Archive for the ‘public space’ Tag

Occupy Wall Street – an essay in images

I’m in New York for a conference on law and the image, so this afternoon I went to see the Occupy Wall Street protest that has been happening there for a number of weeks now. As most people will know, Occupy Wall Street actually occupies Zuccotti Park, which is close to Wall Street, and is a conglomeration of disparate protests, protesters, issues and aims, loosely united under the banner slogan ‘We are the 99%’. Many of the issues being raised and protested there are to do with corporate greed, fraud, exploitation, and so on, but many are also protesting about issues such as campaign financing, the dispossession of native Americans, the stop and frisk laws that allow police officers to search individuals based on stereotyping rather than on evidence-based grounds, and many more.

Many others have written about Occupy Wall Street, and the various related protests occurring around the globe, including in Melbourne. For a sample, check out an excellent essay by McKenzie Wark; today’s Guardian article about the arrest of Naomi Klein at a related protest; and the We Are The 99% tumblr site.

Instead of adding a lot more words to what has already been written, I thought I would put together some of the photos that I took today, to try to convey a sense of the protest and the place it is taking place in. To situate it, you have to imagine a small city park, no grass, just concrete, with some floral beds and a lot of trees. The park constitutes a small open space in the midst of some of New York’s most corporate and most solid skyscrapers. (To add a further, uncanny, dimension to the protest’s location, the park is diagonally across an intersection from the World Trade Center site, where the 9/11 memorial is, and where new skyscrapers to replace the lost Twin Towers are being busily constructed.)

This little park is filled with people: protesters, journalists, photographers, tourists, visitors. Around the park’s perimeter, police officers lean against barriers, monitoring the protest, and stepping up at frequent intervals to instruct people taking photographs or speaking with protesters to ‘move along’ and ‘clear the sidewalk’ (no doubt this is part of the claimed right to control the sidewalk that Naomi Klein adverts to in her account of her arrest).

Here, then, is a glimpse into Occupy Wall Street, as it took place on the afternoon of 20 October 2001.

What will happen at Zuccotti Park? How long will the protest last? No-one knows the answer to these questions, and they are probably the wrong ones to ask. What’s more important is that the protest is happening now, and that fact, each and every day that it is there, creates a politics in public space and demands a response. The lines of police outside the park, the rows of police vehicles in the streets, and the well-documented behaviour of the ‘white-shirted’ officers in their arrests indicate that the repression of the protest will be brought about some day (perhaps assisted by the weather, as the seasons shift from summer into autumn and winter). But even if that happens, Occupy Wall Street will have shown itself to be a formidable political peformance.

Small acts, amazing effects.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend not to do announcements about upcoming shows, figuring that there are plenty of other blogs and sites that do a sterling job in that respect.

But every now and then shows come along which either seem so unmissable or they involve work by artists whom I really respect or admire.

Coming up at Metro gallery in Melbourne is an exhibition that falls into both these categories. Metro is hosting Swoon’s first solo exhibition in Australia.

I’ve written about Swoon’s work before on this blog: you can read that post here. I’ve long been an admirer of her art: it is diverse but coherent, it moves beyond street and gallery with apparently effortless ease, and it has evolved in fascinating ways so that as well as adding artworks to buildings and other parts of the built environment, Swoon has in recent years been creating new built environments herself.

Sometimes these have been elaborate structures designed to float on rivers and seas, such as the rafts which sailed the Adriatic into Venice, to gatecrash the Biennale. At other times, they are specifically designed buildings, intensely site-specific works which also have all the functionality of a building – they are made for particular purposes, such as the Konbit Shelter in Haiti. In relation to this latter project, Swoon has working with architects and urban designers as part of a group seeking to assist in the reconstruction of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there. (You can read more about that project here.)

To get more of a sense of Swoon’s work, it’s worth doing a couple of things. First of all, have a look at a recent post on the excellent blog Brooklyn Street Art, which describes a studio visit with Swoon and has lots of great photos of her at work. Then, check out YouTube. Have a look at this:

Only three minutes long, but it gives a great sense of both of Swoon’s art and her energy and enthusiasm…

And then, check this one out:

This is a TED talk given by Swoon in Brooklyn recently, in which she talks at greater length about her work. Totally inspiring and, again, such infectious enthusiasm.

I was fortunate enough to meet Swoon last April in New York, and it really was one of the highlights of my time researching in this area. We spoke at length about the transformative potential of art and about the nature of relationships between people (and art) in public space, in neighbourhoods, in derelict spaces, on water, and in buildings.

in November 2010, Swoon created a site-specific installation for the exhibition Small Acts of Resistance at Black Rat Projects in London. The exhibition was designed around the work of several artists whose work combines ‘the artist’s aesthetic vision and the activist’s world changing ambition’. In Swoon’s work we see this combination at its most effective. The acts of a street artist may be relatively small, but their effects – well, their effects go far beyond the limits of any one paste-up or sculpture. Maybe art like this can change the way you see or the way you think.

