Monday, December 15, 2014

NCA 2014: Rights to the (Creative) City

Two weeks ago at the National Communication Association national convention I had the honor and privilege of presenting alongside some brilliant artists and colleagues. I was part of two panels that focused on visual culture in the city of Chicago, one of which was relatively open-ended, the other more narrowly focused on the history of public art in the neighborhood of Pilsen as it relates to both the right to the city, in Henri Lefebvre or David Harvey or Rosalyn Deutsche's applications, and the neighborhood as part of a commodifiable creative city, as such a framing has gelled from Richard Florida's phraseology.

This panel, which I organized, was composed of myself, Dr. Margaret LaWare, Ruben Aguirre, and Miguel Aguilar, educators and artists who have been involved in Pilsen in varying capacities for many years. In this conversation, which I will summarize, the participants revealed a nuanced understanding of the transformations effecting public art in Pilsen, as well as the various misappropriations taking place and difficulties facing the neighborhood.

I opened by discussing the overall question for the panel, which was, how to negotiate the prevalence of "creative cities" discourse, Richard Florida's claim that is increasingly used to gentrify, commodify, and to monetize creative cultures, alongside with claims, in Henri Lefebvre's terms, for the "right to the city," a claim that is often supported and expressed via public art. In Pilsen, a primarily Mexican-American neighborhood on Chicago's south west side, these two trajectories are have been incredibly intense, and in tension, particularly between the 1970s and the present.

I suggested a shift in style, away from social realist, representational aesthetics, to more abstract, less polemical, and less figurative approaches to publics works (a tendency that was largely supported by narratives from co-panelists), before turning it over to the other panelists.

Ruben began with Mario Castillo's 1969s work, Wall of Brotherhood, which is no longer in existence. "Pilsen has a long history of murals, all temporary. Many don't exist anymore: they are run down, painted over, or faded." He pointed to a "collision" that often takes place between art and community dialogue, and commodification of Pilsen, and then the question "How do you see things as an artist and as a non artist?" He answered this question obliquely, pointing to both the importance of the art work's temporality, as well as some of the changing purposes and needs that art making fulfills, which are historically specific.

Mario Castillo. "Wall of Brotherhood." Image courtesy of Ruben Aguirre
The question, for Ruben, is if his work "belongs" in a place. The fact that the Pilsen alderman's office has been bringing in outside street artists speaks volumes about some of the tensions that play out in the neighborhood.

Ruben also marked a historical shift in the role that public art, specifically, muralism, plays in the neighborhood. It began as a kind of means for galvanizing street protests and speaking out to people. It is linked to the 1960s and 1970s civil rights movements. But as time went on, and the neighborhood changed, the "children of that era" begin "Playing with graffiti...its a reflection of the next generation" and yet, Ruben remarked, it often involves a kind of loss of this history, a lack of memory, and no direct link with the people who came before, particularly, one might imagine, with the kind of plop art street art model. What is lost is the kind of "blunt resistance."

Ruben's own work, explores some of these histories and connections, looking for ways to engage organically with the site of inscription.
Ruben Aguirre. Mural on side of Simones in Pilsen. 2013. Photo courtesy of Ruben Aguirre.
Ruben's work ventures away from traditional graffiti, and is heavily influenced by Castillo's corpus. His work is "a response to the surface or the building that is there" and is influenced by design culture and graffiti culture. In it, you can see a deconstruction of the graffiti name to a kind of abstract and rhythmic color. It should be noted that Ruben's work is largely done with aerosol paint, and with such precision, that it looks computer made. In traditional public work, he explained, people are used to seeing "a literal name or text...something easy to understand." Graffiti is a kind of resistance, then, frustrating such expectations. "It is not necessarily a problem," he reflected, pointing to the ambiguous status that graffiti occupies in places such as Pilsen. "Space belongs to whoever takes it, and is going to use it," he expressed, explaining that, although the city alderman has allocated some spaces, these are not the only outlets for Chicago public artists, "people find a way to make it [their art] happen."

Casa Aztlán. Pilsen, Chicago. Online.
Margaret LaWare, professor at Iowa State University, wrote an influential article in 2008 on the role that murals on a community center in Pilsen, Casa Aztlán, played in supporting collective memory and identity, establishing a sense of "home" in a diasporic space. She summarized the piece, discussing how the community center was originally a settlement center for a Czech community, called Howell House. The mural expressed an anti-oppression sentiment, with Che Guevara, Pancho Villa, and images from the United Farm Workers on the door. She elaborated: "The 1960s and 1970s catapulted the struggles of Latino community to public view" where murals functioned to create more "visibility." Now, public art does not address "the same situational need," and what public art should do is more complex. Graffiti expresses another "generation of understanding...a different kind of reference." However, in Pilsen, art still functions to claim space, as the neighborhood is continually changed, first by the University of Illinois in the early 1960s and 1970s, by highways that cut off community, fracturing it, similar to what happened in Detroit and New York City, in the South Bronx. The civil rights period of public art making offered a "different sense of cultural identity," whereas there is a sense, in the present, that public art often works less representationally, and more abstractly, a tendency that Ruben's narrative supported. Gentrification raises different questions that those faced in the period of the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights discourse was more about the working class, whereas gentrification designates a kind of "middle class-ization of urban environments....a loss of working class solidarity."
Hector Duarte. "Gulliver en el pais de maravillas." Gulliver in wonderland. Pilsen, Chicago. Online.
Miguel Aguilar, an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and long time graffiti artists, also known as Kane 1, received his painting degree from SAIC, and pioneered the History of Graffiti course now taught there. He explains that "art history impacts my street practice...and I take from the cannon and apply it to graffiti practice."
Kane 1. 2109 S. Ashland. Photo from Chicago Arts & Culture Online.
He began by distinguishing migration and gentrification, arguing that, "there is no one master puppet [for gentrification] but rather, it is an ecology" with "multiple stakeholders: real estate, urban development" and so it is misleading to understand gentrification as a phenomenon that operates through a "ratio of presence." He explained some of these nuances noting: "For example, the Mexican-American community was not unaware of the Czech community that preceded them, in Pilsen, and they [Mexican-American residents] don't want to close off Pilsen...but they are uncomfortable in that they see a big shift in the ratio by middle class people, yuppies, and the implicit stuff that never gets analyzed, the entitlement that new transplants come with...certain people come into the neighborhood and say 'I rent here and I have a right to be belligerent.'" He further argued that Franz Fanon and Dwight Conquergood can help us understand these dynamics of privilege, colonization, and urban transformation. Moreover, the history of the neighborhood, a diasporic space that was formed out of a "trajectory of the Mexican diaspora...from farm life and country culture, with a tradition of paying respect to elders, as well as a postcolonial sensibility of submission to colonists impacts the new generation...there are lots of people in the neighborhood that come from that lived experience, and lots of these conversations do not come to the forefront [in discussions about gentrification.]"

