All signs point to a Happy Kansas Day!

I have emerged from my thesis cave to celebrate the first big holiday of the new year. That’s right, folks…Happy Kansas Day!

At my Texan middle school, my math teacher and now dear friend Myron taught me more than how to calculate the slope of a line; he showed me how to take active pride in history. A historian in his spare time who has written about the Texas postal system and his experience flying 0-2B airplanes in the Vietnam War, he is also a dedicated ambassador of his home state of Kansas…which entered the Union on today’s date in 1861. Every year, on January 29, signs would appear around campus—on doors and windows, in the elevator and the pages of library books—bearing wishes for a Happy Kansas Day. Some featured facts about the state of Kansas (the state amphibian of Kansas is the barred tiger salamander), others hand-colored sunflowers (the state flower); all generated a great deal more conversation about Kansas than would normally be heard in a Texas middle school hallway.

He tells me that he started the tradition in hopes of encouraging people to consider and even “advertise” the origins of their own home states. It didn’t quite take off that way; few people seem to have such loyalty for their state, respect for its roots, and initiative for raising awareness. Of all places, this must be especially true in NYC, where notoriously few people are native New Yorkers but many are quick to adopt the New Yorker identity. But that is all the more reason to spread the Kansas Day joy. Last year, I received an envelope full of Myron’s handmade signs from years past, passed along to me with a list of suggested spots to post them (e.g. “side of a bus—don’t get run over”). I relished seeing them pinned up in halls around Columbia and clinging to the glass of NYC bus stops (not the buses themselves—I’m a coward) until the snow took them down. This year, I made photocopies, preserving the remaining originals so that wherever I am on each January 29, I can share with strangers a bit of cheerful curiosity on behalf of the Sunflower State.

Love to Myron, Kansas, and statehood in general, and a very happy Kansas Day to all.

Click to zoom...Columbia and Kansas Day

Dear Barnes & Noble, please don't ban me as a litterer if you see this.

 

It’s Christmastime in the city

I’m back! Admittedly, I haven’t been in the celebrating — or blogging — spirit in the past month; ’tis the season for final papers and presentations (now completed!), and a beloved family member passed away over the Thanksgiving holiday. But I’ve been coerced out of my hermitage by an annual magpie-like weakness against the lure of sparkly things: I’m a bit of a Christmas light enthusiast.

Unlike last year, I didn’t make a trip around town to admire the Rockefeller tree and shop windows, and the circuits in my lovely old apartment don’t take too fondly to overuse. Still, Christmas found its way to me, from the lit display of trees for sale down the road, turning the sidewalk air to pine, to the lights above the supermarket that I found mid-stringing. The light-highlight was another happy accident; on campus, I bumped into a crowd awaiting Columbia’s annual Christmas tree lighting, and shivered along with them until the shapes of trees lining our main walkway appeared, white-dotted and shining. I have a longstanding partiality to lines of lit trees; when I was a child in Houston, the image epitomizing the holidays for me was Post Oak Boulevard. My family would make an outing of driving down the road, under its chrome arches and between its seemingly endless rows of tree-lights. I have always loved how we reinvent places with light, infusing branches, outlining eaves and columns and, especially in NYC, fire escapes, using our built (and planted) environment as a means of expressing this inescapable sense of seasonal joy.

Christmas lights on Post Oak Boulevard in Houston, photo by Brent Allen Thale

Columbia in anticipation of light

Columbia trees lit

College Walk, Columbia

on Broadway, how New Yorkers buy Christmas trees

decking the market

Seeking a white night (and avoiding a dark day) in Toronto

I’m back from a slight blogging respite; the last two weeks have been whirlwindy! This time last week, I was on my way back from Canada after Saturday’s nocturnal wanderings at Nuit Blanche, billed as an annual chance to “experience Toronto transformed by artists” from “6:59 pm to sunrise.” For the past three nuits blanches, I’ve awoken to 3am phone calls from my partner, M, narrating street installations of color and light, with strains in the background of electric sound, or opera, and hanging up has felt like letting some little magical portal fall closed. My expectations, then, were high for our first chance to go together; at the same time, they were vague, the imagining of an energetic blur of color, light, sound. And as such, they were absolutely met.

