Complex Relationships between De´tournement and Re´cupe´ration in Melbourne’s Street (Graffiti...
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Complex Relationships betweenDetournement and Recuperation in
Melbourne’s Street (Graffiti and Stencil)Art Scene
The Society of the Spectacle, written by Guy Debord in the late 1960s, critiques the
commodification of the post-industrial city, with its seductive spectacles that
induce citizens to increasingly passive consumption. This article will argue that
in the 40 years since Debord first developed his theories, it has become apparent
that the relationship between ‘spectacle’ and ‘commodity’ is more complex and
nuanced than he originally envisaged. It will focus specifically on the critical
urban practice of street art in Melbourne and the discursive power plays that
occur between street (graffiti and stencil) artists, authorities and commerce.
Graffiti, a medium employed by Debord himself as a critical urban practice, is used by Melbourne’sstreet artists to both critique commodification and create urban spectacles. Practitioners such as Aloha,Xero, Tom Civil, MIC and Vexta use stencils, elaborate hand painted artworks, stencils and spray cans toproduce dramatic image-texts that are sometimes provocative, yet always spectacular. While the contentof their work and the process of making it are often critical of consumption, a number of artists enjoy apecuniary relationship with commerce.1
One way to understand this is in terms of the relationship between detournement and recuperation.These were concepts developed by the Situationist International (SI), the group of radical artists fromthe 1960s of which Guy Debord was self-appointed leader. Detournement means the ‘turning around’ ofimages or ideas from the dominant culture through appropriation and superimposition of revolutionaryideas or slogans. While detournement initially involved ‘over-painting’ mainstream artworks, it evolved
Corresponding author: Janet McGaw, e-mail: [email protected]
ISSN 1326-4826 print/ISSN 1755-0475 onlineª 2008 Taylor & Francis
to include graffiti. Recuperation is the counter response by the forces of capital to neutralize socialrevolt. It usually involves commodification of the revolutionary act. Recuperation is most evident in thefashion industry, where street styles such as punk have been effectively softened and repackaged forconsumption by the mainstream. But while the SI sought to resist recuperation, Melbourne’s streetartists capitalize on it.
Street artists have developed similarly complex relationships with authorities. Melbourne City Counciland the State Government of Victoria have sought to restrict the practice of graffiti through a range ofdraconian laws over recent years. There is now a AUD550.00 fine for being found in the possession of aspray can and a AUD26,428.00 fine plus two years imprisonment for damage to property.2 Street artistshave responded by camouflaging their activity through dressing and practising in ways that ‘appear’authorized to evade detection. Ironically, while the justice arm of the State Government tackles graffitithrough tough punitive measures, the marketing division, Tourism Victoria, promotes Melbourne’sgraffiti as a site-seeing destination.
‘Spectacle’ and ‘commodity’ in the urban realm have become far more nuanced than Debord originallyimagined. The article will assert that in Melbourne the critical urban practice of street (graffiti andstencil) art produces spectacles of a different kind. They do not induce passivity. Nor are they simplecommodities. The power plays and means of exchange between street artists, authorities and commerceare discursive, sometimes inverted and rarely linear. This paper will contend that the ‘spectacles’ createdby street artists encourage active engagement in the urban realm.
Thus, the article will conclude, street art demonstrates that ‘spectacles’ can be critical, active andpolitical and not just vehicles for passive consumption. Processes of detournement and recuperationare not always linear, but can be used opportunistically by both the mainstream and critical outsiders totheir own advantage.
The methodology for investigating the relationship between ‘spectacle’ and ‘commodity’ includes bothan analysis of theory, observation of street art and interviews with street artists. As this particular issue ofthe Architecture Theory Review invites authors to reconsider urban spectacles in light of The Society ofthe Spectacle, the theoretical framework begins with Debord’s writings on ‘spectacles.’ However, thearticle will suggest that Michel de Certeau’s theory of urban power relations, which he defines thoughthe terms ‘tactics’ and ‘strategies,’ is a more relevant theory to describe the relationship between streetartists, authorities and commerce in Melbourne in the early twenty-first century. Melbourne’s street artscene is in a constant state of flux, so in addition to books and articles on street art, interviews withpractising artists are a key source.
The Society of the Spectacle
According to Debord, ‘The spectacle’ is a phenomenon of societies that have the capacity to re-presentand disseminate images en masse; not as a visual adornment that adds to the material realm, but as a
representation of society in the form of propaganda, advertising and passive entertainment. Theirintention is social control. The images are not the spectacles in themselves; rather the socialrelationships that are mediated by the images become the spectacles.3
Debord and the other members of the Situationist International critically responded to suchmechanisms of social control through a few key practices. Recuperation and detournement havealready been defined. Situationist architect, Constant Nieuwenhuys, defined urbanisme unitaire as a‘‘complex, ongoing activity which consciously recreates man’s environment according to the mostadvanced conceptions in every domain . . . it was the fruit of an entirely new collective creativity.’’4 Formost of the early members of the collective, unitary urbanism involved creating ephemeral moments, orsituations, that changed the ambience of the city. They were active, playful, short-lived and capitalizedon movement through the urban realm. While members disputed the degree to which unitary urbanismcould critique the city without taking on the macro-structures, they agreed that their action was playedout in opposition to the authorities.5 A fourth important mode of operation was derive, a roaming drift(often drunken) that subverted conventional planning by locating hidden spaces in the city and creatingin them force fields of attraction.6 These became the foci of protests that escalated to become the 1968battles between students and police.
In 1992, Debord affirmed his then 25-year old critical theory in the preface of the third edition of TheSociety of the Spectacle, asserting that history had shown its inherent truth. Indeed, in many ways hisbook of 1967 describes global cities now more than then, with the evolution of the Internet andtelevision over the intervening years. Market-driven economies are mediated by screens and the ceaselessaccess they provide to ever- changing data, advertising and pleasure. Computers dominate the desk spacein most offices, televisions are the focus of typical living rooms and, in the urban realm, advertisingbillboards have grown in size and sophistication. But the context of political fervour, the relationship ofcontrol and dissent and the escalating global conflict that characterized Paris in the late 1960s is verydifferent from Melbourne in the early 2000s.
So how relevant are Debord’s observations to this contemporary, local context? One aspect of Debord’stheory is a critique of the way authorities promote the observation of a spectacle. In Melbourne in late2008, we will be unveiling the Southern Star Observation Wheel in the Docklands, now underconstruction at a cost in excess of AUD60 million.7 It has been hailed as the largest and most expensiveamusement ride built in Australia and the tallest in the southern hemisphere.8 Following the precedentof the London Eye, it will ‘amuse’ tourists, not through speed or G-force, but through the opportunitiesit provides for distant and passive observation of the city. Tourism is ‘‘human circulation’’ (literally, inthis case) ‘‘considered as something to be consumed,’’ writes Debord. It ‘‘is a by-product of thecirculation of commodities; basically, tourism is the chance to go and see what has been made trite.’’9
The Southern Star is tipped to attract a million visitors in its first year. Although a privately-funded
venture, the State Government is promoting it as a key feature in the planning of the docklands precinct.Is this an example of social control through encouraging passivity in the city?
While you are awaiting the completion of the Southern Star, Tourism Victoria is inviting you to ‘‘loseyourself in Melbourne’’ by drifting through the hidden spaces where you can stumble across scenes ofprovocation and ‘‘force fields of attraction’’ made by Melbourne’s contemporary unitary urbanists, ourstreet artists. Top billing on the Visit Victoria website currently is an invitation to get lost in the‘labyrinth’ of Melbourne’s formerly abject laneways that have been revitalized with ‘‘opulent bars,eclectic boutiques and fashionable restaurants’’ all decorated with ‘‘amazing graffiti and stencil art.’’10 Itappears to be a process of recuperation by which the city appropriates a subversive act and reframes theobject as lavish. It could also be an alternate framing of observation in Melbourne, from the macro tothe micro. But perhaps it is more than this. I would contend that it is indicative of the fluid, discursiverelationship between authority and street artist: an acknowledgment of the virtue of the active, creativeengagement in the city by artists who defy the limits of its statutes.
Street Art Is Spectacular
Few would question that street art looks spectacular in the common sense of the word. Since the early1990s, Melbourne’s street art has forged its own reputation as globally distinctive.11 It can be dramatic,demonstrative of a high degree of skill and aesthetically rich. It is often also seductive with its brightcolours, intense patterns, provocative statements and constant changeability (see Figs. 1-3). ButMelbourne’s street art pieces are neither ‘spectacles’ as defined by Debord, nor straightforward acts ofdetournement.
Another aspect of Debord’s spectacle is that it is a vehicle for the promulgation of a singular worldviewperpetuated by the ruling class to control the masses. Spectacles are offered as a pretence of ‘solicitude and
politeness’ to the proletariat as a reward forhard work. But in fact, Debord contends, theirreal intention is to induce passivity duringleisure time so that the proletariat offer nothreat to the ruling class’s power.12 Like Debord‘spectacles,’ Melbourne’s street art is ‘‘not (just)something added to the real world—not adecorative element, so to speak.’’13 While oftendecorative it is also usually a ‘‘Wel-tanschauung that has been actualised, trans-lated into the material realm—a world viewtransformed into an objective force.’’14 InMelbourne, street artists often use theirspectacular images to present a multiplicity of
Figure 1 Hosier Lane street art. Photographer: Janet
worldviews, often in direct critique of those inpower; sometimes however, commissioned by them.