Miguel sketched a similar trajectory in Pilsen's art making from the 1960s to the present. He noted that most of the muralism there was formulated with the idea of "art as community dialogue," and he featured Hector Duarte's "Gulliver's Travel's" mural. These initial murals somewhat calcified the genre of public art in the neighborhood, generating "finite parameters around what Pilsen celebration of heritage murals" might look like. They usually are "working class, religious, about education, or youth represented from the perspective of adults." This static format was problematic, he argued, because it "removes agency from the hybrid experience of Mexican American generations that are having a really different experience" than that of their predecessors. He grew up a block from Casa Azltán, the center Maggie discusses in her 1998 piece. In the 1980s and the 1990s many of his generation "feel a huge distance...they have an American educational upbringing and [the images represented in the mural are of] a time far away."

"Declaration of Immigration." Image from Erinn Felix.
By contrast, the "Declaration of Immigration" mural, directed by Salvador Jímenez, along with youth from Yollocalli, and installed in August 2009, offers a radical departure in style and from from the rigid formulas that Miguel outlined. Instead of representational approaches, it is largely textual, and points to the multitudes of identities and positionalities that are implicated by questions of nation and migration. Rather than "content and imagery that are naturalistic and ethnically focused nostalgia, that doesn't acknowledge what teens are concerned with now," the mural does something different.

In 1989 Miguel got involved with graffiti, it was illegal, and he was thirteen or fourteen. He did not "have the modeled mobility to know [that one could] work with a real estate developer to get permission" and instead "found neglected spaces," and later "learned that there are modes of operating within authoritative capacities, and built a personal relationship with private real estate owners  that would let him carry out work if we would 1) curate the wall, 2) cover it through out of pocket expenses, 3) and not receive any compensation for work." Graffiti here, similar to Ruben's narrative, emerges as a means for youth that come after the generation of the 1960s/1970s to express themselves in urban spaces, and yet, it is a mode of production that carries intense risk without the "modeled mobility" that teaches them to work within existing property regimes. Graffiti is a global movement, but fulfills local and specific needs for its practitioners in Chicago. He powerfully observed:

Graffiti is a coded visual language that is closed off, has an inward community, and has a political disposition. Anonymity and secret bodies of knowledge have implications for survival, for agency, for mobilization.

However, it is becoming increasingly less "inward" and the visual cultures are blurred. In Pilsen, he notices a lot of "schoolbus tours from Evanston to visit taquerias and bakeries, and the National Museum of Mexican Art." When youth have short breaks before they reboard their buses they will often bust tags, and these tags, from the suburbs, are often later read as evidence of "ghetto" or inner city youth activity, because they have the formal elements that Chicago Police have on file for "gang signs."

Moreover, other outward pressure comes in the form of commission work for international artists. The Alderman's Art in Public Places initiative supported a visit from ROA, a Belgian street artist, well known for his enormous pieces of animals. The artist was already in town for Lollapalooza music festival.
ROA. 16th Street Viaduct, Chicago. Photo from the Redeye.
This piece, though visually compelling, is, essentially, plop art, installed without significant community input or engagement. After remaining untouched for two years, it generated some negative reactions from local graffiti artists, tagged by TREX. This indexes a more enduring conflict between graffiti artists and street artists, a division that is not hard and fast, and yet, is animated by the differential acceptance of the two genres by the general public, as well as general race and class differences. Graffiti artists, Miguel noted, in the 1960s, used public spaces as a means of "mobility," whereas street artists, he opined, "use public space with references to studio practice and knowledge of the cannon-- people also have access to commission work and this leads to gallery exhibits and media celebration, supporting art as a career," not as a nocturnal adventure. T-Rex's tag exhibits a "critique of parachuting...[using] the spotlight of international artists," Miguel explained.

Other signs of resistance to gentrification dynamics are evident in the "White Hipsters Get Out of Pilsen," posters that can be found pasted to light poles, which names SAIC and UIC as responsible parties in the gentrification of the neighborhood, which, Miguel suggested, is driven around "hegemony, and dominant discourses, and the white gaze" which leaves "no potential for ...wild thoughts and counterknowledge" which would question "how valid it is to cast a value system of something economic over another peoples' space and culture," a concern bell hooks has also raised. There is also general frustration about how there is a "ton of unnoticed public space that was used by artists that has received new interest by politicians for a tourism agenda." Another public project that has caused some frustration on the part of graffiti artists was JR's Inside Out Pilsen installation, which was tagged over by Reken with the phrase "get in where you fit in", pointing to the fact that it required an artist from outside of Chicago to call attention to Pilsen.
JR Inside Out Pilsen.
During the Q&A more differences were illuminated about the trajectory of public art in Pilsen. Dr. Victoria Gallagher asked Ruben if he found his work was often tagged, like that of ROA or JR. Ruben responded, dryly, "I expect the worst," but also noted that it was rare (I remember one sole instance at his Good News Only mural off of the Granville Red Line stop which I lived near by in 2012-2013, it was occasionally marked with a ball point pen "Jesus Saves," with a little cross). Gallagher responded, "perhaps because your work is responsive to the sruvaces and the buildings that is part of why it does not get tagged as often."

Another theme that emerged was the idea that the murals from the 1960s to 1970s retrospectively functioned somewhat like monuments, remaining as exemplary references to an idealized group identity, even if at their time of installation they were dynamic sites for ongoing conversations. Gallagher noted, implicitly cautioning against reading monuments as a-temporal: "there is an out-loudness to in Andy Goldsworthy's work, an awareness of the passage of time, a playfulness.

Graffiti, is ephemeral, perhaps monumental is size, but not permanent in duration. This, Miguel explained, has a lot to do with the conditions of material scarcity that writers in spaces like Pilsen encounter. He noted: "Because of the lack of space in graffiti communities of practice going over owns own work was common, and walls rotate. There is impermanence. Not longing to have work up for decades. This is different from the history of significant representational work in spaces like museums, where there are pedestal walls. [Graffiti instead is for] rapid digestion, dispensable, and you don't need to remember." Moreover, he noted "there is an internal gratification to the process. The experience as the maker matters. It can be cathartic for people with no voice from marginalized communities. This non confrontational release is beneficial for the producers."

Dr. TR Morris asked the writers if they felt sad when their work is gone over. Ruben responded: "I don't get attached to the work, and that it can be erased immediate is good, it makes me more humble. The experience of doing it is powerful, and it is different than studio painting. [In the studio] I can reflect inwardly and it is quiet. Painting outside, being outside, there are people walking by, it can be raining, it can be really, really hot...there is a physical challenge...that is rewarding. It is challenging creatively and physically." Dr. Lester Olson pointed out that this language of physicality of painting also was prevalent in Diego Rivera's work in the 1920s to the 1950s.

Miguel also challenged the common misconception that "graffiti is individual and murals are collective." He explained: "there is a lot of collaboration in graffiti, about color choices, placement, theme." I suggested that the questioner attend a Meeting of Styles in Chicago to see these practices live.

The discussion was informative, bringing the nuance and detail of decades of study, practice, and investment in Chicago's public spaces to understand some of the less talked about dynamics of art as a practice of spatial expression and communal ownership, and art as an appropriated element of gentrification, and both art and gentrification as complex, multidimensional processes. Such conversations are only possible when we combine scholarship alongside the concrete and grounded practices of artists who are living the very processes we seek to understand. I want to thank Margaret, Miguel, and Ruben for joining me in Chicago to further texture our understanding of the intersection between public art, urban citizenship and the increasing commodification of the city as well as urban visual cultures. 

You can find more of Miguel's Graffiti Institute and personal work here, Ruben's work here, and Maggie's work here

Friday, December 5, 2014

Mornings in Upper Lawrenceville

The geography of Pittsburgh is dizzying. Three rivers, dozens of bridges, several hills that crop up in the middle of the triangle area punctuated by tunnels. In Upper Lawrenceville, like most of the neighborhood, to walk to work is to tumble down a hill, quite literally tipped into your day in a downward progression. This makes my days go by strangely, poured out into the bus, riding up up up the elevators to my office in the Cathedral, descending down another hill before I am deposited back at the base of 53rd street, a day completed.

So often, I sit in the dining room, window with its rectangular window looking out into the street that is at a forty-five degree slant, and resist the pull down the hill by making breakfast, packing lunch, checking facebook, petting the rabbit and giving him treats. Today, I sit reading about life expectancy in Ikaria, a greek island full of centenarians. Social structures of mutual dependency and interest provide an ecosystem of locally grown food, a leisurely pace to life, lots of napping, herbal tea drinking, and hanging out, a lifestyle that places the focus on sociality, interest, repetition, and endurance. The author mentions the many hills, and contrasts this almost premodern space with the 20billion diet industry in the U.S. and our supermarkets that barrage us with saturated fat, sweets, and salty foods. The question becomes, not how to live long, but how to live well.

How to live well? This question, posed by Aristotle with his notion of eudaimonia, has captured imaginations in different formulas and different countries across the globe. It is what I am trying to figure out, as I settle into a new city, but also as I interview artists in France, Germany, Mexico, and the U.S. How does one live in a way that is intentional, participatory, fulfilling, and reflective? How does one shape spaces such that they are receptive places for such creativity, in a way that is collaborative and dialogic, dynamic and enduring?

This semester, it was balancing teaching and course development obligations alongside the need to send out articles, put together a book proposal, attend a conference, take field research trips and interview artists, nurture my relationship with my partner, maintain mental and physical health, attend to wedding planning obligations, and learn about and try to make a place for myself and create a new network of friends in a relatively new city. Over the past month, it is balancing feelings of guilt and anguish about the increasingly unrepentant structures of white supremacy and the visible disposability of black life, and trying to continue to write, to be productive, to reflect on how to resist these structures in ways that are productive and ethical. For me that is to write about these issues, to document and celebrate resistance, to talk to my students about problematic public coverage and some of the longstanding histories behind what might seem to some to be only momentary aberrations in an otherwise sound social system, and occasionally to attend public performances (protests) to show quiet support. But these actions do not feel like enough, and leave the sense of unfulfilled obligation intact.

