What Art Means When It’s Gone (On Cultural & Social Cleansing in Bloomington)

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We’re excited by the lovely account that follows of Bloomington graffiti and the author’s demolition of the city’s bullshit explanations for buffing all the throw-ups, tags and stencils.  More analysis of this caliber please!  But we also have to say that for us, the struggle against the economy is always already criminal, and the author fails to question certain basic assumptions regarding the state’s use of the term “criminality.”

Boredom engenders violence. The ugliness of buildings excites vandalism.  -Raoul Vaneigem

From cheekteethblog.com:

This story could be told in many ways, but I will begin at the Third Street Bridge. It is an old railroad tressel bridge, long forgotten by the passenger trains that once coursed through our southern Indiana town. The rails were pulled after the last freight engine left the McDoel Switchyard in 2004. Wooden ties, scattered and black, littered the edges of meadow and wood that crept just up to the railway. The track ballast left a gravel path, the only marker of the train’s long trek through the abandoned corridor. When I moved into McDoel Gardens neighborhood in 2006, I walked to town as the train once ran—from the McDoel Switchyard (Planning PDF), north through the old industrial area, past wooded lots and backs of hotels, over the Third Street bridge, to the city center. So it was: weed and bramble and building backs, a path, a bridge.

I remember the day I found geese stenciled on the bridge. Then a tree, a poem, a hand. Then cut silhouettes of bodies, icons and images, politics and dreams. Stencils mapped over stencils, a conversation. In the evenings, on my way home, I would pause on the Third Street Bridge, above the rush of traffic, struck always by the gift of this hidden gallery.

The art space was untouched by Bloomington city officials until 2009, when the bridge was painted black, the path paved and then “opened” to the city. There was a parade, a ribbon cutting, an event. Murals and statues were commissioned to line the path. The city government began to name, to lay claim to, a revisionist version of the townscape I had known.

The path was named the “B-line” and was advertised as part of the new Bloomington Entertainment and Arts District (BEAD)—a “district” that covers the whole expanse of Bloomington’s downtown. When pressed, the Assistant Director of BEAD, Miah Michaelsen, suggests that re-naming the downtown  an “arts district” is to choose one of many possible definitions for the space. In her mind, however, an arts district creates a clearer sense of “community”  and “inclusivity” than other definitions. Michaelsen suggested that identifying the downtown as an arts district might also create a possible understanding of the space, “as an arts district might help some people understand what sort of experiences they might logically expect to have here, what it might look like, what it might feel like.” In this proposal, a city identity is written—one that scripts “art” as it’s center, while, with the same hand, it defaces and covers over the public art in which our community has long participated.

The move to (re)create and delineate the downtown space as an artistic zone has open economic and political aims. That the city’s assistant director for the arts district is actually titled the “Assistant Economic Development Director for the Arts” reveals the stakes and purposes of the “public art” that is commissioned and tolerated. So, too, does the aesthetic: the bridge is painted black, painted black again, painted black, to cover vandalism (which is not, in this manifestation, called art). It seems striking that the rhetorical use of the word “art,” established in city discourses, in partnership with words like “inclusion,” “community,” and “economy,” can not seem to dialogue with the word “art” as it is linked to stenciling and street art, now criminalized and demonized under the broad term “graffiti”—a class D felony in Bloomington (Collateral Consequences PDF).

In our interview, Michaelsen speaks carefully about the city’s official position on the bridge, but slips, herself, in the tension, recognizing “street art” and “artists” in a way the city government’s website refuses. She even laments, “My biggest regret was, as we were developing that bridge, we didn’t let the artists know that it would be painted over. We didn’t do that, and I regret it because…I  know that there had been a visual dialogue that had been going on in that community for a long time, and we should have honored that and said, ‘we’ve got to do this, but we want to give you one more chance if you want to capture it, photograph it, or have one more moment to put one more thing there.’” It was meant, certainly, to sound generous, but when Michaelsen positioned the painting over of the bridge as a need, she obscured the fact that there was a choice made. When asked directly, she informed me that it was the Parks and Recreation Department—not her own—that made this decision, but that she could “understand the need for a more neutral look and feel.” In a city attempting to define itself by the terms of  its art, I was surprised by how easily art was compromised for neutrality.

