An artist social enterprise in the Rwandan capital Kigali seeks to tackle stigma and misinformation around HIV through public art. “Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga” (to create, to see, to learn) works with government, local business, NGOs and health workers to raise awareness and help young people living with HIV to express themselves through public art and promote ‘positive living’ for everyone. Rather than culture being confined to galleries or studio space, the initiative encourages often self-taught artists to create murals on public steps or government buildings like the Ministry of Health, in addition to holding well-being workshops, lectures and competitions in schools.
Living libraries – where, unlike conventional libraries, volunteers from different backgrounds are ‘borrowed’ rather than books – help promote intercultural dialogue and challenge the isolation and stereotyping of minority communities which leads to the stigmatisation of ‘the other’.
The concept originates from the 2000 Roskilde music festival in Denmark, where a youth initiative ‘Stop the Violence’ (Foreningen Stop Volden) gave over a thousand audience members over four days the opportunity to speak face-to-face with one of 75 ‘living books’, their motto being: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. Since then, hundreds of human libraries have sprung up across Europe and the wider world, offering people a shared space to break down cultural barriers – at festivals, in schools and online forums, even aboard travelling buses.
These initiatives have helped counter rumours that may develop around recent migrants in relation to a perceived reliance on welfare payments, favourable treatment from public services, low educational attainment and an unwillingness to integrate. In 2014, the Bavarian city of Erlangen hosted a giant picnic across a 180-metre table bringing together over 1000 participants including many recently-accommodated asylum seekers. At the ‘Picknick Bankett’ citizens of Erlangen were invited to reveal prejudices and rumours about refugees in everyday conversations and to debunk them with facts, under the slogan “Don’t parrot, enquire!” Supported by council offices, NGOs, artists and local businesses from breweries to flower shops, asylum seekers were informally asked questions not usually posed when meeting strangers, talking openly about their lives, talents, skills, experiences and dreams.
Other anti-rumour campaigns in Europe bringing together people from different cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds include the Polish city of Lublin’s ‘Rumour Exchange’ where people would write on large blank posters outside the Centre of Culture the widespread rumours they had heard around both Lubliners and migrants, engaging the local community away from the anonymity of digital platforms and contributing to public reflection on how prejudice can develop; the Greek city of Patras which hosts workshops encouraging dialogue between long-serving prisoners of diverse origins living in a close environment, and the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ outreach scheme where artists and migrant rights groups tell stories and role-play with young people; and the Catalan city of Sabadell where migrant women volunteers from different countries developed themed public buffets over four weeks, cooking alongside students and designing anti-rumour literature on everything from placemats to aprons.
Several states and at least 1500 neighbourhoods in the US have passed laws heavily restricting outdoor advertising. Kick-starting a national conversation about conservation and the use of public space, Lady Bird Johnson (married to President Lyndon Johnson) pushed for advertising controls along the growing interstate highway, leading to the 1965 Highway Beautification Act.
Vermont introduced a state-wide billboard ban in 1968, giving owners of existing signs five years to take them down – although faced with some opposition from business and farming communities, Vermont subsequently saw tourist numbers increase and the state frequently tops national quality of life indexes. Maine, Hawaii and Alaska are also billboard-free, whilst Rhode Island and Oregon now prohibit the construction of new commercial signage.
Those in favour of ad-free cities argue that outdoor billboards are a form of ‘visual pollution’ that citizens have little or no say over – obscuring views, invading personal space, distracting drivers and pedestrians alike. Others believe that these hoardings are an inevitable part of the urban environment – sometimes entertaining, with businesses giving cities an additional source of revenue or very occasionally basic infrastructure (eg bus shelters or WiFi hubs) in return for advertising their products.
Nevertheless, across the world – from Auckland to Chennai – billboard restrictions continue to be enforced. Sao Paulo passed the ‘Clean City Law’ in 2006 leading to 15,000 boards taken down in the first year, whilst in 2015 Grenoble became the first European city to ban street advertising panels, planting trees in their place. There is also a growing movement in the artistic community to subvert advertising – in recent years both Paris and London have seen initiatives replacing commercial hoardings with reproductions of classical paintings, while the augmented-reality phone app ‘No Ad’ overlays New York subway posters with images created by street artists.