Go and see the show. It’s on from today until 5th March 2011, Metro Gallery, 1214 High Street, Armadale.

Space Invaders: The National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition of street art

It’s never unproblematic when galleries and museums exhibit the work of street artists – some believe that street art is no longer ‘street art’ when it’s exhibited indoors in a gallery or museum space; others think that whatever constitutes the ‘street’ aspect of street art is more of a free-floating sensibility that pervades certain artworks whether they are installed inside or outside; still others believe that genuine ‘street art’ must be carried out illegally in public space and anything that doesn’t meet these criteria is rather a kind of site-specific artwork or is graphic design work or is even a form of advertising. These issues have been debated and argued over in many different fora (and the book that Miso, Ghostpatrol, Timba and I recently published, Street/Studio, is partly about the tensions – productive as well as constraining – that arise when artworks move between street and gallery).

Whatever your opinion of the street/studio relation and its implication for street art, there is, however, no denying the importance of a major cultural institution putting on a large-scale exhibition of street artwork – and such an exhibition is about to open at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Its exhibition, Space Invaders, opens on 30 October (and runs until 27 February 2011, touring in 2011 to other cities). You can read here about the scope of the exhibition, which covers street art’s links to graffiti, its diversity of forms (including stickers, stencils, paste-ups, and so on), its connections to zine culture, the impact of pop culture upon the look of Australian street art, and its recent expansion into labour-intensive media involving drawn images.

I’m going to Canberra this weekend (along with a stellar bunch of some of Australia’s greatest street artists) for the opening festivities, and will be able to report next week on how the exhibition looks…. But it seems impossible to ignore the significance of this particular moment: Australia’s national gallery is putting on an exhibition dedicated to an art form which is often the product of activities deemed illegal by state governments and local councils in Australia, and many of the artists celebrated in the exhibition routinely risk fines or other punishments in order to make the artworks featured in the exhibition. Do we just chalk this up as being yet another instance when municipal and local governments are out of step with wider culture? Or is it time for local and state governments finally to admit that their persecution and prosecution of street artists and graffiti writers is just plain wrong?

Redirecting the Gaze

My first visit to New York was in 1990, a hectic day-long layover between flights. My second trip (but really the first time I began to explore the city properly) was in 1992 and a lot less frantic: five days spent, as most do, walking the city streets.

During this visit, one of my friends commented that ‘the tourist gaze is up’. What did he mean by this?

Think about moving through the streets on your way to work, or on your way to buy food for dinner. Where does your gaze direct itself? For most people, engaged in these moments of everyday passage from one space to another, the streets are something to move through while gazing either straight ahead or even downwards at the sidewalk.

Tourists, on the other hand, tend to look all around them, keen to glimpse any and all ‘attractions’ that might be nearby. They pause, they move at a slower speed, they hesitate and consult maps, often pointing their arms in the direction they are looking or in which they are about to move.

And in a city like New York, where visitors are surrounded by tall buildings, they seek to look towards the summits of those skyscrapers: hence ‘the tourist gaze is up’. And this identifying characteristic of the tourist has, by implication, a corollary: the everyday gaze is down’.

Street artists have long been aware of the downward gaze of the citizen as she moves through the commonplace activities of everyday urban life – think of Stickman’s little figures in crosswalks:

Or the stencil artists who place images and text on the sidewalk, such as these (both from San Francisco):

During my recent visit to New York, I saw two interventions in public space, neither of which might meet any strict definition of ‘street art’, but both of which manage to confound the separation between the upward tourist gaze and the downward gaze of the everyday.

The first of these is Event Horizon, a massive work by the British artist, Antony Gormley. Gormley, probably best known for his sculpture The Angel of the North in Gateshead, makes bronze casts, often of his body, and then places the resulting figures in public spaces – sometimes on a beach (as in Liverpool), sometimes in the centre of cities (as in Birmingham), and, with this work, on the tops of buildings. Instead of forging a single figure, in Event Horizon there are thirty one. Two were placed on the ground, in Madison Square Park, so that people can stand next to them, touch them, photograph them from a place of proximity:

Then, when they raise their gaze upwards to the tops of the nearby buildings, they project the heavy bronze figure from the ground upwards, onto the high perches around the park.

For the visitors, this installation fits easily into the genre of ‘cool things to see in New York’; for the locals, the statues have proved equally fascinating.

The gaze is drawn to the figures through a clever intertwining of dimensions, which gives the work tension and stops it from being yet another set of statues blandly placed in public space.

First, the figures are placed on top of buildings which reach different heights. Sometimes the figure is reasonably easy to study, such as when the building reaches to about six storeys, as in this example:

Others are positioned high above, only just visible in the vertical distance, such as this one:

The eye, then, is encouraged to travel, to meander up and down, as well as around the perimeter of the park, and to take in the variegated horizon of New York.

