Thursday, February 24, 2011

Concrete Dreams?

'Concrete Voices' is a documentary aboutthe Living Walls Conference in Atlanta this past summer.

Imagine something like this in the Capital City of Ottawa?

Don't mind if I do....

Howl & Burn

I watched the movie "Howl" recently and it got me thinking about everyday rituals of morality, particularly those that relate to how we use public spaces (that are not really as 'public' as you might think).

In reflecting on the emergence of the modern penitentiary and ideological shifts in punishment during the 18th century in Europe (known in Criminology as the Classical Period), Foucault noted that spectacles of punishment had a relatively short lived shelf life. Eventually, there will be a case or two of dismemberment that some citizens wont be OK with; hence, these kinds of spectacles invite weary criticism against the state, like drips of water on stone over many years.

In a nutshell: punishment is a hard idea to sell for extended periods when citizens are faced with people torn apart by horses, left to hang and rot in the city square, tied up to walls in chains for public viewing, or sleeping on cement floors in overcrowded cells.

Oh wait, we don't normally see that last one, do we...

These days we DO 'see' performances of punishment, although there is much less blood spatter to wash out of our tunics. We witness performances of punishment when we watch crime dramas and televised court proceedings, read about a police display of the seized goods of 'bad guys'; hell, we might even include incarceration in our holiday, shopping  or birthday parties plans, perhaps.

What does this have to do with graffiti, you may ask?

As I said previously, few of us get to see writers work; this is a problem because it permits a few people  in power to tell citizens one narrative (that is tragically misinformed) about WHO writes and why. Yet another problem is the invisibility of WHO defines what is 'sayable' in our city. This is about the Ginsberg Trial, just as much as it is about deciding what goes up on the wall of a building you own.

Bylaw officers fine local business owners, the City of Ottawa bills businesses for the cost of buffing productions and tags off their walls (regardless if these marks are welcomed by the owner). Businesses that  invite writers are punished unless the plans for the 'murals' are submitted (following strict dimensional guidelines) to city counsellors who assess it for urban appropriateness. There are not enough resources in this city to come up with a definition of appropriate art that is palatable to all of its citizens.

Returning to my original point: the ritual of punishment (albeit financial in this case) is unknown to most citizens. One of the consequences of this quiet moral ordering is the creation of unnecessary tensions between writers (who the city defines as profane) and shop keeps (who the city defines as collaborators in profanity).

By trying to legally define art/graffiti, the City of Ottawa is drawing up tales about good or bad people, based on who 'screams with joy' about some aesthetics, but not others.

"Cock and balls" indeed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watching Paint Dry: Two Kinds of Thrill

After a few days of inspiration brought about by writers who tag my office door (a sincere thanks to you guys),  coffee with a local photographer/advocate of urban art (thanks Mike) and discussions with colleagues about the bi-law enforcement in Ottawa,  I got to thinking about about risk (again).

Graffiti is just one of the many aesthetics of urban space that are highly regulated by the municipality of Ottawa. This is not unique to Ottawa, but Ottawa certainly takes its aesthetics management seriously.

Security is apparently best communicated in the color of boring.

A colleague of mine reminded me this morning (thanks Mike Mopas): most individual police officers do not worry too much about graffiti. Nevertheless they must respond to calls made by some citizens who DO get 'worked up' about graffiti. It is telling when our police officers are 'kept busy' answering calls about words on a wall (most writers do not write on private residential property). Must be a slow crime day, eh?

Most days are (Crime is down, folks!)

Channeling the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson, Stephen Lyng suggests that the relationship between institutions and the stuff we humans DO has brought about the performance of 'edgework' ; folks looking to make the everyday less boring (escape or resistance); further, risk-taking (here, bonds trading and graffiti writing are similarly risky acts) demonstrates the development of skills in a culture consumed with specialization and risk management.

Edgework addresses the emotionality of human action, but not in a psychological "lets strap you to a table a dissect your grey matter" kind of way. It is a theory that considers commonality among many many people in our culture - how do we collectively 'experience' this desire for edges given our 'current 9 - 5' is boring as hell.

Social order as edgework? Not quite, but maybe...

Is being involved in 'getting the bad guys' not a form of excitement? What do we do in a culture so active in consuming the thrill of law enforcement (the spectacle of crime and its enforcement) when there is little crime to enforce? I suspect ONE thing that people CAN do is create crime dramas for themselves about that lawn next door being unsightly, or in managing that broken window across the street before it invites 'bad guys' out of retirement....

OR perhaps we can think about boredom as one common experience from which we can build a less adversarial relationship between citizens (including those consumed with enforcing laws about aesthetics and writers) and institutions in the City of Ottawa.

Hey, that's kind of exciting!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Greenwashing Broken Windows

Like most of Canada this week, Ottawa is heavy with snow. All this mucking about in the fluff and flurry got me thinking about green things...and things that pretend to be green.

The City of Ottawa's graffiti management strategy aims to "eradicate" graffiti, framing it as an environmental problem: Graffiti is presented as 'garbage' and a potential 'risk' to the cleanliness (and security) of the city. Most criminologists would recognize this approach as an environmental spin - or a greenwashing - of the 'Broken Windows Thesis'.

'Broken Windows' is a 1980s theory about crime with all the charms of a Rick Astley cassette left in the sun on the front dash of a Ford Pinto. It assumes that if a neighbourhood looks run down it will invite street crime. So the thinking goes: 'broken windows' signal the 'bad guys' into a neighbourhood; keep your windows clean, and the 'bad guys' stay 'some place else'. In practice, it is a way to avoid dealing with social inequalities by sending it out of town (for example, see this approach to solving homelessness).

Funny enough, nobody ever seems to worry about high rise glass windows facilitating 'corporate crime' [which research has shown to be far more deadly and costly to the average Canadian than  'street crime' (for example, see Boyd, Chun & Menzies, 2001)]

Broken Windows is a problematic thesis, particularly if your purpose is to "eradicate" a particular social group. In all fairness, though, we haven't tested this thesis on corporate 'bad guys' and skyscraper windows yet. 

The strategy assumes  WHAT is written, and the PEOPLE who write it, are a 'risky contamination' to city security and vibrancy. This fiction relies - at least in part - on the fact that most folk in our city don't get to see writers at work.

A stone's throw from Ottawa is one of the 29 legal walls in Gatineau (Que) stretching for a kilometre or so along a bike path where people stop and watch local writers work. It continues along the Ottawa River, unfolding under bridges, bringing funk to the shadow of Ottawa's Parliament Hill. The day I was there taking photos, there was no evidence of fear on the faces of walkers and skiers moving through the long corridors of colour. There was appreciation, though.

Ottawa has only 3 legal walls. One of the largest is hidden under a bridge unseen by most city residents. The other is a board erected at a skate park, which counsellors and police have discussed removing.

Arguably, when writers are out of sites/sight, it makes the fiction of 'graffiti as a contaminant' more plausible in the minds of some voters & business owners.

Take a walk through the Westboro & Mechanicville area of Ottawa. Many businesses - such as Heaven to Betsy (with a Mopes & Red5 production) and The Cube Gallery (with work by Grype) - have invited local writers to contribute to the aesthetic of their businesses and neighbourhood. Simply put: these businesses (run by citizens) would not support such productions if it resulted in increased 'street crime' and decreased security for their customers.

For now, I will take that a positive sign for potential growth in the landscape of this urban concrete coloured environment.