Steve Lambert, a conceptual artist and co-founder of the Anti-Advertising Agency, is, depending on your perspective, a wry cultural critic or a loose cannon who must be stopped.
Such opposite reactions are sure to persist with Lambert’s latest project, Add-Art (add-art.org), a free application for Firefox browsers that replaces Web ads with contemporary art. The idea took hold after Lambert downloaded Adblock Plus, a popular Firefox extension that replaces ads with blank windows.
On a recent afternoon at New York’s Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, where he is a fellow, Lambert, who cuts a memorable figure with a long beard, shaved head and rectangular eyeglasses, demonstrates the program on his MacBook, its glowing Apple logo covered by a “VOTE” sticker.
Lambert loads the Miami Herald Web site, and in place of the Hard Rock Cafe banners that others see are landscapes by Swiss artists Monica Studer and Christoph van den Berg, who use 3-D software to render realistic images reminiscent of the Alps. Volunteer curators select the artists featured on Adblock, where new shows are unveiled every two weeks
Since it launched in late May, more than 20,000 people have downloaded Add-Art (which works only on Firefox, and only if Adblock Plus is downloaded), according to Lambert, who says he has received an earful from critics who believe we are honor bound to view ads because they keep Web sites free.
“I can take a free newspaper and cut it up and do whatever I want, but for some reason people think they have to look at a Web site exactly like all those companies want you to see it,” he says.
Add-Art, like many of Lambert’s projects, responds to advertising that he believes pollutes public space, a position he took in 1999 as an undergraduate at San Francisco Art Institute while breaking bread with muralists.
“They would talk about these walls and say how they wanted to paint them and you’d ask them about it a couple months later and they’d say, ‘It’s a billboard now,'” Lambert says. “Sometimes they’d ask the building owner who would then think, I can sell this space.”
At the same time, in his Mission District neighborhood, Lambert grew disenchanted with the posters affixed to plywood construction areas. He would paint the posters white, and then paint “Advertisement” there instead.
Most of the mischief he does these days — including Add-Art — is under the auspices of the Anti-Advertising Agency, which he launched with like-minded artists after a $34,000 grant from the San Francisco-based Creative Work Fund in 2004.
Among the collective’s projects are posters that feature a blank billboard for people to fill with a non-commercial message and hang in public. Examples at antiadvertisingagency.com include one that reads, “For the next 10 seconds