Street Art Is Multiplicitous
Street artists in Melbourne are characterized bytheir diversity, each creating a thread in the richtapestry of artwork practised in Melbourne. There isnot the scope in this paper to document all thestrands of stencil and graffiti art; for that there area number of books dedicated to the subject matterand referred to in the endnotes. However, I willprovide an overview of its fluidity and diversity. Oneof Melbourne’s key stencil artists of the 1990s andearly 2000s is Tom Civil, who is now in his early30s. He came to street art, not as an artist but as anactivist. His stencils include provocative ‘dialecticalimages’15 that critique white Australia’s treatmentof indigenous Australians, uranium mining,censorship and the politics of fear perpetuated bythe Howard government (Figs. 4-6). They sit firmlyin the tradition of Debord’s own graffiti, which consisted of provocative statements communicatedthrough simple text. Civil’s texts are elaborated with beautifully composed and executed stencil images.16
Figure 2 Hosier Lane street art. Photographer: Janet McGaw 2008.
Figure 3 Hosier Lane street art. Photographer:
Janet McGaw 2008.
Aloha is motivated by an interest in communication, or more precisely, miscommunication. He delightsin textual ambiguity with such statements as ‘‘international co-operation will speed progress,’’ and ‘‘Suregot a lot on thier lips’’ [sic]. Sometimes he finds texts that intrigue him and runs them through acomputer program called babblefish to translate them into another language. When they are re-translated back into English there is often an odd twist: ‘‘Now dream of a distilled pure drop a break ofthe joy. A sight of the paradises for man lost in her dream.’’ He has a long-term interest in creating artthat is at once accessible yet also intriguing. Aloha notes that while many visitors to art galleries will say‘‘I don’t understand art,’’ most people will say they understand the images and texts of the street. For this
reason, Aloha prefers the street as a site andthe bold images and slogans commonlyemployed by advertising as a method. Hisart is not contrived as a critique of powerstructures; rather he appropriates the streetas his gallery for the benefit of those whomay be too intimidated to visit a realgallery.
Stan, Bonez, Carl and Renks of the 70K grafcrew, thrive on adrenaline, obsessivelypainting their monikers every day inincreasingly outrageous places (Fig. 7).17
While aesthetics is of some interest to them,their main motivation appears to be a
Figure 4 ‘Boycott Mobil’ stencil, Tom Civil.
Figure 5 ‘Driven to new pastures’ stencil, Tom Civil. Photographer: unknown.
marking of territory.18 Their placementprovokes awe: high, inaccessible walls andenormous text characterize their work. Whilein many senses they fit into the ‘tagging’category rather than ‘artist’ category of streetart, their work does call into question theownership of public space in the city. Renks isthe only graffitist in Melbourne to have beengaoled for destruction of property, as far as Iam aware.19
Others are both aesthetically and politicallydriven, finding the immediacy and publicnature of the streets desirable. Vexta, one of thefew women painting on walls in Melbourne, isone such artist. ‘‘I don’t want to live in a citythat’s really bland and covered in grey andbrown and advertising,’’ she states.20 Herdistinctive, colourful stencils evoke a sense ofspatial freedom with a sinister edge in theurban realm. A powerful image of a womanswimming in a red sea surrounded by whatinitially looks like autumn leaves but oncloser inspection are revealed to be humanhands is a case in point (Fig. 8). According toJake Smallman, Vexta’s first stencil was animage of a two-year-old human skeleton, withthe text ‘‘This is what a war victim lookslike.’’21
MIC, on the other hand, exclusively paintsfaces in varied states of extreme emotionalexpression (Fig. 9). According to an interviewwith Matthew Lunn, his practice is essentiallyan exercise in personal catharsis. ‘‘They are ameans of exorcising his demons . . . [He] useshis hobby to release tension and maintain astable emotional balance.’’22 MIC has paintedeveryday for the past seven years, with anaverage output of 10 faces per week.
Figure 6 ‘All the arms we need’ stencil, Tom Civil.
Figure 7 Carl and Renks window tags of 70sbuilding, in Dew, Uncomissioned Art, p. 100.
Photographer: Lachlan MacDowall.
Although individual art practiceshave been described here, Mel-bourne’s street artists commonlywork in ‘graf crews:’ fluidly con-stituted groups that plan and painttogether. GMO (ghetto make over)and 70K (seventies kids) are twowell-known crews. Sometimes theywill ‘buff’ a wall first (paint it beige)and then, as Aloha says, ‘‘it’ssurvival of the fittest.’’23 More oftenthey work amongst what is alreadythere. The consequence is a cacoph-ony of styles, and layer upon layer ofimage, colour and text.
Lachlan MacDowall of the Commu-nity Cultural Development Pro-gramme in the Faculty of theVictorian College of the Arts atthe University of Melbourne, makesthe point that globalization hasincreased the diversity of Australianstreet practices. There is evidence ofNew York subway style text, Eur-opean influenced stencilling, indi-genous artwork, tagging, paste ups,other types of writing as well asidiosyncratic painting styles.24
Melbourne’s street artists actualizetheir peculiar worldviews into an
objective force in the material realm. Although in this way they mirror the spectacles Debord critiques,their diversity and individualism distinguishes them from those that perpetuate the singular worldview ofa ruling class.
Street Art Is Not Passive
The Society of the Spectacle in many ways is an extension of Marxist theory via Lefebvre, in which societyis depicted as divided between the passive subject who consumes the spectacle and the ruling class that
Figure 8 Vexta with her diving woman, in Coslovich, The Age, 4
December 2005. Photographer: Cathryn Tremain. Courtesy of
Figure 9 MIC’s head. Hoser Lane, Melbourne. Photographer:
produces the spectacle. It is this binary opposition that Debord accepts and perpetuates that I believe isthe central problem of his depiction of society for contemporary Melbourne. Another French theoristwriting at the same time, Michel de Certeau, developed a more interactive, horizontal picture of urbanpower relations that I would like to suggest has more relevance for explaining the interactions betweenMelbourne’s street artists, commerce and authorities. De Certeau contended in The Practice of EverydayLife that daily acts of consumption by ordinary people are, in fact, acts of silent production.25 He definespower in two ways: ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics.’ ‘Strategies’ include all elements that can claim ownershipover territory and from that position seek to control other elements that are apparently powerless. Theyinclude institutions, governments, authorities, landowners as well as the physical structures that definethe built fabric of our urban environment: streets and footpaths that contain passages and buildings thathave limited access. ‘Tacticians,’ on the other hand, are those who own nothing but are able to usurpplaces from the ‘strategies’ momentarily through movement and timing. De Certeau suggests that eventhe way one walks down a city street, choosing to meander slowly or hasten quickly, is an act of ‘tactical’navigation that defies the attempts of the ‘strategic’ forces of the city to contain people. The relationshipbetween ‘tactics’ and ‘strategies’ is thus conceived as fluid, changeable and not at all linear.
Melbourne’s street artists are master ‘tacticians.’ They inscribe the surfaces of the city with a bravuraand entitlement that is breathtaking. And their method illuminates the complex power relationships thatexist between authority, commerce, landowners and other ordinary citizens. Xero and Aloha reveal thatactive observation is central to their practice.26 Aloha has lived in the city for years and knows thepatterns of movement of the ‘strategies’ intimately. Consequently they use timing and movement in aknowing way to full advantage. While in the early years they worked furtively at night, they now paint inbroad daylight. If they want to work in a place that might attract attention they adopt the garb of a‘strategy:’ overalls, sometimes hiring an expensive piece of equipment such as a scissor lift. Aloharecounts a story of a time when he was witnessed by police who complimented him on his work andsaid, ‘‘hope you’re getting paid well for that, mate’’ as they walked past on their beat.27
Street art is not a spectacle that induces passive observation either. Even Tourism Victoria is aware of thiswhen it entices tourists to visit Melbourne’s lanes. Its slogan, ‘‘Lose yourself in Melbourne’’ conjures upassociations with Walter Benjamin’s Paris, of which he writes, ‘‘To not be able to find one’s way in a city isbanal, but to lose oneself, now that is another thing altogether.’’28 The constantly changing surfaces ofMelbourne’s lanes can be disorientating and beguiling at the same time. Although Tourism Victoria claimsthey are a ‘labyrinth’ they are nothing of the sort. Melbourne is a grid city and most of its lanes are dead ends.It is very difficult not to find one’s way, but it is not at all difficult to get lost in the artwork and textual debate.