This year, Nuit Blanche included over 130 projects sprouting from corners and squares throughout the city; buildings and streets became both art and museum, actor and stage. It would have been difficult to predict and plot which sites most merited a visit, and impossible to see them all, so our path was a bit more organic; we used Yonge Street as a spine and wandered from King up to Wellesley. While the projects varied in individual potency—for some, the primary source of magic was surely their setting in the cold midnight city—the overall effect of migrating from light source to sound-and-light source was one of profound and somehow invigorating disorientation. Many of the installations were interactive, reintroducing us to the city by altering our interchange with it.

My first true sense of this effect was the “Soon” installation, which artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard explained as “a materialization, a frozen moment between the before and after. Something above Commerce Court is watching us and an inexplicable encounter unfolds.” As spotlights from a building top scanned the courtyard, filling with people and smoke and nervous, toneless music, we stood dazed. But one couple began to run, chased by the light, and then another, and then people stepped to the rim of the central fountain, their arms outstretched as if in some extraterrestrial gesture. It was unclear whether they were hired to take part in the spectacle or simply responding as they saw others respond, and that was part of the intrigue.
“The Way Up is the Way Down,” by Dennis Hale and Mike Sharpe, was described as “an enigmatic, floating, flashing amber beacon” intended to “transform public space and the meaning of civic engagement.” When we dialed a given number from M’s mobile, this glowing pendulum shook and rang like the possessed dial of a rotary phone suspended above Bay Street and King Street West, then shrank back to silence—the call unanswered, no message left.

“Intensity” by John Notten began with a queue outside a tent, and the enigmatic separation of tall people from short as we were directed through openings. Inside, we were submerged beneath low-hanging cloth; we felt our way along this makeshift ceiling until a hole emerged overhead. Coming up for air, M and I found ourselves in a pocket of space, a little dome of translucent fabric; through it we saw, in a communal, laughing realization with everyone else inside, that our heads were housed in miniature tents pitched on a lit stretch of turf. As the project description explained, “while you may think you’re entering the presentation centre for a new, luxury condominium development, you will find yourself in the middle of a seemingly endless tent city. Occupancy is fleeting, for within minutes you will be evicted.” Indeed, as soon as we had regained our bearings in this strange tent world, a disembodied voice instructed us to leave the premises immediately; we ducked back down, and out, to readjust to the open night.

Nearby in the Bay and Adelaide Center Courtyard, we stood in another line for “FLUXe,” the Scotiabank-sponsored “immersive art experience” that would let us “digitally transform the urban landscape.” At our turn, M and I were given a Blackberry tablet and instructed to select from nine artists whose strokes we could use to draw on the screen. We first chose Nanami Cowdroy, and our fingertips released a stream of etched cranes that were projected on the side of the building in front of us. (We were later able to access our chef d’œuvre online; see below!) City and color and light converged, literally beneath our hands.

our masterpiece

On a significant side note…That this flurry of cultural activity could bring hundreds of thousands of people to shun sleep and huddle in the streets, seemed ironic when four days earlier, Toronto’s City Council had considered the closures of several (unidentified) city-run museums based on low attendance—though, thankfully, voted to postpone them. While the potential cuts will soon be reconsidered, this reprieve allows time to rally the cultural troops and reflect on how to safeguard Toronto’s arts and heritage. The city cannot assume from any quantitative data that its cultural sites lack relevance, or that its citizens lack interest; it should take any numerical declines as simply signs that it should express and foster more pride and delight in its own resources. Nuit Blanche showed in no uncertain terms that energy and curiosity abound in Toronto; when people are beckoned to engage directly with the arts and the built environment, they will do so from 6:59pm to sunrise and leave wanting more.

Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 2)

One of the primary issues at hand is the differentiation that some art critics have drawn between graffiti and street art. Cedar Lewisohn, who wrote for Tate Modern one of the few available scholarly books on “street art,” first separates “graffiti,” by which he means “any form of unofficial, unsanctioned application of a medium onto a surface,” from “graffiti writing,” by which he refers to “the movement most closely associated with hip hop culture…whose central concern is the ‘tag’ or signature of the author.” “Street art,” while a sub-genre of graffiti writing, is more focused on using graffiti imagery, not strictly tags, to “[interact] with the audience on the street.” Graffiti writers and taggers tend not to want their work to be viewed as art; its purpose instead is to serve as a secret language among them, and to “[destroy] or [deface] cities…making ugly places even uglier.” They tend to look down upon “street artists” for their appeal to the masses. Some art theorists do not as readily acknowledge the differentiation between non-artistic “graffiti writing” and “street art.” They believe that graffiti writing, which they identify as “a practiced skill to which the artists or ‘writers’ devote their lives, perfecting a certain style of letter formation,” falls under the definition of art. There are theorists who view that “art should be infinitely impractical” and that “graffiti has no real purpose, other than its own existence,” and therefore qualifies as art. While this particular position seems flawed, as most graffiti writing actually does have significant purpose within the culture of graffiti writers, the implication that a line between graffiti and street art might be less clear than suggested by critics such as Lewisohn is useful. It is a line unacknowledged by many state authorities, including Hackney Council, Transport for London, and the members of SWAAG. Unlike the aforementioned art theorists, however, these authorities choose to regard street art at the same level as graffiti, but regard both as simply illegal vandalism.

http://www.banksy.co.uk

A potential solution to the problem of whether or not councils should remove Banksy’s work might be to formalize the differentiation between graffiti writing, which does not appeal to the public (and indeed, is not intended to), and street art, including works such as Banksy’s that address a wider audience. But again, the divide between writing and street art is not always clear. If the state were to remain firmly against graffiti writing and declare “street art” legal, it would be taking on a significant responsibility as art critic, asserting its authority to decide what is graffiti and what is art. State officials surely lack the art theory and history background to make such a decision in full confidence. At the same time, it is impossible for state authority to escape the role of art critic. Even by denying that they are art critics, denying the responsibility of differentiation between graffiti and street art, like Hackney Council and TfL, they are still making a statement about art, saying that it falls within the confines of the law, even if public opinion supports the art. Islington Council played the art critic by deciding to protect Banksy works, deeming them art because popular opinion said so. By letting the public choose directly whether or not to keep Banksy’s work, Bristol City Council was affirming that art transcends the law. Bristol’s interpretation of its inevitable role as art critic seems to be the most appropriate reaction to the issues of legality raised by the graffiti movement. The Council admitted that it, and not the law, had the authority to judge Banksy’s work, and it invited the public to directly influence its judgment and have a say in the art it gets to see. A lack of public involvement is exactly what Banksy has said is wrong in the Art World: “These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

The Art World has not readily accepted graffiti as a legitimate art form, largely due to its intrinsic illegality. Graffiti’s gradual entry into the realm of the art gallery began with the work of a few photographers, most notably Gyula Halász, known as Brassaï. His documentation of Parisian graffiti in the 1930s predated by decades the spread of graffiti as a popular movement, and the success of his photographs paved the way for later photographers like New York’s Henry Chalfant. It can be said that photography of graffiti was accepted by the Art World before graffiti itself was ever recognized as a legitimate art, and photographers’ work contributed to the popularity of graffiti by encouraging the public to look differently at the graffiti on their streets. Photographic documentation is important to many graffiti artists because of the ephemeral nature of their work. Banksy himself has released books containing photographs of his art, and his former art dealer, Steve Lazarides, began as a professional photographer who took pictures of Banksy’s graffiti and gained his confidence. Banksy’s immense popularity, stemming largely from the clever social criticism contained in his work and the media hype surrounding his anonymity, brought graffiti into the limelight. Lazarides began selling Banksy originals and exhibiting the work of other graffiti artists in his own gallery in Soho, an operation which has since expanded.

Soon, it was not only small, Banksy-approved galleries displaying graffiti as art. In May 2008, London’s Tate Modern invited six international graffiti artists to participate in an exhibition called “Street Art” by painting on the museum’s brick façade. Banksy’s work was noticeably absent; it was suggested that he was not interested in participating in the Tate’s official, Nissan-sponsored project. “Street Art” demonstrated that questions remain regarding the extent to which the art establishment has come to understand graffiti. As art critic Ben Lewis pointed out, “Even the location of the exhibition is clever: by putting the artwork on the outside of the Tate, the museum appears to be respecting the street in Street Art. At the same stroke, it’s a cunning way of avoiding the big issue of whether the work really is art in the same sense as the stuff inside.”

Reference to graffiti’s struggle for wider acceptance as an art form should not imply that all graffiti artists are aiming to have their work finally be that “stuff inside” the Tate Modern. On the contrary, Banksy’s popularity is problematic in that it has caused tension between the art industry’s interest in his profitability within the system and his own desire to remain outside of it. He is, in a sense, caught between two worlds—that of the art establishment’s critics, some of whom dismiss his artistic skill as “reasonably competent, not brilliant” and his subject matter as “agitpop…protest art with a smile on its face,” and that of the graffiti artists, some of whom think “his message is naïve” and view him as a sell-out for allowing his art to be sold for great sums of money, including to the “Hollywood glitterati.” Simultaneously, the evident marketability of Banksy’s work can be seen as a benefit to both sides: Marc Schiller of the Wooster Collective credited Banksy with having ‘create[d] a market for an entire category of art that until now has not been recognized at the level that it is now being recognized at.” One irony in this situation is that artworks such as Banksy’s, by means of their location on the street, are intended to belong to everyone. People who buy his work at auctions are essentially paying thousands of pounds for what already belonged to them, and everyone, for free, exhibiting a capitalist desire for individual ownership.

Another irony is that Banksy continues to use his artwork to criticize the very establishment that is now embracing his work. After one of his pieces was sold at auction for £100,000 in 2007, he posted a new drawing on his website. It depicted an auctioneer selling a canvas that bore a message making plain Banksy’s feelings about his own marketability: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” In 2005, he attracted media attention by “infiltrating” four museums and art galleries in New York, surreptitiously hanging his own work on their walls. When he did the same in the British Museum, displaying a “chunk of ‘rock art’ depicting a stone age hunter with a shopping trolley, together with the caption crediting it to “Banksyus Maximus,'” the museum took eight days to notice, and ended up adding the work to its permanent collection. Banksy may not be successfully conveying the criticism of the art establishment he intends if such activities as the 2005 “infiltration” are accepted by museums and lauded by the media as publicity stunts.

Ultimately, his commercial success is dependent on that establishment. It has been pointed out that “history is littered with anti-establishment figures that end up embracing the establishment they rail against, particularly as they grow in popularity.” For example, Banksy’s position is reminiscent of the ironic tension between William Morris’s socialist beliefs and the fact that his hand-crafted art intended for the wider public was expensive to produce and, thus, available only to the wealthy. Banksy’s place in art history is difficult to predict; perhaps one day he will reveal his identity and succumb to the spoils of his fame. But for now, he seems to be entertained by his Art World success while remaining separate from and critical of it, having “[hijacked] the established system of art exhibition… drawing attention to its shortcomings.” In the words of art critic Walter Januszczak, “His chief achievement, and I believe it to be a mammoth one, was finding a way to operate so successfully outside the art world.” In doing so, Banksy has said, he hopes to “show that money hasn’t crushed the humanity out of everything.”

Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 1)

I have an admission to make that might seem paradoxical, coming from a preservationist: I am guilty of liking graffiti. I would never say so without exception or qualification, and I’ll state for the record that I don’t advocate graffiti, and I abhor the reckless use of historic buildings as spray-paint canvases…but in certain rare cases, as I’ve previously mentioned, I just can’t help but find it appealing. From 2007 to 2008, a time when Banksy’s bravado was reaching new heights of popularity, I was living outside of London. While there was plenty else to occupy my eyes in my favorite city, I remember the thrill of turning down a new street and finding another one of his recognizable rats. Equally provocative was the narrative that arose as state authorities and the public were cornered into the role of street art curators, and graffiti, so often the bane of preservationists, became the object of preservation itself.

