Thursday, July 27, 2006

Visualizing Dissent: Art As Graffiti

To read my previous post on the topic, "Graffiti As Art," click here.

Marianne Joergenson, a Danish graphic designer and artist, coordinated a volunteer army of knitters from Europe and the U.S. to produce the artwork above, "Pink M.24 Chaffee," which placed a decommissioned WWII tank outside of the Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center and wrapped it in a shared blanket of inspired protest. Joergenson wrote about the project at length on her website, and the following statement caught my eye:

Unsimilar to a war, knitting signals home, care, closeness and time for reflection. Ever since Denmark became involved in the war in Iraq I have made different variations of pink tanks, and I intend to keep doing that, until the war ends. For me, the tank is a symbol of stepping over other people’s borders. When it is covered in pink, it becomes completely unarmed and it loses its authority.
Change a few of the words and you'd be listening to an urban graffiti writer. Joergenson's act was coordinated with authorities, "permission-based," and perfectly legal. What if it had not been - if her group had snuck the tank into a public square in the middle of the night? Would this increase its power or decrease its legitimacy? At left, also posted to the Wooster Collective, is an illicit and anonymous artwork spotted in Basel, Switzerland.

Graffiti art gets its rare power not only from its confrontational stance towards virtually any viewer who respects the "fourth wall" of the public stage that graffiti writers willfully disassemble, but from its occupancy of a peripheral position with respect to the society it criticizes. This space is open to any visual artist who chooses to present their work in public, without permission, in a way that engages the work with its surroundings, and the two groups are beginning to borrow heavily from each other. Graffiti artists are exploring the fertile ground of targeted messages with immediate and iconic impact, and visual artists are taking to the streets to communicate with the public beyond the sanctioned space of the gallery walls. This social frame of protest allows artists to produce works that express strong aesthetic values without fearing that their works' aesthetics will be divorced from their underlying message. Their presence in our common, cluttered world rather than the blank slate of an art gallery repudiates our inclination to segregate aesthetics from the world it distills.

As I discussed in the context of graffiti writing yesterday, illicit art created in the physical world now has the power to reach vast audiences through its documentation and dissemination via the Internet, and while some of the pleasure of discovery may be missing - imagine stumbling across that row of tanks in Basel versus seeing it here - the objects' poached presence in the real world, and the knowledge that many others have stumbled upon them, and others have walked by them without noticing them, is no less delicious. This accessibility is, of course, wildly divergent from artwork's context in the real world; there, the piece will soon be discovered and likely removed, if this has not happened already. In rare cases, citizens lobby and win the right for a piece of illicit art to be adopted and "legalized," but this requires organization, speed, and open-minded governance. On the web, however, the piece is available to all for as long as it is of interest, and can be passed around among viewers, reinvigorated by new discussion, and take on a virtual life of its own. This is one of the wonderful ways in which the Internet is not like the "real" world: Everyone has a wall to tag, paint, or advertise on, and the strength and relevance of one's message plays a much greater role in its successful infiltration of a virtual visitor's life than any other form of visual or written communication. The closest analogues to graffiti on the web are "Shoot the Monkey" web banners, ads we are required to sit through before accessing "free" content, and blog comment spam - that is, advertisements.

In contrast, an increasing number of idea factories on the web are relying on advertising and graffiti's shared emphasis on producing intuitive, targeted graphic messages that will rise above the - above this - clutter of words and have a rapid, unmistakable impact, like Moiz Syed's Israeli, Lebanese, and now U.N. tally of casualties and the unceasing barrage of pop-culture critiques like the one above from one of's many Photoshopping contests.

If the drive for net neutrality fails in the Senate, the contours of the Internet will be transformed from an open field of competing ideas into a form that is far more recognizable from a real-world perspective: a world in which virtual walls created by tiered access contain and guide the bulk of Internet traffic, and thus a world in which the sharing of ideas in the public square is centrally controlled, with contrarian and non-market-driven ideas pushed to the periphery. If that happens, the best analogue for graffiti art on the Internet will change as well. In that world, the online graffiti artist won't be the culturejamming Photoshop jockeys, the politically-minded information designers, or even those who scrawl revolutionary ideas on the walls of the web; it will be the web hackers, whose only messages are those of the most rudimentary spray-paint taggers: These walls oppress us, and Kilroy was here. The choice is ours - for now.

To read my previous post on the topic, "Graffiti As Art," click here.


Anonymous said...

I came across your article this evening because I'm doing a term paper on street art/graffiti art as a means of communication. Not only is this article true to fact, but it is written articulately. thank you for writing these. I really truly believe it's important for society to understand the other side of graffiti art and the meaning it carries politically and socially.

Anonymous said...

I too am writing a paper on graffiti art, and I've found this and your other post helpful. Thanks for being a strong voice.