Graffiti is a discursive process; a ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ of words, hands and feet. Walls become a forum foractive conversation. Dew notes that these conversations occur on a number of levels: between artists andthe passing public, between artists themselves, and more curiously between artists and law enforcers.29
Conversations between artists and the public are a fluid sharing of ideas between strangers, where the textis accessible, readily legible and responses in a different hand are evident. Paste-ups and stickers are acommon vehicle for these interactions and can often be found alongside elaborate art works. Hosier Lane
is one site where the derelict doorways along theeast side become minor conversations adjacent toand facing bold, dramatic, visual pieces. ChrisJohnson, journalist from The Age newspaperreported, ‘‘To walk through Hosier Lane, betweenFlinders Street and Flinders Lane behind The Forum[Theatre], is to go straight into the modern nexusbetween politics and art. It’s as if the rulingconservatism in politics and Australian society—and the lack of political invective in youngpeople’s rock music at the expense of corporateballadeering—has found an outlet in the veryfoundations of the city. This outlet has risen intandem with the renaissance of CBD Melbourne.’’30
He identifies more protests on these walls than inany other contemporary art medium. The contentover the past few years has included responses to therise of militarism, the relationship betweenAustralian foreign policy and America, images ofOsama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Bush, Blair,Howard, bombs, razor wire and lips sewn shut(Figs. 10-12).
Discursive interactions between artists can becryptic, employing specific symbols and words toaffirm or denigrate another artist’s work. The word‘toy’ written across an artwork is a graffitist’sinsult; buffing carefully around a piece to retain itindicates admiration. Painting over is referred to as‘crossing out’ or ‘slashing’ and is a non-verbalconversation about skill, proficiency or aestheticjudgements.31
While these are conversations between ‘tacticians’in the city, ‘strategies’ have been known to wageinto the debate. According to Dew, Melbourne’stransit police are said to have formed their own
crew, CTSA: Crazy Transits Slashing Art. They are said to write insults over artworks as a methodof policing.32 It is apparently a practice borrowed from New York’s transit police, although it tendsto escalate friction rather than reduce graffiti activity. ‘Strategies’ adopt the modus operandi of the‘tactic.’
Figure 10 ‘The secret of censorship’ paste up.
Tom Civil. Photographer: unknown.
Figure 11 John Howard as a devil. In Lunn,
Street Art Uncut, p. 22. Photographer: Matthew
Landowners and council cleaning crews act out adifferent conversational style with street artists. Usuallyit involves a ‘see-sawing’ between painting andcleaning, or buffing, but not always. Sometimes areasare selectively buffed to retain certain artworks foraesthetic reasons but also commercial reasons. Themost extreme example in Melbourne is of the Banksystencil on the back of the Nicholas building, which hasbeen preserved behind a plastic shield.
Spectacle As Commodity
In light of this, let us consider if Tourism Victoria’sattempts to commodify Melbourne’s street art forentertainment is an act of recuperation. Theassumption that Debord makes is that power alwaysrests with those who have the financial capacity tomarket commodities to the masses. He ignores theinherent power of the creators to maintain controlthrough tactics of their own.
Andy Mac is the curator of Citylights Project, anindependent public art gallery of light boxes mountedon the walls of two of Melbourne’s lanes. He also curates another gallery, Until Never, more traditionalin format although not in content. Mac is a long time resident of Hosier Lane, and over the past fiveyears or so has also co-ordinated ‘graf-crews’ for hire. His first foray into working for big business was inAugust 2004. Multiplex engaged him to select a crew to decorate 600 square metres of hoarding spacearound an entire city block in Sydney. Mac coordinated 18 artists who were flown to Sydney fromMelbourne, accommodated and paid for a week’s work. The exercise was documented in a film createdby Shyam Ganju, Outside the Square.
Commercial enterprises move faster than government and public bodies, Mac observes, and sometimesfacilitate the process by extracting permissions from authorities that are not as forthcoming toindividuals. Furthermore, they do not seek to control the outcome to any great extent. Multiplex placedtwo restrictions on content—no sexually explicit images and nothing overtly political. According to Mac,none of the artists were interested in placing sexually explicit images on city walls and those whose workwas socio-politically motivated went ahead and inserted their messages anyway and no one seemed tonotice or care.33 Is this an example of recuperation that diminishes the power of a radical gesture? Macclaims to the contrary: Mulitplex offers him and his collaborators more exposure without diminishingtheir freedom.
