It is sweeter to wander with the wretched and outcasts than to sit crowned with roses at the banquets of the rich
Elisee Reclus

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It's Not The Street That Bothers Me...

We are in space. We are in the street. It is our street. Our space because no-one sees the space as exactly as we do. As you do. It’s quick, it’s excitable as our eyes scan space. Scan crannies. In our radar we pick out details, signs of life as flashes of wonder. A comforting crack in the wall. A juxtaposition of elements, your own collage of bricks and broken advertising? A montage of sound and a sheer drop, the walk over the shopping centre ramps? An assembly of black bags beneath a car? A car that’s dumped. A dump of bus tickets, all dates, all sizes blowing slowly apart to spread about the city, transporting itself on the wind. Or scrawl, ‘I LOVE ?’, ‘TONY IS SHIT’, ‘MAN LIKES TO SUCK. RING 09876123242’. Or damage, accidents, bumps and grinds leaving openings, ways in, ways out, ways through this. A million pasts and a million futures that we see in our own familiar ways as we mooch about where we live. Those things are what cheer us, anchor us, give us inspiration.

But the forces of darkness are massing once again. We just got comfortable again in the post-industrial city. A little battered but still unbroken. Still functioning and still with an element that’s remained sharp. But the forces are massing once again. They want to invade that space. They want to get you. They want to take your space. They are Space Invaders. Or so they think…

The signs are everywhere now. Not only the physical acts of invasion but photographs, lectures, auctions, makes or breaks. Worse than this there are now opinions to be heard. Options. Discussions. Argument. It’s becoming a serious business this invasion. What do you think? Have you had your say on the matter? On the matter at hand. Do you have an opinion? Do you have something to say about it?

(The robot with the piercing eyes in charge of the investigation dissolves as I wake from the nightmare, sweating, screaming:
‘Yes. Okay. YES! It’s cool. It’s really cool’. It’s okay. It’s okay. I like it. It’s alright’.
Crap! He knows I’m lying. I used to think it was cool but then I had to run off. Up to my old tricks. Fuck! Shit! Critique. I thought their drugs had cured me.)

Have you had your nightmare yet?

Graffito on estate agents, Hackney 2006

There has been a break-out of artists at every street corner. This was predicted by curmudgeon and misfit Louis-Ferdinand Celine 80 years ago. ‘People are so bored that artists have been posted at every street corner’, he wrote. It’s true. You can’t move for someone’s stencil, sticker, photocopy, marker pen, spraypaint. We are banging our heads on the walls and the art hurts.
The street has been rediscovered after its murder in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Now it’s safe again to be street. It’s safe to be in the street. It’s even okay to be an artist again.
We got rid of the gallery to have the world become one big gallery. The lingo used by magazines to accompany articles on street art is the same as the one used by estate agents to accompany house sales. First and foremost, there is ‘urban’. Following the urban is the ‘cool’. After this you might get your new urban feet wet in ‘raw’, ‘rough’, ‘sexy’, ‘underground’. This lingo is so unreal and clichéd, it sounds like calling your friends ‘cats’ and having something that ‘you dig!’. It’s seem obviously a parallel that street art is more likely to be found in places that are undergoing serious gentrification rather than in places that remain shitholes, loveable or not. Here, then, street art is the precursor to continuing enclosure, to subtraction of free space.

Sticker applied to numerous pieces of street art, Brooklyn 2006

New York, September 2006. Small bar, thirty in a crowd. Two other people. The man and wife ‘collective’. She? Don’t know. Him? Ad Exec. Together they are the Wooster Collective, the biggest on-line site for street art. Essentially they are collectors, patrons, the bourgeoisie, with a “love” for other people’s street art. After ten or twenty, thirty slides of this kind of art, my friend could take their sales pitch no more. A small argument fizzled. One sided as The Woosters are so inoffensive as to seem like chinchillas. They are too bland to offer any vigourous self-defence of the project and thus by default of themselves. After a few sharp raised voices, my friend slumps down defeated by the Collective and the crowd who believe. ‘But’, he says to himself, ‘street is art is so boring’. I was shocked. Call the police! Call the artists! Call the artist police. Yes, it was like how I used to feel when someone I trusted slagged off the Situationists. ‘But, but!’, I would mumble. Sacrilege. Heresy. Profanity. Ok, you get the point.

It was ten seconds later when it hit me. Street art is boring!!!

Graffito on riverwall at North Woolwich, circa 1974, still there.

