Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thoughts, musings and ramblings

Been too long. Wish I could say I have a lot to catch up on, but the truth is things have slowed considerably on the thesis. Urban political processes, the class I’m enrolled in for the spring, is sapping all of my time, including the time I thought I’d be using to edit my thesis. And in any case, do you really want to read about how I’m editing? Show of hands? Anyone? You in the back there? No? Ok, didn’t think so.

I will volunteer this though. Even though I’m done with researching the thesis, I still get a kick out of discovering new things that could be incorporated into it. It's hard to break a habit, you know? To wit, a recent piece by Reason Magazine titled How Graffiti Empowers Big Government.

The takeaway, as depressing as it is, goes something like this: As long as people promote and disseminate graffiti in public spaces, government will find a way to clamp down, in ways that increasingly become more oppressive and less forgiving. As the writer accurately notes, "Few $17 billion industries strive to get smaller."

It's a an occasionally funny read, and even I chuckled when I read "Indeed, perhaps because so much of it is done in the dark, under difficult conditions, quality control is a particular challenge for graffiti—it has probably unleashed more bad art on America than open-mike poetry slams, every incarnation of The Gong Show, and the NEA combined."

Indeed, a lot of graffiti is crap. I totally understand why one would want to erase it. Would I be fine in a world where there were NO "abatement," as they prefer to call buffing? Eh, probably not. For starters, I've seen pictures from back in the day where entire windows of trains were blotted out. Not cool kiddos.

But then we get this:

"So while graffiti advocates present graffiti as a liberating force that allows individuals and communities to reclaim public space, graffiti has also given local governments a pretext to expand their coercive powers."

I feel like this is one of those straw man arguments. For starters, um, 9/11? Was it kids with spray cans who drove the government to pass the Patriot Act and expand its powers to spy on Americans all the time in every way technologically thinkable? Let's keep this in context here.

And who does this guy think really believes that all graffiti contributes to "reclaiming public space?" Is the kid who did this to my front door reclaiming the public space that is my doorstep?

I suppose you could argue he is, and maybe three or four militant anarchists would agree with you. But honestly, it's not as if it's some big loss if it just goes away. Our door is an unobtrusive, if dingy thing to see. The tag is really no more significant in the grand scheme of things than the random shoe soles or the empty 40 that also happened to be there one morning. I feel quite indifferent to it. Ok, maybe I hope Dinker will get off his ass and do something more creative before he gets caught by the po-po and booked. That's really it though.

Rather than get caught up in the endless "Is it good/Is it bad?" argument, I'd really prefer it if more people paid attention to the ways that artists can look at "blank" surfaces and see so much more. In Halsey and Young’s Our Desires are Ungovernable’: Writing Graffiti in Urban Space, they note:

"The writer who repeatedly tags a wall that is consistently painted ‘clean’ by the authorities knows that there is a better than even chance that a roller brush will eventually be used to bring the wall up to pristine condition. The same writer knows that he has helped turn a porous surface into a non-porous canvas. The latter is one this body can connect with in a more visually affective way."

You may be wondering, what the hell does it mean for a body to connect in a more visually affective way? For an example, check out this:

I found this via Vandalog, and I adore it. It's like taking the old writing of "Wash Me!" on the back of a dusty car and jacking it up a thousand times. The fact that it requires nothing more than a rag and water strikes me as brilliant, and illustrates such a fascinating flipping of power. To the extent that changing the appearance of a space is about exercising power, this is the opposite of the norm: Instead of "Clean surface owned by actor A. is rendered unclean by actor B.," you get well, you've watched the video, so you know.

I wonder, how does this fit within the realm of the story in Reason? Is turning the government's neglect (in this case soot) into art some sort of provocation on the level of my buddy Dinker? Or is it possible that it is, in fact, an example of how art will make itself felt in public, no matter what? I don't know what Alexandre Orion is doing these days, but I hope the folks in Sao Paulo are smart enough to harness his creativity. Cause damn, those skulls are cool!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Happy New Year!

