UPDATE: Guardian Cities released a new article on 7 January 2015 following from the Graffiti Sessions conference: Is urban graffiti a force for good or evil? Read the piece by Athlyn Cathcart-Keays here.
I feel exhausted, grateful and anxious about the great responsibilities we were left with after the Graffiti Sessions event, both as a team project and in terms of my own research. This post is to share some of the main points that were made during the conference, both by invited speakers and by audience members. This is by no means an exhaustive list of arguments and ideas, and I cannot emphasize enough how this project was a collaborative effort from speakers, audience and organisers alike.
Tom Oswald, graffiti writer and director of Underbelly, a film about graffiti on the London Underground: Graffiti can teach its practitioners skills like companionship, goal orientation, fast response, dedication, self belief, team work and commitment. Imposing custodial sentences on graffiti writers (prison time) rather than community punishment only stunts their development, instead of encouraging them to apply these skills to mentor and inform children.
It was widely agreed that restorative and community-based justice are preferable to prison sentences in dealing with graffiti, and incarceration for graffiti writers should be abolished. Robyn Buseman, who leads the restorative justice section of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Programme, illustrated the results of this approach with a number of examples based on bringing together arts, communities and the criminal justice system. She introduced a wide array of outputs produced by Mural Arts, whose 220 employees have been working on producing social change through art for over 30 years.
Alison Young, visual criminologist, author of Street Art, Public City, which I reviewed here, launched the following provocations: tags are no different from corporate logos; damage is a euphemism for challenges to property ownership; illegality has its own hierarchy; street art is the beneficiary of discriminatory criminal justice practices; locating uncommissioned words and images is complex; valuing street art over graffiti is dangerous. She also called for more autonomy, and less undermining of people who respond to cities by wanting to make something else of them.
“No one cares!” seemed to be the message Ben Eine was emphatically transmitting from the large screen in his recorded presentation. The artist was making a point about how graffiti and street art are now integrated in our cities to such extent, that they have lost their shock value and their capacity of interruption, leading to a point where nobody cares about them like they used to thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago. Ben Eine was given plenty of time to make explicit his conflict with Colin Saysell (see below), recount his train writing days and give a detailed version of the events surrounding the painting that David Cameron gifted to Barack Obama. Indeed, one of these details was picked up by Guardian’s Matthew Weaver in this piece he wrote, much to the disappointment of our team and his readers.
Adam Cooper, Senior Officer for Creative Industries, Greater London Authority: Culture happens by itself but sometimes needs to be encouraged, recognised or protected.
Charles Mynors, barrister, author of what he now refers to as the outdated ‘The Control of Outdoor Advertising and Graffiti’: There are slippages in the law when it comes to definitions of “sign” and “advertising”, so one could arguably build a defense strategy based on these slippages (this is something I have been researching myself and will publish here in due course). Perhaps most importantly, local authorities have powers, not duties when it comes to graffiti removal, and are dependent on frequently low budgets.
Tom Fuller, Service Delivery Manager at London Overground Rail Operations: It costs London Overground Rail Operations £150 per sqm to remove graffiti from their trains. They lease the trains they operate and are bound by contract to keep them graffiti-free at all times, any delays incurring in fines and extra charges.
There is an opaque system of contracts governing privatised public transport operations, that not only maximises graffiti-related costs, but also masks the decision-making process that led to the current protocols. Where is the evidence to support the assumption that users of public transport feel threatened by graffiti, and who can be held accountable for operating on this assumption?
Glynn Judd aka NOIR, graffiti writer who was incarcerated for his practice: Legislation puts property before people.
Graffiti writers are viewed by the police as career criminals and graffiti is considered a gateway crime to theft, robbery, assault and drug use; it may lead to mental illness and even death. Detective Colin Saysell is known as the only registered graffiti law enforcement expert in the UK, and his presentation reinforced a number of unevidenced claims about graffiti, illustrating law enforcement’s standpoint in relation to this practice: trust and guidance from the broken windows theory, a belief that graffiti writers are violent offenders (Saysell’s illustrative image was of a man in a hoodie and a baseball bat in his hand), and a manner of conducting investigations which leads to conspiracy charges and vastly disproportionate sentences. UPDATE: Another story picked up by the Guardian from the conference was based on Colin Saysell and his work – see here.
