Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Recent ads displayed on Big Ben have included images of monkeys and weight loss photos.
You can’t really blame the U.K. parliament for being a little grumpy. Since last winter, the neo-gothic hulk of London’s Houses of Parliament has been besmirched with huge, unauthorized projections that have at various points included a monkey, a swastika, and a reality star’s weight-loss photos. The building has become the go-to canvas for any advertiser (or occasional political activist) looking for an eye-catching backdrop for their campaign, thanks to its iconic status and easy use as a projection screen from the opposite bank of the River Thames.
Now, says Parliament’s external communications director Lee Bridges, enough is enough. Writing an angry piece this month for advertising industry news sheet Campaign, Bridges warned readers implicitly that if they indulged in more projection bombing, they’d be messing with the wrong people:
“We are not being killjoys or jobsworths. The Houses of Parliament, famed for their stunning Gothic architecture, are part of an Unesco World Heritage Site and need to be enjoyed as such. These buildings are not free billboards—proposals to project commercial campaigns that are not in the national interest will not be granted permission.”
You can understand why parliament’s keepers are annoyed. The trend started ignominiously in 1999, when FHM magazine projected the hugely enlarged image of a naked TV presenter onto the building. Parliament didn’t take kindly to being the backdrop to an ad for a competition to find the U.K.’s sexiest woman, but the trend caught on. Last month, tea brand PG Tips projected an enormous chimpanzee (part of its advertising campaigns for decades) onto the building to tie-in with Chinese New Year. The previous winter, Parliament was graced with before and after shots promoting the weight loss DVD of a star of Geordie Shore, a Newcastle-based rip-off of U.S. reality show Jersey Shore that succeeds in being more low-rent than its model. Other attempts have been more political, such as when campaign group Avaaz criticized the U.K. visit of India’s nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi by projecting a swastika onto Big Ben, parliament’s clocktower.
What makes this opportunism more grating is that parliament buildings elsewhere have actually provided sites from some pretty eye-catching works of art. Building on the brilliant projection-based work of such artists as Jenny Holzer, the filmmaker Darren Aronovsky and the French artist JR projected the faces of a dense crowd of people onto the façade of France’s Assemblée Nationale during the COP21 climate change talks last year, as a reminder of the phenomenon’s present and future victims. On a far grander scale was the wrapping and illumination of Berlin’s Reichstag Building by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1995, prior to its rehabilitation as Germany’s parliament by Norman Foster. The wrapping’s floodlit nocturnal removal chimed brilliantly with the spirit of the moment, a ritual unveiling that was a counterpart to the re-launch of Berlin as a national capital. It’s no wonder that Britain’s parliament is frustrated at merely being the screen for a Godzilla-sized butt.
In fairness, it has done a little better than that. The building is sometimes used for official projections, such as when lit with the union flag during the 2012 Olympics. But when it comes to unofficial use, there isn’t a whole lot parliament can do. They can shame the advertisers and possibly slap them with a fine, but there’s no way to stop such projections going ahead short of closing the entire Thames Embankment. As these images are seen by far more people online than on-site, the projections only really need to be up long enough to take a few photos. Maybe this month’s warning to the advertising industry will be enough to scare at least a few of the monkeys and models away.