Imagining Something Different — 10.08.2020
An excerpt from “The Ugly Truth: What do our cities really need?” by Rafael Schacter at Green Papaya Extension, 05 January 2016.
“Street art – as well as its artistic forebear graffiti – are often thought of as radical, rebellious aesthetic practices. Both the artists and their works are portrayed as the very definition of “edgy”; dangerous and dissident, but also creative and avant-garde. Yet within the last five years or so, street art has been commandeered by the corporate interests of the “creative city”.
Do our cities need revitalisation through gentrification or reinvigoration through communication? Do we need a single comfortable community or diverse, contradictory publics? Drawing from a decade of research into graffiti and street art, anthropologist and curator Rafael Schacter stakes a claim for the ugly yet important, the disagreeable but necessary.”
Rafael is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow 2014-2017, honorary research fellow at the Department of Anthropology at University College, London. His first book The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, won the 2014 Los Angeles Book Festival in the Photography/Art Category. His second book, Ornament and Order, a monograph based on his PhD research, was published in September 2014. As Creative Director of arts production company Approved by Pablo, he is curating and producing a two-year series of events at Somerset House, London. He has worked on numerous other exhibitions, including co-curating the iconic “Street Art” show at the Tate Modern in 2008.
Norberto Roldan: Let’s hear out two more questions before you reply and consolidate your reactions and comments as your closing statement before we go back to the bar. We have Adrian and Alice for the last two questions.
Adrian Alfonso: I have a question. I think there's some confusion as to what's being talked about here, so maybe you could clarify the difference between street art with permission and street art without permission.
Alice Sarmiento: Mine is pretty simple. You mentioned visibility earlier and one of the things that I thought about that was that, in order for art to have any kind of political potential, it does have a specific kind of visibility. And that's where I guess the conventions about graffiti come in, especially in the case of your paper, because you have an idiom of dissent being used essentially for dispossession.
So in the case of street art, there is, in a way, something futile about discussing the politics of it, because each one has its own specific kind of politics. In that sense, I guess it would be more productive to talk about the usefulness of art because you did mention usefulness earlier — we talked about artists working in bakeries and social practice and relational aesthetics where it's more or less the same thing. So rather than go anecdotal, could we at least go into the usefulness of the practice in the context of the Philippines?
Rafael Schacter: Those four words are gonna stop me in the context of the Philippines but I'll try. So I probably should have started with a kind of footnote like what graffiti and street art are to make things clearer, but better late than never. So thank you. It's obviously really complex. But I've got kind of two basic understandings of what they are, and which will always be critiqued. But nevertheless, I can give it a go.
There's a lot of broad descriptions of it but one could argue that graffiti is generally letter based and street art is often image based. That's one kind of broad distinction. And you could argue that graffiti in general kind of works against architecture. Graffiti would traditionally go over borders — if you have a window and a corner, graffiti will go over that window in the corner, that's going against the architecture. Wherein street art will generally work with it. It’ll generally try to improve it or change and try, like to try and detourne it in a way which kind of emphasizes it. You could argue that graffiti is generally illegal. And street art is often more enabled. But for me, graffiti is not about illegality, it's about lack of permission, Iike street art for me, is as well. So that's why street art with permission with me is potentially no longer street art.
But I think the terms are really confused. And there are as many graffitis as there are graffiti artists and as many street arts as there are street artists. For me, what's more interesting is looking at is agonistic versus consensual — acts which are working against compared to acts which are working for. A lot of street art, inverted commas, although traditionally seemed to work consensually to work with, actually works agonistically. Whereas a lot of like graffiti, which is supposed to always be against, actually always isn't. So I think the terms are very diffuse, and complex and change the whole time.
Whereas “independent public art” is a good kind of catch all term, to describe practices, which happen in the public sphere, which are independent. The independence for me is really something which is so key, even if it is the ethic of independence, which is gained through like 5, 10, or 15 years of practice, which is what a lot of these artists have. By working without permission, it changes the way you look, and you see your environment because there is a need to produce.
I think that's what many graffiti and street artists have imparted to me is that it's a need. It's not something you do because you can — it's a need to do. And exactly as you were saying before about an environment being dehumanizing, I think that need to become part of one's environment is key within everyone. And the correlation of the increase of independent public art, graffiti and street art, with the increasing privatization of our cities, I don't think is an accident. I think this leads to usefulness. I think both those questions are kind of similar.
I think graffiti, by its nature, shows that something else is happening. It shows an outside exists in the center. In that way, it has amazing importance in showing an outside. The politics where I'm from is centered — everything has gone to the center. There is consensus politics and it is all that matters. The problem with center consensus is that it creates radicality because people feel that their needs are not being met.
One of the great things about graffiti in its essence is its consonant showing of something else. Also, its ugliness is amazingly beautiful, because its ugliness is about efficacy. A tag, which might look really ugly to someone, is about speed and being able to do something to mark and delineate a complex surface within one beautiful form. So I think that in itself is aesthetically beautiful.
In terms of visibility and having political potentiality, one of the most politically subversive and fantastic works and artists of the moment are these guys from Stockholm, and Copenhagen, Adams and E.B.Itso who are producing work, which is totally invisible. They're producing graffiti, producing spaces, which is never seen. They produce narratives, like secrets, which then people tell, and to me that is amazingly powerful. It's about imagination.
So for me the usefulness of street art, graffiti is about imagination — imagining something different to what exists; whether that's by something you can see, or you don't see. It's also about revealing what is underneath the surface not by being surface. Graffiti and street art lie on the surface. It's literally superficial. But to me, its site specificity is about showing what hides behind it. It's about showing the regulations and the norms, which are so ingrained within our cities, that we don't see them. And I think that's one of the beautiful things about street art and graffiti is revealing the things which are so obvious that we can't see.