These questions are especially weird to triangulate during the holiday season, which, in the U.S. is saturated with imperatives for joy, happiness, excessive consumption, and demonstrations of affection via gifting. It, I think, suffuses many of us with a kind of whirlwind of requirements to show, buy, prove love in various ways, injunctions that often leave us bloated and exhausted, rather than fulfilled and connected.

I let this morning be slow. Unfold in in gradations of grey, whooshes of cars, dwelling in the kind of uncertainty that waking involves, reflecting on the possibility of building lines of connection in this place, as well as others, through practices of research, teaching, and neighborhood presence, that might contribute to living well. Hoping that it might contribute to an "otherwise," as Elizabeth Povinelli has articulated, that endures in the face of exhaustion. Can one hope?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

MOS Chicago 2014: Interview with Bel

What follows is a transcript of my interview with Bel, a female writer from Chicago, whom I met at the opening party at what is now 15th Street Gallery. Insightful about the dynamics of opening graffiti up to a broader public being in tension with the pleasure of its underground practice, she offers her opinions on graffiti's present, and future. Thanks again to Bel for her words.

CB: We are at MOS Chicago 2014 over at the Crawford Wall and I am with Bel and we are going to talk about her art. So, could we start, if you could just give me a brief background about how you got involved with graffiti?
Bel: Well, when I was younger, my brother he had a dictionary that he used to write on, and it was just hand styles, it wasn't letters--well, letters, but not wildstyle or anything like that, just tags. And my dad used to get real mad at him, and was like 'Don't write like that! That's just gang-banger writing.' And, it just-- I was intrigued! I really liked the letters and was like "What's so wrong with writing in this way?" So then, the more interested I got, I started messing around with my own stuff, my own letters, and it just started growing from there, it started building more into...and I didn't really know what graffiti was. I hadn't really seen it, I wasn't around it or nothing like that, but I knew that I just was fascinated with letter structure and what you can do with it. So since then I started just sketching and drawing and I got introduced to the whole graffiti scene and it just blew me away, you know? I just wanted to be a part of that.
CB: How many years has it been since you started doing graffiti?
B: I want to say that its been like 13 years or so, but a lot of those years, my beginning years, were just on paper, because I wasn't around the graff scene and I didn't know many writers, so it was just a lot of sketching, or what not. And then I started painting more in 1999, that's when I started doing more spraypaint, or what not. Luckily I have been able to participate in MOS.
CB: I saw you piece, and it has, you know, like heavy letters, very solid, very Chicago, but I want to hear a little bit from you how you define your style and also what some of your influences are. 
B: My style?
CB: Or describe, since 'define,' may seem kind of limited.
B: Well, I don't know. I just, I feel like I am still trying to work on a style. I don't feel like I have a solid style yet. I feel like with every piece that I do I am just learning more and more on how, or what other levels I can reach. Or how else I can work this letter and create this other style that I am looking for. So I feel that I am still just learning. I am still trying to figure that out. But, influences, it is just Chi Town's graff, man. Everything that I have seen, riding the trains, just looking at the colors and seeing how so many other people can work a 'B' in so many other different ways and there is no wrong way, you know? So I want to put my way in that whole mix. So, it is Chi Town's graff, It has always been a huge influence.I love seeing it. I love seeing what people are doing, and the colors, it's awesome!
CB: So there arent that many female writers, and you probably get this question a lot, but can you talk about the experience of being a woman writer in Chicago? Has it been challenging in any way? I dont know.
B: For me its been a good experience. I've had a lot of support and what not. But there isn't a lot of female writers in Chicago. We do have a nice handful, but I would love to see way more. And actually, I have been seeing a lot more girls starting to get in. I love seeing that. But just being a girl in Chicago and getting up, you really have to put your work in, and by work its like, you know, fucking painting or busting tags, or whatever it is, getting up. You've got to do it. But I think that's whats going to define you whether you are a girl or not. That is going to show how much of a writer you are and that applies towards a girl. So even if its a girl, and she's not getting up-- it doesn't matter if you are a girl. Are you getting up? That's the whole definition of the graff scene.
CB: That really leads nicely into my next question. How do you define graffiti and what does it mean to you.
B: Its just, painting and getting up and its just a passion of mine. Its not even a hobby, its what I do. I can't even go on the train without carrying anything on me and busting a tag or a scribe. It really is. As cliche as I think it sounds, its a lifestyle, they say. But it really is. I can't go anywhere without having gear on me, and its like, that's because its in me. I love that shit. I can't not do it. And even when I'm out with other people, and they are just looking at me and I'm feeling guilty, you know? I can't not do it. Its what I do. I love it. It really is a lifestyle. You either like it, or you don't, you are either into it, or your not, but when you are into it its gotta be in you and you've gotta being doing it all the time, no matter what.
CB: So how many Meeting of Styles have you painted at?
B: Six, seven.
CB: Have you noticed any changes in the Meeting over the years that you have been participating?
B: Just the styles developing and meeting more and more new people: out of towners. Seeing the whole unity and how more people, and even more families are coming out more and appreciating that art form a lot more. Whereas before [it is seen as] graffiti, vandalism, but no, actually, now you see families bringing their kids, exposing them, asking questions, or saying "Where can I take my kid to learn how to do this?" Whereas before its like "You can't do that!" You know? And, I love it. I teach graff on the side after school and I love to see that there are still kids interested in doing that. I have just seen it develop in so many ways, its awesome. So, the artist development and the community learning to appreciate it a little more and taking advantage of it, you know?
CB: You've answered this a little bit, but I am going to ask as a more explicit question. What role do you think Meeting of Styles plays for the Chicago graffitic community?
B: Well, I don't know. I think, to me, its where, it creates this unity all at once. We are all out, painting. The same days. We are all here, supporting each other. And yeah, there is always beef, but, just having the atmosphere and creating that all together it is amazing, it is good, especially in Chicago, you don't have a lot of unity in Chicago. It's crazy, you know? So, its nice to see that everyone can come out, and paint, and produce these awesome productions and give props to one another, you know? Flowing those vibes, I think is amazing. Meeting of styles over here, it was real chill for me because I ended up paintong on the international side [wall of style at 30th and kedzie] um, so I wasn't really around all my homies, but it was still cool to be able to bond with them [international writers] that atmosphere itself was created because of MOS. Otherwise, that probably wouldn'tve happened, but, its nice, it brings everyone together in a way. Yeah.
CB: Do you think graffiti can fulfill a kind of social need, or help different communities beyond, you know, just graffiti writers? I guess another way to ask it is: Does graffiti's purpose exceed just the pleasure of doing it, just the pleasure of writing?
B: Yeah, um, well now I see a lot of communities are incorporating graffiti into everything. It has just grown so much from what it used to be. Before it was so not wanted, and now everybody wants it, you know? 
Bel, in progress, MOS Chicago 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce

CB: Does that concern you at all?
B: It does a little. Just because its not so, so...such a nice little private thing, you know? And that's what graff is. Its more secretive. You don't want to be out loud everywhere. That's my only thing about it, {MOS}, you are kind of taking it out and giving it to everybody! Like here, but then, I look at the sides where you are getting all this youth into it, and they are participating in these programs and they are wanting to learn and actually do more with it. Which I think, actually is amazing, and I am all for that, and if graff is the way to do that, why not do it, you know? And if it means they are gonna be here practicing an art form instead of busting out on a corner, that's, hey, I am all for that. But a little part of me is just like aahhh. I teach it on the side, but I don't give it all away! I teach them about color, letter structure, color theory, but I am not going to tell them "Go bust tags because the more you get up, the better you are!" you know? 
CB: That's really funny. That's awesome.
B: You know, right?  But you still want to keep it into your own little thing.
CB: Yeah I love the analogy of holding it close or opening it up.
B: Yeah, you just want to hold it, and that's what is kind of happening.
CB: I noticed more people not from the neighborhood, not from the graffiti world coming and checking it out
B: Yeah, yes. And, I love it, I think that's awesome. Because it is opening their eyes to a whole different art form that is really amazing. Can control is something that really can be pretty hard to achieve and for these guys to whip out these amazing pieces, like, it just requires so much skill. Because of the other side of graffiti people [general population] just turn away. But its nice to see that change.
CB: What do you see as graffiti's future.
B: I think that is just going to keep evolving into all sorts of forms, just because the way the world in general is going, its just going to take graff with it too. Its going to be crazier, pieces are just going to keep getting wilder, colors are just going to keep getting crazier. And they are always coming out with different colored tones too so that is just going to get more wild, I can only imagine. Its just going to be crazy, I think. And probably even with technology, I am sure that will play a part in it as well. Its going to be pretty crazy, man.
CB: But you sound pretty excited about it.
B: Well...I think its going to be crazy but I don't know if I am looking forward to that much. I still like the whole character, bonding, you and the wall, so, but I am excited to see more pieces evolve more and more. I always enjoy seeing that, whate everyone is taking it up to. So that's cool.
CB: How do you record your work?
B: As far as my graff goes, its just pictures, really. I am pretty bad at documenting my work, I really am. It is pretty much the internet and people that take pictures, or me myself taking pictures, but I need to get better at that because I need to start documenting a lot of my work.
CB:: How do you react when your work gets gone over?
B: I don't mind it. Its the cycle. Its what happens. So, your piece rocks, thats why you've gotta make sure its rocking. So, when its time to go over it then you'll see the next piece, and that will be a whole new session, so I don't mind it, its a part of what happens. You paint the wall, its eventually going to get painted over.
CB: Anything else you want to say that I haven't given you a chance to talk about?
B: Um, nah man, thank you.

CB: Thank you!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


In yet another dramatic performance of America's disregard for black lives, the cop who murdered Mike Brown was let go, as the grand jury investigating the case found "inconsistent stories." This technical and rigid reaction tells us much about how history continues to be very much the same in terms of the Justice system and people of color: its normal means of operation is to work against rather than with or for these populations.

My family is Black, Jewish, Native American, but due to the circumstances of physiological markers, I happen to be very, very, pale, and so, I have the privilege to walk about the U.S. read as white, and thus, treated with civility (for the most part) by agents of the state. But its a privilege my father didn't have, nor many of my cousins. I remember, at age seven, when he accompanied me on a class trip to the NYC courthouse. We kids walked around the metal detector, as did our teachers and other parents. Suddenly my dad was stopped. That abrupt pause gave me the chance to look around: he was the only one with light brown skin, a leather coat, a ponytail. They made him walk through once, maybe twice, speaking to him in rough tones. That was not the only time that systemic racism impacted me, largely in public places with my father, but it was then that it became abundantly clear that people who look non-white, non-corporate, are treated as less-than. This kind of knowledge is as physical as it is intellectual, a feeling of apprehension. Last night, it emerged in weeping. Early this morning, pulled me from my bed, bile in my throat, I curled up by the toilet dry heaving. Physical manifestation of a deep disgust.

Maybe it is the genetic nature of racism, embodied memories of much more visible and no less ugly manifestations of discrimination, reminding me that these events are not exceptional, they are the norm. Even so, I respond and reflect on these events from a position of immense privilege: pale, middle class, college professor, without a brown child to worry after. Maybe this grief, an infitesimal amount compared to those of Brown's family, his town, is a reminder of what people who are read as black can never forget: that they are disproportionately vulnerable. My shock is others' everyday experience.

In Chicago this weekend at the Cultural Center an exhibit by Drury Brennan called "Die Welt" expressed the inevitable. An American Flag composed of red, white, and blue calligraphy read: "At-risk youth. Wrong place at the wrong time. Victim of circumstance. Its just so unfortunate. Homicide. Accident.Fit the profile. Self-Defense. black-on-black on Black on Black..." a flag composed of the platitudes and discursive architecture of a racism that disavows its existence. Circumstance. Accident. Profiles. These words that reduce an act motivated and grounded in hundreds of years of violence in contingency. These words are used to form the grounds and justification for a decision that many of us saw coming, though, repressed by inexplicable hope or optimism.

Glued to a live feed last night I watched the dogged protests unfold, people urging peace and respect, and the police repeating in mechanical tones "You are gathered here illegally, you have to disperse now," cloaked in riot gear, shields, military grade vehicles backing them, and they fired canister after canister of tear gas, not only into the streets which, presumably, were the only spaces "off-limits" but also onto the sidewalks, into parking lots, and even into residential areas, a display of power and privilege that makes a mockery of the idea that we are somehow fully beyond a sovereign spectacle of punishment.

Before the announcement, Missouri Governor urged citizens to react with "their heads not their emotions." What a telling statement. If we were to react with grief, with rage, the bloodless machinery of state repression might be troubled. Moreover, it presumes that the justice system is precisely a-emotional, a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance," that wishes away the existence of bias and power that make black lives matter less, and make black bodies exist as threats unless proven otherwise. Moreover, it frames protest itself as a necessary precursor to violence and looting, and, as Obama's speech demonstrate, is a public performance that elevates property over people, a clear perspective that only further fuels the sense of protesters that they are under attack, and are bodies that do not matter.

The protesters in Ferguson have returned, again and again, to the streets, for over 100 days. I can only hope that across the U.S. the rest of us refuse to stay silent for more than 100 days, so that it becomes clear that the systemic violence against people of color is not to be tolerated for one more minute. To protest is to perform, to frame one's body as unruly, disobedient, and dissatisfied. To use our hearts, our emotions, so that they may influence, disrupt, and challenge mechanical heads to feel otherwise.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Sedgwick on Texture

In Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick's 2003 text, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, she charts a difficult but intriguing course in trying to account for affect as biological as well as nonlinguistic while playfully illuminating the surprising anti-essentialisms that such an approach can unfold. Using Tomkins' tomes on affect, an approach to affect that, unlike Freud and his intellectual kin, does not reduce affect to drive (as libidinal and sexual) but understands it to have multiple objects and even autotelic qualities. Another objective of the text is a generous reading strategy that resists the polemical application of a "hermeneutics of suspicion" or an easy cookie-cutter deployments of the "repressive hypothesis", instead, thinking "beside" instead of "beneath" or "beyond." (9-2) These approaches, she laments, involve the all-too-common "bossy gesture of 'calling for' an imminently perfected critical or revolutionary practice that one can oneself only adumbrate." (8)

She articulates, of such besideness: "Beside permits a spacious agnosticism about several of the linear logics that enforce dualistic thinking: noncontradiction or the law of the excluded middle, cause versus effect, subject versus object. Its interest does not, however, depend on a fantasy of metonymically egalitarian or even pacific relations, as any child knows who's shared a bed with siblings. Beside comprises a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling, leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting, aggressing, warping, and other relations.' (8)

In a listing approach, a performative writing of besideness in the practice of description as theorization, Sedgwick offers an account of affect that is as dynamic as it is complex, without elevating "beside" to the status of normative ideal. Instead, it is a complex descriptor for the human and object interactions that take place in a multitude of contexts. She further characterizes this approach as spatial, involving accounts of "systems description" (12) that may allow us to think about "the middle ranges of agency...that offer space for effectual creativity and change." (13)

Beside, then, offers a more humble approach to what beings can do with respect to social practices, it acknowledges the complexity of what it means to take and make forms in a world while, paradoxically, using systems theory and the notion of the "cybernetic fold" to resist a binary approach "accepting or refusing" (13).

It is here that touch as it relates to texture emerges as a way to think about how being beside emerges in sensorial interactions. Reading Renu Bora, Sedgwick explains that "to perceive texture is always, immediately, and de facto to be immersed in a field of active narrative hypothesizing, testing, and re-understanding of how physical properties act and are acted upon over time...Textual perception always explores...How did it get that way? What could I do with it? These are the kind of intrinsically interactive properties that James J. Gibson called 'affordances' in his 1966 book, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems..." (13) These questions about an object or surface's history, and a surface's capacity might stand out to rhetoric scholars. To understand a surface as a historical interactant that possesses capacities directly related to invention, is indeed, the kinds of concerns rhetor scholars might have about the communicative and participatory elements of space. To shift, however, from a more general concern with space, to a more particular and, as we will see, scalar approach to textures, further complicates what one might understand as "affordance" shedding light on the kind of sensations that inflect "middle ranges of agency," a register that is extraordinarily interactive.

