Saturday, November 30, 2013

Kill Graffiti


Neither markings pictured above were done with permission; both have been up for a significant amount of time; both  'replicate' (similar images/writing appear elsewhere in the city, although not together). The juxtaposition of images here is not insignificant.  The people who came to this wall  did not interpret the fence as a ' do not go here" signal , instead they accepted the fence as an invitation to continue a conversation about who can shape these public spaces.
Many of you have probably noticed that I have not been updating as regularly as I used to. There are a couple reasons for that, the first of which is a growing commitment to a music project born out of my initial curiosity over the municipal regulation of busking and graffiti.

Another reason is a change in my thinking about my role in 'researching' graffiti.

An epiphany hit me recently when I was in Atlanta, being held captive in a hive of imposing hotels connected by glass elevators and pedways suspended over concrete rivers of abandoned streets flooded with the poorest of the poor swimming upstream. In presenting a paper, "Stop Calling it Graffiti", I realized: writing and singing without permission was never at risk of eradication from legislation. The regulation of such artistic endeavors is largely a symbolic act of voluntary surveillance,  devoted to maintaining the image that the state is able to control those 'vandals' and bands of roaming minstrels. The population it does not control is vast and liquid. 

To be clear, I stand by my  findings that these regimes of power contribute to fostering violent tensions between citizens by maintaining classist and exclusionary schemes of the municipality that attempt to define that which is: creative ; art;  the artists; the vandal.

I remain convinced that the city has an obligation to levy reasonable expenses on citizens to administer public services but it failed to do this by continuing to create 'graffiti strategies'. The City of Ottawa's current administration has inherited an ideological war on graffiti that will continue to escalate in costs. This blog will continue to question how the city 'creates' these costs as a way to justify the continuation of what is essentially a scenario reminiscent of the movie Wag the Dog: an imagined war to garner public opinion. 

You see, graffiti is ideology; it is not a concrete thing, as the image above illustrates so well; graffiti is as illusive of a concept as 'terrorism', and just as affective. It's time to kill the idea that "graffiti" is the problem. Even among those who would call themselves graffiti writers, there is little agreement about the defining characteristics of what makes something 'graffiti'.

I propose that a greater problem is an overall loss of  public spaces, or an overall alienation from the idea that public spaces are those areas which belong to citizens. I propose that it is a problematic that many people live in the shadows of economic fears, supporting the idea that these spaces should be regulated  in the name of private interests, who promise to protect the economic stability of our city. We only need to consider the economic struggles of the Byward Market to understand what happens when you allow a Business Improvement Association to alienate the very people who give a community the 'vibrancy' needed to sell the space (to tourists) as a local gem. Most citizen's everyday living includes art and music: it is not the role of the state to 'educate' us on what is good art and what is not. To do so breeds unnecessary and absurd regulations as well as economic and cultural expenses. 

That being said, I think this blog has stated this all before, backing up these claims with valid sources and empirical evidence. So, its time to start expanding the focus of this blog, for fear of repetition and in the spirit of growth.

Recently, we lost a great scholar: Distinguished Professor Jock Young. He wrote about many important ideas, some of which he chose to leave by the road side in favour of developing others that proved to be theoretically fruitful for his work and his community. In responding to a critic accusing him of changing positions on issues over the course of his long career,  I  heard him respond (and I am paraphrasing here): am I supposed to stick to the same thinking about the world I held when I was in my 20s simply because those ideas were published? The world has changed, and so has my thinking about it.

You will be missed, Jock. 

This blog will continue to devote a great amount of space to that style that many people would recognize as graffiti (because i do love it - the bigger the drip, the better); I will remain a supporter of House of Paint, and those wishing to challenge these strange bylaws of taste; however, the blog will be expanding its reflections to include other aesthetic aspects of public space in Ottawa.

Let me know what you think as time rolls on...

Note: the title of this blog is inspired by this article written by my graffiti-appreciating colleague Jeff Ferrell who offers us a provocative critique about methodological fetishization in contemporary criminology.