Figure 12 ‘Keep your coins, I wantchange’ stencil, by Meek, in Lunn, StreetArt Uncut, p. 20. Photographer: Matthew
Also in 2004, Hosier Lane and Rutledge Lane were completely repainted by Mac and his crew for the setof the film Ghost Rider, starring Nicolas Cage and filmed on location in Melbourne. In this instance, thefilm company obtained the approvals of surrounding building owners and relevant authorities,something Mac’s collaborators had never been able to do on their own. Interestingly, since the processa tenant at the north end of Hosier Lane who had always painted out graffiti, has recently become asupporter.34 Mac observed that money bought goodwill very quickly and the process was swift andrelatively uncomplicated. Twenty-five artists worked on six designated walls in the lane from dawnuntil late over two days, obliterating their previous work for financial gain. Did this compromise theirwork? Not at all, according to Mac. Although the film director had dictated aspects of the content, theystill had the freedom to paint with their own distinctive styles. Street art is by its very nature ephemeral,so rather than feel disappointed that their previous work was lost, they saw this as new opportunity topaint.
More recently Mac acted as an intermediary for the shoe manufacturers, Adidas. Adidas had engaged fivestreet artists from around the world to decorate shoes for a new marketing campaign and consulted Macto oversee the Melbourne launch. Mac’s role was to select an artist, plan an approach and coordinate thepainting of a billboard on Punt Road in Richmond (Fig. 13). He chose Nuroc. The billboard was to lookinitially like graffiti that at some point over the five-day period would coalesce into the shape of a shoethat would then disappear as the billboard was completed. Mac also saw his role as supporting the artistthrough the process and protecting him from the company while he worked. Mac had two criteria whenselecting the artist: that s/he would be capable of working under pressure and s/he would have a unique,‘avant’ style so that they could both be proud of making art in the service of commerce. The site of thebillboard is, according to advertisers, the most prominent in Melbourne. Adidas paid for all the paint and
Figure 13 Nuroc at work on Punt Road billboard for Adidas, in The Herald Sun, 24 August 2007. The Herald
and Weekly Times Photographic Collection. Photographer: Jay Town.
organized a cherry picker. The process of commodification of the spectacle in this instance served theartists well.35
Other street artists use commodification to facilitate their work in different ways. In fact many streetartists from the late 1990s and early 2000s have moved into different media. American artist, ShepardFairey began his art practice in 1989 as a Rhode Island School of Design student as an exercise in‘propaganda engineering.’ ‘‘Manufacturing quality dissent,’’ his website declares.36 The manifesto of TheObey campaign he began is as follows:
. . . The Obey campaign attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both thecampaign and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeingadvertisements or propaganda for which the motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounterswith Obey propaganda provoke thought and frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’sperception and attention to detail. The medium is the message.
His practice began with stickers of Andre the Giant with the slogan ‘Obey Giant’ underneath that evolvedinto screen-printed posters. Eventually Fairey opened his own advertising company, Black Market, todesign covert campaigns. ‘Tactic’ or ‘strategy?’ It is difficult to tell.
The well-known English street artist, Banksy, (whose stencil in Melbourne is now preserved) (Fig. 14)has never sold any of his work through mainstream galleries. It has not prevented the art market fromcapitalizing on his fame. A stencil he painted on a wall in England recently sold for GBP208,100(AUD452,950) after attracting 69 bids. The new owner must replace the wall if they want to relocate theartwork.37 But Banksy has not relinquished control over his work to ‘strategic’ bodies. He makes use of
Figure 14 Andy Mac with the Banksy stencil on the rear of the Nicholas Building in Melbourne, in The Age,
16 January 2008. Photographer: Michael Clayton-Jones. Courtesy of The Age.
the fame that it brings him to finance more radical gestures. Occasionally Banksy works on paper,renting warehouse space to sell prints that have fetched over GBP200,000 from celebrities like Brad Pittand Angelina Jolie. In December 2005 he was able to finance a graf crew to fly to Bethlehem to paintprovocative images on the Separation Barrier currently under construction by the Israeli government todivide Jerusalem. They attracted international headlines and sold T-shirts to finance more work. Streetartists such as Mac, Fairey and Banksy capitalize on the forces of recuperation for their own politicallysubversive ends.
In Melbourne one graf-crew called themselves GMO, an acronym for Ghetto Make-over. It was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to manipulate the real estate market in the city. They would target certain lanes andmake a decision about whether they would tidy them up to improve real estate values in the area or‘trash’ them to lower property values. Whether they were successful is not clear. But it is interesting thepower they believed they had over commercial interests in the city.
