Tours fall flat compared to the productive forcefulness of city surfaces

In 2013, my friends and I wanted to set up a street art tour that would bypass the issues and prescriptions of the industry. Rather idealistically, we were proposing tours of no fixed route or duration, for maximum five participants who would get to decide where they wanted to go, and what they wanted addressed. “You get to talk as much as you listen, and ask as much as you shoot”, we wrote in our manifesto, envisioning a workshop-like format where participants would be critically engaged and looking for an analytical exercise, rather than a spoon-fed, ready-made script. Our motto was “Walk Think Learn Judge” and I remember being distinctly tempted to create a tour where I would avoid addressing any of the pretty, prominent, starworks on our route, and focus instead on everything that falls through the cracks of other tours – the brave, small and ugly, the easily overlooked, the seemingly insignificant yet richly meaningful surface voices. However, the plan never came to fruition, partly because of what I perceived to be an ethical issue. I was just starting my research on tour providers, so running my own tours would have resulted in a conflict of interest, no matter how differently I was envisioning them.

Fundamentally, this interest came from the frustration that such a small fraction of surface inscriptions is given all the attention, with the visible getting more visibility, and the known receiving more notoriety (the named, famed and valued). But that is not where the verve of inscription cultures lies. People are paying to go on tours, only to take their own photos of sanctioned art works whose digital avatars they are already familiar with. This not only enables creative capitalist urbanism to further its productions; but it also leaves participants as they were when they started the tour, with few beliefs challenged, even fewer opinions activated, and lots and lots of Instagram material to churn. Just as I was typing this, I received an email from a London-based gallery, with the subject line “Banksy Wishes You a Happy Easter!” No, he doesn’t, and this shows how the business of the creative city has come a long, wrong way, to market anything with such a slogan.