The second tension at work in the installation relates to the intentionality spectators project on to the figures. Why are they standing there? What are they doing? What do they represent?

The ‘figure on the roof’ is obviously one that is often depicted in film and television as someone who is about to jump – a potential suicide. And apparently the New York Police Department were briefed about the installation so that, if anyone called 911 to report someone on the rooftop, the police would be aware of the statues and their locations and would not needlessly respond to the call.

But it appears that most spectators interpreted the statues differently, as benevolent figures watching over the city and its inhabitants: guardian angels, perhaps (think of Wim Wenders’s beautiful film Wings of Desire, unforgivably remade as City of Angels with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan).

But the tension between disaster and safety is nonetheless there in Event Horizon, and its certainly part of the phenomenon of looking that the spectator seeks to resolve that tension, one way or another. Perhaps it’s the sheer number of statues that helps the spectator decide they are figures of kindliness rather than despair, but perhaps it’s also part of the sheer optimism of New York City.

The other intervention in public space that redirects the everyday gaze is the High Line, a park that has been built around and on the tracks of a disused workers’ elevated railway, running north from Ganesvoort Street in the Meat Packing District.

You climb stairs from the street up to the park, above 30 feet up. Once there, you can walk its length, sit on the many benches and seats provided, and, above all, you can look at the city around and above and below. What’s amazing is the effect of a relatively small amount of elevation upon the way that one sees the city.

People in New York, as in most cities, are able to alter their perspective on the city by ascending to a higher level in order to look down – but this often involves ascending to considerable heights. Think of going up the Empire State Building (or in Melbourne, you might take the elevator to the top of the Eureka Tower; in San Francisco, tourists climb Coit Tower to see the undulating city spread before them).

It’s always interesting to do this – to look at a city from the ‘bird’s eye view’ that results. But looking down at the city from these heights comes at a price – loss of contact with the level of the street. Looking downwards from 80 floors up (or anything more than about 3 storeys, probably) detaches the spectator from any sense of connection with the ground: people look like ants, houses like boxes and so on. And these spaces also tend to provide fairly static viewing positions: one can walk around a viewing platform but it’s difficult to find ways whereby you can be raised up and move through the city at the same time.

One means would be an elevated railway, such as the one that was the High Line before it became a park. These certainly raise the individual up and move them around the city. But individuals are moved passively by the train, and their gaze will oftentimes remain inward within the train carriage rather than travelling out and around.

The High Line manages to transcend these limitations. When you visit the park, you move through it on your own two feet, an active participant in the space. The elevation of about 30 or so feet makes a surprisingly dramatic difference to one’s perspective, as you can see here:

Glass-fronted viewing platforms over the street allow the spectator the contemplate traffic (more interesting in fact than it sounds!) while suspended over the street:

Although some have been critical of the High Line’s redevelopment as a park (see, as an example, the discussion on Jeremiah\’s Vanishing New York), its impact on the citizen’s experience of the city is undeniable: lifting people up while allowing them to move or rest at will reconfigures them in public space and, as with Gormley’s Event Horizon, it promotes a new kind of relation, albeit temporarily, with the city that lies above, around and below.

Talking about street art….

I’m giving a lunchtime talk in my department next week, called ‘Street Art and the Contestation of Public Space’.

Here’s what it will be about:

“Cities are sites of intense cultural and aesthetic production, engaged in the continual development and refinement of their self-image. This occurs by means of a range of aesthetic practices, such as architectural innovation, statuary, control of signage and advertising, and public art, underpinned by a network of planning regulations, local and municipal laws, and public order law.

For its citizens, a city’s processes of cultural production are sometimes unremarkable or even imperceptible; at other times, however, these processes become contested, subject to planning disputes, legal intervention, and shifts in public opinion. This talk focuses upon the contestation arises in connection with street art and graffiti writing.

The talk will focus upon two examples.

The first is the approach to street art taken by the City of Melbourne. Since 2003, local councils within Victoria have been required by the Department of Justice to develop plans for the regulation of graffiti within their municipalities. The City of Melbourne initially developed a strategic approach to graffiti based on the concept of zones of ‘tolerance’ for graffiti and street art, but then elected instead to pursue a policy of zero tolerance combined with a discretionary permit system.

The second example focuses upon the French street artist JR, who uses street art as a means of engagement with the politics of ethnicity, race and religion and as a platform to draw attention to the impact of war or emergency in ‘post-conflict’ cities and countries.”

If you are in Melbourne and are interested in coming along, here’s a link to the departmental homepage, where you can find details of the talk listed under ‘Events and Seminars’. Clicking on that link will open a downloadable pdf of a poster for the talk, which gives information about the venue and the time.

I’ve done a few talks on street art and graffiti over the last few years in Melbourne – Street Alliance, at Federation Square, or the Cultural Development Network’s forum on Permissible Art at the Famous When Dead Gallery. This one will be a more ‘academic’ one, given the setting, of course. Anyway, if you are interested, you are welcome to come along.