Taking It to the Streets
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Taking It to the Streets

No victors were declared last night in the ongoing struggle between the street and the man, between high and popular culture, between the alleyway and the gallery. In a panel discussion on the evolving nature of street art, the only consensus was that more conversations—open-ended, open-minded, open-hearted—are required.

The event, organized by the ROM in conjunction with its “Housepaint, Phase 2: Shelterexhibition, brought several artists and curators (Devon Ostrom, David Liss, Fauxreel/Dan Bergeron) and one city councillor (Adam Vaughan) together to consider a variety of issues surrounding street art, ranging from the political (is graffiti vandalism?) to the ideological (is graffiti intrinsically transgressive?) and the aesthetic (is street art Art?). The conversation was relaxed: neither the artists nor the councillor are hardliners, and everyone present was willing to consider that street art and more traditional institutions could coexist in relative peace. (There are, perhaps, other city councillors whose presence would have made for a louder, angrier discussion.)

From left to right: Devon Ostrom, David Liss, Adam Vaughan, Fauxreel/Dan Bergeron. Photo by Hamutal Dotan/Torontoist.

Though many questions were raised over the course of the evening most came down, in one way or another, to the matters of class warfare and political marginalization. Vaughan threw out some tried—and true—slogans about the appropriation of the street by those with money and power. “The culture of the poor is the business of the rich,” he told an audience of both artists and patrons of the arts, and the wealthy have a tendency to commodify the creativity of the poor and then sell it back to them at an outrageous mark-up. David Liss, Artistic Director of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, agreed, saying that a conversation about street art is inevitably a conversation about class. For him, street art is interesting primarily as “an attempt to reclaim an environment that is increasingly disempowering… an affirmative and creative act of resistance to forces of destruction.” No longer confined to the inner cities of North America, some of the most compelling street art is now found in Brazilian favelas and on the wall separating Israel from the West Bank.

Graffiti on the wall separating Israel and the West Bank. Photo by kevincure.

Within Toronto, perhaps the primary issue surrounding street art is the question of how regulated it should be. Property owners need to be protected from unwanted graffiti, said Vaughan, but we also need to give graffiti room to breathe where it is welcome and not “police it out of existence.” His goal is to shift the political conversation away from a focus on strict legality and towards an understanding that sometimes graffiti is “legitimate artistic expression.” Of course, this brought up the “is graffiti vandalism or is it art?” conundrum. Panellists agreed that not all graffiti or street art is worth protecting: Liss pointed out that “there is a difference between people putting up ideas and idiots and wannabes running around with spray cans.” (Nobody was willing to go on record with a strategy for deciding who were the artists and who were the idiots, though.)
And if some street art is good enough and important enough to protect, does that also mean that it has a place in traditional galleries? There’s a sense in which bringing this art inside may count as progress—galleries confer a measure of publicity and legitimacy that even independent street artists can value—but it is also somewhat fraught. Devon Ostrom, curator of “Housepaint,” admitted that “there’s always a bit of a problem with putting street art in a gallery. It loses some of the life and vibrancy.” None of the artists, however, was interested in ruling out gallery shows altogether: they puzzled over what it would mean for the authenticity of their work, but rejected claims that street art needed the street cred of being illicit in order to satisfy.

Wheatpaste portrait of Mubusara on a wall in Regent Park by Dan Bergeron (Fauxreel). Photo courtesy of Dan Bergeron.

Former Torontoist contributor Fauxreel (aka Dan Bergeron) was the last of the speakers and spent much of his time elaborating on the idea that street art is a form of engagement. This is what distinguishes it from graffiti (which is more codified and appeals to a more select audience), and this is what makes it important. Street art is a way of challenging people to view aspects of their environment in a new and different light, and even if they don’t like what they see what matters is that they think about it rather than simply walking on by.
Earlier in the evening, Ostrom had described one of Fauxreel’s projects—a set of wheatpaste portraits that he put up on the walls of Regent Park apartment buildings. What most people didn’t realize, said Ostrom, was that Fauxreel also held a series of community workshops, ones that allowed him to build a real relationship of trust with the local residents. That, everyone seemed to agree, was why street art and graffiti are valuable: they are fundamentally modes of engagement, ways of building community and interacting with the cityscape. Legal or not, transgressive or not, our cities can sometimes be all the better for them.