Hey, how it's going? Is lucky 13 treating you well? Does it feel like it was just days ago that you were furiously, frantically, desperately trying to piece together out the final shards of an unwieldy opus, all while simultaneously working full time, shopping for the perfect presents for your family and trying to be what passes for social? No? Oh, that must be just be me.

And how about the guns? I can't be the only one who was so enraged by the mass shooting in Newtown as to be driven to distraction, unable to focus on much else. Am I right? I mean, who gives a shit about graffiti when people are DYING?!?

Ah, who am I kidding? I still care. I have to. It still brightens my day to see this sort of thing on the random street, as I did this afternoon on Amsterdam and 58th Street. And this is a blog about graffiti and street art, not the plagues guns. There will be plenty of time to get into that shit show. Must. Stay. Focused... 

I  saw this truck on 57th Street, near my office, waiting for a light, and although it drove off before I could get close enough to get a picture, I found it parked a few minutes later. Call it a small triumph for unpredictability.

So the thesis is done. Not DONE, of course, as that will happen at the end of spring, when I submit it to the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, for official approval. But the first complete draft of "New York City Graffiti Murals: Signs of Hope, Marks of Distinction," as I've called it, is in the can, at a whopping 20 chapters, two appendices, 150 pages, 39,184 words and 65 images. It is..well, it's a lot. As I tweeted back on December 19th, the last day of the semester, "That's right bitches, I wrote a book."

After three or so years, I definitely felt triumphant as I watched three copies of the thesis spurt from the copier at Kinko's—one for my adviser, one for my second reader, and one for myself. But holy hell, was it a relief too. For starters, Word turned out to be a much worse program to embed images into than I ever imagined, and since I under-estimated how long it would take to curate all the images I wanted to use, that last week was excruciating.

How screwed up is this document? Well, when I open it at work, Word freaks out and starts adding pages, by the THOUSANDS. Every time I tried to open it, it would get caught in this loop of adding pages, and if I let it go, it would reach 10,000 before I force quit the program. Thank god it's just fine on my home laptop.

But it's all worth it. When my adviser weighed in on it on January 3, she had this to say:

"Congrats and bravo on producing a terrific thesis. It represents a tremendous outreach effort and really brings together an enormous number of case studies and important materials. It really turned out wonderfully"


So we're entering in the final lap now. I still haven't heard from my second reader yet, but one thing I do need to do is (surprise, surprise) introduce more theory into the text. A running theme for this entire project could easily be summed up simply as MORE THEORY.

For instance, there this is, from Halsey and Young:

The writer who repeatedly tags a wall that is consistently painted ‘clean’ by the authorities knows that there is a better than even chance that a roller brush will eventually be used to bring the wall up to pristine condition. The same writer knows that he has helped turn a porous surface into a non-porous canvas. The latter is one this body can connect with in a more visually affective way.

And then this, from Kramer:

The presence or absence of graffiti determines the social, cultural and economic composition of the city. If the city allows graffiti, then surely “urban decay” will surely follow. If the city does not allow graffiti, then a condition of “urban vitality” will follow. That is, when the city fights graffiti, businesses will come to the city and tourism will boom. This will, in turn, create jobs and increase the tax base. All the residents of the city will benefit from such arrangements.

Both of these are quotes that I cite in chapter five, which highlights the interdisciplinary aspects of my research. I know that in my case studies, these strains of thought come through in my descriptions of how the graffiti murals came to be. But years of toiling in a newspaper newsroom trained me to say as much as possible in as few words as possible, which in this case is the opposite of what is required for  I need to be more explicit and weave references to these folks directly into the text. Oh, and make my conclusion a good three or four pages longer.

So I've got my work cut out for me, especially since I really want to ultimately want to turn this into an online project, and maybe even get it published somewhere in print form. It'd be nice to see this in a form more becoming than 8.5x11 pages with binder clips, you know?

In the mean time, there will be visits to places like Five Points Bushwick:

And good old Gowanus: