Monday, July 20, 2009

Street Art and Public Life

Anticipating a future iteration of COMM 149 Rhetoric and Public Life, a class I've taught since 2000 but still continue to revise and rethink semester after semester, I've been planning to develop a module on street art, paying special attention to graffiti, tagging, and the use of stickers used to alter public or private places in a manner not intended by their designers.

Right away, I flash on Michel de Certeau's distinction between place (planned, authorized, formalized) and space (momentary, unscripted, creative), a perfect introduction to the post-place approach I bring to my own inquiries into public life. I also imagine that William Gibson's dictum "The Street finds its own uses for things" will appear somewhere in this new class discussion. Of course, I need to smarten myself up about few topics first, and maybe even rethink some of my biases.

Owing partially to my ignorance, I possess a visceral and somewhat simplistic response to much that is called "street art." Put simply, I don't like it. To illustrate, I recall a highway 17 bus commute onto campus a couple months ago when we passed a well-known painting that indicates the entrance to a San Jose dive called Cinebar. I've visited the bar a few times, but I'd hardly call myself a regular. Still, I always liked the mural on the outside wall. It's a colorful and rare burst of creativity in a what is (all too often) a bland, corporate desert.

Then one day that mural was covered with a spray-painted scrawl: someone's idea of creativity, or rebellion, or personality, or whatever. Wow, that pissed me off. And while I was thrilled when the Cinebar image was repainted a few days later, I wondered how much it cost the small business owner to remove the tag and repaint the mural, recognizing that the unauthorized artist could simply return to inflict his or her damage again. Moreover, the new mural possessed much less detail than the previous version. The result is a sign of diminishing communication. Maybe next time the owner of Cinebar will conclude that beautifying this piece of private property is simply not worth the hassle at all, leaving us with yet another blank wall amid urban corridors. And if the tagger returns then? Well, whitewash is cheap.

I used that example in a summer offering of Rhetoric and Public Life to illustrate how the individual and (sometimes) group marring of public places reflects a problem of contemporary urban life. I figured this was a conventional point, one that would earn polite head-nods. I was wrong, naturally. One especially bright and challenging student pivoted to an intriguing question: How do you feel about billboards? Don't they mar public life? Hmm... My initial response was less than useful: Sure, I replied. I don't like tagging, but I don't like billboards much either. Many are ugly and few contribute much that is meaningful to our shared environment. Perhaps there was some relationship between the two, I considered.

Only later did I recall on the fact that billboards are typically located on private property. In other words, let's say that a farmer agrees to host a billboard and is paid for the exchange. Those advertisements can be seen in public by passing motorists, but they are not imposed on the public in the same manner as one person's graffiti on another person's private property - or on property owned by the public in common (such as a tax-supported civic building). Whether through ownership or rental agreement, if a billboard is located on a private place that is merely adjacent to public life its owner enjoys a high degree of freedom to use it as desired. The same cannot be said for most cases of tagging.

The key issue concerns the rights of ownership [But wait, you might reply: who owns the image at the top of this post? I'll get to that point at the end of this piece]. That's why I have a real problem when I observe the results of a student tagging (owning?) the public university campus where I teach. Any student conceivably contributes to the operation of the campus through taxes, fees, and other supports, but the student hardly owns the campus as private property; the student may not unilaterally alter its design without some form of public consent. The results of that student's tagging, therefore, is not art; it may not be forgiven as harmless "expression" either. It's vandalism.

Can you guess my age? Yep, I'm over forty.

Anyway, while thinking about this topic I recalled an online essay by Rex Thomas called Street Art and Civic Space that has inspired some reflection about the broader topic. Particularly as it relates to my evolving college course, I wonder how I might develop a more sophisticated understanding of street art. Thomas' thesis offers some insight and is amply illustrated with this excerpt:
"Street art is tied into a larger urban culture, and expresses the visual aspect of this larger milieu. As Western mainstream culture retreats from the street into the air-conditioned, connected bubbles of the suburbs, street art and its culture expands to fill the empty space."
Tagging, graffiti, stickers: these are nothing less than meaningful social commentary then, right?

Maybe, but I'm not yet sure. Intriguingly, this commentary championed by Thomas may be revolutionary, but it could also be profoundly regressive. Indeed, Thomas suggests that street artists borrow from the language of advertising: "branding" their identities with "logotypes." Yet he also appears to reject the "culture of consumption" that demeans public life (citing architect Daniel Libeskind to support this point). One imagines that Thomas sees no contradiction in these ideas. Rather, he might say that street artists like Barry McGee and Banksy are appropriating commodity tools to reject the corporatization (and related privatization) of public life.

Thomas proceeds to employ Marshall McLuhan (we all do at some point) to emphasize the role of the medium in defining the message of street art: Given that the art is generally done illegally, "[t]he content of the piece is almost irrelevant; the viewer's reaction is the same regardless of the tag's content or author." In other words, what is uttered is less important than where and how. Even so, one wonders: How can an illegal message inspire meaningful contemplation or dialogue, as Thomas would hope? The author appears to reply: How can it not? Illegal messages inevitably call us to question the nature of legality itself. Who decides?

Thomas shifts to some comments about permission walls, heterotopian spaces that are both uncensored (one might believe) and yet authorized, before concluding with his analysis of how street art signifies a larger aesthetic process. At this point we observe the reduction of "meaning" as a site of communication or method for its evaluation:
"Artists first threw out figure, then form, then color, then the frame, and then wandered into their process itself as an art form. Graffiti artists begin with the end: their signature, or tag, becomes the art, and by using this as the starting point, and the city as their canvas..."
I must admit that this statement about the steady reduction of communication, and its presumably concomitant loss of detail and subtlety, reminds me of George Orwell's claim that language in a coercive environment ends up sounding like the quacking of a duck, or at least becomes valued accordingly.

From this perspective, I continue to ponder: What is really being said on the urban canvas? Thomas seems to reply that street art reveals the crisis and collapse of public life, the consequences of a "privileged few" retreating into their physical and rhetorical enclaves, leaving the rest of society in ruins. To those who flee from public life, excepting armored incursions from the safety of their cars, street art shows what they will not otherwise see. OK, that seems like a fair argument, but this is where I must do some serious thinking. After all, what if the message of street art -- all those tags on interstate highway barriers, all those stickers on suburban stoplights, all those spray-painted faces on urban ruins -- is much more simple and much less meaningful than its defenders ask us to believe?

What if street art simply says, "Look at me"? Yes, that statement "says something" about public life. But does the message offer any promise of change?

Learn More: For me as much as anyone else, it's time to research this topic more thoroughly. Here are some sites I hope to investigate (I have not visited these sites in detail, and I do not necessarily recommend them). Please feel free to post comments on your thoughts and/or recommendations for sites I should add or subtract:

Art Crimes: "a gallery of graffiti art from cities around the world"

Situationist International Archive: collection of essays - a particularly useful site to learn more about Guy Debord

Street Use: "This site features the ways in which people modify and re-create technology"

Note: The image above is borrowed from Banksy's website. I wasn't sure I could use his image for my blog - the risk of hypocrisy is too great - until I read the artist's online manifesto, a quotation from Emo Philips: "When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised God doesn’t work that way, so I stole one and prayed for forgiveness."

Update: This article has been republished under the author's own name (Rex Thomas is a pen name) at New Geography.

No comments: