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Kirsten O’Regan: Agora-phobia

June 12, 2013

Creative resistance, via public art, in an age of pessimism and a city of commerce

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Image via Molly Crapapple

By Kirsten O’Regan

In ancient Athens, the agora functioned as market, civic center, and meeting-place; a large, open space ringed by temples, shops, libraries, theatres, and administrative buildings, it was a buzzing communal hub and a locus of financial and political exchange. Supporting social networks and the free trade of goods, services, and ideas, the agora enabled public speech and was thus central to the establishment of democracy.

In modern Athens (as in Madrid, Cairo, Rome, Tehran), public spaces have again become a vehicle for personal and political expression. Across the Middle East and Europe, the imperatives of state and market have disintegrated, allowing a wave of protest art to burst through the cracks. Crude, volume-driven graffiti and sophisticated, colorful murals splatter the walls of myriad downtowns. The youth—disenfranchised, jobless, and opinionated—have turned to the streets to enact their claim to citizenship; their eclectic, impassioned offerings a collective expression of socio-political aspirations and frustrations.

One suspects that Jane Jacobs would have applauded. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs suggested that the complex needs of urban centers are too often bulldozed by governmental financial incentives promoting monotony, sterility and vulgarity. “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness and disorder,” she wrote, “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and be served.”

More than one year since the start of Occupy, New York’s urban surfaces remain relatively sterile and the agora is reserved for commerce.

Amongst the pictorial outpouring in recession-blighted Europe, one image has recurred: a small girl with her belongings in a handcart. The graphic originated as an illustration by U.S. artist Molly Crabapple—one of the many figures referred to in an April 2012 BBC article, “Does Occupy signal the death of contemporary art?” The author’s thesis: that the plethora of politically engaged, publically available artwork associated with the global Occupation represented a “cultural zeitgeist” rejecting commercialism and focusing on collective, public art with a social purpose.

But more than one year since the start of Occupy, New York’s urban surfaces remain relatively sterile and the agora is reserved for commerce. The euphoric momentum of Occupy has dwindled, and while its iconic imagery may metastasize across marble in Monastiriki, here at home it has been efficiently cleared off the streets and into the dustbin of history.

***

In the case of of Molly Crabapple, the artwork was cleared into the Smart Clothes gallery on the Lower East Side—where “Shell Game”, her Kickstarter-funded series of large, jewel-hued paintings depicting the political turmoil of 2011 (Occupy Wall Street, the Tunisian Revolution, the health care crisis), has just finished exhibiting. Executed in a similar Victorian style to her pen and ink work, and with the same frenzied visual chaos and declarative allegory, the paintings are an eloquent reflection on a year of protest. During 2011, Crabapple’s work was protest itself: posters bearing her image of an enraged and gluttonous black sea-creature and the demand, “Fight the Vampire Squid: Occupy Wall Street”, were borne aloft through New York’s streets.

Having started out in the art-world as a nude model, Crabapple never felt “serious enough” to make political art. Then in 2011, she says, “I felt that things had come to a crisis point, and it was incumbent on everyone to pick sides.” While she is quick to reject the label of “street artist” (she didn’t put up the wheat-pastes herself, she explains), her work is intended to reach out to people who aren’t inherently political. Steering away from the typically blunt aesthetics of activist art, she wanted to create something beautiful but with a clear message. “I wanted to do a politicized poster that looked like a fairytale.”

Her illustrations, like the May Day “General Strike” poster, quickly went up across the U.S. and around the world. She loaded hi-res images to the Internet to encourage people to print and use them in different contexts. “I think that digital is very interesting,” she reflects. “In some ways it’s the most egalitarian art platform because there’s no money in it, but it’s also the least egalitarian because you can only access it via very expensive devices.”

Regardless, Crabapple is not morally conflicted about releasing her art into a privatized market where her large paintings fetch around $12,000. “I’m not someone who’s against making money,” she says. “Selling my art is just what I do. It’s like being a carpenter.” Indeed, context makes this crucial. “We live in a country that has no governmental support for artists, and no real social safety net,” she says.

Having travelled throughout Europe in preparation for “Shell Game” and for Discordia (a collaborative project with Laurie Penny about the Athenian street protests—Penny wrote the essay, Crabapple illustrated the book), she is aware of societal differences. She laughs when she thinks back to Athenian street art (some of which is incorporated into her paintings). “It was the most graffitied city I have ever seen in my life!” she recalls. “But the fact that they’re doing these amazing illegal pieces of art is kind of the least of it in terms of the other laws they’re breaking.” The U.S., she points out, is not so conducive a context for illicit public art. “It’s a much more picking and scrambling environment,” she explains, “and much more militarized.”

Crabapple was arrested in the Occupy anniversary protests, two days before Discordia was released as an e-book. The street artists she knows face similar penalties on a regular basis.

***

Penalties for illegal public art are perhaps why artists are flocking to informal outdoor art galleries—pockets of the city where permission is sought from apartment owners and businesses, and murals explode across privately-owned edifices that jut into public space. One such nexus, The Bushwick Collective, is gradually transforming the warehouses of de-industrialised East Brooklyn into huge canvases.

On a sunny Sunday, self-appointed curator Joseph Ficolora is loitering at the heart of the Collective—wryly aware that his project is altering the neighborhood. A yellow cab goes by. “Look at that!” he says. “You never used to get those around here.” While dealing with a Times reporter, Ficolora dispatches me down the road. “There’s an artist at 207 Starr right now,” he says. “Go check it out. Tell him Joe sent you.”

A young artist who goes by Gaia is working on a rooftop above a Polish deli. He is perched on a red ladder and carefully defining the pecs of Greek god Hermes when I arrive. The mural is maybe 12ft high: at its base is a representation of the cerulean-turquoise Thai baht and above that the red Chinese yuan. Superimposed over both is the imperious torso of the same Mercury who lives on the ceiling of Grand Central Station.

“The point is that this neighborhood has obviously been very much affected by the advance of neoliberal policy,” Gaia explains. Plastered with Chinese signage, this relatively poor corner of Bushwick has been drastically altered by immigration and the outsourcing of labor to cheap markets. Mercury, the god of commerce, embodies the speed of capital, while the Asian bank notes represent liberalized currency.

Gaia—real name Andrew Pisacane, a MICA sculpture grad—is careful to create context-specific art, as a means, he says, to avoid the accusation of “imposed aesthetics” and “alien gentrification” often leveled at muralists. Before he sets out to paint, he asks himself: “What are the issues regarding these spaces, and then how do you speak to these issues? And how do you speak to the identities that define those spaces?” Ideally, he wants to create a dialogue. “It can even be antagonistic,” he allows, “That’s not bad. I mean, of course, it’s weird to say ‘It’s getting people talking’, because people are always talking. But it can be challenging, and it can be almost—crystallizing.”

Gaia prefers to think of street art’s modus operandi as “unbridled expression,” and admits that in big American cities this can turn out to be a lot of self-serving noise.

Gaia has been working on the streets for seven years, since he was 18. He started in New York then moved to Baltimore to study. He still lives there, but travels seven months out of the year— paid flights to Jakarta, Bangkok, Buenos Aires—to take part in mural festivals. The type of mural he wants to paint would be impossible to complete illegally, he says, due to zealous policing. As a result, “Not much painting actually happens in New York. It’s just starting.”

Although Gaia’s current mural is clearly critiquing the global economy, he has little patience with political posturing. “Political street art for the sake of looking political is annoying in and of itself,” he says. “That’s not politics, that’s just an extension of guerrilla branding. It looks subversive, but it’s not subversive at all.” He prefers to think of street art’s modus operandi as “unbridled expression,” and admits that in big American cities this can turn out to be a lot of self-serving noise. “In New York, its definitely about the Instagram, and the cell-phone hits, and Facebook.”

This system is not something you can escape, he says—“I mean, you have to make money”—but its egotism can be mitigated by avoiding advertorial self-branding. Gaia stipulates that, because he is working legally, he is functioning as a muralist and not a street artist—but a muralist with a street art mentality. “And a street art mentality is, fuckin’, I’ll work for nothing, I wanna get it up, I wanna put it out there, I wanna speak to people.”

