Their joy evident and their excitement palpable, a group of young people strolls through the Stockholm Metro, replacing advertisements with hand-painted art posters and showing their viewers how to pass the entrance barriers to the railway station without a valid ticket – but with all the more style. The activities and campaigns organised by the anarchist collective Planka.nu are fun, that much is evident. So are their videos, smartly bridging the gap between semi-documentaries and semi-tutorials – they are fun to watch and, much to the dismay of public transportation companies, extend an invitation to imitation.
The Swedish-Norwegian network Planka.nu, translated into English as “fare evasion now”, is a grass-roots movement that advocates a tax-based, toll-free public transportation system. Founded in 2001 in response to the price increase on the Stockholm Metro, one of the most expensive public transportation system in the world, the group now also tackles environmental issues, is active in the field of refugee and immigration policies and has founded the international network Freepublictransports.com. Not only does Planka.nu actively encourage people to doge public transportation fares and organise collective “fare evasion protests” – for around ten euros a month, Planka.nu also helps its members to pay penalty fares through their very own insurance fund p-kassan.
Planka.nu is best known for its web videos. The collective’s channels on platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube are filled with numerous tutorials instructing viewers how to cross entrance barriers without a valid ticket or how to act as an analogue ad-blocker by removing the myriad of advertisement posters in metro stations and replacing them instead with flashy art. All of the videos’ dramatic composition is more or less the same: the hand-held camera moves through train wagons and stations, documenting the flash mob activity in partly shaky point-of-view shots, similar to amateur sports recordings. In most cases, a current and well-known pop song is played in the background, setting the mood and providing a framework for the rhythmic sequence of images. The individual video clips are part of the larger yet locally based campaign and can be found scattered across various different platforms, which is why they have relatively low view counts and are rarely, if ever, commented on.
From Planka.nu’s point of view, public mobility is a basic, fundamental right – one that the collective feels is endangered in the face of increasing privatisation and the squeezing-out of certain groups of low-end consumers from the inner cities, a process which human geography expert David Harvey attributes to the “project of the neoliberal city”. Therefore, Planka.nu does not only carry out its fight in the public space, but it also – and perhaps even more importantly – fight for the public space. Whereas many activist web videos approach serious topics in an equally serious manner, Planka.nu’s videos, however, are usually characterised by an overtly displayed, almost anarchic kind of fun and elation – a positive outlook that has, historically speaking, inspired the tactics employed by both the artistic and political avant-garde, from the Situationist détournement of the 1950s to the Spaßguerilla of the 70s as well as Adbusters and Culture Jams of the 90s.
Planka.nu’s video Adblock AFK (2011) calls attention to its own inherent fun factor by displaying an intertitle showing the phrase “w00t!”, a slang term expressing joyful excitement that is often used in computer-based communication (also, the acronym AFK stands for “away from keyboard”). The immersive soundtrack present in most of the videos further amplifies this “w00t! experience”. In the case of Adblock AFK, we hear Lupe Fiasco’s unauthorised rap cover of the contemporary pop hit “Midnight City” by M83, “This World Ends Now”, which became one of the unofficial anthems of Occupy Wall Street. By combining the original song’s elegiac and immersive tonal structure with inflammatory rhythmic speaking patterns, the actions on-screen appear both exhilarating and militant at the same time. The activists’ unique and colourful everyday clothing, their unveiled faces and the emphasis on their likeable, relatable and almost playful behaviour further highlight that air of exhilaration, that underlying buoyancy that makes Planka.nu’s videos so fascinating to the viewer. By doing so, the activists present an image of themselves as average people using a common good, i.e. merely doing something they should have been allowed to do in the first place. “If normal, everyday people like us fare-dodge”, they seem to argue, “well, so can you.”
Unsurprisingly, not everyone was thrilled by this rather useful – some might even say: beneficial – and subversive campaign, however. Swedish national television reported on the campaign in great detail and invited Planka.nu members to an open discussion with representatives of both the City of Stockholm and the Stockholm Metro (as well as other public transportation companies), which called further attention to the collective and its fare evasion activism. Official dignitaries and state representatives face to face with militant activists in a civilised discussion – live on television, of all things? Hard to imagine here in Germany. In Sweden, however, this was entirely possible – not least because fare evasion is, under Swedish law, merely classified as an administrative offence, whereas it is considered a criminal offence in Germany, punishable in some cases even with a prison sentence.
Nonetheless, German television also aired several reports regarding Planka.nu and its cause, thereby revealing the contrast not only between Sweden and Germany, but also between online video activism and the television industry as a whole. Here, militant activism is seen only as a pragmatic cost-benefit-consideration, as a way to save money, time and effort – virtually nothing resembling the original “w00t! Experience” and the “desire for public action”, the latter of which political theorist Hannah Arendt once described as a revolutionary virtue, remains from this perspective. It is a good thing, I suppose, that activists now have other media networks at their disposal.