Sedgwick continues: "I haven't perceived a texture until I've instantaneously hypothesized whether the object I'm perceiving was sedimented, extruded, laminated, granulated, polished, distressed, felted, or fluffed up. Similarly, to perceive texture is to know or hypothesize whether a thing will be easy or hard, safe or dangerous to grasp, to stack, to fold, to shred, to climb on, to stretch, to slide, to soak. Even more immediately than other perceptual systems, it seems, the sense of touch makes nonsense out of any dualistic understanding of agency and passivity; to touch is always already to reach out, to fondle, to heft, to tap, or to enfold, and always also to understand other people or natural forces as having effectually done so before oneself, if only in the making of the textured object." (13-14)

To perceive texture is to immediately understand oneself to be part of a long history of touch, of the making and unmaking of different surfaces, and to release a desire to continue to make a mark, to imprint one's own activities on the texture of everyday surfaces. Citing Walter Benjamin, who explained that the bourgeois uses "covers and cases...which preserve the impression of every touch. For the of the end of the second empire, a dwelling becomes a kind of casing...this style views [the dwelling] as a kind of case for a person and embeds him in it together with all his appurtenances, tending his traces as nature tends dead fauna embedded in granite..." (Citing Benjamin 46-47)

It is easy to see this obsession with imprint to continue in our contemporary moment. We need only look as far as the next smart phone, encased with covers that not only protect the object, but individualize it, plastic screens that maintain the oily traces of digits that swipe and tap, interfacing with a contemporary environment whilst always carrying linkages to digital screens. Whereas it is tempting to view modernist environs as textureless--sheer sheen--again, Sedgwick cautions against this dualism, quoting Bora: "smoothness is both a type of texture and texture's other" (quoting bora p 99, sedgwick p 14). Smoothness is texture, repudiating the trace of contact, whereas "texxture" "is the kind of texture that is dense with offered information about how, substantively, historically, materially, it came into being. A brick or a metal work pot that still bears the scars and uneven sheen of its making would exemplify texxture...but there is also the texture...that defiantly or even invisibly blocks or refuses such information...texture that signifies the willed erasure of its history...however high the gloss, there is no such thing as textural lack."(sedgeiwck p 14-15)

Thus, if we return to the now familiar context for this blog, the western city, we can see the jostling between texture and texxture, between imprint and high gloss, in scenes as ordinary as a buffed wall, or, even more disturbingly, new efforts to "sell" tags, a point of collision between bourgeois desire for ownership via individualized casings, and the graffiti writer's effort to leave their mark on otherwise smooth (imprint resistant) urban spaces.

Describing the "gift" of "authentic" street art, given by putting a tacky (high gloss) personalized frame around a tag, character, or statement, is characterized as edgy and cool. With the simple input of credit card someone with no connection to the graffiti movement ostensively can posit themselves as "owner" (because there is a certificate to prove it). Beyond the initial nauseau this might inspire in other readers who have attachments to the writing community, and may see this as crass commodification of what is often complex and risky practices, often by communities of color to be "owned" by upper class populations, there is something else. Enframing, cropping the tag from the wall itself implies a kind of replacement of texxture by texture: the first act of tagging, which is participatory and responds to the affordances of the wall, the paint can, the rhythms of the city, is aggressively ignored not touched but merely blocked off to create a new narrative of ownership, a capitalist imprint of commodification and fetishization. To put it simply: the first tagging practice is a multisensorial experience of smell, touch, heightened listening, and proximity and then distance, whereas the second collapses it into the visual, and the two dimensional, one that may imply the tactile, but largely as that which is lost.

Sedgwick helps us think about the relationship between vision and touch in texture. She notes: "texture itself is no coextensive with any single sense, but rather tends to be liminally registered 'on the border of properties of touch and vision'...other senses beyond the visual and haptic are involved in the perception of texture, as when we hear the brush-brush of corduroy trousers, or the crunch of extra-crispy chicken." (15) Moreover, scale impacts the dominance of some sense to others: "the increasingly divergent physical scales (and the highly differential rates of their change) that characterize the relation between touch and vision in the modern period result in understandings of texture that make it as apt to represent crises and fissures of meaning as metonymic continuities." (16) By way of example, Sedgwick describes the experience of airplane travel and seeing a forest below, "texture is what the whole acre of trees can proved" and then the experience of chopping wood "a single tree may constitute shape or structure within your visual field...texture pertains to the level of the cross-grained fibers of the wood in relation to the sleek bit of the axe." (16)
Finally, when embracing an object or a person, sight can be obliterated. Thus, "texture...comprises an array of perceptual data that includes repetition, but whose degree of organization hovers just below the level of shape or structure." (16)

In short, encounters with texture include the forest and the trees, the macro and the the micro. It includes smooth space, and sticky space, and has sharp implications for how inhabitants of urban space engage, create, and respond to their various casings. I can only hope that the engagement will tend more towards generosity and curiosity than simple avarice and ownership.

Works cited:

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, Duke UP, 2003.

Thoughts touched by discussion in the Gender and Affect Reading group hosted by Pitt's Gender Sexuality and Women's Studies program.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

MOS Mexico: Grafiteros Cómo Ciudadanos

I had the great fortune to attend MOS México in Mexico City this past weekend, the final of three MOS events in the country. It has been two years since I have been in the city, three since I have attended a MOS event there, so it was a pleasure, and fascinating, to see how the graffiti scene continues to evolve stylistically, but also with respect to its relationship to institutions and the media.

The first MOS this year was in Monterrey, then in Guadalajara. In Monterrey the event was intimate, and involved only 40 writes, taking place in the Monterrey subway "The first time a city has invited writers to paint near the trains!" organizer Gerso commented. In Guadalajara, on the other hand, it was a massive event, with around 170 writers on a wall that was a kilometer long. In Mexico City the event was more decentralized, taking place in the Zócalo, in the middle of a book festival, the Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico, Calle Regina, Calle San Jeronimo, Metro Garibaldi, and Fray Servando Teresa de Mier. These seven sites, located around the Centro Historico, are fairly easily accessible to each other by foot, and yet, and also fragmented, each in very different kinds of places.

At Zocalo the artists were located in the middle of the square, with the Palacio National and Catedrale as stunning backdrops. In addition to the thousands of tourists who visit the site, the artists were also observed and greeted by visitors for the massive, week-long book fair being held in teh plaza. On Regina, on the other hand, one wall was in the middle of the pedestrian-only street, across from restaurants, and the other was a local playground with a mural of the Familia Burrón on the front. San Jeronimo has a sculpture garden and fútbol park, but also a more solitary street near the Sor Juana building. Finally, the Belgians at Garibaldi had to contend with the hustle and bustle (intense bustle) of the Mexico City metro system, while writers at Fray Servando Teresa de Mier were left in relative solitude, accompanied by the whish of cars on the major thoroughfare, and the hawking via a megaphone installed onto a truck: "BOTONES....BOTONOES!" "SNACKS...SNACKS!"

