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