I have laid out on my billiard table at home,” he says, “I see 20, 30, 40 issues that lack spark.”

In the wake of Occupy, the magazine would seem to have its groove back, and much of that is due to Lasn’s foresight, the very thing he says he lacked with regard to the internet. Beyond all those magazine-world innovations, “he was talking about the global casino and the Tobin tax 15 years ago,” notes Grierson, the latter a reference to the academic formulation adapted by Lasn and the Occupiers as the Robin Hood tax. Meanwhile, Lasn and Adbusters were early critics of neo-classical economics (the central assumptions of which are increasingly regarded as flawed) and promoters of full-cost accounting, which includes human and environmental costs in economic calculations—a once radical idea that doesn’t seem so contentious now that it’s earned serious consideration by the Economist, notes MacKinnon. (Lasn is currently working on a book, his third, that will gather these ideas together in a volume called Occupy Econ 101—A Manifesto for Students All Over the World, due out this spring.) In recent years the magazine has further broadened its anti-consumerist focus by taking on a role as a kind of left-wing Reader’s Digest, collecting ideas of various sorts and condensing and presenting them for popular consumption. These days Lasn thinks of himself as being involved in “meme warfare,” in which he and the magazine attempt to prime the organic spread of concepts and ideas “and may the best meme win.”

Thus it was that last fall Adbusters retired its Buy Nothing Day, which the magazine has been promoting since 1992 when Lasn was presented with the idea by graphic artist Ted Dave (who, even before his baby was whacked, harboured mixed feelings about the way it had been adopted and brought up). In its stead: Occupy Xmas, which both raised the anti-consumerist stakes and—in the grand tradition of meme warfare as well as old-fashioned marketing savoir-faire—attracted new admirers by latching onto Occupy coattails.

None of which is to say that there isn’t a softer side to Adbusters—or at least a side that seriously concerns itself with art and culture. Lasn, with his filmmaking background, has always made it clear that the new planetary reality he strives for has to look as good as it runs, and the magazine has long played a somewhat surprising role as an arbiter of taste and aesthetic sensibility. That said, he also suggests that the clouds hanging over the world these days are much darker than ever and that it’s crucial that the publication begin to make a difference politically. The current climate of economic turmoil combined with the spectre of environmental collapse has him fixated on apocalypse, worrying that we are on the verge of a new Dark Age. Convincing humanity to change its ways in order to avoid “hundreds of years of nightfall” is now more important “than saying to people that ads may not be so good for you.”

So it’s approaching darkness and impending apocalypse that keep Kalle Lasn thinking and working. And in a strange but real way, that’s what has him looking forward to spring.

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