#tbt An Interview with Kalle Lasn

Found in the Margins is a defunct web magazine that Chris DePaul founded in 2006. Chris and his co-writers would interview musicians, writers and activists on one question: What books inspire the work you do? The Brothers DePaul will be reposting these archived interviews every Thursday. #tbt

This week's interview: Kalle Lasn


Kalle Lasn is the creator of Adbusters Magazine, a Vancouver based non-profit, reader-based and supported magazine concerned with the erosion of the earth’s physical and cultural environments by commercial forces.

Lasn began his career running a market research company in Tokyo, earning enough money to travel around the world for three years. Upon his return to Japan, Lasn and his new wife immigrated to Canada where he started a documentary film production company; his films were broadcasted on PBS, CBC and around the world, winning over 15 international awards.

In 1989 Lasn produced a 30-second TV commercial concerning the disappearance of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. No commercial TV station would sell Kalle airtime to show the advertisement exposing British Columbia’s forestry industry. And through this incident Adbusters Magazine was born.

In the last sixteen years Adbusters has launched many campaigns dedicated to raising social awareness, including Buy Nothing Day, held on the most profitable shopping day of the year which coincides with the American Thanksgiving weekend, and TV Turnoff Week, held annually – April 24th to 30th. Adbusters Magazine has a circulation of over 120,000 people and is currently available in over 60 countries.

In 2000 Lasn wrote the book Culture Jam, a deconstruction of advertising culture and society’s fixation on brands and corporate icons. His most recent book, Design Anarchy, released in early 2006, takes an unflinching look at contemporary art and design, implicating its seemingly innocuous practices in crimes against our culture and our planet.

We recently interviewed Kalle Lasn about his favourite books, his opinions concerning online media, and his recommendations on how to cut through the vast amount of information society produces and really zero in on truly nutritious content.

Chris
What do you read? Are there any books that you favour?

Kalle Lasn
My reading habits are quite varied. Here at Adbusters we are on magazine exchange with a couple of hundred magazines around the world and we also subscribe to some of the newspapers like the New York Times and a few others like the Manchester Guardian and whatnot. And at the same time we have this magical ability to get in touch with any publisher of a book and say to them we may review your books, or send us the latest book that somebody came up with that we are interested in, so a huge amount of stuff goes through Adbusters, and I am one of two or three people in the office who tries to digest it all. You are specifically interested in books, are you?

Chris
I’m interested in what you have to say that goes beyond books.

Kalle Lasn
Yeah, well I think if you want to make sense of the world today you really need a diverse diet of reading and I think that in some sense books are at the top of the pyramid. You can get some nice news information by going to a few blogs in the morning and what not, but I find in my life the really big mind shifts and epiphanies happen when I read books.

Chris
So I know you talked about getting a lot of recent books by working with Adbusters, but before Adbusters were there any kinds of books that spurred your enthusiasm in a certain field?

Kalle Lasn
Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus was a book that without exaggeration I can say sort of put me on a wave that changed my life about twenty years ago or so, and it was the beginning of Adbusters as well. With Lipstick Traces I went on to read Sadie Plant’s The Most Radical Gesture and a whole bunch of other books like The Situationist City by a guy called Simon Sadler and that whole Situationist philosophy that was really the philosophical foundations of everything we have done here at Adbusters since. And it was also the philosophy of that book Culture Jam that I wrote five years ago and also this book called Design Anarchy which has just been released here at Adbusters.

Most recently, to jump all the way from twenty years ago to now, there was a book reviewed in the New York Review of Books that recently came out and it had three similar ideas in it that really struck me as being politically fascinating called American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Philips. And he’s got three key ideas in that book – one idea is this idea of how the pursuit of oil for thirty years now as been the defining element of American foreign policy. The second big idea has to do with religion and how a certain sort of apocalyptic religious viewpoint is part of the reason for what the kind of war on terror America is fighting right now. And the third big idea was this idea that America is living beyond its means and that there is going to be some sort of big moment of truth coming up soon. Now none of these ideas are, when I describe them like that, they don’t feel totally new - they are old ideas - but he actually, the way I read it and I saw him interviewed on TV on the weekend as well, and he has a way of weaving those three key ideas together in such a way that it really does paint a very compelling picture of the political state of America today.

Chris
Stemming from that, there seems to be a rise in types of activist literature appearing in our culture. The kind that dissects pop culture, politics, and foreign policy – do you think this type of literature is just a trend or is there a growing base of awareness in our society?

Kalle Lasn
Yeah, Yeah. Well you know, to me I must admit I feel that there are too many books out there and too much information and it is quite obvious. I mean the real problem in life is how do you get through the noise and zero in on something that is actually worth your time and eventually does give you some really nutritious stuff to chew on and to some degree I sort of despair at the fact you can walk into a book store and there is all this stuff in some section and yet none of it is really truly inspiring. I think that what we need today is on a number of fronts, on the culture front, on the environmental front, on the activist front, on the business front and especially on the political front. We need similar ideas, similar books. Books like Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. We are at a very dangerous moment in history where ecologically, psychologically and politically we are hitting a wall and what we need is some really clear thinkers and good writers to get us out of the mess that we are in.

Chris
With the expansion of the Internet it seems that everybody can become a writer and even though there are some great blogs out there, how do you know which ones to read and how do you know who take seriously, it is becoming a major hurdle, I believe.

Kalle Lasn
There is a study that came out recently that conducted a review of American journalism and it actually found that even though there is way more information out there and that there are all kinds of media outlets and blogs and what not that actually, in some sense, people are getting less information. On a single day the guy who did the study Googled up and found there were 14, 000 news stories that came out but they were only covering 24 news events. So, you have this huge amount of writing on a very small number of events and that sort of lack of diversity is really scary because you have this illusion that you are really on top of the world, that you really understand what is going on, ecologically, politically, culturally and so on, yet maybe you don’t understand at all.

Chris
To reference a statement you made in Culture Jam where you say TV contributes to mental pollution – do you think literature falls into this “thinking rather than doing” category or do you think literature encourages reaction in people and spurs people to go outside of their comfort zones?

Kalle Lasn
Well I think we are living in a very polluted mental environment and that on our computers and on TV and in magazines, and even lately in newspapers and in movies and so on, there is just an incredible amount of white and blue and pink noise and I think that everything we do sort of contributes to that, I don’t think literature is necessarily exempt from that. I think there is less pollution in books in general than there is on the Internet or whatever, but I think that we have to address that general problem that there are now 3000 marketing messages a day seeping into our brains, whether we like it or not, and everything that we pick up, everything that we see on our computers is either marketing pollution or it is noise. You know it is just a book that someone managed to get through because they had a big ego, but that book doesn’t actually have anything to say. And I think there is a lot of that kind of writing going on, I mean even in the weekly New York Review of Books where they try to sift through and zero in on the really important books that were published in the last week, even there half of the books are not worth reading. So, to answer your question, I think literature is contributing to this mental pollution that is fogging up all our minds.

Chris
 think that is essentially our overall goal with foundinthemargins, to be able to show people the good and inspiring books that are out there.

Kalle Lasn
Yeah, and I wish you luck. That is basically what we try to do with Adbusters magazine as well. We come out periodically and we try on all these fronts - culture, environmentalism, politics, activism, technology, art and life - we try to fill up about 100 pages of stuff that hopefully cuts through all the noise and confusion of contemporary life, this hall of mirrors we are caught in.

Written by Chris DePaul