Banksy, Sweep at Hoxton, Wikimedia Commons

Banksy echoes many other graffiti artists when he explains that much of the thrill of his work stems from its illegality. In his own words, “You could stick all my shit in Tate Modern and have an opening with Tony Blair and Kate Moss on rollerblades handing out vol-au-vents and it wouldn’t be as exciting as when you go out and you paint something big where you shouldn’t do.” He has called himself an “art terrorist,” and some property owners and residents feel accordingly victimized when graffiti appears in their communities. Various state authorities categorize graffiti as a quality of life crime, an environmental crime, and an antisocial behavior. Graffiti is blamed for reducing property values, causing community members, tourists, and retail customers to feel unsafe, reducing the enjoyment of public spaces, and, if not quickly removed from an area, encouraging more graffiti to be added there.

In London, graffiti is linked with rubbish as the target of clean street initiatives. It is frequently described by state authorities as “unsightly,” as it is “a sign of a neglected neighbourhood and is associated with increased levels of crime and the fear of crime.” According to the Council of the London borough of Southwark, “Graffiti is vandalism and it’s become a really expensive problem. Removing graffiti costs the UK over £1 billion a year. We and other agencies have to remove graffiti from walls, street furniture, telephone boxes, bus shelters, monuments and even gravestones.” Countering graffiti is the responsibility of individual boroughs, and each has its own policy regarding graffiti removal. In addition to removing graffiti from public spaces and council-owned property, many boroughs provide free removal from business and residential properties, in some cases only when the graffiti is visible from a street. The amount of time in which a request for graffiti removal will be answered varies for different boroughs, but one commonality is that response time decreases significantly for graffiti that is deemed “racist or offensive.” Some boroughs are particularly severe in setting forth their stances on graffiti. Merton Council, for example, states that “Graffiti is an eyesore that nobody in the borough wants to see. It is also criminal damage and we are determined to stop it.” Merton is a founding member of South West Action Against Graffiti, or SWAAG, which is “a group of southwest London councils who, along with the police, are determined to fight graffiti on all fronts.” The Council of Barking and Dagenham, another member of SWAAG, warns that “graffiti is often the first element in a spiral of decline” and declares that “its artistic merits are irrelevant. It represents one group of people imposing themselves on everyone else and as such is a form of pollution, like people playing loud music.”

The matter of graffiti’s artistic merit is not so straightforward to the many people who view graffiti work such as that of Banksy as more art than eyesore. The rise of Banksy created a dilemma for local authorities, particularly in the London boroughs and other areas of England that were fortunate enough to receive the gift of his artwork, or alternatively, wronged by his “guerilla art.” Many local authorities yielded to the pressure of Banksy’s public support and chose not to remove his work. Council workers in Islington went so far as to restore Banksy works that had been vandalized by the tags of other graffiti writers. According to an Evening Standard article posted by a seemingly bemused Banksy on his own website, Islington Council “defended its policy to clean up and repair the artist’s work. It insisted it was spending taxpayers’ money on the operation in response to residents’ demands.”

In July 2006, the City Council of Bristol was faced with the question of whether or not to order the removal of a Banksy piece near their offices showing a woman in her underwear, a suited man leaning out of a window, and a nude man, presumably the woman’s lover, hanging from the window ledge. The Council decided to ask the public via an internet discussion forum whether or not the piece should be allowed to remain. When ninety-seven percent of responses were in favor of keeping the work, with only six people dissenting, the Council decided that the piece was worthy of being kept, although Councillor Gary Hopkins stressed that “the decision to keep this Banksy image is not a green light for more graffiti in the city.” This incident perfectly illustrates the way in which the rise of graffiti found state officials and the public placed into the role of art critic. Given the nature of Banksy’s work as both illegal and arguably artistic, both state and public were forced to reconsider their definitions of graffiti and decide whether art should transcend the law. In the case of Bristol’s “naked man mural,” the state, disregarding the clear illegality of Banksy’s art, made a judgment of his work based on the deciding factor of public appreciation. Banksy’s response to the incident was, “I think it’s pretty incredible a city council is prepared to make value judgments about preserving illegally painted graffiti. I’m kind of proud of them.” Six months later, after an early Banksy mural was mistakenly removed when contractors were hired by Bristol City Council to “tackle graffiti adjacent to the Banksy work, but wrongly targeted the piece itself,” the Council seemed more sure about its position on Banksy graffiti. It ordered “an investigation into the blunder” and that “all Banksy works in the city…be preserved.”

