CategoryNuart Plus

Laima Nomeikaite

Street Art as Heritage:
Right to the City?

In recent years individual street artwork and graffiti have been framed as cultural heritage.  However, attempts to integrate street art and graffiti into heritage frameworks have not provided answers to the philosophical and practical problems of the preservation of street art.

Laima Nomeikaite is human geographer, urban planner and physical improviser. She works at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural heritage Research, where she researches on street art as intangible heritage. Her research interests center on the interplay between heritage, arts, city and space/place. She together with her friends have led for several years festival ‘Matgilde mot Hungersnød’ (Feast against Famine) in Bergen, the project has closely collaborated with the street art collective Bart at that time. Laima is taking also part of the improvisation company ‘På Stående Fot’ led by the chorographer Kristine Nilsen Oma.

One of the limitations of those framings is that unsanctioned street art and graffiti value “right to the city” and its components; such as “the right to everyday experience”, illegality, transcendence and anti-commercialism, have tended to be not considered. Andrzej Zieleniec (2016, pp. 10-11) asserts that unsanctioned graffiti and street art can be understood as an “expression or embodiment of Lefevre’s cry and demand for the “right to the city”, the right to appropriate, appreciate, know and use its spaces and places (…) a free art or politics which challenges the normal, banal, functionalized and increasingly commodified and privatized space”. With the “right to the city” concept, Henri Lefebvre (1996)  had aimed to provide an alternative vision for a city in which inhabitants  are entitled to the right to manage urban space for themselves,  a possible city beyond the state, capitalism and consumer society.

David Crouch (2010, 57) asserts that “the problem is not with heritage, but the way it is thought about and institutionalized in contemporary culture, often through dominant visual representations”.  Laurajane Smith (2006) presents that the key limitation with institutionalized or conventional heritage is related to “authorized heritage discourse” (AHD). In her conception of AHD the UN World Heritage Conventions and all other authoritative bodies in the heritage field are included.  Such discourse is steered by officials or experts with the power to define and legitimize the meaning and understanding of heritage. Here, the emphasis on preserving material things often marginalizes the practices and beliefs of source communities. AHD focuses attention on the aesthetically pleasing material objects to be protected for its national significance; justifies tourist value as a support for the economic promotion, and defines heritage as material and non-renewable (ibid). AHD is path-dependent, which continues shaping perceptions and dissonant conceptions of heritage.

The AHD can be identified within the case of street art and graffiti, although the experts in charge of preservation or removal are not only experts within the heritage field, but also private actors and various state and city authorities. The most classical approaches of AHD were applied to street art and graffiti such as tangible framing (e.g. covering an artwork with Plexiglas or Perspex), preservation of ascribed historical, aesthetic and touristic value, and legal heritage frameworks. The academic literature illustrates that local authorities and heritage experts most commonly use value-based systems and tangible preservation techniques to justify the preservation of street art and graffiti (Avery, 2009, MacDowall 2006, Hansen 2016, Hansen and Danny 2015, Dovey, Wollan, and Woodcock 2012). However, street art or graffiti values like illegality, the ‘everyday’, public space, anti-commercialism and transience are usually not considered. Susan Hansen and Danny Flynn (2015, 898) specify that local councils tend to preserve street artworks of famous street artists by fixing Perspex over the works; this marks them as ‘being of value’, ‘adding value’ and being worthy of conservation. However, they fail to consider its anti-commercial and “the right to everyday experience” value. They fail to understand that unsanctioned graffiti and street arts role is beyond bureaucratic or capitalist systems, beyond the elite space of the art gallery; a free form of art, which can be made by everybody and for everybody. For this reason, the tangible preservation strategy has proven harmful to street art and graffiti as it reinforces a division of high and local culture, and encourages vandalism rather than safeguarding (Hansen and Danny 2015, 899).

Street art and graffiti has traditionally fought for the urban commons and been intentionally accessible. Framing street artworks deprives citizens of the right to experience them (in the public space and ephemerally) in daily life and the broader right to engage with the city; it stimulates the privatization and commodification of culture, which street art by its nature is opposed to. Moreover, AHD tends to averse the meanings of certain street artworks neither does it consider the opinions of local people.

The photo below shows the consequence of the preservation of Argus’ Stencil “Smiley” with Plexiglass in Bergen, Norway. Smiley was a famous city character; Smiley symbolizes the free expression of the choice to live on the streets of Bergen, his lifestyle represents the right to a different experience and the right to the city. The figure (who also belongs on the street) is very close to the essence of the philosophy of street art. Despite the symbolical meaning of the painting and despite the negative reactions by local people against tangible preservation, which were expressed in local media with the titles “The ugliest gallery in the city” (Bergens Tidende 03 February 2014) and “City council prisons street art” (Bergens Tidende 20 November 2014) street artworks by Argus (‘Smiley’ and ‘Otto’) are continuing to be imprisoned with Plexiglass.

Argus ‘Smiley’ stencil before and after framing.
Source: Argus/argusgate.wordpress.com. Permission obtained from Argus.
The framed photo on the right is taken by Laima Nomeikaite.

Heritage approaches for street art and graffiti

In order to protect the value “right to the city” of unsanctioned street art and graffiti, there is a need to move away from formal heritage frameworks, tangible preservation techniques and expert-based approaches which attempt to legitimize the meaning of heritage. Firstly it needs to be understood, as Laurajane Smith (2006, 44) argues, that ‘heritage is not a “thing”; it is not a “site”, building or other material object with defined meanings and values’; rather, heritage must be experienced, and ‘heritage is the experience’ (Smith 2006, 45- 47). Furthermore, drawing on the theoretical position of the more-than-representational aspects of social life, Laurajane Smith (2006, Chap. 2) provides a new understanding of heritage as a process or a performance. Conception of heritage as a process refers to a shift from material representations, static objects and sites, towards heritage as a relational and socio-cultural process in the present.  Thus, heritage is always in the remaking process, it is re/ created, it is a cultural process or performance in which the values and meanings are identified and negotiated; this process always emerges in the present not the past (Smith 2006). Heritage is vital, changeable and relational, as David Crouch (2010, 64) presents that heritage closely engages in dwelling, identity and belonging (…) “a dynamic process through which heritage emerges at particular times, moments, durations and feelings of belonging”.

Instead of focusing on formal heritage frameworks, value based systems and stakeholder approaches to street art and graffiti, heritage management practice could engage with the performative everyday practice. The turn towards “practice” in heritage studies emphasizes the ways in which people interact routinely at heritage sites, landscapes and museum spaces in everyday life (Auclair, 2015; Crouch, 2010; Haldrup & Boerenholdt, 2015; Schofield, 2009). John Schofield (2009) expresses that, in order to achieve more inclusive heritage management, researchers must analyse the interactions between people and their physical environment in everyday life. In his opinion, ‘[t]he heritage should be about: the everyday, the everywhere and something for (and of) everybody’ (Schofield 2009: 112). Schofield asserts that studying the everyday is a symmetric approach to heritage conservation, accommodating multiple views and perspectives; everyday practice provides the views about heritage as people actively engage with it rather than a selective heritage expert group managing the change.

Graffiti and street art is not only imagery, but it also concerns urban life – its atmosphere, its public space and its ‘everyday’ sensory, affective and embodied experience. Thus, there is a need to engage with the multiple views and perspectives related to not only street art images, but also to its relations to the cityscape. Performative and affect-based approaches might capture different perceptions and sensory experiences of street artwork and its relationship to the physical environment. Performative research methods were developed for exploring performative practice and the sensory inventory of urban life, including ‘soundwalks’ and bodily interactions (Paquette & McCartney, 2012); ‘smellwalks’ (Henshaw, 2013); and rhythm (Edensor, 2012). Charlotte Bates (2013), for example, uses video diaries to capture embodied experience in everyday life.

To conclude, street art and graffiti does not need to be managed by experts, the law or Plexiglas; instead, there is a need to engage with multiple views and perspectives and to understand the role and the relationships between street art/graffiti and its place, people and space. Following Guy Debord’s (1957) statement that ‘what changes our way of seeing the streets is more important than what changes our way of seeing painting’, in the context of heritage management practice it could be said that: what changes our way of approaching heritage is more important than managing said change.


References
  • Avery, T. (2009). Values not Shared: the Street Art of Melbourne’s City Laneways. In L. Gibson & J. Pendlebury (Eds.), Valuing Historic Environments (pp. 139-156). Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Auclair, E. (2015). Ordinary Heritage, Participation and Social Cohesion. The Suburbs of Paris. In E. Auclair & G. Fairclough (Eds.), Theory and Practice in Heritage and Sustainability – between Past and Future. London: Routledge.
  • Bates, C. (2013). Video diaries: audio-visual research methods and the elusive body. Visual studies, 28(1), 29-37.
  • Crouch, D. (2010). The Perpetual Performance and Emergence of Heritage. In E. Waterton & S. Watson (Eds.), Culture, heritage and representation: perspectives on visuality and the past. Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Dovey, Kim, Simon Wollan, and Ian Woodcock. 2012. “Placing graffiti: Creating and contesting character in inner-city Melbourne.”  Journal of urban design 17 (1):21-41.
  • Edensor, T. (2012). Geographies of Rhythm: Nature, Place, Mobilities and Bodies. Farnham: Ashgate
  • Haldrup, M., & Boerenholdt, J. O. (2015). Heritage as performance The Palgrave handbook of contemporary heritage research (pp. 52-68): Springer.
  • Hansen, S. (2016). “Pleasure stolen from the poor”: Community discourse on the ‘theft’of a Banksy. Crime, Media, Culture, 12(3), 289-307.
  • Hansen, S., & Danny, F. (2015). ‘This is not a Banksy!’: street art as aesthetic protest. Continuum, 29(6), 898-912.
  • Henshaw, V. (2013). Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments. New York: Routledge.
  • Lefebvre, Henri. 1968. Right to the city. In Writings on Cities (1996). Eds Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford:147–159
  • MacDowall, L. (2006). In praise of 70K: Cultural heritage and Graffiti Style. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 20(4), 471-484.
  • Paquette, D., & McCartney, A. (2012). Soundwalking and the Bodily Exploration of Places. Canadian Journal of Communication, 37(1), 135.
  • Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.
  • Schofield, J. (2009). Being Autocentric: Towards Symmetry in Heritage Management Practices. In L. Gibson & J. Pendlebury (Eds.), Valuing Historic Environments (Vol. 39, pp. 93). Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
  • Schofield, J. (2016). Heritage Expertise and the Everyday: Citizens and Authority in the Twenty-first Century. In J. Schofield (Ed.), Who Needs Experts?: Counter-mapping Cultural Heritage (pp. 1). Farnham: Ashgate
  • Zieleniec, A. (2016). The right to write the city: Lefebvre and graffiti. Environnement Urbain/Urban Environment(Volume 10).

Javier Abarca

Some notes on street art, murals and power in public space

Today’s huge institutional murals have very little to do with the ephemeral, contextualised, human-scale pieces scattered across the landscape we used to call street art some years ago. These are two very different practices with diametrically opposite roles regarding power in public space.

Javier Abarca (Madrid 1973) is an artist, researcher and educator in the fields of graffiti and street art. A leading figure from the first generation of Spanish graffiti, he taught a class on graffiti and street art at the Complutense University of Madrid between 2006 and 2015. He founded the website Urbanario in 2008. His teaching, curating and writing have been commissioned by museums and institutions in Spain and across Europe.

Questioning limits

Due to the unregulated nature of their practice, street artists can ignore the boundaries dictated by property that determine where they can or cannot act. A piece of street art can simultaneously cover two or more contiguous surfaces belonging to different properties, thus ignoring the division of matter and space demarcated by money. Street art can make visible how these limits of action and physical demarcations are arbitrary and cultural. It can take space and matter back to its natural state, when everything was for everybody to use, and nobody actually owned anything.

Murals, conversely, confirm the limits demarcated by money. They validate the status quo by arranging themselves obediently where architecture and property dictate. Instead of questioning the logic of money, they visibly reaffirm it.

While power uses architectural materials to try and make its division of the world into a permanent physical reality, street art typically uses humble, temporary materials such as paint or paper, which transform space merely at a symbolic level. For this reason it can be read as a sort of parody of this allegedly permanent capitalist arrangement of the world, this presumptuous order that inescapably goes back to the amalgam from which it started. Street art can therefore be a sort of foretelling of the future state of a building. This is one of the reasons why it can be disturbing, because it can make visible how a prideful building is in essence just a miserable ruin.

Inhabiting margins

In the process of creating and searching for street art pieces, both the artist and the viewer often get to explore parts of the city they would rarely visit otherwise. Places such as alleys or empty lots, dead spaces below or around bridges and other infrastructures, even off-limits terrains such as abandoned buildings or tunnels. French theorist Guilles Clement describes how the distinctive value of these places resides in them being the only parts of the city free from the control of money, and how they thus become the only chance for the city dweller to find space for natural and human qualities such as indetermination or imagination.

For both artist and viewer street art can end up being an excuse to discover and visit these kinds of ignored places, to follow unfrequented paths across the city. Being on the look out for street art consequently widens and enriches the viewers’ awareness of their environment. Murals, conversely, tend to appear within the predictable spaces of power. They take the viewer along the official paths, through the alienating urban spaces of production and consumption.

Time

A street art piece mutates and evolves like everything around it, including its viewers. It naturally intertwines with the evolution of its context and with the life of the people that repeatedly come across it. Murals, instead, are generally meant to remain. They exist in a plane different to that of the viewer. They are frozen in the atemporal dimension of the monument, of power, far detached from the real life going on around them.

The human scale

Street art always works within a scale related to the human body. It can only go as big as the body allows. An artist can reach beyond that by using a ladder or a pole, but these portable tools work only as extensions of the body, therefore the scale of the resulting artwork is still visibly human. Artists can also take advantage of the features of the architecture surrounding a chosen spot, for example climbing up a ledge or leaning out a window. But, again, this takes place within discernibly human limits. A street art piece is the visible presence of a fellow human being.

Murals, conversely, exist in an inhuman, monumental scale, very far from the viewer. When producing a mural, artists are not forced to understand their working environment, because they do not need to adapt to it. Murals are deployed with superhuman devices such as scaffoldings or cranes, which operate on a scale that allows the artist to ignore the context of the artwork. Instead of coming from below, a mural comes from above.

A piece of street art is necessarily created in a way analogous to the way a path appears on a landscape. A path needs to adapt to the features of the terrain, it is the result of a dialogue between these features and the scale and potential of the human body. A mural, on the other hand, works as a highway or a viaduct, ignoring by its very nature all but the most prominent characteristics that define a place. A similar analogy could be drawn between a piece of street art and a medieval street, which takes form based on the features of the terrain and the decisions of its inhabitants, and between a mural and a Haussmannian avenue, deployed with the help of superhuman machines and blatantly blind to any human or natural characteristic of the place it appears on. A mural is, from this point of view, yet another instrument for exerting control over the environment and its population.

A mural reveals nothing about the possibilities and limitations of the relation between the human body and the built environment. It is no longer a portrait of the relation between a person and his or her surroundings, which is necessarily open to dialogue. It is, instead, a portrait of the way in which power relates to the environment, which is most often a blind, imposed monologue.

Viewers can respond to a piece of street art. They can, for example, correct it or paint over it. Street art is a call to action – it empowers the viewer. It brings us back to the time when each person was able to rearrange his or her surroundings as far as his or her bodily potential would allow, before the power of a few would start to determine the limits of action of everyone else. It evokes this inherently human reality whose repression has created the alienating scenario we now live in. In light of this, it is only natural that street art, and particularly the neighbouring practice of graffiti, have become more prominent and violent as the control over the environment exerted by architecture and advertising has become stronger.

As opposed to the empowering nature of street art, murals force a passive position on the viewer. Like architecture or advertising, murals are a monologue that the viewer cannot respond to. Murals make clear that the viewer is a passive spectator, and a consumer. Street art can be a dialogue between people, while murals are essentially a one-way communication channel monopolised by power.

***

Excerpted from “From street art to murals, what have we lost?”, Street Art and Urban Creativity Scientific Journal Vol 2 Nº2, 2016.

Evan Pricco

Fall on Me

“Me, on the other hand… I’m an optimist. So, when I see this, I don’t think the sky is falling. I think that, sir, is the sound of opportunity knocking.”

—Mike Milligan, Fargo, Season Two

Evan Pricco is the Editor-In-Chief of leading international contemporary art magazine, Juxtapoz, based in San Francisco, California. Prior to starting with Juxtapoz in 2006, Evan worked at SF-based gallery and apparel company, Upper Playground. He is the author of Juxtapoz’ continuing book series, including a brand new title, Juxtapoz Hyperrealism, out in stores in Fall 2014. He has contributed text to numerous books, as well as written for Playboy. He continues to champion Public Art everywhere he goes, and has been interviewed by Bloomberg News about the merits of Public Art and its financial impact. He now lives in Sausalito, California.

I’m going to start this essay off by trying to connect the best written TV season ever, Fargo Season Two, and the concept of street art and power. There is a big part of me that sees the sky falling. Everywhere, not just here in America. Shit is falling apart. You can just feel it. We had these eight standout years that were, obviously, not without struggle, conflict and frustration with power and those in charge. But you felt like the conversation was moving forward; that we were evolving and beginning to understand the nuances of race, sex, gender, justice, climate change, and simply language itself. We were (and the “we” here is those of us who constantly think of the evolution of these previously listed nuances no matter what leaders are in charge) beginning to feel empowered to really challenge the status quos and turn our space in the world into a place where everyone could begin to feel included. And then, well, we took a few steps back this past November.

I’m speaking for America, but it applies to a lot of people and places. The sky is falling. Not everyone was ready to have these nuanced conversations. A lot of people, Europe, Asia, America, still digest information in simple platitudes, banal expressions and ignorant speech. We’ve gone back to the language of 1984 while living in Brave New World. We are distracted. We have toys. We have gadgets. We have a celebrity president whose catchphrase was gas station memorabilia in the early 2000s. So the attempted progress of a few years ago is sort of back to square one.

But… but! I’m going to be like MIke Milligan here. Don’t think of the sky falling. Think of what this means in terms of how we now have to fight against power. This is an opportunity for the arts. This is a time where we really need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, to retool our arsenal about how we compete with and challenge the power structures in the world around us. This year’s Nuart Festival is based around this theme of power, or, as they note, “…questioning who has it, who doesn’t, and how sanctioned and unsanctioned street and public art can challenge prevailing mechanisms of control.” What Nuart has successfully accomplished in past years is putting street art and graffiti into the pantheon of historically relevant political interventions. Whether those interventions come in the form of revolutionizing the way we look at art itself, or how we look at dissident behavior, or how we challenge power structures, Nuart has always attempted to connect these dots.

When the theme of “Power” was raised for the 2017 edition, I immediately thought of this classic Milligan line: we are in a time of opportunity. It’s our time to question. What have we done well in the past? What can we do in the future? How did the power structures form, and how do we fight back and infiltrate these systems with better ideas and plans to make the world, if not better, more sustainable and equal. Using the idea of public space, as Nuart bases its whole program on, is the best place to start. It’s where we shop, eat, drink, gather, wander; it’s the place we all share. If we begin to share ideas here, or challenge the notion of shared space in the face of powerful entities that control what we see and what we buy, this is us challenging the system. Or, challenging the man, shall we say?

