Reading the Signs on the Wall:
Before we discuss specific municipal legislation and the language used to distinguish between sanctioned and unsanctioned activities, I’d like to speak briefly to the origins of this research to provide a context for the direction our research has taken. Since 1985, I have been documenting examples of urban postering and graffiti, at first for their political commentary, but increasingly for their improvised aesthetics. The artistic nature of this photographic documentation really came into focus for me during a trip to England, Portugal, Spain and France in 1990. The richer diversity of imagery—overlaying political and social messages with all the promotions of high and low culture—suggested how the walls of cities could be a canvas for an on-going collective improvisation ruled by chance, happenstance, and the vagaries of weather, material substrate, and urban culture. My search for distressed affiches and unique examples of graffiti and stencil art took me into the most culturally diverse areas of the cities I visited—the contact zones of cultural formation. My guiding spirits were Walter Benjamin, Victor Turner and Hakim Bey.
Subsequent travels to San Francisco in 1991, New York in 1994, Europe again in 1995 and 1998, and visits to a number of Canadian cities—Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal—all provided opportunities to continue the project that I called Urban Wallpaper for a one-person exhibition at the Nanaimo Art Gallery in 1997.
As a study in improvised aesthetics, Urban Wallpaper is informed by an artistic tradition certainly as old as cave painting, petroglyphs and the graffiti found at Pompei. More recently, I trace its visual style from Cézanne’s interpenetrating planes (passages), through the cubism of Braque and Picasso, Dada collage and assemblage, the chance operations of Surrealism, Kurt Schwitters’ merzwerk, the appropriation of distressed affiches by the Nouveau Réalistes in France, and the strategies of the Situationists known as dérives and détournments. My research interest in the strategies of improvisation in the arts was illustrated in these spontaneous collective improvisations that seemed to add up to a polyvocal palimpsest of the zeitgeist—they were signs of the times that seemed to be worth documenting and, when carefully selected and framed, could be visually pleasing and provocative images. Ultimately, urban wallpaper is a form of signifyin(g), in the sense used by Louis Henry Gates in The Signifying Monkey: through repetition and revision, the images produce a critique of the cultural production we call society. Whether unmotivated pastiche or motivated parody, the layers of posters playfully signify in the mode of improvisation.
However, municipalities usually do not appreciate postering and graffiti for their aesthetics or documentation of social concerns; instead, our research into municipal legislation reveals some recurring themes. Postering is treated as a kind of visual pollution that can be distracting, messy, and unsafe. Graffiti is often defined as a crime against property, thus a form of vandalism. In combination, postering and graffiti are often thought to signify—according to the “broken window” theory—a higher incidence of crime in a given area, and a loss of control on the part of municipal authorities and law enforcement agencies.
We have found that the distinction between sanctioned and unsanctioned images is useful to describe how municipalities distinguish between those signs and marks required for commerce and good government from those which signify a lack of orderliness and loss of control. Alternatively, Joe Hermer and Alan Hunt distinguish between “official” and “unofficial” graffiti in an effort to pry open the complex discourse promulgated by “absent authorities” through a proliferation of signage—especially the prohibition circle with its diagonal red slash. “It is this world of everyday regulation,” they write, “which we seek to characterize as permeated with ‘official graffiti,’ which consists of a great profusion of regulatory signs, notices, symbols, and instructions that figure in everyday life” (457). Through a process they call “legal imperialism,” Hermer and Hunt argue that “the appearance of official status...is the key to a persistent blurring of the public-private divide” (456). At a fundamental level, the discourse between official and unofficial signs marks a contestation of urban space, its ownership, and control.
This view is brought into stark relief by Daniel D’Amico in his libertarian reading of the distinction between public and private property; he concludes, rather bluntly, that “graffiti ceases to be vandalism when it is displayed on public or abandoned property rather than private.” He justifies this conclusion by arguing that “the term graffiti can only be associated with paintings placed on government owned property, while vandalism refers to the defacement of private property and would be appropriately illegal and illegitimate in a Libertarian state….[G]raffiti should not be illegal in a Libertarian society because it is not a violation of private property rights, but rather it is akin to a liberation of stolen property from a coercive government.” This is clearly not an interpretation embedded in any of the municipal legislation we have encountered to date, but it might suggest motivation and justification for those who write graffiti or paste posters onto urban structures. D’Amico argues, in fact, that most graffiti is indeed found not on private property, but on public buildings and structures.
The dialectic between sanctioned and unsanctioned images in the public sphere
is a complex one, and the purpose of our research is to cleave a path between
the poles of opinion. As one of my guides in navigating this dialectic, I have
turned to the work of James Clifford. In Routes: Travel and Translation in the
Late Twentieth Century, Clifford begins with the notion that human location
is “constituted by displacement as much as by stasis” (2). His tools
for “prying open culture are expanded concepts of writing and collage,
the former seen as interactive, open-ended, and processual, the latter as a
way of making space for heterogeneity, for historical and political, not simply
aesthetic, juxtapositions” (3). Clifford explores how stasis and mobility
interact in the construction of (cultural) identity:
In the twentieth century, cultures and identity reckon with both local and transnational powers to an unprecedented degree. Indeed, the currency of culture and identity as performative acts can be traced to their articulation of homelands, safe places where the traffic across borders can be controlled. Such acts of control, maintaining coherent insides and outsides, are always tactical. Cultural action, the making and remaking of identities, takes place in the contact zones, along the political and transgressive intercultural frontiers of nations, peoples, locales. Stasis and purity are asserted—creatively and violently—against historical forces of movement and contamination. (7)
For Clifford, location is “an itinerary rather than a bounded site—a series of encounters and translations” (11). If we think of our urban centers as “contact zones” where “stasis and purity”—what is sanctioned—are asserted against forces of “movement and contamination,” we can identify some of the forces at work in the question of regulating images in the public sphere.
First of all, the obvious ethical privileging of “purity” over “contamination” is a questionable distinction: is a large sign for the Chase Manhattan Bank “pure,” while a skillfully wrought graffiti piece a contamination? While municipal legislation takes great pains to encode the ethics of this distinction, Stallybrass and White in “Bourgeois Hysteria and the Carnivalesque,” suggest by analogy how repressed fear of disorder—as represented by the carnivalesque—can lead to suppression of energies and alternate politics that are required to invigorate democracies.
A further complication in this dialectic is the question of who owns the public sphere: those who are static or those who are mobile? As Jürgen Habermas argued in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), equal access to the public sphere, free from the threat of coercion is essential to the healthy functioning of democracy. If those with money and influence can erect signs in the public sphere, what provisions are made to provide equal access for all citizens? As we’re all aware, this issue is central to all questions of media access to the commons.
For municipal legislators and law enforcement agencies, however, the aesthetics of graffiti and postering are of lower priority because they feel compelled to respond to pressures from the public and business community to keep cities clean, orderly, and free of crime. They focus on the immediate realities of discharging their responsibilities in a legal and fiscally responsible way. In many cases we have seen, municipalities recognize the artistic merits of graffiti and the rights of citizens to expression, and attempt to find accommodations acceptable to tax-payers.
Although cities have found these visual markings on the urban landscape to be problematic, we want to keep open the possibility that these unsanctioned signs are an expression of culture worth noting and documenting, and suggestive of a troubling cultural divide. If municipal authorities misread these signs and their motivations, might their attempts to control them exacerbate the perceived problem? Deeper analysis of these related phenomena is our goal: to discover what these expressions might be telling us about urban culture and economics--not just with the single image or collage, but also the resistance to sanctions against them.
Tricia Irish will now summarize the more specific findings of our research on the language and strategies of municipal legislation. While our focus to date has been mainly to look at Canadian cities, we know that our concerns are shared by jurisdictions around the world, including the United States. Following Tricia’s analysis, we’ll explore some recommendations and open up the presentation to your questions.
Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
D’Amico, Daniel. “Thou Shall Not Paint: A Libertarian Understanding of the Problems Associated with Graffiti on Public v. Private Property.” Law and Economics . March 26, 2003
Gates, Louis Henry Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Hermer, Joe and Alan Hunt. “Official Graffiti of the Everyday.” Law and Society Review. 30.3 (1996): 455-480.
Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. “Bourgeois Hysteria and the Carnivalesque.”
In The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd Edition. Ed. Simon During. London: Routledge,