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The Alchemy of Street Art

publication date: 2008
author: Rafał Nowakowski

Alchemists and Hackers of City Space

Alembic is an alchemist tool that consists of two glass containers connected with each other. The substance that circulates between them undergoes a process of distillation called by the alchemists "sublimation”. If we applied this metaphor to street art the alembic would be the urban space while the substance – the community spirit. Art itself would be then an alchemical process that makes sublimation possible.

1. Psycho-geography and the (bourgeois) mythology of the street

Public space is a mythologized space. Its every section involves some kind of narration. Its every signifying element (street, square, house entrance, rubbish bin) is a parenthesis of another sense, social discourse (people going to work, holiday celebrations on the market square, house entry doors as the entrance to private sphere). We call such intellectual and social process mythologization because another sense, more universal overlaps the individual meaning.
Mythology is a text that doesn’t undergo changes, the text saturated with senses imposed on individuals as common rules of conduct. The rules that are usually sold under the name of "wisdom of life”, "reason of state”, "common sense” or "civil law”. Their main feature is pursuit of invariability. We are convinced that through transgressing these laws we would violate some natural rules of living. While it is usually all about being obedient to certain historically defined social situation we are actors of, but not the managers.
The sense of responsibility for the public space cannot only be limited to the awareness of "here and now”. Full awareness means looking inwards as well as seeing the perspective. Memory, collective consciousness reach far deeper than merely defined presence. The key notion here is "context”. The true sense of mythology operates exactly in this subtle, fleeting sphere. This is how – more or less – Roland Barthes describes it in his "Mythologies” tracing the bourgeois ideology – the most fickle, still most stable myth factory.
Roland Barthes determined very clear characteristics of bourgeois world outlook – it is mostly manifested by its pursuit of sustaining the status quo. Bourgeoisie is like a gigantic rubber Humpty Dumpty whose aim is just to go on living and not admit any big changes.
While the aim of street artists is change.

Psychogeography is one of the most important notions used by Lettrists International, renamed in 1957 to Situationist International. The precursory, utopian manifestos of the Lettrists embody the vision of the city as a space where different planes of existence and different levels of experience overlap. As Guy Deborg, the main theoretician of Situationism writes – psychogeography is: the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. In reality it was about on one hand free drifting through the city and discovering its unknown aspects, while on the other – a critical commentary to the municipal life seen as a network of co-dependences. It manifested itself by a particular "emotional topography”, a record of "domesticating the city” by its inhabitants.
Psychogeography in its potential practice led to such actions like “Project for Rational Improvements to the City of Paris” published in Potlach – the magazine of Lettrist International in 1955:
The subways should be opened at night, after the trains have stopped running. The passageways and platforms should be poorly lit with dim, blinking lights. The rooftops of Paris should be opened to pedestrian traffic. Museums should be abolished and their masterpieces distributed to bars.
I personally liked the paragraph about train stations the most:
Train stations should be kept as they are. Their rather moving ugliness adds much to the feeling of transience that makes these buildings mildly attractive. Gil J. Wolman called for removal or scrambling of all information regarding departures (destinations, times, etc.). This would promote „drifting”.
It’s not difficult to notice that the essence of these postulates is their unreality and the element of surprise. The Situationists called for reverting the roles within the social spectacle. Think different about everything. Don’t use the city – contemplate it. The Situationist International was an ideological sporangium for all the movements and events of May 1968 in Paris the anniversary of which we recently celebrated. Today we can see that it was a common custom revolution announcing a change in the concept of culture and in social behaviour. This trend is classified to the utopian artistic movements that aimed at social change. Very brave. Why not?
2. Circumventing the system
The same year (1968) Krzysztof Wodiczko graduated from Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in Industrial Design. Twenty years later he began his extensive "public art” project.
"Street art” is not only street art but also art of public space like monuments, huge banners and illuminated neon sings with logotypes of corporations. But it is also a board with departmental names. Basically, all types of symbolic work functioning in public space, pieces of art called to existence in defined space. Another thing is that not all such pieces can be called street art that in its foundation is subcultural, subversive and associated rather with pop culture. Many artists use street art techniques for their own purposes. Because of this their works often go beyond the conventional cultural circuit.
Krzysztof Wodiczko’s "Public Art” should serve as a model for all such projects. This Polish conceptual artist had quite early emigrated and quickly gained a significant position in the USA. Wodiczko reached greatest visionary impetus in his "Public projects” between 1980 and 1999. Huge slides with metaphoric content were projected on the walls of public buildings of the biggest cities of the world: New York, Toronto, Berlin, Madrid. On the "sleeping” facades of buildings huge colourful „frescoes” appeared that combined poetic metaphor with political bluntness like the Projection on the Hirshhorn Museum in 1988 where two hands held a candle and a revolver above the microphones on the rostrum of a politician. What is interesting they are usually full of lyricism like the elegiac projection at the bottom of the ruins of Atom Bomb Dome in Hiroshima in 1999. At night, the hands of the witnesses of this tragedy were projected over the dark depth of the river.
"Public projections” are only the most spectacular examples of his productions. Projects of everyday articles to be used by ordinary people are even more interesting. Like for example the "Homeless vehicle” finished in 1987, a kind of metal shopping cart for the homeless that can be used as a personal shelter for sleeping, as well as for gathered bottles and cardboard transportation and storage. The cart looks like an aluminum model of a rocket put on a hospital bed pasted over with masking tape. Wodiczko designed a "Poliscar” as well (1991), a self-propelled vehicle for the policemen patrolling dangerous quarters.
In his manifesto "Public Projection” Wodiczko wrote:
Public visualization of a myth can debunk it, help to "physically” identify it, push it into the surface and keep within the field of vision to make it easier for the passers-by to observe and participate in the celebration of its final formal capitulation.
This process has to proceed step by step in every "moment of the myth”, in the place where it arose and in its embodiment as a building.
Only the physical, public projection of the myth on its physical body (myth projection) can lead to effective demythologization of the myth. (Krzysztof Wodiczko. "Public Art. Selection of texts and works edited by Piotr Rypson”. Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw 1995, page 114)
Presently, the most politically engaged artist is probably the Spanish architect and designer Santiago Cirugeda. His ideas that could be called "architectural guerilla” are simple and firm: e.g. he took rubbish containers to small city squares and made stages, stalls and swings out of them. His project "Taking the Street” (Seville, 1997) is a full story of such skip that put upside down on the market square served as a stage for a band, a children’s swing podium, and finally as a counter of a night bar. Mostly his projects are more radical though, like the "Insect House” (Seville, 2001) – a portable tree-house designed especially for the protesting ecologists. This arboreal hollow home can be used for sleeping and it is exceptionally resistant to dismantling, and its bottom endures rubber bullet shots well.
In September 2003 the group connected with the architect realized the project "Opening of Empty Lots”, an artistic occupation of the Calle Olivar 48-50 parcel in Seville. In cooperation with the group El Laboratorio Cirugeda led a debate with the aldermen and the citizens simultaneously evacuating four times from different buildings, in this way practicing "city nomadism”. Initially the collective built a standalone bungalow on an empty unfinished building-site parcel. They constructed it out of .... prefabricates and the construction site remains. Plastic coffers usually securing concrete panels were used here as wall fillers. Presently Santiago Cirugeda’s group presents a project "Advice”. It is a construction of a portable bungalow made of metal scaffolding and fibre boards. On the "Recetas Urbanas” webpage a full montage instruction with illustrations is available.
More modest projects like works of the collective Heavy Trash from Los Angeles can carry a huge "potential of change” as well. One day on the lawns in front of the walls of residential districts in Beverly Hills wooden platforms labeled as "Heavy Trash” were installed. Simple wooden constructions invited to social dialogue over the walls. The fact itself that such idea sprung up proves that the society there must be more liberal and independent.
Street art doesn’t have to be angry and "interventional” like in the billboards by Peter Fuss. It can be more abstract and aesthetically refined like in the installations of the collective Glue Society. Their works sometimes trespass the city space just like the rainbow at the top of a mountain... made of plastic chairs or the slow performance in which the celebrants descend from different directions, each carrying his/her chair of different colour. Finally a house made of chairs is constructed, a plastic oval igloo that at dusk elucidates with neon lights. Or a row of cars standing along the pavement gets wrapped up in... colourful decorative paper. The vehicles look like a row of gigantic four-wheeled chocolates.
The funniest work of the collective is their video "Carpet Tile Cupcake” made for 42Below Vodka, that in an accelerated tempo shows the process of composing a mosaic in a shape of... huge breasts. At the end one of the members of the collective dressed obviously in white overalls cleans the image with a vacuum cleaner...
By all possible means poetic deconstruction of mythology that public space got covered with comes true literally or symbolically. Through "unlicensed” space design and inscription into imposed meanings a change in how the visitors of space see it takes place. Or, using a floral metaphor, proliferation of meanings is happening, allowing the untrammeled self-development of space and man himself.

3. Writing (out) the city
Street art is mostly a huge anonymous (but not in-nominate) army of painters, writers, poets, hooligans and social activists. Some of them like Banksy, London Police or D*Face gain recognition and their works appear in exclusive publications.
In a way it is a contravention of the initial ideals of this genre. Because Graffiti has always been more of an anti-art, symbolic work that opposed rules of art and the conventionality involved in cultural life participation. Graffiti was the "voice of the street” through which the "hoi polloi” expropriated from the city centre by corporations and adverts got public space back at least in this symbolic way.
The phenomenon of tagging is an example of such symbolic regaining of the lost space. The first modern tags were made in big urban agglomerations such as New York or London and they were written by people from disadvantaged districts and members of national minorities. One of the first – Taki 183, was a courier that between 1969 and 1974 wrote his pseudonym along his regular everyday path. Just like colourful weeds graffiti quickly covered whole subway carriages (at the beginning just those intended for cassation) and shop window metal shutters. Already in 1971 the first calligraphic fonts known as tags appeared. The artists that wanted to stand out in the crowd wrote their names and nicks on the walls. The tagging wave started to be identified in a sad way with the "crack epidemic” that engulfed the USA between 1984 and 1990. The shop window metal shutters were covered then with names of dead friends.
Tagging names on the walls is not just an ordinary scribble. It is familiarizing with your surroundings. Kids from disadvantaged districts of American cities, Afro- and Latin Americans, and Puerto Ricans had nothing of their own in these cities, they made up this huge, unnoticed "hoi polloi”. Writing their names on the walls was their protest against being neglected, it was literally like shouting out their identity into the ears of the bustling blind world. The founding essence of tagging is the magical phenomenon of protective inscription on the border of image and word, just like in the occult sigils or voodoo vévé.
In my understanding this inclination to tag is a question of sensitive awareness and being mindful towards the surroundings, the fruit of creativity that is stronger than inclination to order. It is more a question of character and temper than intentions and capacities. The true post-graffiti, even though it belongs to the arts genre is the one that is the most conscientious of the environment where it came into being. In this way it differs from the "classic” graffiti from the 90s of 20th century: the conscious dialogue with its context. As Berlin graffiti Christian Schallenberger writes:
I love to draw with too much energy. It turns the body into a twitching, dancing organ that unconsciously and rapidly yields primordial stuff. I’m always inspired by toy graffiti, by architecture and in general by the tags of pubescent youth, their tattoos and their language. I create out of a brew of Alcopops, sexual maladjustment and insecurity. In general, I’m interested in how people portray themselves and what they identify with.

This quotation comes from the book "Progressive Relaxation” (Berlin, 2008) in which 15 artists actively deliberate on their participation in public space of Berlin. It is an incredibly intimate publication, a kind of collection of personal diaries of artists and thinkers. They all undertook a specific research and meditation on their personal situation and environment. They explored their city through positioning themselves, tagging (marking the place then!), looking for spaces of free expression, reading the noises, sensitivity to context. The result of such attitude is "site-specific art” that Skki writes about in his "Notes”. That is why everybody is also interested in meta-textuality of signs in city space. And the most appropriate form here is contingency, discursiveness, fluent contact with the surroundings. Sketches done during the walks and drawings on the walls of storm canals, strokes of artistry where nobody is expecting it.

And what is it all about? What do the "street artists” strive for? What really moves them apart from quick satisfaction and the increase of adrenaline? Who knows if they even plan anything. And if they do – it might be some huge wild party in the style of Temporary Autonomous Zone. Or maybe some utopia of diversity, like the heterotopia of Michel Foucalt? Or just some cool vacations from work – what would be wrong with that?
Certainly many thinkers would be on their side like, e.g. Hakim Bey, American anarchist and philosopher, originator of the idea of the already mentioned Temporary Autonomous Zone. According to him TAZ is a short-term, "disappearing”, improvised social group that can "occupy” chosen areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace.
For such a group permanent results do not count. Everything can disappear five minutes after being created. The only thing that counts is the process. Hakim Bey defined such "poetic terrorist” behaving like a confidence-trickster whose aim is not money but CHANGE. His manifesto "Poetic Terrorism” (Kraków, 2003) enumerates a few ideas for "the art of place”.
In each case specified above art represents a vehicle of change, the alembic of transformation of private into public, existential into metaphysical, passive into active and so on – the list could go on endlessly. And the prize for taking up the challenge to change is – by Hakim Bey (speaking about pirate utopias) – "short but merry life”.
Finally, let us not forget that "street art” is most of all an expression of municipal folklore, an impulsive, instinctive artistic and social act. We have to imagine the city as one organism. Just like we have one body that is made up of billions of cells that sometimes come into conflict with each other, the city itself is an organism consisting of many independent organs, an organism that always keeps its individual character.
To all its cells city is art in progress, self-reviving process of creating and destroying. An art piece co-created by all its users. Also those only cleaning the streets here, and those stuck in traffic jams.