While we are at it, let’s not talk about Tweeting. Don’t show me your iPhone photos from a protest. Don’t Snapchat or Instagram that you passively care about a cause. Let’s not discuss social media’s impact on challenging these power structures. These new modes of communication are owned and operated by the definition of power. These are, by Wall Street definition, the man, man. I love that these mediums connect us with causes around the world, allowing us to find like-minded struggles in far-off places, that they teach us new ways to challenge this idea of power. But Nuart is about discussing and doing. Street art and graffiti, when it’s great and subversive, is about the action on the actual street. When you get on Instagram and see something that challenges the way mainstream audiences think about the world, when you see something that is in direct conflict with power structures and you start to feel empowered yourself, it is generally right next to a photo of a kitten. I love kittens. They are my favorite thing on Earth. But when I want to feel enabled and strong when I see equal rights rallies in Korea, or Occupy Wall Street protests in NYC, I don’t need comfort. I want that unease. I want to see and feel something new in my consciousness.

Yes, I went from Fargo, to power, to Instagram, to kittens—but my point is that we live in a tremendous moment in time where we constantly see progress nullified by grabs of power that leave us feeling defenseless and hopeless. We have always had wonderful tools to grapple with these feelings, whether it be through Street Art, protest, social justice reform, human rights, and activist platforms brought to the forefront through the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Sometimes we needs these reminders to fight back. To understand what the power structures mean. Where Nuart takes this discussion, from the way the streets are owned and operated, to the way museums control our art history, I see an opportunity to equip ourselves for the intellectual and ideological battles ahead. The sky is falling, and we are ready.

Adrian Burnham

Cleverly Contesting the Surfaces of Power

The material surfaces of towns and cities index legal, civic and corporate influence. With rampant privatisation these last two seats of power coalesce into a regime that proposes and propels corporate capitalism as the only socio-economic option available.

Adrian Burnham has a long held empirical interest in both the variety and efficacy of interventions on urban space and a particular fascination with paper-based art and visual activism. His career spans both a mundane engagement with the metropolis – as a commercial flyposter in the 1980s and 90s – to more academic study of the city and the social production of space at Goldsmiths University.

After 10 years leading courses and lecturing on art and design at Hackney Community College, in June 2016 he founded and continues to curate www.flyingleaps.co.uk: a street display and online platform for socio-politically engaged artists.

However, in the UK and elsewhere, recently we’ve seen a substantial and growing number of people hungry for analyses of the flaws of neoliberal governance. In ways that were almost unimaginable even a year ago, a contemporary democratic socialist and/or communitarian conscience appears to be gaining traction. Although, in this era, when it is perfectly possible to imagine oneself connected and active without ever leaving the purview of a screen, ‘real’ or material, physical interventions calling for social conscience, needling for change or simply helping viewers to see the world afresh can take on enhanced significance.

As cultural anthropologists Megan McLagan and Yates McKee (2012) put it in their book Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism:

«Material networks are important because they shape the nature of cultural forms that travel along them, but also because, like platforms, they are political actors themselves. Politics does not lie within the image, as if the only political exchange at stake is lodged in the […] ability to decode a meaning that inheres in the text. Rather the modes of circulation and of making public are forms of political action in and of themselves.»

While corporate culture continues its creeping grip on education, health, the news, entertainment and our personal and collective consciousness, opportunities to express views outside the narrow confines of the established political order are diminished.

Like Nuart the flyingleaps project seeks to offer a material platform and a critical, enduring digital media presence for artists and visual activists. Making space for alternate ‘voices’: those who resist. As Chris Hedges wrote in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Hedges and Sacco: 2012) the ‘[D]oubters, outcasts, artists, renegades, skeptics, and rebels – rarely come from the elite. They ask different questions. They see something else: a life of meaning. They have grasped Immanuel Kant’s dictum, “If justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning.”’