Debord writes: ‘‘Urbanism is the mode of appropriation of the natural and human environment bycapitalism, which, true to its logical development toward absolute domination, can [and now must]refashion the totality of space into its own particular decor.’’38 Although the relationship betweencommerce and street art has elements of the linear relationship described by Debord, there are distinctdifferences at play also. Recuperation is an ever-present phenomenon that seems to move increasinglyrapidly as mass communication becomes speedier, evidenced by the speed with which Banksy’s work hasbeen appropriated by the mainstream. But the response of the radical need not be ever-new practices ofdetournement. Street artists use the processes of commodification for their own ends and continue topractise in their preferred urban context using the same media. ‘Tacticians’ adopt the modus operandiof the ‘strategies.’
Statutes and Spectacles
Debord observed that planners effected social control in Paris in the 1960s through policies that createdisolation. Zoning laws ensured that the proletariat lived in the periphery away from where they worked,where they were provided with spectacles as a salve to fill the loneliness.39 He argued that workers’councils were the only means to reconstruct the environment in ways that respected the needs of the‘proletariat’ and countered the negative controls imposed by statutory planning. He proposed a model ofunions through which ordinary people could come together to form a ‘strategic’ bloc to achieve‘‘dialogue invested with executive power.’’40
In Melbourne the effect of zoning residences away from the city had the reverse effect. Prior to the1990s Melbourne was largely a commercial and business precinct. After a wave of office buildingthroughout the 1980s and the subsequent crash of the share market, city rental real estate becameaffordable for students and artists and as a consequence, many street artists converted offices intostudios and homes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was throughout this decade that Melbourne’sdistinctive style developed and flourished. In 1992, The City of Melbourne with the support of the
State Government, introduced a new strategic planning code to address the problem of the empty city.It was called Postcode 3000 and aimed to encourage apartment living in the city. The consequence ofthis strategic initiative led to a revitalization that has, in turn, escalated property values and forcedartists out.
According to Mac it is not the authorities that have posed the main threat to Melbourne’s street art inrecent years.41 Street art is experiencing a challenge from new ‘tacticians’ in the city. Mac observesthat over the past three years there has been a dramatic shift in Melbourne’s street culture. Youthsfrom the outer suburbs ride the trains in to the city and have increased the quantity of graffitiaround the city dramatically—it changes daily at the moment—but have diminished the qualitythrough a lack of expertise and knowledge of the codes of practice. Good work is slashed with tagsand the street art is much more conservative now. Mac defines it as derivative of 1980s New York interms of aesthetics and content. These new players aspire to the glamorous image that commerce hashelped to create. Their presence and activity has changed the experience for older artists. Many of thekey artists from even five years ago have begun to move into other genres. While almost all stillpaint they do not contribute as much as they once did. ‘Tactics’ can subscribe to ‘strategies’ of theirown.
Tom Civil continues as an activist but his genre now is independent publishing and screenprintingof posters. He formed Breakdown Press in 2001 and now prints books, posters, magazines andstickers. You is a free weekly magazine about Melbourne. An anthology from its first five years isnow in publication that is hand written, stapled and distributed in paper bags. You is distributedalong with advertising fliers around Melbourne’s lanes to facilitate communication amongstMelbourne’s creative sub-cultures. Another publication, Scrapbook to Somewhere, continues toengage with issues around urban placemaking, addressing such questions as: ‘‘How do we captureand foster the specificity of places, as the differences between them are erased? In what ways doesplace act as a source, or repository of memory? How do non-Indigenous Australians express theirattachment to stolen places? How does a place’s past inhabit its present?’’42 Others have moved intocyberspace, graphic design, independent gallery curation and advertising. Our streets continue toevolve as I write about them.
The Society of the Spectacle is a collection of theses about social control in cities affected by governmentsand commerce through the use of visual spectacles: representations used to communicate a singularworldview through propaganda, advertising and entertainment. The author, Debord, argued that theruling class sought, through these means, to induce passivity in consumers. De Certeau, writing atmuch the same time and in the same context, observed that power plays are more fluid, discursive andnuanced. While authorities and commerce have ‘strategic’ power invested in them through theirownership and control of place, ordinary people use ‘tactical’ power in their day-to-day life to usurp that
power for their own ends. Indeed consumers, de Certeau argued, are actually ‘silent producers.’43
Melbourne’s critical urban practice of street (graffiti and stencil) art is evidence of the power of‘tacticians,’ minor players in the city, to shape the urban fabric. They create ‘spectacles’ that areseductive yet at the same time communicate diverse and often subversive worldviews. These ‘spectacles’induce acts of drifting in the city (what Debord and the Situationists would describe as derive) thatindicate active rather than passive engagement with the urban realm. And furthermore, street artistsinvert the processes of recuperation to serve their own ends. Commodification of street art has enabledartists to finance ever more daring and dramatic projects without compromising their artwork or theviews they express.