He speaks fondly about painting illicitly in Europe, describing the sense of liberation that creating blatantly polemical street art can bring. “The artists [there] are very open-minded and very into collaboration,” he says. “They’ve achieved this level of illegal mural-making without having to worry about too many police. And also, there’s a certain liberty about their mindset: ‘Let’s just paint a fuckin’ giant-ass wall on a Saturday. Bring some wine and just do that’.”

***

It could be argued that a comparable ethos—collaboration, political activism, community spirit—exists among the crew of the Illuminator: a van kitted out during OWS to project revolutionary light-images onto the fabric of the city. The Illuminator debuted with the 99% bat-signal that branded the Verizon building during OWS’s 2month anniversary march over the Brooklyn Bridge. Two years on, the Illuminator is collaborating with organizations to support causes such as tax justice, and creating projects on their own initiative: “Free Pussy Riot” projected onto the Russian consulate, for example.

“We are stewards of a movement resource,” says Mark Read, NYU Gallatin Professor and the project’s instigator. He is ambivalent about whether the Illuminator’s installations are art. “The thing about calling it art,” he worries, “is that often the reason to do so is to accrue social, cultural capital to oneself.” But accruing capital might not be such a bad thing, in terms of leverage and exposure.

The Illuminator is perhaps most aligned, he allows, to social practice art, in which the medium is human interaction itself. “What those artists are wanting to impact or to shift is the social. Meaning the way that we understand ourselves as social beings,” he explains. “In what ways those understandings are shaped by capitalism, and what other possibilities for understanding our social selves might be shaped under different conditions?”

Although the Illuminator works declaratively, its public spectacle can create opportunity for discussion. While projecting messages in solidarity with Boston onto BAM, some 300 people amassed. Skilled graphic designers in the crew were able to create new images on request. “There was this ability to do things on the fly, and create a really great discursive space,” Read enthuses.

Although he has no metrics to measure the effect of the Illuminator beyond Facebook shares, he is convinced art is crucial to socio-political transformations. “Systems of domination and oppression are not merely top-down,” he says. “It’s not really the boot on the neck of the masses—it’s that those systems of thinking are inscribed throughout the culture.” Hence the Illuminator. “Semiotic guerrilla warfare is sort of what we’re practicing,” he says. “It’s not my phrase, but it’s a good one.”

Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Euro crisis have been collectively termed “the movement of the squares,” Read says. But “in New York City the commons is increasingly privatized and increasingly policed. It’s not really an accessible space. The square has been kind of eroded.” The Illuminator’s actions are basically legitimate (“It’s free speech”), but that doesn’t prevent the police from giving them trouble.

On top of this, Read diagnoses the U.S. with a sense of despair that makes protest art seem pointless. “You know, we’re faced with these crises,” he says. “Certainly gun violence is a crisis, but also the economic crisis, the environmental crisis… and the political system is so sclerotic it can’t respond.” In New York, added to this despondency is the siren song of the high-brow art world.

Noah Fischer, Brooklyn-based artist and one of the key figures behind Occupy Museums (dedicated to exposing the economic injustice of cultural institutions) agrees. “You go to New York to ‘make it,’” he says. “There’s conditioning that points to private space being the thing because private space means fame, financial success.” While somewhere like Berlin is purely a creative capital (Frankfurt being Germany’s financial centre), New York is a center of both art and commerce. The financial district in Manhattan makes rents prohibitive and policing vigorous, thus “the space of resistance easily gets pushed out to the margins.”

The U.S., Fischer argues, has lost the sense of public space being important; culture has suffered, as art is no longer seen as a common good but rather as a privatized luxury. Occupy Museums is engaged in enabling people to “enact the kind of cultural citizenship that we wanted”: it is currently working on a proposal for a new art market, and planning to hold an alternative art fair tying art directly to debt across New York in September. “There are worlds of resistance across the city,” Fischer insists, “they just find it a little hard to flourish.”

***

One such cell of defiance is Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, whose posters protesting street harassment have been appearing across Brooklyn. The posters bear sketched black and white portraits of women, and slogans like “Stop telling women to smile,” “My name is not Baby,” and “Women do not owe you their time or conversation.”

An oil painter and illustrator, Fazlalizadeh has always been drawn to grapple with socio-political issues in her art. She suggests that her ability to deal straightforwardly with politics is a result of her illustrator background—like Crabapple, she is used to making work that is “very on the nose, not subtle. It’s there in your face.” Perhaps because of this, unlike someone with a fine-arts focus, she “never felt the political element would take away from my artistic practice.”

Working recently on a collaborative mural in Philadelphia made Fazlalizadeh consider public art’s exciting possibilities. Unsure how to approach one particular subject in oils, a thought struck her: “street art, street harassment—they kinda go hand in hand.” Unsure about the legality of the whole project, she just went out and started putting them up. Although now aware that the wheat-pastes are illegal, she hasn’t come across trouble and hopes to spread them into Manhattan.

“I just want women to walk by these, and feel kinda comforted,” she says. “If guys see this and consider their own actions in the light of my artwork then that’s fantastic. But it’s mostly for women to feel empowered.” As her first foray into the world of street art, the project is also a fresh outlet for creativity: Fazlalizadeh wants to make the posters bigger, maybe incorporate some color, or work out how to do little pop-up murals. It’s a perfect combination, she says, of artistic innovation and social activism.

In The Third Man, Orson Welles famously espouses a theory that culture flourishes under conflict and tyranny rather than passive consensus.

Nevertheless, Fazlalizadeh is sometimes dispirited by the lack of critical political engagement amongst the U.S. populace—a frustration that fuelled her oil series “Get Angry”, inspired by the protests and revolutions of 2011. “There’s a lot of stuff to not be happy with in the U.S.,” she says, and while plenty of people are struggling for change, “there’s also a lot of complacency.” As an artist, she feels privileged to have a medium of expression—and she recognizes that not everyone is so lucky. “Some things just seem so insurmountable,” she suggests. “If people didn’t feel that way, then a lot could change.”

***

In The Third Man, Orson Welles famously espouses a theory that culture flourishes under conflict and tyranny rather than passive consensus. Out of the Borgia’s reign of terror came the Renaissance, he reasons, while, “In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Although the history behind this statement may be inaccurate, the line does articulate an uncomfortable truth. As political philosopher John Gray points out: “Culture thrives on contestation and antagonism, not some dreary fantasy of social harmony.”

Consider New York in the 1970s and early 80s: a rogue city plagued by crime, crack, and economic insecurity, but one in which creative self-expression flourished. The subway became a locus of artistic competition and social exchange—a subterranean square. Eric Felisbret took part in the graffiti culture on the trains, and now runs online archive “149th Street Graffiti” to commemorate the era. “When the movement first started it was in different boroughs,” he recalls, “and with the subway, kids in Brooklyn could see what kids in the Bronx were doing. People in different areas were exposed to different ideas.”

Graffiti was traditionally apolitical, Felisbret says, “but it did serve a lot of social and political needs, in the sense that when the movement was born it was in communities that were being neglected in general. Basically it was a statement, saying, ‘We’re here. We exist,’ from a segment of society that people preferred to sweep under the rug.”

The same statement of existence and resistance—the same simple claim to agency—was arguably made by Occupy in 2011. While the train-writers reclaimed an underground space for the assertion of individual ego, the Occupiers sought to open up an arena of public discourse for a collective declaration of citizenship. “Occupy was such a fucking amazing moment,” recalls Crabapple. “It felt like the Left got rid of their usual sectarian bullshit and came together to create a space that was both immensely kind and immensely threatening.”

In New York one hopes that Jane Jacobs’s “real order”—in the form of organized chaos and creative resistance, prompting discussions both inclusive and challenging—will find a way to creep into public space. Because quite apart from any higher political purpose, as Fischer points out, “pictures on the skin of the city add some poetry to everyday life.”

Kirsten O’Regan is a freelance writer and NYU graduate student. Born in England and raised in South Africa and New Zealand, she now lives in East Harlem. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review.

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