Tuesday, March 15, 2011

From Waste Containers to Encounter Generators: Mobile Gateways


Today marks the first day of my trip to Philadelphia to work on the project that I have provisionally titled “Community Mural Arts, Urban Polemic, and Political Tourism: Place-Based Strategies in Media Space.” Entering the city one is suddenly in the thick of Philadelphia’s visual landscape with few “gateway” markers. Driving along Benjamin Franklin Parkway looking north between 12th and 16th street murals emerge from the north, creeping over the edge of the highway, offering sneaking glimpses of the culture and people beyond miles of concrete. A garbage truck sneaked up to the right of the bus I was on, shockingly colorful, entirely adorned in flowers. “Buttons in Bloom” was the title. The truck was a punctum on a highway that otherwise was unremarkable, in a city without clear “gateways” image based solicitations emerge at the level of the mundane, made extraordinary.


In Philadelphia there is an intimate link between municipal planning and cultural development. Andrew Stober Chief of Staff, Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities at City of Philadelphia and Director of Strategic Initiatives, Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities at City of Philadelphia, observed “we love how mural arts bring culture into services – there is a tradition of linking arts and infrastructure that it is incumbent on us to carry out” (Interview March 15,2011).

The trucks, designed as part of a partnership between the City of Philadelphia, school groups and the Mural Arts Program emerged as the product of “Design in Motion: The Recycling Truck Project.” which released ten trucks in 2009, and another ten on Earth Day in 2010 (http://www.philadelphiastreets.com/News.aspx?code=380H43E22K39). They are part of a strategy to increase awareness of Philadelphia’s recycling program. In this context murals are both about decoration but more importantly, communication. In the key text More Philadelphia Murals and the Stories they Tell, the Golden et al. note that “muralism…came out of the Mexican mural movement and are “more about process and communication than decoration” (Golden, et al., More Philadelphia Murals 16). Stober observed that the effects of the project are evident from the interactions that the mural-covered garbage trucks generated: “[the crews] get positive attention and people talk to them about the trucks—they are friendly to the crews, and this serves as promotion for the recycling program. These are mobile murals, murals on the move.” (Interview March March 15, 2011)
The image of people gathering around a smelly recycling truck to talk is fairly uncanny, and exhilarating. The possibility of objects of waste becoming centers of sociality suggests the power of curiousity to transform subjects, to make them more affectively calibrated for the vulnerability and risk that sociality implies. In a sense it seems like the art objects are mediators for social engagements—and their oddity- mobiles murals both functional and aesthetic- is precisely what allows them to be a bridge for communication across difference. By bending what it is to be a mural, and a garbage truck its possible for inattention to be temporarily suspended.

There are three questions that one must raise about this hybrid object:

First, what does this imply or alter about notions of site-specificity when the art object is mobile and is based on movement and disposal instead of place making and constructions

Second, what is a mural? What is the origin for this particular kind of mural? While mobile murals have their roots in Mexico, called “mantas” or “murals wih feet.” Bruce Campbell argues that mantas challenge the fixed fresco mural form with a reproducible mural, a "militant graphics aesthetic" (159-160), that resignifies public space (ambientaci√≥n) (160). Unlike murals they are not iconic but paraphrastic, more polemical than narrative (162). These trucks, however, are less clearly polemical. They are instead invitational, curious, embracing, and do not make a specific demand but rather open up a pathway of thought. Of course all of the recycling trucks have earth day theme, but that is not obvious to a viewer who does not know about their history, and they do not have a location.

Finally, what do the trucks suggest about how a city is marked? The suggestion I want to make is that “gateways” are not singular but plural, and should be thought of as occurring between co-inhabitants in the city, not just between tourists and the city-image. “How Philly Moves,” a project underway to create a 50,000 mobile mural facing I-95 off of the Philadelphia Airport Parking authority is meant to provide a visible gateway, the function of which Stober notes is: “Announcing to he world that we are here and you are entering a city that appreciates the arts—welcoming to our city.” (Interview March 15, 2011) Stober framed the origin of “How Philly Moves” with a concern felt in the Transportation Department with the design challenge of “too many gateways that were not recognizable or welcoming” (Interview March 15, 2011), however, I think that everyday, mobile, and street level projects like the “Design in Motion” project which create possible encounters with strange objects was for me a meaningful gateway into the cultural landscape of Philadelphia, one imbued with a rich sense of culture, visual diversity, and pleasure.




photo from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/49315874@N03/4541267479/in/set-72157623905953468/

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