Familia Burrón Mural.
Even so, a sharp contrast to the MOS I attended in 2011 was this very central location. Until 2012 the festival took place in suburbs, often in Nezahualcoyotl, the birthplace of graffiti in Mexico City. A former squatter settlement, Neza is not geographically too distant from the Centro (just to the east, near the Aeropuerto), but socially is almost another world, at least in the eyes of the bourgeois and the police. To move MOS to the center, then, is to enact a radical shift in audience and alliance. To get access to the center city, a difficult task, Gerso worked with representatives of the Fideicomiso, a government branch that serves as a "bridge" between citizens and government. I asked Oliver Bárcenas Cruz, Asesor of the Fideicomiso about his sector's involvement. He explained that the organization helps the festival get access, as part of the larger goal of enabling citizens, particularly youth, to feel that they have a stake in the cultural patrimony. Three elements are critical in fostering relationships between city, government, and nation, for Fideicomiso, Bárcenas Cruz elaborated: "Patrimony, Citizens, Neighbors." Part of their job is educating and making citizens feel that they have ownership and stewardship over the cultural patrimony, and that subsequently enables neighbors to feel more secure. Preempting an argument that I didn't make, he continued "But this does not mean gentrification...many people did not live here [in the areas where MOS takes place] until recently, because it was too dangerous." He concluded "We are very happy with how the festival has gone, and forsee it continuing in the future." His colleague, Rodrigo, echoed some of his sentiments, explaining how the festival allows for prejudices about graffiti as 'just vandalism" to be broken down as spectators can learn about the intense skill and discipline involved in graffiti as an art form. This link between government and graffiti is a new one. It was not long ago that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "Zero tolerance" policy was imported by federal and local officials to respond to the graffiti "epidemic." On day two of the festival, however, one of the stern faced young police officers took a grey spraycan in hand, "cleaning" a grey pole. The writers encircled him, clapping and cheering, and it was clear some of his institutional coldness in demeanor was thawing at the edges, a stubborn smile at the corners of his mouth as he held onto the can long after.

Joyful buffing.
Despite Fideicomiso's optimism, there were some clear rumbles of uncertainty and mistrust by some of the writers, some remarking that the government has discovered that graffiti is a source of income, that it also enacts social control, that there is rampant corruption. Even so, there was also keen appreciation of the general role the festival plays as a point of union for a wide range of writers, a transnational meeting place.

Yems, from Peru, and Zurik, from Colombia, explained that in their home countries there were no festivals as big as MOS Mexico, and so the festival offered them the valuable opportunity to meet a wide range of international artists and learn more about their styles. Moreover, it is an important site for diversity, NEAR from Guatemala explained, echoed by Herso from Neza. Both of the latter artists attempted to represent some of this multiplicity in their pieces.



The festival does not just correct misperceptions about graffiti for Mexicans, but also correct prejudices and misrepresentations of Mexico for foreigners. Both Raso from Spain, and Ozais, from Marseilles, referenced negative media representations of the country, contrasting it with their warm welcome and the wealth of talent in Mexico. "It is not all drugs and trafficking," Ozais exclaimed, "there is art and people." Gerso explained that the festival(s) is a critical opportunity to spotlight the high quality of painting in Mexico, and make it internationally visible, a sentiment that motivated his shift to become an organizer instead of mere attendee. He created mode of organizing that was "bottom up...artist run, understanding what artists, paint, housing." True to his word,  I saw constant food and paint deliveries, as well as a dedicated spot for poster distribution to curious passers by, which became instant souvenirs, youth asking artists for signatures, tags on their clothing, or even tags on blank sheets when the posters ran out.

Mariela from Argentina, more street artist/public painter than graffiti writer, pointed to the affective effect of festivals and other public works, that offer a space to "open up" the city, for people to "recharge," and see differently. Gerso, by inviting nontraditional urban artists, like Mariela, also sought to internationalize and pluralize the festival, breaking with a restrictive definition of "style." Glo, her neighbor on her wall, based out of San Diego,exemplified one of these diverse styles, rendering an ethereal alien-like creature instead of complex letters.



For Mexican writers as well, the festival is a critical point for reunion. Diego Loza emphasized the role it played for the community, as did Motick.
Diego Loza
I saw old friends from MOS 2011: Reak, Yuka, Atok, Mser, persisting and evolving their styles.
When I asked Oliver, more pointedly, about what it means to take an art from the periphery and plop it in the center, he recalled an interaction he'd had with a vecina, a neighbor, an an event they had organized. After complimenting him on the event the old woman told him that what they had done was very nice, but places like the "Palacio de Bellas arts...estan para los ricos." Places like PBA are for the rich. And yet, not, formally. They are free and open. But what is free and what feels public are two different things entirely. And so, the goal is to render such spaces more porous through ongoing education and repetition.




I asked all the writers I spoke with the deliberately naive question: "Do you think graffiti can change the world?" All responded in the affirmative with important qualifications, that it effectuates a change in outlook and environment primarily, and perhaps a change in relationality and community secondarily. It is a means of bringing about spaces that feel more public, but it is a method that is intermittent, ephemeral, and necessary to repeat, again and again.






Hula Hooper.






MOS Signature Cans.




Festival pug.


Thank you to all of the artists for talking to me. It was wonderful.
Muchas gracias a todos las artists para platicar conmigo. Esta fue un evento increible.