After street artist (and Torontoist contributor) Posterchild finished philosopher flâneur Mark Kingwell’s recent book, Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City, the Vandalist curator and street art advocate noticed that Kingwell’s celebration of concrete and the cities built out of it missed one reverie in particular: graffiti.
So Posterchild, the anonymous graffitist, emailed Kingwell, the prominent academic, to talk about graffiti; Kingwell graciously accepted. Here’s the discussion—about graffiti, about public and private space, about vandalism—that came out of it.
Posterchild: You quote Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Your right to swing a fist ends at the tip of my nose. You and I are in this together, together and apart, shaping and maintaining the space we call ours, against a background of space we all must share.” Would you say that this train of thought could be rightfully extended to: “Your right to swing a paint brush ends at the tip of my garage door”? Are there any truly public spaces where people might be more free to “swing a paint brush,” or is there no room for this in the modern city? In Toronto? Do we even need such spaces? Are they important?
Mark Kingwell: They’re essential. The great sweep of privatization that characterizes modernity has had many negative effects on ideas of shared spaces and concerns. The public space debate is mostly skewed by these private interests, and that means that defending truly public spaces—ones that are public goods, non-rival and non-excludable, to use economics jargon—is an uphill battle. Some colleagues and I explore the issues in a new book (Rites of Way: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space). One reason graffiti is a consistent hot-button issue in civic argument is that it highlights the tensions between public and private. It’s a fruitful tension, I think, or at least it can be.
Are we our buildings and are their trespasses felt as a violation of our own bodies? Could this explain why so many people, even those rural-dwelling folk who are unlikely to ever be victims of graffiti, are so vehemently opposed to the very idea of it happening anywhere?
Marshall McLuhan usefully defined media as “extensions of man,” and we could expand the notion to technology more generally. Technology plus privatization—modernity’s sweep again—equals the overarching idea of the entire world being available for appropriation. Everything from the Manhattan gridded street plan to the pharmaceutical industry finds a place in this superideology of use—what Heidegger called technology’s “standing reserve.” Challenges to the ideology, even distant ones, are always met with hostility.
Even so, it always surprises me when people not directly affected by graffiti get so exercised by it. I mean, we’re just talking about some paint here—and it’s beautiful sometimes too! How is this some central challenge to private property, life as we know it, the fabric of capitalist society? I guess it just is, and graffiti artists can probably be happy about that—as long as they avoid actual jail time.
We are at work drawing our worlds—a clue to the enduring appeal of childrens’ book characters such as Simon or Harold with his purple crayon, who can create just the lines they like by drawing on the world. We cannot do that, since we inhabit a world where some lines are already drawn, others fashioned at every moment by our fellow travelers.
Are graffiti artists simply grown-up adult-child Simons, still trying to live the fantasy that a paint brush or marker can quickly change their world?
Truly great graffiti—and there is some—alters the way we experience our city. Like all art, it serves a disorienting function, a “transfiguration of the commonplace,” as Arthur Danto likes to say. The cityspace is so often about function—the movement of goods and services, desires and bodies, from node to node—that anything that disrupts the function is at the least interesting and at the most liberating. The Simon and Harold fantasy—that we can create a world by drawing it—is a deep and strange one, mostly suppressed and disciplined for the hard lines we meet on the street. Anything that destabilizes that hardness is a good thing.
In the past, a neat threshold was formed by city walls. All the things we wished to be rid of we put beyond the walls: garbage, human waste, corpses, and criminals. Now that we dispose or organize of most of these things within the city itself, we are constantly involved in a careful dance in order to maintain a sense of “clean,” with the occasional inevitable missteps. You write:
Thus do we attempt to manage a necessary threshold by making it, in effect, no longer a simple line but a kind of möbius strip. And thus, too, our horror when this subtle non-Euclidean geometry of sanitation is broken or ruptured—as when, for example, a hungry rat bursts into a café kitchen and so, from there, into what is known as the front of the house. The patrons shriek! Everything is contaminated! And now, wretched unwillingly in one direction, we must now wretch ourselves back. The economy of the Cordon Sanitaire, once exploded, can only be restored by collective forgetting.
Would you agree that the graffiti that lines the walls of our Chinatown can have the same impact as the rats that so famously appeared in our Chinatown restaurant windows? Does graffiti break the threshold by reminding us of the dirt or by reminding us of criminality? Is a campaign against graffiti like New York’s, or our own zero-tolerance campaign, regardless of its cost and ineffectiveness, justifiable under this understanding?