Cameron McAuliffe, human geographer based in Sydney, introduced a number of different regimes of value through which to understand street art and graffiti: aesthetic, economic, subcultural, gender, socio-spatial, regulatory, commodification, temporal, advertising, planning. The relation of street art and graffiti to each of these could constitute a research field in itself, and McAuliffe’s own input was at policy level. His proposals for local council included the formation of a graffiti and street art register (not an approval mechanism, optional and anonymous) and an advisory panel in order to improve graffiti management at local level.
Dotmaster did a video presentation on the NUArt Festival in Stavanger, highlighting the logistical and administrative effort in making a street art festival grow and be proudly accepted by its host city. Lois Acton told the stories of collaborative mural projects she organised together with children and elders.
Jay J-SON Edlin brought us first-hand accounts of the 1970s New York graffiti scene, which he says remains largely undocumented. He came as Martha Cooper’s ambassador at the conference and presented some of her photographic work, but he also held a masterclass in 70s wild style graffiti, with a large number of illustrations and anecdotes from the period.
Chris Chalkley heated up all conference spirits by presenting the work he did in Bristol with the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft – an energetic grassroots organisation which continues to change the face of Stokes Croft. This project felt very much like a hands-on, action-driven and not petition-driven series of interventions, turning the area from dilapidation into a culture makers’ hub.
Ingrid Beazley introduced her Dulwich Outdoor Gallery project which has been growing for a number of years, reflecting on the process and consequences of bringing street art in a middle class suburb like Dulwich. She asked a number of artists to paint their own interpretations of baroque paintings from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in the streets, pioneering an atypical mural project in an unlikely area. Ingrid discussed issues such as ownership, access to art and different community responses, and offered her own assessment methodologies for the impact of the Outdoor Gallery.
Lee Bofkin, who was also involved in putting this event together, presented the different strands of activity produced by Global Street Art, from the prolific Walls Project to their commercial appointments. He made a case for what he called a more painted city and highlighted the role of organisations such as GSA in exposing an increasing number of people to higher quality art by taking on the administrative burden and allowing for artists to paint legally in publicly visible spaces.
Devon Ostrom presented his work on public arts campaigns in Toronto, where he set up a billboard tax to fund the arts, generating over $22m so far. Pedro Soares Neves spoke about setting up Urban Creativity as an academic platform for the discussion of urban creative practices. Xavi Ballasz presented his work on street art and graffiti in Barcelona after the city clamped down on these practices. Lucinda Ross talked about Jean Michel Basquiat and the politics of race between the graffiti and fine art worlds.
Rome-based artist Alice Pasquini told stories of interaction through art and offered her first-hand experiences of working as a street artist in different parts of the world. She emphasized public artistic production as an opportunity for conversation and exchange, not only as responses on walls but also as engagements with passers-by.
Is graffiti something that occurs only when it is executed in the street? Is graffiti in the age of digital reproduction still graffiti? And is graffiti turning into its own image over and over again? Radical sociologist Jeff Ferrell built a wonderful argument for maintaining the ambiguous nature of graffiti and street art, focusing on their function in contemporary urban environments. He highlighted the context of neoliberal urban development based on privatisation, surveillance and risk management strategies, which leads to consumer-driven societies where urban life is sold back to the inhabitants of the city as urban experience (living in the city). Graffiti and street art are therefore considered legal or illegal according to the way they serve this type of urban development: some serve it, and help drive prices up, contributing to gentrification and exclusion (and are therefore legal), while others are produced outside this system and in opposition to it – and are therefore maintained illegal. The ambiguity of status is what gives graffiti its power, argued Ferrell, who proposed that confusion about graffiti reflects on changes in urban life. “Graffiti is the ghost that haunts the machinery of the neoliberal capitalist system”. As such, it occupies interstitial spaces, and lives a spectral life in a territory of in-between-ness.
Political theorist Chantal Mouffe defined agonism as a democratic confrontation that takes place among adversaries and not enemies, where difference is accepted and there is no possibility of reconciliation. Agonism generates a multiplicity of concomitant spaces and subjectivities, whose objective is never the creation of consensus, but co-existence in a permanent, productive state of tension. Agonism therefore felt like a useful tool to discuss individually driven and produced urban inscriptions that fall outside a system of permission, commission, collaboration or community consensus.
