Wednesday, May 21, 2008

This is What Free Speech Looks Like

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to stumble upon one of our 12th graders presenting to a class of beginning art students about his influences and the artists that inspire him.

Needless to say, I walked out of the classroom awed by this student whom I had taught back when I was an English teacher and he was a 9th grader. How far he had come: from gangly, awkward, and still figuring himself out to self-assured, wise, and very, very cool. His peers sat rapt as he wandered the alleys of "Street Art" with them.

Street Art, he explained, is a part of its environment as well as a commentary on it; is political; is rebellious... is inspiring, subversive, provocative, often illegal and impermanent and meant to challenge the messaging we are subject to, especially subconsciously.

He introduced us to French portraitist/stencil artist C215 (will you please graffiti my house?) and Banksy, a reigning king of Street Art in the UK. My favorite of his murals depicts children pledging allegiance to a plastic Tesco shopping bag hoisted up a flagpole. Banksy is also famous for "vandalizing" reproduced classical paintings, which are then hung in museums until they are inevitably noticed and taken down. Here's a "Banksied" Monet, altered with the addition of contemporary images...

Banksy also coined the term "brandalism," and in his book Wall and Piece, defends the public's right to subvert advertising, pointing out that corporations "rearrange (our) world to put themselves in front of (us)" without our permission. We don't have the option, for example, to decide whether or not to look at billboards and signage, which surround us in the public domain.

Banksy's form of activism reminds me of another sneaky, ingenious way to make commentary on consumerism, "shopdropping" or "droplifting." Shopdroppers, rather than "lifting" products from retailers, leave items in stores. Sometimes the act is to subvert labeling, to promote artists or musicians, or to observe people trying to buy products not endorsed by the stores on whose shelves they are found. Artist Packard Jennings, for example, made his own "anarchist" Action Figures and put them in Target and Wal-Mart stores, where people actually attempted to purchase them.

I also remembered reading in the newspaper about a local woman who proclaimed herself the "Knitting Ninja." Her modus operandi is wrapping "polewarmers" around street sign posts. An article about her work and that of other public artists (as well as how corporations are beginning to--surprise!--capitalize on this phenomenon) can be found here.

My former student's lecture to beginning art classes was part of preparing them for an open-ended project in which their work is meant to communicate with their audience somehow (not necessarily politically).

My creative writing students used to do a "community writing" project. The aim was to share their writing in some form--through signs, emails, slips of paper left somewhere, etc.--and then to document their writing, the venue in which they posted or performed it, and the reaction(s). I recall a student offering to read her poem to complete strangers at a local park, another sending her writing anonymously to random students in various classes, and others who taped their compositions to benches at bus stops, sign posts, and bulletin boards. The project was often in conjunction with the "Directions for Living" assignment, so the writings, while often provocative, were usually uplifting.

The last year I assigned the project one particular student had placed her simple, inspiring words on stop signs in her neighborhood. Because the student left a hint that the posting was in conjunction with a school assignment, I was tracked down by an elderly woman who encountered one of the student's poems. Her husband had recently died, she shared, and she was out walking her dog that night, considering her options and feeling bereft. She happened to read the teen's thoughts on a street sign pole, and felt the words were meant for her that day. On the phone she credited my student for saving her life.

That's a far cry from my first experience with "street art" or "public writing." In the sixth grade I was curiously moved to write anonymous "thank you for being my friend" notes to several peers (I had moved to town only the year before and perhaps finally felt accepted?). I think I anticipated the message would be considered corny and was therefore too chicken to take credit, but I truly wanted these girls to know I appreciated them. I surreptitiously slid the hand-written (cursive, loosely disguised) notes into my friends' lockers.

Oh, the Drama that ensued. It wasn't that I left some 6th grade girls out; I was pretty thorough in my coverage. It was the mystery that surrounded Who Had Done It. The investigation (and accusations!) superseded any positive result meant to be gleaned from the gesture.

But I am not discouraged from continuing mild forms of street art when the spirit moves me. The mother of budding, bold public artists, may I recommend Window Markers or Sidewalk Paint as accessible, impermanent media for expression?

No comments: