Saturday, November 17, 2012

Graffiti Aesthetics: The Space of Writing

Note, November 2010: With The Underbelly Project still reverberating on the web I thought I'd reprint an old post I wrote on space in graffiti. I published it in 2007 in The Valve. Note that while the Underbelly Project included both graffiti and street art, this article is specifically about graffiti. I may also pertain to some street art, but certainly not all. The post points out that major advances in Western art have involved reconceptualizing pictorial space. In this post I argue that graffiti provides the basis for another such reconceptualization and thus holds out the opportunity for fundamental aesthetic innovation. What I didn't say is that graffiti is the only form of abstract / non-representational art that that has gotten popular acceptance around the globe.
Note, November 2012: What I didn't say, either in the post below, or in the prefatory note above, is what I hope graffiti can and will do. This has to do with graffiti's commitment to, well I don't quite know what to call it, the name-based space that's at heart of graffiti. But whatever it is, it seems to be able to accept and absorb any form of imagery. The cartoon-based characters that showed up, mostly as embellishments, in the New York subways in the 70s and 80s persist, of course. But they've also become elaborated, both toward pictorial realism, but also toward other forms of imagery. In some cases the characters and other imagery have pushed the names aside so that graffiti has morphed into something else.
So, while "traditional" piecing (including wild style) tends to dominate graffiti, just about any sort of imagery has become absorbed into the culture – some of which can be seen on the ever-changing walls of the Green Villain, just around the corner and down the block from me. And that imagery includes comic book imagery and strange machines, futuristic machines, and just plain weird stuff.  So, could graffiti absorb and articulate scientific imagery, from the micro world of quarks and biomolecules through the macro world of planets, star systems, galaxies and, well, the whole universe? What would a graffiti-based Powers of Ten be like?
Awesome is what. Freakin' awesome. That is could graffiti become the art form for articulating the invisible worlds of post 19th-century science? That's something the must happen. Disney took a run at it in the Rite of Spring episode of Fantasia and, in a different way, in the intermission interlude; it's there on the pages of countless comic books and in science fiction films. But it's not really there in art galleries. Graffiti could put it there.

The artists who work in this particular tradition call themselves writers. The rationale is obvious enough as the tradition is grounded in the practice of getting one's nickname up on the wall in the form of tags, throw-ups, and pieces. Piecing is the most complex of these practices and often involves creating the illusion of three-dimensionality through two devices. Drop shadows create the illusion that the letters are suspended or floating over a surface and their shadows are projected on to that surface; the use of drop shadows, of course, implies a light source. The other device is to treat the letters as though they have thickness and to show this by rendering their edges in depth; this presupposes some specific projection of the letters onto the picture plane.

And thus we arrive at my subject, that of the pictorial space implied by graffiti. Have graffiti writers made any discoveries about pictorial space? I don't have an answer for it. But I can tell you why I believe it's an important question to ask and why I believe that writers may already have discovered something new, or are likely to do so in the future.

Representational Space

Consider the tradition of Western representational art from the Renaissance through the Nineteenth Century. All of those paintings and drawings and prints are inscribed within the projection of 3D Euclidian geometry onto the pictorial plane. The discovery and deployment of that projection is fundamental to Western art. It opened up a whole new world.

And when that world started to seem old and stuffy, artists moved beyond it, not by painting new subject matter - though there was some of that - but by proposing new conceptions of pictorial space. The cubists weren't happy with the Euclidian projection and, in effect, tried to treat the picture plane as though it were a 3D space, or was it that they tried to project a 4D space onto the plane? Whatever. Kandinsky used the 2D image plane to depict a two and a half-dimensional pictorial space (the notion is from the visual perception work of the late David Marr) filled with lines and surfaces in motion, but no solid objects. Jackson Pollock painted motion in fractal space while Mark Rothko gave us colored luminosity in spaces of undefined dimensionality.

Geometrical terms and metaphors, however, are not the only way to think about pictorial space. We must also need to think about how the mind inhabits the space, about how the body, brain, and mind construct that space. We see through the eyes and the visual areas of the brain, but I'm quite sure that we understand through the motor system and balance system as well. Graffiti is rich in visual motion. We don't simply see it with our eyes, we feel it with our hands and move about it with our bodies. We do this with all images, but does graffiti ask us to move through space in new ways? That's the question, and I'm sure that, at some level, the answer will be stated in neural times, not only for graffiti, but for all the visual arts. But we're not ready for that her and now.

The physical scale of graffiti is important, and almost impossible to convey in photographs. Graffiti often extends six, eight, or more feet off the ground — some of it, of course, hangs down several feet from a high ledge or rooftop. A piece may easily be ten feet wide or more, a production (several coordinated pieces on the same surface) can span 10, 15, or 20 yards. They are painted with large motions of the arms and trunk, as Jackson Pollock painted his abstractions. You observe graffiti by walking toward it and away from it, back and forth from one side to another. When your primary contact with a graffiti is through a photo, all this body motion must be compressed into mere eye movements.

