Self-Help Industry Meets Guerrilla Advertising: The Grim Reality of NotesToStrangers
Andy Leek, A.K.A Notes To Strangers is someone who writes life-advice on brightly coloured a4 size stickers. Placed on those mildly ubiquitous street features, green/grey electricity cable boxes, a noisy colour palate and indistinct scrawl are Andy’s chosen visual language, with each instance carrying the sign-off, ‘Instagram: Notes To Strangers’. This injunction to interact with the message online (Instagram has reached such platform notoriety that it now functions as both noun and verb) leads viewers towards the official online repository of his interventions, the NotesToStrangers Instagram account. Here, Leek disseminates screengrabs of other people’s Instagram photos that feature the placed stickers with a #NotesToStrangers hashtag, to his brand’s accumulated audience of over 114,000.
This one-step-removed method of distribution lets Andy plot an intermediary node between his offline and online activity, a distancing mechanism that possibly serves to protect him from legal repercussions for vandalism whilst also being a means to increase his brand’s ‘interactivity’.
As his project began to pick up steam, he pulled focus towards what he reckons to be the mental health benefits provided by his work. And it’s done him wonders, having recently enjoyed mainstream international recognition from liberal and conservative media channels, along with invitations to speak about the project at schools, universities, and creative industry events.
On the face of it, thinking up chirpy bits of life advice and spreading them round the city seems a fairly anodyne, happy-go-lucky activity. The problem is that despite having felt empowered to speak his unique voice to the world whether it wants to listen or not, it appears as though Andy has failed to recognise the potentially harmful and reactionary politics that underscore his practice. We might argue that the cultural logic at play here seems to be an extension of Cupcake Fascism, Post-Cupcake Fascism – a more aggressively psycho-capitalist permutation of kitschy infantilizing over-niceness that has stopped employing graphic designers to soften its look and has fused with the lifestyle dogma of self-care. If that seems like too much of an exaggeration, we can at least say that Notes To Strangers is haplessly peddling a schlock philosophy wrapped up with the notion of wellness – a currently very marketable mode of ‘positive-thinking’ spiritualism that identifies the problems of capitalist subjectivity as primarily a problem of the individual’s mindset.
This is to say, whilst it is true that individuals do have some autonomous power over how they perceive the world, it is not a helpful analysis if it draws us away from recognising that material living conditions also shape this perception. The problems we find in society do not stem entirely from an insufficiently ‘can-do’ attitude to life. To think otherwise is a delusory idealism that ultimately serves the interests of those who stand to benefit most from perpetual inequality and exploitation – the ruling class.
Although Notes To Strangers alludes to the widespread anxiety, depression, and various other mental health problems experienced as a condition of living in a society torn by contradictory impulses (e.g. go to a job you hate and be under instructions to smile like you mean it), the empty phraseology so characteristic of Andy’s work, actually serves to mask the conditions that produce the maladies he’s trying to alleviate, ironically making it harder to alleviate those conditions.
The social basis out of which these mental health effects develop is hidden behind the rhetoric of self-improvement. For Andy, the need to have a more positive outlook appears symptomatic of a widespread negative outlook. This is not just hollow, it’s worse than that. For enacted through their bright-eyed insouciance, (the very quality that gives Andy’s images their charm), is a process of reactionary obfuscation. And I think the complexity involved in decoding this contradictory operation (something harms because it looks innocent) jarring with its knowingly facile mode of presentation, is what makes these objects so utterly frustrating to encounter.
And it is their burying of unbearably exploitative social relations beneath this mass of detritus he has created that makes them politically objectionable.
Notes to Strangers is saying the wrong things and making art look bad.
The Banality of Art Driven by Market Logic
If he was doing this purely out of the goodness of his heart, it could perhaps be tolerated as a little absent-minded tomfoolery, one quirky guy just trying to do something that he believes is nice for himself and others – but of course, belief in such pure goodness of intent is a powerful ideological fantasy, one that covers for the ways in which actions and expression are guided by material interests.
It shouldn’t escape our notice that Andy Leek appears to bare little shame when it comes to marketing the NtS brand and products. Maybe his professional background in the advertising industry has had some influence on that, or perhaps he completely believes what he says about helping people. In any case, the entrepreneurial thrust of his work would understandably place limits on what the NtS project can do in terms of making artistic interventions into spaces already dominated by the visual residues of capitalism. The political commitment implied by disrupting capitalist visual space is sacrificed at the altar of popular appeal, resulting here in a disempowering spiritual banality.
In terms of advancing society (as opposed to the place of individuals within it) towards an awareness of its own capacity to bring about change, Notes to Strangers is just as much a waste of effort as any other advertising campaign or unqualified self-help guide. Because in order to sell as commodities, those notes must appear as the covetable product of a unique individual, stake some claim on social effectiveness, and still keep in tact the logic of individual spectatorship and consumption as the primary way of changing ‘our’ world. This is not how society changes, it’s how it already operates, and it’s part of the reason nothing ever seems to change for the better. It’s this very familiarity of individual self-improvement invested with social spirit that makes it so marketable for a chancer like Leek. Ethical consumption isn’t enough to bring about an end to class society.
So there’s a tension between what NtS claims to do, and what it definitely does. The claim is that these highly visible messages in public places offer a therapeutic benefit, whilst simultaneously serving as adverts for Andy Leek’s personal brand. In reality, I would argue, this therapeutic benefit is only really available to those who already identify with their alienation from society. There is nothing transformative or critical in the slogans he writes, and certainly no practicable call to enact meaningful social change, just a business team motivator style affirmative suggestion that you must think differently to adapt, and (implicitly) desire your exploitation. In a sense, Leek is using his artisanal products to profit from the psychological vulnerabilities wreaked by capitalism. This is unfortunately one of the absolute worst things that art has the capacity to do.
So with this in mind, it seemed fair to re-direct Andy’s fraught project with some ‘guerrilla brand-consultancy’ services.
All of the above, by the way, is kind of a preamble that I felt necessary to justify my interference with these works. Whilst the magnitude of my annoyance at the NotesToStrangers project might seem irrational and disproportionate, I do at least hope that the reasons underpinning that annoyance have been clarified.
Forging a Visionary
So my efforts are hardly worthy of Elmyr de Hory, but Mr Leek’s minimal-craft aesthetic does render his product more readily open to copying, which is either a laudably public-spirited gesture or just something he presumed wouldn’t be a problem.
Here are some new Notes To Strangers posters, made in the hope of highlighting some of the limitations in Andy’s messaging.
In order to see if anyone would validate the authenticity of my craft, I spent some (too much) time sifting through Instagram posts bearing the NtS hashtag, and eventually I saw…
‘The guerrilla must move among people as the fish swims in the sea.’
(screenshot cropped to preserve original IG poster’s integrity)
Until recently, Andy was trying to sell some of his posters for over £3000 a-piece (though he has now dropped the asking rate to between £60 and £220, for some reason), I thought about setting up an online shop and undercutting his prices.
but then, something horrible happened.
Whilst searching through NotesToStrangers’ content on various platforms for information about Leek’s process, it transpired that Andy Leak
has been using his brand’s online presence as Notes To Strangers to solicit nudes and casual sex from women who reached out to him.
This seems pronouncedly more horrendous when we remember that Leek claims to create his notes for people who he thinks are in need of their therapeutic benefit.
This is what they call a milkshake duck.
Until Andy publishes an apology, it does not seem worth engaging any further with his work. I’m sorry that it had to end this way.