(This blog entry is an expansion of end note #5 of my chapter, “Representations of Graffiti and the City in the Novel El francotirador paciente: Readings of the Emergent Urban Body in Madrid” found in Graffiti and Street Art: Reading, Writing and Representing the City. Ed. Konstantinos Avramidis and Myrto Tsilimpounidi. London and New York: Routledge, 2017. 250-63.)
The short film opens with two graffiti artists running, presumably, from the police.[i] After turning a corner, they stop to catch their breath. One admonishes the other, and a heated exchange ensues:
A: Are you crazy?
B: We have to get out of this!
A: Yeah? Why do you say that?
B: Look around!
A: How could this happen?[ii]
The viewer at this point does not know to what they are referring. What is it that they need to get out of? What is around them to look at that will explain their situation? The action then cuts to the events that led up to the opening scene.
One of the graffiti artists is spray-painting a life-sized beast all in black on a concrete wall supporting a highway overpass while the other is waiting and watching from a few feet away. The beast appears to ooze white paint where its eyes should be. The perspective then shifts from that of a third-person observing the two graffiti artists to that of the monster peering out through the paint, face-to-face with its maker. Incredulous, the graffiti artist paints over the whites of the eyes, and touches the paint as if to make sure that it is just that—paint. As he does this, the camera takes on the perspective of the monster once again. Black paint drips down the frame through which both beast and spectator views. Aggravated, the monster bleeds white paint to form its eyes once again. In an act of defiance, the graffiti artist doubles his efforts by holding an aerosol can in both hands and wildly blackens the white eyes. Infuriated, the two-dimensional beast slides down the wall, and moves along the street in an effort to reach its maker. Shocked and frightened, the two graffiti artists start to run. The action then cuts to the opening scene once again. At the corner, the one graffiti artist laments to the other, “we will never get out!” To which the other responds, “that’s what you think. Look at this.” He points to several aerosol cans leaking bright colored paint strewn on the street and to the reaction of the black beast. The colors clearly irritate it and slow it down. The graffiti artists start to run again until they find themselves surrounded by buildings covered with brilliant colors oscillating with life. They are trapped, for behind them is the black monster. The graffiti artist who did not create the beast touches the wall with the colored urban art. As he does this, the building releases more paint. It covers the graffiti artist’s hand as if it were reaching out to him. The screen darkens and in the last scene, the viewer sees the one graffiti artist incorporated into the artwork on the side of the building looking out at the other who responds, “are you happy now?”
The graffiti artist who paints the black beast has an antagonistic relationship with the city. The monster is that part of himself that he hates. It is the part of his subjectivity produced by a capitalist system that is widening the divide between the rich and the poor, fueling political corruption, criminalizing everyday life, restricting access to public space in the city and culture on the Internet, and invading privacy through constant surveillance. His graffiti is at once a product of his subjectivity and a reaction against it. There is both a connection and a separation between artist and art, between artist and built environment. This is visualized through the point of view of the capitalist monster. Both beast and viewer look out at the graffiti artist as he stares back at us. The screen becomes the monster’s eyes and the surface of the building. Such a framing emphasizes the graffiti artist’s alienation and, at the same time, establishes an identification between spectator, beast, and built environment. Cities are a reflection of who we are and our values. Both we and our cities have become monsters that establish relations of production and consumption that are oftentimes exploitative and violent. This current situation of heightened capitalist exploitation is what the graffiti artists need to get out of in the opening scene, and the built environment around them is what they look at that explains their predicament.
The monster’s negative reaction to the bright-colored paint suggests that creativity can be used to slow down the market system and counter capitalism.When the graffiti artist who did not create the beast touches the wall with the colored urban art, and fuses himself with it, Fernández Pérez restores the transformative potential of the emergent urban body. The notion of the body as merely physical is replaced with one of the body as a network of constantly recombining links between the exterior world and imagination. His relationship to the city, unlike that of his friend, is constructive instead of destructive which is to say that he becomes a co-producer of the city. The fact that only one, and not both, of the graffiti artists reconnects with the transformative power of creativity indicates that the antagonistic way of relating to the city still exists. However, in Graffiti Area, both monster and friend are neutralized, albeit temporarily, and this creates a feeling that the future is hopeful and the ability to imagine a better city still intact.
