Thursday, June 16, 2011

Graffiti Reset: Through the Streets and Beyond

You may have read about the Underbelly Project, who knows, depending on just who YOU are, you may even have seen it. During 2009 and 2010 over a hundred artists were escorted into an abandoned subway station in New York City where they then proceeded to create a work – most, thought not all, made paintings. When they were done – they only had a night – they were escorted out. When all the work was done the curators closed up the ‘gallery’ and that was that.

Except for the big-splash articles in The New York Times and The Times of London. And then the urban explorers and the wannabes figured out where the gallery was, and started trooping in. Arrests were made. And this and that. It was all over the graffiti and street art blogospheres, including a few posts right here on New Savanna.

All that’s just by way of introduction, because this post isn’t yet another perambulation on tUP. I mention it because of the artists in it, some were graffiti writers and some were street artists. THAT was most interesting.

For most ‘civilians’ the two terms – graffiti, street art – are interchangeable. They mean ‘stuff on walls that isn’t supposed to be there and that pretends to be art but may or may not be, depending, but regardless, it surely IS vandalism’. The difference between the traditions is obvious enough, though the line between the two is, like many such lines, a fuzzy one. “Graffiti”, as the writers understand the term (and as I’m using it) is the name-based work that’s mostly done with spray paint and that originated in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s, etc. Roughly speaking, street art is everything else put on public walls in the name of art; it is NOT name based and includes stencil work, posters, stickers, installations, yarn, and installations of various kinds.

The graffiti writers tend to think of street artists as gutless arrivistes encroaching on their territory who are just using the street as a backdoor into the gallery scene – a charge lodged against tUP by graffiti bloggers all over (see also the Banksy vs. Robbo war). Street artists don’t seem to be quite so exercised over the difference.

Of course, there’s more than territoriality at issue. There’s also authenticity. Given that we’re in a culture where soda pop has been marketed as “the real thing”, I find the notion of authenticity rather suspect. It’s too easily faked. But still, there’s something going on here, some kind of difference between the real and the bogus, and that’s what the writers are exercised about. Thus, for example, someone who can get up by pasting a poster on a wall isn’t in harms way long enough to score authenticity points. And someone who’s sneakin’ into the gallery through the alley door, that’s fake as well. It’s the gallery that’s the source of greed and corruption.

In this world – and perhaps in all worlds – that’s often enough true that the graffsters have a point. But just who they’re pointing at, the streetsters, themselves (see all that graffiti on hip-hop paraphernalia and in the videos? Just how REAL is that) or some diffuse CORRUPTER OF ALL THINGS GOOD AND TRU, that’s a murky issue. That’s something we’re all society-wide sorting out.

As far as I can tell – and I don’t know this history very well – the street art scene is more recent than graffiti and seems to have originated in Europe. It’s the graffiti writers who were the first to systematically claim public space for their own expressive use and thereby put the nature of public space into question. In this respect street art owes a debt to graffiti, and it’s in this sense that graffiti writers feel that the streetsters are encroaching on their territory. Of course, if the streets don’t belong to Coca Cola or the Metropolitan Transit Authority, then they don’t belong to graffiti writers either.

What’s important is simply that the expressive use of public space is being systematically contested in a new way. My guess is that this is an irreversible process. Whether the implications will turn out to be profound, that’s not clear to me. I’m not even sure what that – “turn out to be profound” – means. All I know is that something’s in motion and that graffiti kicked it off.

Also, this is not about the imagery used, it’s about where it’s put, public space. The imagery is a different matter. Street artists don’t use graffiti imagery and techniques, street art is not based on the name. It can be based on anything whatever. In this respect, much street art, though not all of it, is more mainstream – not a very good word in this context, but I can’t think of a better one – than graffiti; much of it is representational. And much of it is overtly political, whereas graffiti’s politics is mostly that graffiti exists, therefore this space is ours MoFo!

It remains to be seen whether or not graffiti imagery, and the linearity of the name, will open up new possibilities in imagery. When that happens . . .

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