Reflections on Activist Objects: The Material Culture of Social Movements


By Dr Rafael Schacter (University College London)

I want to talk – obviously very briefly – about two issues related to graffiti and street-art, or Independent Public Art as I prefer to call it.

Before I even start, I will claim that all Independent Public Art must be understood as an objects of activism, as a form of material culture which acts politically not through any overt stance, but instead through its necessary illegality, through the rejection of societal and urban norms that its production requires.

As such, there are 2 issues that I want to discuss; the first, related to graffiti as artefact, and the necessary paradoxes that is institutional exposition generates, the second, related to graffiti as practice, and the particular material tools through which this aesthetic comes into being.

So, firstly, one of the core arguments in my forthcoming academic monograph is that graffiti – well almost all Independent Public Art – is a form of classically defined ornamentation, what I term insurgent ornamentation to be specific.

As a product that is both a) adjunctive, and b) decorative, that is an addition to a surface, an accessory to an already existent body which in fact entirely fuses itself with its medium; and that is a form of embellishment, a form of beautification – whether in its most ostensibly vandalistic (as an acid tag) or seemingly artistic state (such as a form of contemporary muralism), I argue that all Independent Public Art is ornamental and thus contains the power and danger, the paradoxes which theorists of ornamentation as diverse as Oleg Grabar, Jacques Derrida, and Tom Phillips have argued it contains.

The critical point here however is the paradox which surrounds the display of these insurgent ornaments within an exhibitionary context, seeing that these ornamental bodies are ones which are neither portable nor detachable – without taking a drastic, destructive, secondary act of violence of course.

Moreover, this is without noting that the very notion of removing something which is by essence, public, into a private sphere, into the institution, is an anathema to most committed Independent Public Artists.

Whilst these artists do of course produce work outside the public sphere, when they do, this in itself is not, cannot be Independent Public Art. It cannot be graffiti or street art.

In this way, graffiti on canvas (rather than on its true medium of the city) is not graffiti but spraycan art.

In this way, the oxymoronic conception of street art within a gallery, a replication of an outside work in print form for example, is quite clearly not street art but rather a form of poster-art, or perhaps neo-pop-art etc.

So how can graffiti ever be displayed within a museum context then?

The Vietnamese born but Berlin raised artist Akim Nguyen has, I believe, dealt with this issue in the most astute manner.

His video project Leistungsschau, for the exhibition “Based in Berlin” documents the residue of two performances, first, the production of graffiti on the exterior walls of the exhibition space itself, second, the painstaking removal of the buildings outer plaster layer, the first act undertaken with spraycan and markers, the second with hammer and chisel. Carefully extracting the graffitied segments only, the layer of paint interlaced with its plaster surround, these remnants were then collected, placed into a wooden pallet, and finally displayed in the exhibition space. Functioning to both highlight the basic irrationality of graffiti occurring anywhere other than its parietal surface, as well as acting to scar the building much like the original graffiti itself, Akim’s work not only underscores graffiti’s inherently ornamental nature, the fact that it is irrepressibly bound to its surface, but also replicates the innate violence held within every act of graffiti itself. It displays graffiti in the only way Akim believes it can be achieved in a gallery setting, as an archaeological remnant, a pile of rubble, an insurgent ornamentation whose removal from the street necessitates its destruction.

Not just material remnant (or rubble) however, graffiti is in fact as much about practice as product, and the tools that enable this practice – the material tools of this material culture, is the second issue of which I will now very briefly mention.

The tools used to undertake graffiti are not only manifold – thousands of different kinds markers, pens and spraycans, of acid mops, rollers, caps, latex, shoe polish… the list goes on – are not only also often home-made – expressing the DIY essence of the aesthetic – but are also tools which must be carried, as much as used, in a highly furtive manner.

Akay, a legendary Independent Public Artist from Stockholm, has addressed this issue in many of his projects, in particular his series entitled, and I quote, Instruments of Mass Destruction (complicated technical solutions to aide in simple acts of vandalism).

In this short video however, Dressed to Success, Akay perfectly illustrates the diversity and necessary furtivity associated with the tools of graffiti.

Starting with the image of suited gentleman stood pensively waiting at an empty table, the star of the film then proceeds to disrobe, in this case removing a plethora of these tools, 12 spraycans, 20 odd markers and mops, rollers, caps, wrenches, assorted keys, all from within his suited body.

For me, these two methods of exposition are some of the very few ways that the material culture of graffiti can enter the instutition; 1, as a video and installation displaying the very paradox of its display; 2, as a video and installation showing the diversity and compulsory surreptitiousness linked to the tools of graffiti itself.

Akay 1 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 23.10.00 2Akay 2 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 23.14.05 2  AKIM 8 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 22.25.49 AKIM 7 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 22.25.41 AKIM 6 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 22.24.29AKIM 5 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 22.24.45  AKIM 4 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 18.00.26 AKIM 2 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 18.00.14 AKIM 3 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 17.59.57 AKIM 1 Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 17.59.45 AKIM 9 FINAL SHOT 04leistungschau_part3_2011berlin

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