At the same time, we heard from a number of people about projects born out of local collaborative initiatives, which then grew in scale to the point where they became power systems in themselves. These projects have the capacity of imposing visual regimes on the urban environment, and they often seem not to include any room for contestation (tags get cleaned, works are deemed inappropriate and get removed, and what is perceived as low quality art has a shorter life span than the more apparently aesthetically pleasing pieces). These are indeed considered success stories which contribute to neighbourhood regeneration, but it was felt that there was a danger in the uncritical acceptance of these methods of work, as we might end up reinforcing discourses of exclusion.
The central dichotomy of the conference was this in my opinion:
– we either agree to agree when it comes to the production of publicly visible inscriptions: work on projects within the system, adapt to power institutions and attempt to transform them from within. We produce collaborative work based on permits, authorisations, commissions and a certain consensus towards positive impact;
– or we agree to disagree and work independently outside institutions, by excluding them through critical creative practice. The work does not require permission or consensus and does not claim to contribute to what is perceived as a bigger common goal.
There is no right answer to this question, only a multitude of welcome arguments. As Jeff Ferrell would say, the power of this issue lies in its ambiguity, not in trying to solve it.
Thank yous with reasons:
The team at Central Saint Martins’ Design Against Crime Research Centre, led by the force that is Lorraine Gamman who relentlessly pushes all of us to more challenging places; the eloquent Adam Thorpe and his powerful on-the-spot syntheses of conference discussions; and my number one partner in putting this together, tireless Marcus Willcocks; Dani Davies and Chloe Griffith, who probably put in most hours into making this happen, Milena Kotseva and Emma Jonsson who made the three days run smoothly; Joao Infante and Vlad Borlea who did the filming; and our photographers Luana Kaderabek, Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez and Alice Hellmann. Also thanks to the Socially Responsive Design and Innovation Hub which offered generous financial support for the conference, and to the Graffiti Dialogues Network, both based at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.
My PhD supervisors Iain Borden and Ben Campkin for supporting this idea from the beginning (two years ago) and helping with the organisation. I was very glad to have them both there for the entire three days, although I am aware that all the notes they made will forever change the nature of our doctoral meetings! Shane Johnson from Security and Crime Science at UCL who helped us with getting our first bit of funding and has been supportive ever since; James Paskins and the UCL Grand Challenge for Sustainable Cities, who not only funded our project, but also featured it as part of their research project highlights for 2014; Jordan Rowe at the UCL Urban Laboratory for sorting out complex logistical issues; Rafael Schacter for his critical spirit, excellent chairing and for bringing 50% discount flyers for his new book; Elizabeth Lee from UCL Estates for her generous interest and support of our idea to paint on UCL hoardings as part of the conference; Fiona Davidson from UCL Communications who facilitated the hoardings painting as part of the Transforming UCL project; and Alan Penn, Dean of the Bartlett, for offering a generous amount of money to this project and for the best tweets of the three days:
Linzi Whitton and her big team at the Southbank Centre who supported our idea and produced it flawlessly on the day; my friend Lee Bofkin who was the first driving force behind this whole thing and who aptly negotiated a number of interests, conditions and constraints for organising the painting of the 140 Hampstead Road hoardings; an artist that is very dear to me, Clement Lalande aka Mr. Sable, who had a number of creative inputs for the Graffiti Sessions: he designed the image for the official conference poster, which we sold in a limited edition print run of 100 (a few still available via the conference website); he painted two sides of the 140HR hoardings, part of the Transforming UCL project; and he ran a painting workshop with conference participants on boards in the Bartlett yard. He is also an artist I represent through I Know What I Like, and whose work I wrote a bit about in the past. Thank you to Sterling, Sky High and Meka, who bore through twelve hours of terrible cold to paint their own massive piece on the side of 140HR. May this be just the beginning!
Best ever!!! audience, with interested, interesting people who came from from countries like Germany, Italy, Brazil and Belgium especially to attend the Graffiti Sessions, and who made well informed, relevant and meaningful contributions throughout the duration of the conference. My biggest thank you goes to all the people who participated over the three days, causing passionate reactions, unrest and contestation and assuring that we had a tense and productive unravelling of events.
Presenters’ slides available here: http://graffitisessions.com/presentations;
Full photo gallery available here: http://graffitisessions.com/photogallery;
And video recordings of presentations to be available soon via the conference website: http://graffitisessions.com/.