The invasion is weird though as it expands as it contracts. It gets bigger as it gets smaller.
Once there was the gallery and we could safely ignore it. Now the gallery has expanded to fill the world. It’s all gallery. Wherever you walk is gallery. And it’s all gonna have a price. You heard the tale of the people who sold their brick wall because it had a Banksy on it? Crazy expansion.
What makes street art so boring is that it eats itself. Whereas we might have had a laugh at someone who left painted a smiley face on a belisha beacon. Or we might still laugh as ‘NO PARKING’ once more becomes ‘NO BARKING’. Or as ‘CAUTION: MEN WORKING OVERHEAD’ becomes ‘CAUTION: MEN WANKING OVERHEAD. As ‘CANAL STREET becomes ‘ANAL STREET’. As ‘NO MORE TORY CUTS’ became ‘NO MORE TORY CUNTS’. Something un-selfconscious. Something quick. In comparison, wrapped up in its own self-awareness, Street Art really is quite humourless in its supposed ‘intervention’ into every day life.
My favourite playful lightening fast reactions to events are the dressing up of some local statue with a wooden stave and plastic coppers helmet at Tower Hill, East London during the Printers Dispute of 1986-87 when the whole area was regular occupied by the forces of order, themselves being either barriers to entry and exit or targets for bricks and bottles. The other act of iconoclastic intelligence was the Mayday 2000 crowning of the statue of Winston Churchill with a green Mohican. Less well remembered was the droplet of blood that was added to his mouth, a timely reference to Churchill’s approval of the aerial bombing of Iraqi’s back in 1921.
On a similar disregard for art and it’s attendant wearying aspirations, I could find no-one willing to help me update the great Anarchist Bakunin’s novel strategy of defence in the Dresden uprising of 1849. During the Reclaim The Streets uprising of joy in 1997 in Trafalgar Square, we were at the step of the National Gallery, a thousand or more with the police beginning their rough handling of us. Couldn’t we pull the Matisses, the Caravaggios, the Vermeers out onto the street, give ‘em an airing and keep the coppers at bay. They wouldn’t truncheon their way through those museum pieces. It was black looks for me all the way, I’m afraid. In the end, someone sprayed up on the Gallery wall ‘Art by all or none at all’ which was merely the theory of the practice I was hoping to spring into effect. Another day, my friends, another day. No Gods! No Old Masters!

Anyway, in these instances, something amusingly utopian opens up. Something worth saying is being said. This is a collective action. Something shared by all in those tumultuous events. It may be ‘street art’ but it comes from some entirely different world view. Even the political slogan, as tired as it may seem in these hateful times, is some respite from the intentional clever-clever Street art that finds its references in itself. How many wacky Manga-style characters can you count on the walls? The kind of thing that Carhart will use in ad campaign. But which came first? The ad or the art? Or people make sub-Bankys. There’s twenty five books published last year about Street Art. About stickers art. About stencil art. About spraycan art. Then the genre divides and there’s books that quote Debord and Bataille and talk about ‘the everyday’ and feature photos of people’s ‘games in the city’. We must reject this.
That’s why I like the slogan from North Woolwich painted up in white paint in the 1970’s during the recession and the harsh attack on workers lives. I like it as it remains. It has not been scrubbed away. As nothing has changed for the poor as we face a new bosses crisis in the next few years, nothing has changed with the slogan. Class against class. Old-fashioned but immutable.

Futura 2000, early NYC grafittist.

So then it contracts again.
They spoke about how they wanted to get their art out into the public space, how liberating it was, how anyone could do it. But the problem remains of art and artists. Why should we creatively labour under the illusion that what we make is ‘art’. Either in a studio or plastering the street with it. There was something less irritating about the grafitti that came with rap music. This may merely be my own class-based obsessions where hip-hop culture seemed more working class, more poignant, more localized, more survival and thus in one, more capable of being visionary even if the themes and content of the pieces became quickly ritualized. But with this messy argument, I dig a big hole or lay myself open to a trap despite my guiding belief in life to embrace ‘contradiction without resolution’.
I like tagging because it merely serves to mark space and to be known by more or less those in the know or those who care, be that these days, other people like you or the police who patrol MySpace to gather ‘intelligence’ to prosecute taggers. Tagging is anonymity squared. No-one knows who you are yet some people just know you anyway, through the act, through the name, through longing and mooching around The City and your spaces, your pathways through it. Through this creation of free space. Walls become exit points, not canvases.

Street art becomes reactionary and miserly when the act itself is an advertisement for the self that wants not to be no-one but to be someone. It becomes a vile practice when it wants to take the freedoms to be found in wandering the city and covers them up through the act of representation. Street art saturated streets make the place as banal as a shopping mall, as a mere extension of things to consume. Street Art Tours and Guidebooks (available now!!) remove even the last thread of play and delight, bringing what was once hidden, possibly subversive, occult or festive, into the realm of being another boring commodity (like non-street art), just more cultural capital.
So, is this a piece of art or is a brand for an up-and-coming area? Is this a game played in the city like hide and seek or is it a role-playing game where the self morphs into something quite spectacular, the already written script?
In this fashion, Street art leads to celebrities. It can’t help it. Uncovering Banksy is an obsession in the media because in the bourgeois world everyone must have a name and a face in order to be someone. Banksy must have a public face.

I stopped myself going to the OBEY art show in London’s now trendy Brick Lane for two reasons. The first was that I would make myself miserable. The second was that as a follow-on from this misery I would desire to piss up the canvases and I wasn’t sure how long you might get for urinating on street art in a gallery setting. Let’s call this a grey area for now. OBEY is one motherfucker famous for his ‘street art’ that satirises consumer and surveillance culture with his pieces that warn you to obey. For all his talk, spiel and bullshit, Shepard Fairey (OBEY) helps run the marketing company BLK/MRKT that specializes in knowing what’s hip with the kids in the street so that Adidas, Nike etc can market it, maximize sales, make money. With one hand he ‘gets up’, he sticks up big posters in the street and he’s been at it for years. With the other hand he banks the cheques from the mega-corps that are the backbone for why surveillance culture exists, to protect property and profit blah blah as you know. Oh well.
It’s a snake that eats its own tale. A ton of people who went out in their teens to spray, tag, destroy, reinvent the grey blank walls = blank minds City, kept going and made jobs for themselves in agencies like OBEY runs. Now they’re bored in their dayjobs and take their alienation out into their agencies nearby streets. This is why street art is more likely to be found in gentrified areas full of new media jobs and less in other areas saturated merely with old shit jobs. Shit! It’s a pisser but, for some who never had a chance, it’s better than serving burgers. Just ask Futura 2000, one of the earliest train writers in NYC. He ended up in galleries and not McDonalds. Contraction after expansion? Contradiction without resolution?

My good friend, lets call him Agent J, and myself had an idea for a real street art project. It was simple and we called it SHITPUMP. We’d make a hand-held pump that shoots out human shit from a bucket and we’d go out to make our art known. Stumbling across some posh restaurant full of posh punters we might spray the windows brown. Or maybe we would force ourselves into Gallery openings and attack. It would kinda be like this. We’d barge in, two guys with the SHITPUMPS and we’d move fast amongst the hangers-on, the chatterers, the artists, the smug money and we’d attack. Screams all around! Odour. SHITPUMP fires. Here, there, everyone gets a bit!
Of course, we’d end up trendy in the end. Articles would be written about us. People would go to Opening Nights just in case we showed up and they could say to jealous friends, ‘Oh, we got covered in shit last night by SHITPUMP’ We’d probably make some money in the end. Real money. But then where would we be. As disposable as cash. Last week’s thing. I suppose we could stage a comeback as DEATHPUMP.

Amusingly for us, OBEY (alongside SWOON and MOMO, two other street artists) were recently targeted by THE SPLASHER in New York. An OBEY piece could not go by without the anonymous Splasher throwing a bucket of paint over the ‘works’. Outrage in the street art community ensued and then the story was picked up by the papers when The Splasher released a dense manifesto that decried street art as ‘fetishised actions of banality’, ‘the advance scout for capital’ and so on. Particularly spot-on was his insistence that squalor, destitution, poverty, eviction is real. It’s not just ‘exquisite ambiance’ for your art. It all seemed so great (and still is) when the man with the splash was later unmasked, the rumour being that his umbrage was more likely to be an infatuation with SWOON. He’d once interviewed her for a paper but she’d declined his subsequent attentions. This front page splash became the final splash for our Splasher!

Leamington Spa, 2007- a big graffito in black paint!

And so back to the street. Your street. Has someone ‘intervened’ there yet? There’s something to be said for anonymity. For the old fashioned concepts of damage and sabotage. Of class revenge. They have their street art. We prefer vandalism. Let’s get back to basics. The obscene, the scrawled, the scatological, the slogan, the meaningless, the local rumours. Let’s throw it up by night and not care if they scrub it off by day because we are not trying to be anything. Not be anything other than our free collective selves.


Pictures taken from the communal landing just outside my door

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