Embedded in the concept of a “neutral look and feel” are clear controls on what public art can be and mean. Michaelsen admits, for many artists, the city has been “too prescriptive.” “We err on the side of being government,” she jokes. For artists, this is a dangerous jest—coded with terms of selective censorship and erasure. Now that the city government locates its economic possibility and public identity within an arts district, it seems that public art will only be increasingly confined by the terms of government-embraced art. Michaelsen does not deny this, but instead suggests that this is actually a site in which more opportunities for artists could be created. “We’re a pretty accessible government,” she claims, “there’s tons of opportunity for public content—and lots of opportunity for people to talk to us and propose whatever it might be that they want to do.” I question how these conversations can be had, if people come to a government’s open forum already at the disadvantage of being “citizen” and not “government.” I ask about how not only the common citizen, but the criminal (for that is how the city refers to our street artists) might feel welcome in the ‘public forums.’ Michaelsen shakes her head, “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know.” I am stung by this impossibility…

When I turn a critical eye to the newly commissioned work that graces the B-line, my questions  about the city’s artistic position are only strengthened by my aesthetic bias: I was more impressed with the uncommissioned work that was covered on the Third Street bridge than I am by the recent installation of “welcoming” brightly colored farm animals. The fact that the bridge is covered with black paint—and not art—raises questions for me about rights of participation. The blank bridge walls, once imagined (and articulated) as canvas space, seem to create an intentional closing not only of this space, but of the manifestation of the idea of truly public art. It seems necessary, now, to understand the stakes in blackwashing, and the movement from illegitimate to legitimate art. The bridge blacks over the questions: In what ways are we as a community represented through commissioned vs. individually (and illegally) produced art? What do we lose by closing artistic space down?

I pose these questions for our small town, but am aware that the tensions and imaginations we have about graffiti are not located here, in Bloomington, alone. Still, I hesitate to put this negotiation too deeply into dialogue with the national battles over the legitimacy of aerosol artwork. Nationally,  there has been a tendency to affiliate graffiti with crime, gangs and violence. “Broken Window” studies have shown that the removal of graffiti art in dangerous urban areas may correlate with a reduction in crime. I do not resist the idea that the removal of violent language or gang symbols might make consistently violent spaces less volatile. But I wonder about the application of these studies to areas like the one in which I live. The graffiti I have seen here is not  part of a violent gang culture. The distance between what is stigmatized and what is experienced in my own city space draws me to consider graffiti as a medium with a number of possible manifestations. We would not assume that forms and cultures of dance, from five-year-old ballet recital, to hip-hop performance at a club, to salsa competitions, might mean the same thing. While each of these performances may come with their own attachments of social stigma, the medium of dance itself is not stigmatized. Might aerosol art also be highly situational? Our generally non-violent small midwest town has a host of problems, but it is not an easy site for stigmas about graffiti to be created and distilled around ideas of gang violence and big-city drug wars. I don’t imagine that stigmas hold true even within the big city—indeed, in places like New York City there is an increasing appreciation and rise in galleries that exhibit graffiti work, which suggests that some of the work in that space is something more than dangerous. Our town’s distance from both the gallery and the gangs forces a rethinking of what is “known” about graffiti art and how it might be interpreted within diverse communities. And how it might be interpreted in ours.

It seems that what a unique display of graffiti art might express is ignored for how graffiti has been  socially addressed. Our recently established “Graffiti Task Force” in Bloomington has been reviewing other graffiti task forces in other cities across the country. Links to some of the more successful city projects are hyperlinked on our city government webpage. Graffiti task forces work (often collectively) to name the terms by which graffiti can be interpreted across our national space. The scripting of stigma, of pre-conceived meaning, refuses in some ways the possibility for individual aesthetic judgment—a critical response to art. If we come to understand all graffiti as vandalism, we forget to ask the questions: Can we make choices about aesthetics in our city space? Is there a way to understand graffiti in terms of our aesthetic judgment—instead of understanding it as always profane, dangerous, violent, or fear-producing? What is art to us?

Commissioned murals appear along the trail I still walk from home to school. Most recently, a piece titled “Our Hometown” was produced by children from the Boys and Girls Club summer program. The production of a (paint brushed) mural created by a community group is one of the major recommendations propositioned by graffitihurts.org (a national graffiti removal and prevention website that is listed multiple times on the city government website). “Our Hometown” is a long stretch of plywood boards painted to depict a scene of wilderness surrounding a small city. The project coordinator talked about ways that they worked with bright, simple colors to help “keep the mural looking child-like and vivid.” This language echoes Michaelsen’s; the work is  “welcoming,” “inclusive.” It is of note that while these are the desirable terms for the “art district,” these are not terms that I am used to hearing about art. This strange re-visioning extends also to material and artist: The use of plywood and house paint are presented as “cost effective” and therefore ideal; project coordinators (but not individual artists) are given credit for the works. It becomes clear that the idea is not to replace graffiti art with something that is more legitimately artistic, but perhaps more legitimately in line with the city’s agenda.

“Our Hometown” is one of two murals currently advertised on the city website (the other was also produced by a group of children with simple materials and a child-like aesthetic). While I cannot advocate against collectivity and collaboration in art spaces, nor against projects that support our youth, I still come to wonder how the collaborative “welcome” of unidentified (child) artists might represent, in the context of an “art district,” what we come to expect not only of our community, but of art.  It is also of note: the two child-produced  murals are the only ones listed on the city website, though there are a number of other murals and art pieces that appear (and often disappear) along the B-line.

I met with a local photographer that is working to capture Midwest graffiti art before it disappears. Erin Marshall spoke critically of the city’s position on graffiti. She claimed that uncensored artwork produced by community members may be more relevant to the community than artwork that has been shaped by the city government’s agenda. Marshall also questioned how the space is being re-claimed, not only with blackwashing and playful art installations, but also with increased advertising. Sales images and business signs are increasingly cluttering the visible space in the arts district, and there seems to be no resistance to this eye sore. Marshall questions if this is relevant to the community, and if it is, what sort of “community” we are after. In her opinion, the proliferation of “advertisement is more harmful than the graffiti ever was.”

But we are in the business of art now: there are more funds available for business relocation grants and loans or business enhancement grants than there are for art in the new “arts district.” The city does not resist increased corporate representations, signs, and advertisements. It is clear, as the mayor himself has stated, that the development of the trail was “the most significant economic development project on the city’s agenda.” The city’s privileging is not to those who produce art, but to those who will pay to have businesses in the arts district. This is not an un-city-like way of handling the social order—but it becomes complicated when city money allows the concept of art to be co-opted, shaped, refused, and criminalized. And we must come together, those of us who live in this broad “arts district,” and question what the language used to articulate ideas about public art, and the actual performance and erasure of art, might say about who we are and what we can be to one another.

“Canvases are disappearing,” Marshall says, and with them, the possibility for a free artistic exchange between members of the community. The bridge is painted over, painted black. Still the graffiti persists, quick and afraid, stencils and tags are painted each night and covered over by morning. On my way to work, I walk over the bridge, patched over with squares of black, wet paint. City positions are created to continue this process of erasure. A camera is installed on top of a building facing the bridge. The Graffiti Task Force makes policy proposals. Tax dollars are diverted to graffiti clean up and path policing. City web pages explicitly link graffiti to criminal action, and provide the list of violations under which artists can be tried. By all measures of what I see—in city documents, in black paint, in cameras and committees—the city does not have its ear to the questions I still have. The newspapers celebrate the new mural, “Our Hometown.” Another section of the trail is opened, and people march over the Third Street bridge (painted over that morning) to the next ribbon cutting. The Mayor makes a speech. The art is erased, while the city’s language and sweet dreams emerge in a feedback loop.

Still, yesterday I saw geese, stenciled on the bridge.

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