Entrevista para SocialDesignSite

SocialDesignSiteEn julio de 2009, Magalie Pedrono (de SEgroup, para SocialDesignSite) se puso en contacto conmigo para una entrevista acerca del Proyecto Burbuja como parte de su investigación acerca del Social Design.

Me tomó un par de semanas y fue una divertida entrevista para hacer. Naturalmente, está en inglés.

What is the most important element/factor in your project?

I don’t know how accurate it is to say that a project really makes a difference. I believe that what people do with a project (or what they can take from it) is what really makes the difference.

The Proyecto Burbuja (or Bubble Project, as originally created by Ji Lee) depends on people for it to work: they give it a meaning.

What the Bubble Project proposes is to turn a long established monologue (advertising on public spaces or in general) into an open dialogue. This is accomplished by posting stickers that look like speech bubbles from comic strips, so that any given ad can look like a frame taken from a comic book. Once the bubbles are placed on ads, they are left blank so anyone that wants to make them say anything is now able to do so.

With this said, is just a matter of time until someone grabs a marker and makes a famous movie star say what they want them to say, or maybe make a young girl model from a poster wonder about her future (i.e. “What am I gonna do when I’m 23?”)

Although the message – or the lack of one – always matters, the most important thing about the Bubble Project is to give people the chance to say something, anything, intervening ads invading our public spaces.
The passers-by are at a disadvantage against ads: they shout at them, selling them things they not always need, sometimes almost swearing that the guy in the picture is going to save the country (and why not the world), they display pictures of happy people holding cell phones that obviously are the reason for their happiness…

We can all agree that advertising has reached a point where the message can go along any kind of visual presentation and it will still get the job done. I’m not saying that there was a time when advertising in public spaces was lucid but still… A pink bunny riding a bicycle on a field can be part of an ad for a shoes company to a pharmaceutical product to a new insecticide. It just wouldn’t matter.

But what happens when you place a bubble and no one fills it? It will probably become a part of the ad to the eye of the passerby caught off guard.

So in order for the Bubble Project to work, to have a purpose or to even exist, people are needed. People give the project a meaning by filling those bubbles and replying to the ads.
That’s why the most important element or factor regarding the Bubble Project is neither the ads nor the bubbles, is the people.

How is your project making a difference?

The Bubble Project isn’t meant to make a difference per se, as it doesn’t really try to make a message come through but rather work as a medium for messages to surface.

What the Project intends to do is to let people realize that they don’t have to necessarily accept or follow the messages that are being exposed to us, that they can in fact criticize their surroundings. Advertising in public spaces has done a great job altering the idea people have of those spaces. We see ads on the streets as if they were a natural part of the landscape, after all, we may be surprised if one day we walked around the city and didn’t find any of these accustomed images at the sides of the street.

As long as someone that looks an ad with a blank bubble and realizes that there is something happening there, the Project is making a difference.

As long as people realize that there’s really no reason why they have to take all the things advertising exposes to them, a difference is being made.

Instead of saying that some aspect of the project is in fact innovative, as I’m unaware of other similar initiatives, I think it’s best if I focus on what I consider innovative about Ji Lee’s Bubble Project.

First, I think that relying on people and their will to express themselves is one of the most important sides of the project. I think that one of the innovative aspects of the project is its tendency to be decentralized; anyone can place a bubble if they want and take a picture of it… After all that’s how the Proyecto Burbuja started: as a localized version of the original.

Anyone can start bubbling anytime they want!

On the other hand and in the same vein that social networking website Twitter has proved to be useful, it displays almost instantly what are the tendencies in society. As seen in the many pictures that Ji has collected with political messages or social comments, Bubbles have proved useful as a friendly way to see what other people think. If we followed every ad on the street we would be thinking that almost every politician has a lot of people backing him or her up. We know that ads can be misleading and that what we see is not always what we get. When you are able to see ads that through bubbles display what people think about a particular subject, it can give a proper reference of what’s the word on the street.
Of course, politics and social commentaries are just one of the many subjects that people talk about while filling ads. The categories Ji originally established were Social Commentary, Media & Fashion, Sex & Drugs, Politics & Religion, Art & Philosophy, Humour and Personal Messages & Public Art.
Some of the best pictures on these topics can be seen in his book about the project, “Talk Back: The Bubble Project”

What has been successful in your project and how do you measure/evaluate it?

Having the bubbles widely recognized is probably a success, but the greatest one was being able to witness how people started to realize that blank bubbles where there for a reason and that they could be filling them with whatever they wanted.

I evaluate success according to the impact it has on other people.

As long as someone comes with an interesting question regarding advertising, the bubbles or consumer society, then I’m satisfied. After all, is questioning of what we assume as the established order what we want to encourage.

How do you evaluate the social impact your project has on the community/world?

The Bubble Project started in New York and a few years later expanded across the world, most notably Italy (progettobolla.com) and Argentina (, the one I lead). Starting last year, the Bubble Project, as commanded by Ji Lee, moved to the social networking website Facebook, encouraging bubblers around the world to make their own local “Bubble Groups” where they could post their pictures and establish with ease a direct contact with people interested in the project.

I think the impact the project has had on the community or the world can be evaluated by using its inspiration as a reference. It can be confirmed by the amazing reception it has received from all over the world.

As I mentioned before, as a result from globalization and its fierce presence in the whole world, ads have become a landmark of its expansion. People don’t notice them anymore. There’s a project from Germany that tries to prove it, “Hey Ad, What’s Up?” (http://www.graphical-wellness.de/index.php?whatsup), they’ve put strange looking (and sometimes nonsensical) ads using the most common advertising clichés.
Of course the responses have been varied, but it wouldn’t be surprising if someone didn’t notice anything strange on them after a first sight.

What I’m trying to say is that people don’t usually think of ads as a deliberate use of public spaces by companies but rather a simply aspect of our every day city landscape. It’s all about people recognizing those spots on their landscape, regaining the will to win them back and shush the corporate monologue. And as we have seen, it’s an effective way of getting our public spaces back, but also, doing it so in a witty way.

What are the biggest challenges you are facing today? How you do envision the future for your project?

It’s worth noting that the Bubble Project has a different success rate depending on the place the bubbles are spread. For example, it has enjoyed great success in New York City where it first originated and some European cities like Milano in Italy, but the situation in a country such as Argentina and even in a large city like Buenos Aires shows a strikingly different public reception.

I assume that is the result of each society’s history, which clearly affects its point of view (or worldview), what makes the way people interact with their environment show some differences for each country.
For instance, what I noticed in Buenos Aires is that people already think of the bubbles placed on ads as another type of advertising. So in a sort of protection of the ads, passersby tend to tear off the bubbles not realizing that a blank bubble means that they could fill them.

Another surprising reaction is that people look at the bubbles and just stare at them in the same way a person looks at a work of art in a museum.
I’m not going one step further and making any definite claims, since I realize that evidently it is particularly strange for people to look at something so out of place as a blank bubble on an ad.

Ji once wisely advised me on this subject, when I was starting to desperate over the lack of reaction to the bubbles, saying that once a bubble is placed, is a matter of time until someone fills it. Or in this case, sadly, tears it off.

Maybe is the idea behind the phrase “Don’t touch it or you’re going break it” what crosses their minds. As an extreme reaction, I was once caught placing a bubble by a traffic officer and he accused me of placing “communist propaganda” on ads… Obviously he never got the whole “corporate monologue” explanation I tried to give him, who could blame him for being so closed-minded, it’s not that you see someone placing a blank speech bubble on a poster every day.

Luckily, and maybe expectedly, young people are who engage in filling bubbles. The information era landscape has changed a lot in the last 10 years. A teenager or young adult that doesn’t have a cell-phone is a rare thing to see. Almost everyone uses text-messages, and is this relationship with information that can be seen within the so-called culture of the text message or SMS culture what I think changes the way we think of our environment. I think this constant information input (it’s 15° C outside, Julian just broke up with his girlfriend, the exam is now on Wednesday, my sister says I have to buy milk, the president just announced rise in the price of…) that finds its most significant example in what is called the “Friend Feed” of Facebook or the “Timeline” of Twitter where you can see what everyone is doing at every moment.

Of course we aren’t going to notice the extreme amount of advertising on the streets… Wouldn’t it be strange if we didn’t receive so much information from the walls all the time? It wouldn’t be strange; it would be kind of awesome 😉

In the coming years I hope more and more people sum to the Project and make it even more known, making it even more fun to place bubbles and take their pictures. More and more people sign up to our Facebook page, so we know that a lot of people is interested, and the comments we receive are very gratifying, letting us realize that a lot of people, most of them young, have pretty interesting critics of our reality. A lot of people are willing to put their opinion out there and see if they can help improve and change our world.

While starting the study, I observed that there exist 6 main categories for social design  projects:

– Prospective/Envisioning

– Education/Knowledge

– Community (raising awareness, citizenship etc.)

– Facilitating collaborative actions/projects

– Social Enterprise (business)

– Human Interaction/Behaviours (campaigns, studies… )

1.  Which of them can you relate to most strongly? Why is this the case?

I guess I can relate mostly to the Community and Human Interaction/Behaviours categories. As I mentioned before, it’s a way for the community to do something with the advance of ads on public spaces (sometimes even seen as unstoppable, due to the lack of proper laws), and to put out their opinion. Also, if we do not have any voice in what the government does with our spaces, why not have fun in their expense. Bubbles often take the seriousness away from such mundane ads displaying perfect looking models making a sweater ad look like the fate of our lives depends on buying it. A bubble sometimes puts our feet back on the ground: it’s just an ad.

Human interaction is the communication between human beings, and after all, messages, opinions, or any form of written information is a way to communicate. The Bubble Project shows how human interaction works in an unconventional way.

2. Do you experience specific benefits or ethical dilemmas getting involved with activities relating to these categories?

I do. Anything I do that involves other human beings and the expression of their opinions in the form of dialogues fills me with joy. To engage in interesting and fulfilling discussions is always “great for the soul”, by listening to each other we grow as humans. That’s why it’s so important to do something with the monologues (sometimes even two-way monologues that do not count as dialogues when none of the parts is able to listen), turn them into active dialogues. There’s really no reason why in the current course of the history we should be putting up with whatever someone tries to print on our brains. Maybe that depicts a too science fiction-esque image, but it isn’t as farfetched as we may think 😉

These sorts of experiences help me in creating my own opinion of the world and my environment. The Bubble Project has brought me closer to other people working on similar projects, in my country and the world, giving me the opportunity to learn more and more about what is now known as Social Design. Whether if it’s through stickers or stencils, or even through the spread of “good rumours”, anything that encourages dialogue and discussion of the way we live in our world draws my attention.

I’m glad I came across the Bubble Project 3 years ago and received such a great response from Ji Lee thanks to his work and his encouragement on translating and starting the Project here, on the other side of the world. Thanks to my involvement with the Bubble Project I realized that, as the premise on the Social Design Site reads: we cannot not change the world.

– Valentín Muro – Proyecto Burbuja

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