Urban Archaeology and the art of culture-hacking

We think about culture a great deal here at Truth. How we can access the connections, influences and embedded codes that make us who are we are and how we can apply the insights we reveal on behalf of our clients.

A process we call culture-hacking is our entry point into the nervous-system that is culture. We look at what lies hidden in plain sight; the details of life that are often ignored. We look for the ‘doors into culture’ that will take us further. Imagine a computer hacker obsessing over computer code until the ‘routes in’ are found. Or the urban explorer spending weeks searching for the ways into the underbelly of a global city’s subway system.  Or an archaeologist who scrapes away at empty soil until the fragments appear.

I was reminded of this process when I visited the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival recently. This year’s event is curated by James Lavelle, the founder of seminal 1990s record label Mo Wax and something of a culture-hacker himself.

He might not be the biggest name to curate the yearly festival (previous alumni include Jarvis Cocker, Yoko Ono and Massive Attack), but his influence on culture across music, fashion, art and design is unmistakeable. In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell describes the ‘connectors’ whose disproportionate cultural influence on those around them allows trends to disseminate - in many ways Lavelle is the uber-connector.

Mo Wax brought us not only a slew of innovative music throughout the 90s, from DJ Shadow’s genre-defining Endtroducing album to obscure Japanese techno, it also provided a central hub for a web of fellow ‘connectors’ stretching from London to New York, Tokyo and beyond – a network of like-minded souls shedding light into the dark corners of emergent culture.

Everything from record sleeve art designed by New York graffiti legend Futura 2000, which foreshadowed (and influenced) the rise of street art and paved the way for the likes of Banksy to move from painting walls to selling canvasses, to Japanese toy culture and the cult of sneaker obsessives which is now firmly part of mainstream pop culture.

For me, it’s a great example of culture-hacking, placing oneself at the intersection of numerous emergent cultures and curating the best bits of them for maximum impact. When that impact’s still evident 21 years later, you know you created something of real cultural value.

Lots of brands are keen to get into curation, whether it’s of content, experiences or product, but the legacy of Lavelle’s Mo Wax speaks to the importance of the editor/curator and Gladwell’s connector in this – when something’s really cutting edge, it takes real vision, a clear eye for the future and the right network of connections to propel it into the mainstream.

For brands, this comes down to legitimacy. We’re all curators in the social media age but we still need these connectors or cultural hackers who can report back from the fringes of culture they’re linked into and point out what’s coming next. Brands are increasingly acceptable in this space (something that wasn’t previously true), but they must speak from a position of legitimacy – people are open to brands playing this role and providing this kind of service, but will be quick to call them out if they don’t have the requisite legitimacy.

You can take a look for yourself by checking out the Urban Archaeology: 21 years of Mo Wax exhibition (originally funded as a Kickstarter project, naturally) of art, toys, sneakers and record label design taken from the Mo Wax archives at the Southbank Centre.

You can also get a feel for Lavelle’s instinct for curation by catching some of the music performances and workshops he’s running for the duration of the festival.