Monday, April 20, 2015

Style Publics: Translatability of Graffiti Text

As I work on revising the dissertation into a manuscript, I am beginning with the chapter on Chicago's Meeting of Styles festival. This chapter, to me, feels the most intimate, because I spent the most time in this city and got to know the graffiti writer community fairly well, but also is the most difficult to translate insights outwards.

The revised version will be an exploration of the different kinds of publics brought into being and enacted at the festival (I suggest there are seven) and a reflection on the insights this provides scholars in communication and cultural studies about the possibility of shaping new worlds through the instantiation of public discourses (or images, or performances, etc.)

To that end I am revisiting Michael Warner's critical text, Publics and Counterpublics (2005) in order write about two kinds of publics: ethnic publics and styles publics.

Style, in the chapter "Styles of Intellectual Publics" refers to (largely academic) writing styles, and contemporary debates about the "nature and the duties of the intellectual" (129). Writing, in this context, is not just descriptive, but rather, it is about "how, by what rhetoric, one might bring a public into being when extant modes of address and intelligibility seem themselves to be a problem." (130) Or, how does one write towards a future.

This question, for Warner, is paradoxical, because one's writer is neither free of discursive histories, but also, if it attempts to exceed the "usual frame of reference, teaching us to see or think in new way, [it] can be a necessary means to a more just world," and yet, "to the degree that our commonsense perceptions contain distortion, just so far will the effort of reimagining seem difficult, even (to many) unclear." (133) On the one hand, if a work is fully intelligible to a population, it likely does not challenge or question existing understandings of the world, but it if is opaque, it may be so because it challenges the given.

A further fallacy that Warner points out is the idea that broad reception is evidence of effective communication, the idea that "the wider it [a style] circulates, the better it must be" a "false aesthetic of transparency" that "has a powerful social will naturally privilege the majority over less familiar views." (135) The idea that "a public intellectual is one who writes for large numbers" appeals to a "headline temporality" that erases "the mediation of publics; genres; modes of address; the circulation of cultural forms; ways of reading, including affect; and the social imaginaries that are the background of literate practice." (143) This isn't to say that anything that is complex is necessarily resistant, but it does call into question the commonplace invoked about the normative value of transparency and readability linked up to the occupation of the public intellectual. Warner notes:

"Accessible prose alone gets you nothing, if the ideas are unpalatable for other reasons, or if the public is structured in such a way as to be substantively prejudicial. There are many arguments that will never find their way to the pages of the New York Times no matter how clearly expressed. Just as it is a mistake to equate good writing with accessibility, so also is it a mistake to equate an easy style with effectiveness." (141)

The elements of this argument may start, here, to sound familiar to the graffiti writer, who is charged often with producing "incomprehensible" or "unreadable" texts, thus alienating a potentially supportive public. But must this be the case? Is this the whole story? The act of writing, offering a particular idea and intervention in physical public space, is a form of occupying and transforming urban spaces in ways that challenge the presumed neutrality of public space. Such texts are unpalatable not because they are unreadable but because they are there. They index a style of marking and shaping public space that is personal, and critical. It is not for everyone in the same way. By understanding graffiti as a politics of style that is not always reducible to a claim and a warrant challenges a model of reading the public sphere as simple reason-giving. Instead, the public, and style publics operate through "uptake, citation, and recharacterization." (145).

One could say that graffiti style, too, circulates through uptake, citation, and recharacterization, remixed and resituated to suit its place of installation, indelibly impacted by the technologies and histories that precede it. At Meeting of Styles (an apt title) styles encounter one another, creating a conversation that is not about specific actions, but rather a visualization of a transnational art community as it is instantiated in a local space. In the grey-area that MOS occupies: neither illegal, nor officially commissioned, it also occupies a grey area with respect to readability and legibility: not all texts are transparent, some deliberately so, and yet others are, offering glimpses to the outsider of the complex discussions and evolutions contained within a style.

Warner notes: "World making projects require not just intentions, or the moralized postures that are called 'having politics,' but a set of forms that can articulate the temporality and social space of their circulation." (151) Here we arrive at the capacity that style, and the meeting of styles, has as a resource for cultivating new publics, by generating a set of forms that can support the history and sociality of their production. From wildstyle to three-dimensional burners, these styles are imprints of transnational journeys and localized inscriptions, they speak to sociality and competition, about being outsiders or/and being excessively on display, the possibility for communication on and around urban surfaces, but also their forgetting.

It is also in this scene, the Meeting of Styles, that we mark a journey from Diego Rivera's polemicism. Instead, at the festival, participants are committed to the engagement of an alongside different styles, putting one's own style into question as spatially and socially relative, as Haste elaborated in 2011, "You break away from your town." It provincializes one's own style. In this sense, the ethic of stylistic encounter resonates with Foucault's reflections on polemic, narrated by Michael Warner. Foucault notes:

"In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation....the polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principal, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for truth, but an adversary, an enemy, who is wrong...whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue." (152)

This is why I am drawn to these grey-area scenes of legal graffiti. They are subjunctive spaces wherein the purity of the form is put into question in ways that recognize other players as potential interlocutors, not adversaries. Warner suggests that Foucault stops short of "describing intellectual work as a kind of counterpublic." (158) Does the term "counterpublic" here simply mean "alternative" or "reflexive" or "questioning"? Is it the previously mentioned terms, combined with an interest in conditions of circulation and mediation? Why might the term "public" or "public - plus- adjective" fail?

Perhaps, but most important in Warner's treatment, is the complexity of temporality that emerges in Foucault's orientation to intellectual work as more than polemic. It is "multi-leveled temporality" a "way of recovering the orientation to futurity" that is not dependent on "headline temporality"but instead situates intellectual inquiry as the zone by which one can "image a speech for which there is yet no scene, and a scene for which there is no speech." (158)

I argue in the Meeting of Styles Mexico chapter that it is precisely the subjunctive tense of the festival that allows writers to reimagine public space in plural ways, apart from state-based nationalism but also not in explicit opposition to it. In a similar way, in Chicago, Meeting of Styles aggregates populations who consider the city of Chicago to have the possibility to be otherwise, not in the language of rupture or revolution, but of style. An encounter between a variety of styles. In this scene, not all texts need to be transparent, and not all audiences need to be hard-line supporters. By remaining slightly opaque graffiti offers a rewriting of urban space and urban imaginaries that may not yet have found there scene, but, it is this possible impossibility that keeps such style publics moving, creating, evolving towards an unknown future.

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