Other councils, however, offered no apology for their removal of Banksy works. Hackney Council was particularly firm in its anti-graffiti, and therefore anti-Banksy stance, calling for the removal of a number of Banksy works. In February 2008, the Council showed initial signs of yielding to public pressure by allowing a Banksy piece to remain; however, it called for the removal of a portion of the piece, censoring an image of male genitalia that was deemed offensive. Local residents complained that they should have been consulted first, as in the Bristol case. As one resident said, “We’ve been given a work of art. It’s a shame the council have defaced it.” However, a spokesman for the Council argued, “We can’t make a decision on whether something is art or graffiti. The Government judges us on the number of clean walls we have.” Transport for London made a similar argument in response to public outcry when it had a Banksy mural near Old Street Tube station removed. Referring to its “tough line” on graffiti removal, TfL stated, “We have no intention of changing this policy as it makes the transport system safer and more pleasant for passengers. We recognize that there are those who view Banksy’s work as legitimate art, but sadly our graffiti removal teams are staffed by professional cleaners, not professional art critics.”

(To be continued…)

Gum-wad paintings and the value of transience

What does chewing gum have to do with historic preservation? No, this is not going to be a request that you refrain from using the walls of ancient monuments as receptacles for spit-sticky globs. (Really, though…please don’t do that.) Last month, I read an article in The New York Times“Whimsical Works of Art, Found Sticking to the Sidewalk,” by Sarah Lyall—about an artist with an unusual taste in canvases. For six years, Ben Wilson has created thousands of miniature paintings on bits of chewed gum dotting London pavements. Now a local celebrity, Wilson maintains a backlog of requests for gum paintings to express a melange of messages, from memorials to marriage proposals. Lyall describes the collection concentrated in Wilson’s community of Muswell Hill as “a chronicle of the neighborhood, a representation of its residents’ whimsies, sorrows and passions.” Meanwhile, borough councils enact street cleaning programs to remove chewing gum, fighting the illegal littering on which Wilson’s art both comments and depends.

By Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In reading about Wilson’s work, I couldn’t help but notice parallels to historic preservation. First, the metamorphosis of masticated, flavor-sapped gum into artwork provides a rather colorful metaphor for tasteful adaptive reuse. The article more directly, albeit briefly, addresses the preservation—or lack thereof—of Wilson’s art itself: “Mr. Wilson said he did not mind if his paintings were washed away or torn up for repaving or ruined by urban grime. ‘Everything is transitory,’ he said. ‘What’s important is the creative process.'”

Wilson’s popularity calls to mind the early success of another British street artist, the ubiquitous yet elusive Banksy, who has since become a global phenomenon. Banksy’s distinctive works of stencil graffiti are highly coveted, largely accepted by the art world he intentionally operates outside of, and in some cases are even conserved by local authorities who otherwise devote blight-fighting resources to graffiti erasure. Inspired by Banksy’s popularity, in May 2008, London’s Tate Modern went so far as to invite six international graffiti artists to participate in an exhibition called ‘Street Art’ by painting on the museum’s brick façade.

Am I suggesting that curators will soon be affixing soggy gum to the walls of MOMA for Ben Wilson to paint? Well, who knows? Regardless, the stories of Wilson and Banksy raise questions about preserving the transient, questions which extend to the preservation of architecture. The same issues of context and original intent that would arise in protecting a Wilson painting or removing it to a gallery, also apply in the case of structures built to be temporary (the Zonnestraal Sanatorium, for example, or postwar prefab houses). In addition, this comparison leads to considering what degree of public appreciation might be needed and what methods might be used to preserve the story of buildings that for some reason can’t be physically safeguarded. Heritage preservation is not always dependent on material perpetuation. The issue of how else to lend permanence to the impermanent, how to save architectural gum wads, is one that I’m hoping to explore.