Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Long time no post, eh? My apologies for not updating sooner. Special thanks to Jon for reminding me that its time for me to get back to my blogging duties.

 To be honest: though, this is a post that is not really even about graffiti. Or is it? I'm really not sure anymore.

The Ottawa Citizen recently reported on a Bob Dylan & Jimi Hendrix mural that was put up around the main entrance of a Centretown pub, Pour Boy Pub; Unbeknownst to the owner, such unauthorized murals are not permitted. The owner of the pub - understandably - had no idea that putting up a mural on his own property would be illegal, and was faced with  its removal after paying for the commission. Eventually, Ottawa's Planning Committee realized the absurdity of this all and permitted an "exemption" to the rule. The Planning Committee and City Councilors put it to a vote after the fact, grumbling about it as a 'waste of time': agreed. And resources.

The City of Ottawa really only has itself to blame in all this though. This all would have went by unnoticed, if not for the call made to the 3-1-1 complaint line about this mural. Perhaps the person calling to complain about the Dylan mural is still upset the electric guitar set in Newport, 1965. Perhaps Jimi Hendrix's version of the Star Spangled Banner rings like tinnitus in her or his ears. Not everyone can see 'mad beauty' in the unorthodox: and so, the absurdity continues...

Remember: our city heavily invests in educating the public about what graffiti is and who to call (3-1-1) as part of the ongoing municipal anti-graffiti strategy.

But really...what IS graffiti?

The key stakeholders in the anti-graffiti legislation presumably thought this was a straightforward issue

[dream sequence]

Stakeholder: "c'mon...you know...graffiti... any kind of image or writing that is unauthorized ...a disrespect of who owns that property!"

Me: You mean like The Secret Bench by sculptor Lea Vivot?

Stakeholder:"No no no. That is clearly fine art by an established artist. A lot of people liked that statue. But OK ok ok...I see your point. Lets say this then: Graffiti has messages in them that the Average Canadian can't understand. Yes, letters that most people can't read and  images, which are uninvited by the owner of a property."

Me: Like Roadsworth?

Stakeholder: " Uh...well...we didn't know that was uninvited art at first...and well...we liked what he did. The City of Montreal actually hired him after prosecuting him...so its all good."

In impossibly trying to communicate objectively what graffiti is to its citizens, The City of Ottawa has (unwittingly?)  fostered the following message to its citizens: if you don't like the looks of something, it's probably graffiti. Complain: the squeaky wheel will get the grease. That hardly sounds democratic  now, does it? The image of our city being determined by an unrepresentative amount of complaints. I say unwittingly as a question, because (except for perhaps Barhaven's councilor) I cannot imagine anyone with reasonable critical thinking skills in City Hall finds this approach fair, effective, efficient or helpful.

A call to the 3-1-1 number will get bylaw on the case to determine whether the art you dislike is indeed "graffiti" or a Banksy. Oh wait: Is it still graffiti if the owner of the building WANTS it? What about when a municipality or a community wants it? Well that depends...

Consider this response to the contentious Lansdowne Park re-development an example of what happens when folks like Authur II stand next to his neighbors (some who self-identify as graffiti writers) to challenge the City of Ottawa's take on aesthetics and community.(similar issues are afoot in the Byward Market Busking Scene). What makes this a mural as opposed to graffiti? It is unsanctioned, and it violates all the mural legislation. Arguably, the bylaw could buff it and stick the Landsdown Park folks with the bill, but they have not... (and, to be clear: I truly hope they do not buff this wall).

Mokar next to a Yellow Submarine of Love....

Any images facing Bank Street have been covered or 'buffed'

Enter Subterranean Values as food for thought, then: In the 1960s, Matza & Sykes (building upon the work of CW Mills) demonstrate how behaviors recognized more popularly as "delinquent acts" are not as deviant as most people would like to believe; further, what comes to be communicated as "normal values" are largely exaggerated. The reason why this theory remains relevant for today is in large part because of their observation: the motivations behind "delinquent" behavior (thrill, adventure and prestige, for example) are the same motivations for "normal" behavior. Veblin made similar observations in the early 1900s, suggesting that danger, thrill and adventure become signs of prestige as this signals one can afford' to be risky and wasteful,  a value not extended to the lower classes. Female prisoners in the 1800s were charged with being "lazy", while wealthy women were expected to assume the role of  'ladies of leisure'-  a sign of their husband's wealth.

If I have not lost you in my wordy post yet, hopefully you see my point: the same behavior is read differently depending on the cultural assumptions circulating about who is doing the act (and why). 

Moreover, if we allow the state (municipality) to regulate what is 'nice' (and safe), this will only lead to  "trope infection" (a term I borrow from jwc): more grey walls, more mundane images that trouble nobody.

Buff this...