This article in no way condones the unlawful practice of graffiti. It is written to provoke thought aboutthe society we live in rather than to prompt individuals to act in ways that defy our laws. The author inno way indemnifies anyone against loss, damage, injury or cost, legal or otherwise, who engages inillegal street art.
Endnotes1 Some artists’ work is overtly political in content. Tom Civil’s is a case in point. His work will be referred to at
length later in the article. Others, such as MIC, adopt a mode of practice that critiques circuits of capital. MIC’spaint is retrieved from bins and includes spray cans but also household paint, and his brushes have includedan inside-out moccasin, a toilet brush and a plastic bag. The focus of this paper, however, will be thepractitioners such as Aloha, Nuroc and Andrew Mac, who exploit circuits of capital for their own ends. MatthewLunn, Street Art Uncut, Melbourne: Craftsman House, 2006, p. 117.
3 Thesis 1-6. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Donald Nicholson-Smith (trans.), Cambridge, MA: MITPress, 1995, pp. 12-13. First published La societe du spectacle, Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967.
4 Constant Nieuwenhuys, ‘New Babylon—Ten Years On,’ in Mark Wigley (ed.), Constant’s New Babylon: The
Hyper-architecture of Desire, Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, p. 232.
5 Constant, ‘New Babylon,’ p. 232.
6 Wigley, Constant’s New Babylon, p. 12.
7 Press release from the Office of the Premier of Victoria, Thursday, 19 December 2002.
8 Press release from the Office of the Premier of Victoria, Thursday, 19 December 2002.
9 Thesis 168. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p. 120.
11 Melbourne’s street art is widely documented in publications such as Christine Dew, Uncommisisioned Art: an
A-Z of Australian Graffiti, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2007; Lunn, Street Art Uncut; and Jake Smallman
and Carl Nyman, Stencil Graffiti Capital: Melbourne, New York: Mark Batty Publisher, 2005. A number ofMelbourne’s female street artists are also referred to in Nicholas Ganz, Graffiti Woman: Graffiti and Street
Art from Five Continents, London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.
12 Thesis 43. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p. 30.
13 Thesis 6. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p. 13.
14 Thesis 5. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p. 12.
15 Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, Cambridge, MA: MITPress, 1989.
16 Civil’s black and white realism is indebted to Parisian stencil artist Blek le Rat, who began work inthe early 1980s, and English stencil artist, Banksy, both of whom also use art and text for socialcommentary.
17 Views expressed in an interview with Aloha in 2008.
18 Dew, Uncommissioned Art, p. 100.
19 Brendan Roberts, ‘Three months jail for graffiti vandal,’ The Herald Sun, Melbourne: Herald and WeeklyTimes, 23 August 2007.
20 Vexta, quoted by Gabriella Coslovich, ‘Our Colourful Underbelly,’ The Age Newspaper, Melbourne: FairfaxMedia, 4 December 2005.
21 Smallman and Nyman, Stencil Graffiti Capital: Melbourne. As quoted by Gabriella Coslovich, ‘Our ColourfulUnderbelly.’
22 Lunn, Street Art Uncut, p. 116.
23 Views expressed in an interview with Aloha in 2005.
24 Lachlan MacDowall, ‘Foreword,’ in Dew, Uncommissioned Art, p. 1.
25 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
26 Views expressed in interviews with Aloha and Xero in 2005.
27 Views expressed in an interview with Xero in 2005.
28 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Roy Tiedermann (ed.), Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (trans.),Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press, 2002.
29 Dew, Uncommissioned Art, pp. 225-231 and pp. 244-248.
30 Chris Johnson, The Age, Melbourne: Fairfax Press, 16 May 2007.
31 Dew, Uncommissioned Art, p. 245.
32 Dew, Uncommissioned Art, p. 247.
33 Stated in an interview with Mac in 2005.
34 Stated in an interview with Mac in 2008.
35 Thesis 41. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p. 28.
36 www.obeygiant.com/post/manifesto. Posted by Shepard Fairey on March 18, 1990. Accessed 25 June 2008.
37 Richard Jinman, Fairfax Digital, January 16, 2008, www.smh.com.au/news/arts/traces-of-banksy-worth-a-motza/2008/01/15/1200159448644.html. Accessed 25 June 2008.
38 Thesis 169. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p. 121. (Emphasis and brackets are Debord’s.)
39 Thesis 172. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p. 122.
40 Thesis 179. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, pp. 126-127.
41 Views expressed in an interview in 2008.
42 Breakdown Press, www.breakdownpress.org/books.html. Accessed 25 June 2008.
43 de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. xxi.