[i] The video was chosen as one of the four winners of the Bombay Sapphire Imagination Series Film Competition for 2013. The applicants had to use their imagination to interpret the same short film script written by Geoffrey Fletcher, Oscar winner for his screenplay for Precious.
[ii] The actors speak in Spanish. Subtitles appear in English.
Photos courtesy of Boa Mistura
Participatory urban art is an effective way for us all to learn to act like urban artists—that is, to engage unexpectedly and unrestrictedly with the cityscape. Boa Mistura, a group of five friends from Madrid whose specializations range from graphic design to civil engineering, works with neighbors to brainstorm ways to improve their urban space through art. Once an intervention is agreed upon, the neighbors paint side-by-side with Boa Mistura. During the artistic process, a double transformation occurs: both built environment and the way the neighbors interact with it change. The neighbors experience an increased sense of belonging and attachment to their surroundings. Boa Mistura creates a feeling that the future is hopeful and the ability to imagine a better city still intact. The focus is on hope instead of hate.
An intervention that earned Boa Mistura a nomination for the 2nd International Award for Public Art in 2015 was Luz nas vielas [Light in the Alleyways]. Boa Mistura traveled to Vila Brasilandia, one of the favelas on the hills on the outskirts of São Paulo, in January 2012 in order to collaborate with the neighbors on an art project. After spending some time exploring the favela, Boa Mistura realized that an important part of everyday life consisted of the walk up and down the hill. Thought, daily life and culture occurred on those dark, dirty, and grey alleyways. By modifying them, the lived urban experience of the favela would change. With the help of the neighbors, Boa Mistura painted five alleyways in brilliant, solid colors with positive messages that reflected the spirit of the inhabitants: BELEZA [Beauty], FIRMEZA [Strength], AMOR [Love], DOÇURA [Sweetness] and ORGULHO [Pride]. (See Photo Gallery and video)
Although Boa Mistura has not succumbed to the alienation produced by modern urban life under capitalism and has not acquired a defeatist attitude, it does recognize that in cities that make it very difficult for graffiti and urban artists to work—Madrid being a prime example—it is very challenging to stay positive. The recently approved controversial Law of Citizen Safety in Spain better known as the Ley Mordaza [The Gag Law] grants police the power to impede social protest. One of the law’s articles stipulates that citizens who protest in front of the buildings of Congress and the Senate may be fined up to 30,000 euros.[i] This limitation of free expression is a direct affront to urban artists’ modus operandi of unrestricted and open interaction. Instead of wandering down the road of cynicism—a very real option—activists responded with their radical imagination. On April 10, 2015, the world witnessed the first public protest with holograms. If physical bodies will be prohibited from protesting in front of Parliament, then immaterial projected 3-D images of real citizens will demonstrate in their place. By engaging their imagination, the activists invented a way to side-step the law and express their dissent. As I have said elsewhere, the fight for a just city is not an easy one, and will require the continued radical imagination of future urban artists everywhere.
[i] See Ley Orgánica 4/2015, de 30 de marzo, de protección de la seguridad ciudadana, Article 36.2.
News of an upcoming event in Barcelona, next Friday. More information here.
Does the distribution of new environmental amenities become more or less equitable as cities implement greening agendas? How can we resolve the tension between the targeted economic and health benefits of urban green spaces that accrue to a few and the diffuse ecological benefits experienced by many?
The Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability is hosting an international workshop on urban environmental gentrification that will culminate in a free daylong inquiry into these questions. The event, to be held February 17, 2017 in Barcelona is free and open to the public. Experts in urban public health; gentrification; urban real estate and finance; community-based greening; and urban environmental planning will be paired up to interactively debate some of the core concerns underlying the emerging notion of environmental gentrification. Please RSVP with your name and number of…
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