Digitising The Ephemeral: Street Art, Banksy, and The Insta-Archive.

Street art is susceptible to destruction from the moment of its creation. Either by nature’s inevitable destructive forces, by a fresh layer of paint, or by ‘vandalism’. (Note the irony in using the term ‘vandalism’ to describe the destruction of that which was once also considered vandalism before being baptised as ‘Art’). All these complexities and paradoxes paired with the ephemeral nature presents a threat to those who wish to preserve and archive street art.

Photo of “Banksy” art taken by Matt Whitby in Brick LaneEast End. 2004. (Source Wikimedia Commons)

When preserving rare books or paintings of historical significance, they might be endowed with state of the art technology that aid archiving and/or restoration before being tucked away to rest in a safe sanctuary. However, when it comes to street art, conservation proves tricky and challenging. Street art, if dislocated from its original site, undergoes a loss
of meaning that is deeply linked with its existence in the space it occupies. The dislocated object, if displayed in a museum, or gallery, can never truly be called ‘street’ art again. On the other hand, without intervention in its preservation, it is prone to damage.

The preservation of street art is a relatively new research interest. It is possible that proactive discussions on street art preservation have been delayed as a result of its perception as the ‘destruction’ of public property. But the name Banksy has influenced a pivotal change in attitudes toward street art.

“The Banksy Effect not only prompted the increase of sales and market value in street art but also benefited some cities and communities that capitalised on the cultural phenomenon”.

Chelsea Antoniou, The Street Art Spectacle: The Paradoxical Phenomenon of Contemporary Graffiti

An anonymous street artist and political activist, Banksy has set the stage for the perception of street art as a valuable, global, cultural, and historical landmark that questions and subverts the establishment through its visual content and through the ‘criminal’ nature of the medium.

My personal interest in Banksy has to do with the three characteristics of
ephemerality listed below:

1. The ephemerality that Banksy maintains through creation and destruction.


Banksy has a reputation for going the distance when it comes to making a point. This is evidenced by Shredding the Girl and Balloon, a Banksy painting that was sold at an auction house for £1,042,000. The artist uploaded a video on the official Banksy Instagram page captioned with a Picasso quote that read “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge”.
The video contained details of Banksy’s plan to destroy the painting if it were ever sold and included footage of the painting being shredded in the presence of a shocked and bewildered audience the moment the sale was made. This destructive spirit imposes a concern for the temporality of the artist’s work. Although, there is some satisfaction in knowing that this was
not a permanent disintegration and abolition of the work but rather, a form of renewal or resurrection. An excerpt from a Sotheby’s article notes, “Seconds after the hammer fell, part of the canvas passed through a hidden shredder, and in the process of ‘destroying’ the artwork, a new one was created”.

2. The ephemerality as a result of the economy built around the name ‘Banksy’.

Over the last few years, the ‘Banksy’ name has gained significant market value. Several critics have pointed out the irony that Banksy’s art which often critiques ultra consumerism-culture, sells for millions.

“The subcultural narrative of “reclaiming the streets” from the bullying power of capitalist greed has sparked a commercial demand of its own”.

Chelsea Antoniou, The Street Art Spectacle: The Paradoxical Phenomenon of Contemporary Graffiti

“Corporations seeking to align themselves with the saleability of street art, thrust this once subcultural movement further into the commercial sphere; perpetuating the mass market commodification of this once underground art form”.

Serena Moodie, Street Art and the Commodification of the
Subversive

The price tag on “a Banksy” coupled with individuals looking to make a profit results in a destruction of the artwork by its dislocation. Take for example Banksy’s Haight Street Art, San Francisco, April 2010 (not Haight Street Rat). The art work no longer exists in the state in which it was created. The original work consisted of two connected pieces on
separate walls. The first wall contained bold, red, spray-painted graffiti with the words: “THIS IS WHERE I DRAW THE LINE”. A red line starts from the first wall and appears to connect to the second one. On the second wall, the image of a rat is seen holding on to a spray paint canister. Over six feet tall, stencilled in black and white spray-paint, the rat sports a beret with a single star on it. The rat appears to look into the distance, head held high,
evoking a sense of revolutionary spirit. According to Jennifer Swann, writer for the LA weekly Arts and Culture Blog, the work is rumoured to have been created as a “critique of the street-level clothing store that allegedly took street artists’ works and printed them on apparel for sale without giving the artists any credit or revenue”.

While the first wall has been painted over and destroyed, the second wall (the rat) has been taken down in the name of “preservation”. The documentary Saving Banksy (2017) explores the attempts of Brian Greif to “save” the Haight Street Rat (Banksy) from the profiteers who wished to sell it. Although The Haight Street Rat was a part of the original image, does it continue to embody the “spirit” of street art? Or was the original Haight Street Art brought to death the moment the wall and the rat were taken down? Is the Haight Street Rat (currently circulating the globe in various art exhibits) just a mere corpse of the once “living” rat in Haight Street?

This brash and almost unjust removal of street art from its original site begs to ask who the deciding authority in these matters might be. It raises the issue of ownership of street art. It may be considered that street art belongs in some sense to the public or to the state and that the artist has to relinquish ownership of it.

“because street artists generally break the law to produce their art, (…) appearances to take ownership of and, therefore, responsibility for such art will be rare”.

Peter N Salib, “The Law of Banksy: Who Owns Street Art?”,

In the event a mural is created on the wall of someone’s property like in the case of the Haight Street Art, it complicates matters even further. Does the artwork now belong to the
house owners?

3) The ephemeral curatorial style of Banksy’s digital archives


As the original artwork no longer exists at the site of its creation, all that is left to retain its memories are the photographs that were taken before its ‘destruction’. There are, at present, two official digital archives: Banksy’s Instagram page under the handle “banksy” and the official Banksy website. While web archives have become a popular resource for scholars, the idea of Instagram as an archive is nascent. As described in a paper titled “‘I’d
Double Tap That!!’: Street Art, Graffiti, and Instagram Research” , while using Instagram for research has complexities that could potentially be overlooked, “The architecture of Instagram opens up productive possibilities for research into street art, providing a massive
set of data, images, expressions of taste, and affiliation through which to understand it. As well as illuminating aspects of how interest in street art is structured and organized”.

Banksy’s curatorial style presents to us the third kind of ephemerality within the archive. That is, the ephemerality as a result of exclusion. Photographs of the Haight Street Art, one of his most notable works, are currently not displayed on either of his official digital archives. These “silenced” works direct our attention to potential interpretations behind this rationale. As Folsom mentions in ‘Literature Now: Key Terms and Methods for Literary History’, “Who controls the stories that archives seem to tell is every bit as important as who controls what the archive collects (for the telling of stories embedded in archives is also, increasingly, the telling of stories of what the archive has silenced)”.

On one hand, Instagram may be thought of as an excellent archival medium for street and on the other, it displays only a remnant of the original work.

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The street is a public space to express a subversion of systemic structures and acts as a canvas to claim back a space by those disenfranchised. In contrast to this, Instagram, a commercial digital space with its sponsored advertising and influencer marketing, is lacking. While art is often dislocated from its site of creation, there is in street art the “soul” or “spirit” of the work that belongs to the street. Personally, I think street art undergoes a certain kind of death through its displacement, dislocation, and digital reproduction.

References:

  1. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
  2. Peter N Salib, “The Law of Banksy: Who Owns Street Art?”
  3. Serena Moodie, Street Art and the Commodification of the Subversive.
  4. Chelsea Antoniou, The Street Art Spectacle: The Paradoxical Phenomenon of Contemporary Graffiti

“Incarnation of scrap”: Vehicular Art and Infrastructural Poetry as Sites of Repair and Resistance (Part II)

The ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ have gained cultural capital in present-day tech-societies while ‘repair’ and ‘maintenance’ are not associated with the same cultural allure. This post explores the role poetry and art plays in aiding, reinforcing, or reiterating repair, maintenance, and care practices. The representation of innovativeness and creativity as a part of repair practices is crucial as there is a cultural tendency to locate innovation at the stages of product design, manufacturing, and production. This tendency, aggravated by those with a vested interest in the product, is increasingly problematic as it relies on the location of repair practice as an after thought rather than perceiving both the concepts of repair and innovation as simultaneous and interlinked. Steven J. Jackson in his essay ‘Re-thinking Repair’ notes: 

“dominant productivity imaginings of technology locate innovation, […] at the top of some change or process, while repair lies somewhere else: lower, later, or after innovation in process and worth.” He goes on to note that “The remarkable qualities and energies that innovation names and unleashes — creativity, invention, imagination, and artfulness — are […] distributed more broadly […] than our dominant discourses of innovation and the systems of economic, professional, and social value built around them are keen to acknowledge.”

Steven J. Jackson, ‘Rethinking Repair’, 227

This post identifies and highlights a poem (Gemino H. Abad’s ‘Jeepney’) that features ‘repair’ as a central theme in an attempt to aid in directing and re-directing our attention away from buzzwords like ‘innovation’ that put the new and novel on a pedestal. It attempts to turn our view toward increasing the cultural value of repair practices by recognising and seeing innovation in repair through poetry. Abad’s poem helps crystallise the object in descriptive language that pays specific attention to its identity as ‘repaired’ and ‘re-paired’ as discussed in the previous post.

Consider honestly

this piece of storm

in our city’s entrails.

Incarnation of scrap,

what genius of salvage!

what art or craft, what cunning.

Its crib now molds our space,

its lusty gewgaws our sight.

Gemino H. Abad, Jeepney, Stanza I

While the descriptive language used around the Willlys MB jeep on the Jeep website evidenced the object’s valorised and nationalised identity, the representation of the Jeepney by Filipino poet and scholar Gemino Abad on the other hand, does not hold space for similar ideals of nationalism and grandeur. Instead, the poem does the opposite: by using the words “Incarnation of scrap”, Abad actively emphasises the vehicle’s precarious position in contemporary society. Abad’s poem showcases the recognition of the jeepney as an object that is ‘innovative’ by the simple recognition of the ingenuity in the repaired object: “what genius of salvage!”, “what art or craft, what cunning”. 

The jeepney takes on a metaphorical (by way of its representation in cultural reproductions like poetry) and literal (by way of the vehicular art) role as a symbol of resistance. The words “Its crib now molds our space, its lusty gewgaws our sight” acts an indicator of the jeepney’s capacity to occupy space and force people to direct their gaze and confront the object. But can the material transformation of public space as in the case of street art or vehicular art, be perceived as repair? Thinking again of ‘repair’ as ‘re-pair’ or re-pairing (pairing something with something) as a process which detaches something from its past life and purpose and re-introduces it to serve a new function (as in the case of recycling, up cycling, re-invention, upgrading, or other craft traditions), in this conceptualisation of repair, I attempt to include art in public spaces as serving a renewed purpose either in the form of visual stimulation or subversive communication. Street art canvases, tend to be, primarily ‘public’ property wherein questions of ownership become complex. This is often why street art exists in a constant tension with legality as it lies at the definitional borders along with the term ‘vandalism’ or ‘destruction of public property’. In the case of vehicular art it can, like street art, provide a canvas for marginalised voices, thoughts, and imagination in urban spaces and also be subject to government regulations. Below are descriptions of jeepney art:

“The body of each jeepney tells a story. An image of a cruise ship might represent overseas Filipino workers, who represent one in five of the world’s seamen. Pastoral scenes, beaches or mountains may signify the owner’s family heritage. Airbrushed basketball players and cartoons also make regular appearances.”

Link to Quote

“Even if money is tight, few jeepney drivers will skimp on their elaborate name plates. Displayed at the front of the vehicles, they serve as a dedication to children, astrological signs and overseas countries where relatives live or work.”

Link to Quote

Here, I am interested in how the visual art of the jeepney subverts the various cultural and infrastructural hegemonies be it colonial, neo-colonial, neo-imperial, technological, digital, corporate institutionalism or government power. The culture of automobile-art itself is not unique to the Philippines which shares this tradition with many other countries also recovering from a colonial history. As Swati Chattopadhyay points out:

“jeepneys in Manila, long-distance trucks in Rawalpindi and Buenos Aires, buses in Port-auPrince and Calcutta, and baby-taxis in Dhaka – are exceptional for the labor and artistic skill employed in enriching the experience of the automobile in daily life”.

Chattopadhyay, Swati. “The Art of Auto-Mobility: Vehicular Art and the Space of Resistance in Calcutta.” pg. 107
Decorated Pakistani truck Source Wikimedia Commons

She also observes how

“socio-economic and expressive concerns that animate the production of vehicular art in the Philippines, Pakistan, Argentina, Haiti, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and India are quite different from automobile culture in the USA or Europe.”

Chattopadhyay, Swati. “The Art of Auto-Mobility: Vehicular Art and the Space of Resistance in Calcutta.” pg. 107
Tap Tap, Port au Prince, Haiti Source Wikimedia Commons
Tuk-Tuk, Herat, Afghanistan Source Wikimedia Commons

In Chattopadhyay’s exploration of vehicular art in the city of Calcutta, she notes how the body of the vehicle becomes a site of resistance which extends its subversive communication in the public spaces that it occupies: garages, bus stops, repair shops, bus termini, food stalls and worker’s unions (121). In the case of the jeepney, the body of the vehicle is seen representing an individualised story unique to the owner or/and driver. Its vibrant colours and visuals actively subvert the monotone colour scheme of other private road transport that is symbolic of capitalist mass production and government regulation. This subversion becomes pertinent and relevant as power becomes a matter of contention especially with the involvement of government actors influenced by the western technological and cultural hegemony. Despite the vital role jeepneys play in the transportation system, there has been efforts by the government to phaseout the jeepney in the name of ‘modernity’ (#NoToTheJeepneyPhaseout).

Besides the subversive visual element, I am also interested in the sounds that the vehicle produces as aiding in its resistance against ‘modernity’ as defined by state power. For example, in the last stanza of ‘jeepney’, Gemino Abad invites the reader to listen with him to the sounds of the jeepney.

Nights I lie awake, I hear
a far-off tectonic rumble.
Is it a figment of desolation
from that reliquary of havoc,
or, out of its dusty hardihood,
that obduracy of mere survival,
a slow hoard of thunder
from underground spirit of endurance?

Gemino H. Abad, Jeepney

The imagery of sound in the words “tectonic rumble” and “hoard of thunder” play a simultaneous role in referencing the sound of past wars wherein the jeepney serves as a vital link as well as the sound of ruin and of brokenness. I read these sounds again as resisting the ‘smooth’ and new engines. There exists a tension in the last lines which is presents a conflict about the object’s status as one that is broken and destroyed or perhaps also one that symbolises courage, survival, and resistance.

References:

  1. Jackson, Steven J. “Rethinking Repair.” In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, 221–40. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014.
  2. Claudio Sieber/Barcroft Media. “Farewell to jeepneys: Philippine transport changes gear – in pictures. The Guardian. May 2019.
  3. Chattopadhyay, Swati. “The Art of Auto-Mobility: Vehicular Art and the Space of Resistance in Calcutta.” Journal of Material Culture, vol. 14, no. 1, Mar. 2009, pp. 107–139.
  4. Gemino H. Abad. “Jeepney”. Carbó, Nick. Returning a Borrowed Tongue: Poems by Filipino And Filipino American Writers. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press , 1995. (link to poem).