Thursday, February 24, 2011

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.

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