And it’s the multiplicity of voices, tactics, the range of visual languages employed as well as inventive siting and enactment of art and visual activism that lends it a strength, that affords it a much better likelihood of breaking through, effecting a publics’ concerned awareness – publics plural because urban dwelling is an agglomeration of many ideas and mentalities – arguably sometimes even to the extent that visual engagement translates into action.

Whilst I think some work on the more radical end of the art/visual activist spectrum is brilliant at skewering government wrongs or exposing corporate cant and abuses of power, what the activist art rebels have to do – and I know the best do this constantly – is consider the efficacy of their message. Is it managing to get anywhere close to reaching those who are not already persuaded? Humans for the most part are not simplistic. We thrive on and evince a multitude of ideas and practices.

Take, for example, the Artist Taxi Driver (aka artist/activist Mark McGowan): his practice consists of serious sociological interviews, comical interventions, vituperative rants, practical support and involvement, collaboration with popular music and producing ‘naïve’ watercolours (which themselves are incredibly varied)… The point being he is all these things (and more besides) and we’re all, for the most part, similarly complex. That’s why the critical visual art we make needs to appear in various forms, work in various ways to at least have the potential to affect us in differing registers.

American architect, urbanist, writer and teacher Keller Easterling (2014) observes in Extrastatecraft that the declarative and enacted approaches to activism are to an extent bound together and complimentary. She cautions, however, that too glib a reliance on any declarative ‘us versus them’ rhetoric completely misses the mark in terms of effective dissent in contemporary political work. Worse, it plays into the hands of excessive power and wealth because more and more the means by which the ‘1%’ maintain control is extremely sophisticated. ‘Righteous ultimatums or binaries of enemies and innocents that offer only collusion or refusal might present a structural obstacle greater than any mythical opponent’ such as Capital, Empire or Neoliberalism. Adopting merely a simplistic oppositional stance lets big business, government and the sophisticated mechanisms of global capitalism off the hook.

Many powerful players that […] activists oppose maintain fluid or undeclared intentions by saying something different from what they are doing. It is easy to toy with or trick activist resistance if declaration is all that qualifies as information. When targeted, the powerful wander away from the bull’s-eye, arranging for shelter or immunity elsewhere. They may successfully propagate a rumor (e.g., that there is evidence of WMD, that climate change is a hoax, that Obama is not a US citizen) to capture the world’s attention.

Capturing attention to divert attention. Vested interests are ever cloaking themselves in the mantle of resistance. The commercial construction sector negotiating to build quotas of ‘social housing’ – inadequate in the first place or, as we’ve seen recently in the fallout from the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, a blatant con – or the thrust to privatise services, schools, the pushing through 24/7 of access to health is ideology in the guise of reform. Mainstream media plays the same surreptitious game. Witness, for instance, the cynical volte-face of a Murdoch press now loudly ‘supporting’ breast cancer awareness.

Easterling’s concern is to unearth and explore ways that publics might counter the power of global infrastructure but her proposed co-option of extra state craft in support of radical reform has other elements that accord with thinking and practice that stands a better chance of being productive. ‘[…] Techniques that are less heroic, less automatically oppositional, more effective, and sneakier – techniques like gossip, rumor, gift-giving, compliance, mimicry, comedy, meaninglessness, misdirection, distraction, hacking, or entrepreneurialism.’

Leaving open the question as to whether and how directly socio-politically engaged art and visual activism speaks to social justice, what does occur from time to time is a work – image, text, installation, T-shirt, performance, street poster… – can challenge and even help to alter the public’s disposition. Here, in part, resides the value of turning our urban environment into a platform for artists: it’s an opportunity to visually delight but also a chance to question, maybe even shift shared beliefs, ideas and ethical concerns operating across society.

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