Short answer to a long question: Yes.
Sanitation is a central underlying theme not just of modernity but of the entire history of Western metaphysics—a command and control project some twenty-five centuries long. Cities, as the most impressive machines of the past three of these, are complicated expressions of that project, because they reveal the impossibility of total sanitation even in the attempt to achieve it. This energy is revealing and, in its way, tragic: death is the inescapable threshold, the event that cannot be fully sanitized, much as we might try.
On the minor scale of daily reality, erasing graffiti shows a desperation that comes from the same energy. I love it when painted over graffiti are then replaced with new ones—the palimpsest of the city over time, restless and relentless. The outlaw energy feeds off the control energy, and vice versa. That’s how the humans do it!
You write “Infrastructure and Ideological structure are mutually reinforced: They become a soft and hard, the concrete and abstract expression of each other.” So when a graffiti artist “attacks” the city’s infrastructure, do they necessarily attack the city’s ideological structure as well? Could this explain the zero-tolerance policies? Why there is no political will to address the issue of graffiti with any new ideas or modern understandings?
There are no new ideas because the conflict is so basic and deeply held, you might even say primitive. Cave paintings depicting hunts and victories probably gave us art. You can bet there was someone in the cave, some future bureaucrat, who said, “Hey guys, don’t do that! That cave wall belongs to everybody.” (The cave wall belonging to somebody in particular came later.)
You write that “Heterotopian sites force critical reflection, sometimes unpleasant or undesired, on the general normativity of the city’s mechanisms. They are places apart, obeying different rules: often to be sure, rules of waste or containment, or both.” Would you agree that graffiti, such as the graffiti in Chinatown, create or help create heterotopian sites? Does the city need such forced reflection, or would it be healthier and better off without it?
Again a short answer: Yes! The city needs such forced reflection.
You write that:
…nothing is dirt until we call it so. Dirt is thematized under the rubric of cleaning, which arises as a method of eliminating, or purifying, the unclean or foreign. Therefore, without dirt, there is no cleaning; without cleaning there is no dirt. Cleaning serves to reassure the social order that is order; dirt makes cleanliness possible, not the other way around, and the anxiety provoked by dirt is forever in need of palliation.
Under this line of thought, if we were to stop “cleaning” graffiti, could it lose its status as unclean, foreign dirt? Would we forget all the time we’ve spent defining it as we have ’til now? Is such an act of collective amnesia even possible?
Yes, very possible—graffiti needs the cleaning opponents just as much as the city needs graffiti. That’s why publicly sanctioned “graffiti spaces” don’t work, any more than skateboard parks work (except maybe for practice). There has to be an element of transgression, otherwise the activity is domesticated, privatized, defanged.
You talk about the playful city, and the importance of play, and how play in cities can extend beyond the stadiums and other sanctioned heterotopian sites through the transformative power of carnival. Would you agree that graffiti, like skateboarding, longboarding, urban exploration, geocaching, parkour—or any of the other forms of independent repurposing of the city and its infrastructure for play that exist—are like carnival without end?
One of the best-known graffiti of recent memory was to be seen in Paris during the May, 1968, resistance: “Sous les paves, la plage!” Under the paving stones, the beach! A manifesto for graffiti that it itself a graffito. Play is resistance, a reminder that the regularity and hardness of the pavement hides the aimless idleness and open-ended, non-directed activity of the beach.
Do you watch graffiti?
Not really. I prefer to encounter it without intention, haphazardly. I like noticing the recurring presence of a theme or a tag, but I don’t go looking for them.
Do you like graffiti?
Absolutely. I love it. An alley covered in graffiti feels alive to me, a real shared space and not just a dead conduit of business and waste. You feel the presence of other people, other minds.
Have you ever made any? Maybe some wet, setting concrete has tempted you?
Like most people, I think, I’ve been tempted by wet concrete and the blankness of a handy wall. But I always find myself resisting the temptation. Not because of obedience or fear, just because I never have anything sufficiently good to offer, or there’s never enough space. I think writing books is my way of making graffiti—messages and images sketched into the public space of shared consciousness. Or so I like to hope.
All photos by Posterchild/Torontoist.