Yet that limitation might not be fatal to a viewer with imagination. Some years ago I interviewed a graphic artist named Irving Geis. He'd spent the last decades of his career creating images of complex biological molecules. He told me that, in order to visualize the structure, he would imagine himself walking around inside the molecule. If Irving Geis can project his entire body into a molecule, then I suspect that we can project our bodies into images of graffiti and thereby walk around in them.

The Name

Then there is the discipline of the name. Whatever the chosen name, the writer is stuck with it. Piecing is a game requiring skill and originality. The writer is challenged to invent new ways of writing the same name, new forms to impose on the name as a gestalt, and on the individual letters as components in the gestalt. Writers have worked with the forms in 2D and 3D, and with various ways to treat the surfaces of the letter forms. They have worked figurative materials into their pieces as well, from cartoon figures through hyper-realistic figures, landscapes, and cityscapes.

What seems important to me is that, while graffiti is created on 2D surfaces, the fundamental conception of the pictorial world is not itself spatial. For names are not spatial, though letter forms are. When the graffiti writer creates drop shadows he does not thereby convert the pictorial world into a 3D space. Rather he places a 3D space in that world as one object, a special kind of object that dictates how other objects are rendered. That object may dominate the world, but it is not the only object in that world. It is precisely because the graffiti pictorial world is not spatially conceived that it has been able to work so effectively with letter forms and name forms in two and three dimensions. The dimensionality is inserted into the world as a pictorial device, but everything is anchored in the name, which is not itself spatial.

The name is ultimately an abstract object, a place-holder and pointer in a social network - cf. my previous essay on Stylistic Identity. Its expressions must inevitably take on the spatial characteristics of the medium of expression. To use the well-worn terminology of semiotics, the name's signified (what it represents) is not inherently spatial, but its signifier is (what it physically is, on the wall). When the name is expressed in speech, the signifier is extended in time; when expressed in writing, the signifier is extended in 2D space. We must not confuse the spatial extension of the physical image with the non-dimensional name that it represents.

In the case of representational art within the realistic traditions of the West, there is a specific relationship between the 2D forms of the physical image and the 3D space that is projected onto and represented on the surface. Graffiti, as we have seen, is quite different. It is the name that is represented and, by implication, that social network of graffit writers that is implied in every graffiti, a network of names that extends around the world.

Outback in the New Millennium: Telling stories with graffiti

Let us consider a very different graphic tradition, that of the Walbiri, an aboriginal people in central Australia, suggested to me by Randall White, an archeologist who is an expert on cave paintings. The standard discussion is Nancy D. Munn's Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society (1973).

The Walbiri use graphic patterns in the course of recounting dreams and telling stories. The graphic elements themselves are relatively simple - lines, curves, circles, and ovals in various combinations and arrangements. Circles and curves can indicate people, or animals, or places, or geographic features, depending on context. And lines can indicate paths or motion. While these diagrams often get considerably more complex, to a first approximation they resemble the diagrams used to spell out plays in football. Those football diagrams indicate players and paths of motion. Points, lines and vectors.

I was particularly struck by Munn's account of “The Sand Story” (chapter 3, pp. 58-88). These are told by women and about culturally significant figures as they go about their daily activities. What we need to think about is the way the story-teller will use diagrams in the process of telling the story. She starts by smoothing out an area of the sand (hence the designation “sand stories”). As she tells the story she draws appropriate diagrams, with appropriate signs for the actors, geographic features, and movements. As the space becomes filled she'll wipe it clean and keep on going.

The imagery is so schematic that if you didn't know the conventions, you couldn't tell what was going on. The diagrams do not illustrate the stories in any standard sense of that term. The action of making the diagrams seems to be as important as the diagrams themselves. The telling of a story is a verbal, visual, motor event, all woven together into a single unified set of actions. The diagrams are simply evanescent visual traces of the story-telling process. Their 2D form follows from how they are made and bears no strict geometric relationship to the story world.

That's how graffiti functions. They are 2D forms because they are inscribed on planar surfaces. As appropriate, they may employ standard conventions for projecting 3D objects onto a plane; but that projection should be considered a local property of the object or objects that use it, not a property of entire pictorial space. That pictorial space, the space conjured up by the 2D marks, has no specified dimensionality. In particular, it is neither in rebellion against the projective conventions of Western realism, nor an affirmation of any of the various rejections of and replacements for those conventions - impressionist, cubist, surreal, abstract, and so forth. The traditions of graffiti is indifferent to all that and, because of that indifference, writers likewise free to employ any and all of those conventions as they so desire. All of them may comfortably be employed if and when needed. But none are required. Only the name is required.

What I am arguing, then, is that graffiti writers have re-created the most primitive and undifferentiated form of image-making in the context of post-industrial civilization. In so doing they have evaded and sidestepped the aesthetic controversies that bedevil and stymie the contemporary gallery and museum scene. Graffiti is working in a fundamentally different cultural zone.

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