Self-Help Industry Meets Guerilla 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 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 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 enough to suggest that living conditions don’t 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 serves the interests of those who stand to benefit from perpetual inequality and exploitation.
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 is a powerful ideological fantasy, one that covers for the ways in which actions and expression are guided by material, class 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. And 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 individuals) 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 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 marketable for a chancer like Leek.
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, this therapeutic benefit is only really available to those who already identify with their alienation from society. There is nothing transformative 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 that in mind, it seemed fair to re-direct Andy’s fraught project with some guerilla brand-consultancy services.
Although you won’t be able to find these items on Andy’s website, you can purchase them here: https://notnotestostrangers.bigcartel.com
Or if none of the slogans appeal to you at all, then you can email your own ideas and have them made up for half the price of an already written one, as the creator will not even need to expend the effort in thinking of what to write.
And if you’d like to buy one at the DIY rate, but want it to feature a slogan that you’ve already seen, then that’s no problem either, just write the text into an email as if you’d imagined it completely by yourself.
Some motivational slogans to get you going on that front:
Good artists borrow, great artists steal.
There’s no such thing as an original thought.
Property is theft.
Actually, it’s a détournement.
However, recent revelations show that Andy Leek has been trying to use Notes To Strangers as a tool for soliciting naked images of women, really. Which probably means that you would prefer to opt out of the Notes To Strangers completely.
It’s Milkshake Duck’d.