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Street Art in the Digital Age: Photos, Documents, Urban Agency

Street Art in the Digital Age: Photos, Documents, Urban Agency

How do street art practices resonate through the digital world, and how do we trace such resonance back to the street? More generally, what happens when the sensor-imbued city acquires the ability to see – almost as if it had eyes? Andrea Baldini (Nanjing University) reflects on the role that the Internet, and social networks, in particular, have had in boosting the circulation of graffiti and street art and, in turn, their communicative and denouncing power.

For the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), titled "Urban Interactions," (21 December 2019-8 March 2020) ArchDaily is working with the curators of the "Eyes of the City" section to stimulate a discussion on how new technologies might impact architecture and urban life. The contribution below is part of a series of scientific essays selected through the “Eyes of the City” call for papers, launched in preparation of the exhibitions: international scholars were asked to send their reflection in reaction to the statement by the curators Carlo Ratti Associati, Politecnico di Torino and SCUT, which you can read here.

1. Introduction

Blu’s 2008 short film Muto is probably the most ambitious celebration of the intimate relationship connecting new-media technologies and street art.[1] Critically acclaimed and viewed almost 12 million times on YouTube, this award-winning video is a stop-motion animation of hundreds of murals that the Italian street artist painted in different cities across the globe. [2] Blu’s surreal figures invade the city and their gestures are experienced and appreciated in their final form only through computer screens and mobile phone displays.

When looking at street art’s relationship with new media, Muto is hardly an exception. Technology has played a crucial role in making the street art movement a popular art kind. The availability of cheap digital cameras and the possibility of photo publishing on social media have transformed graffiti – arguably the original and most radical form of street art – from an esoteric practice into a global phenomenon. [3] Social networks have made available to internet users a constantly expanding gallery of street artworks. Communicating technologies have then radically changed how we engage with this art form. Web-shared photographs are documents. However, such documents are not mere surrogates for the works in the street. The existence of those photographs is not secondary, parasitic, or an uninteresting epiphenomenon when we get to the appreciation of street art. Quite the contrary, those documents constitute our primary access to works of street art. This in turn suggests epistemic and ontological primacy of the “reproduction” over the “original.” For its constitutive linked with the city, street art’s digital media revolution had then affected how we perceive, experience, and conceptualize public places.

In this paper, I argue that post-Internet street art has significantly re-shaped urban space, questioning dominant spatial hierarchies in politically subversive ways. Street art questions what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible” by making visible what usually remains unseen. It does so by deploying tactics thriving on the interplay between material and digital reality. Scholars have largely overlooked this link between the virtual and the real alleys of graffiti. Street art exists in between material and virtual reality, showing the conceptual and practical impossibility of their neat separation. Today’s public space is produced and negotiated also in binary code. In this case, digital documents are therefore causally efficacious, prompting and encouraging new ways of using the city. Section 2 discusses the subversive nature of graffiti and street art. Section 3 examines writers’ and street artists’ use of communication technology and how this affects urban agency and the uses of public spaces in the city.

2. Re-Distributing the Sensible: Street Art as a Practice of Resistance

Many in the literature emphasize the countercultural nature of graffiti and street art. [4] Among those, Ricardo Campos and Andrea Mubi Brighenti explore how writers and street artists develop alternative identities through their participation in these artistic practices. [5] Kurt Iveson characterizes graffiti and street art as DIY practices by means of which urban residents reclaim their right to the city. [6] “Graffiti writing and other forms of street art,” Iveson writes, “involve alternative ways of imagining, mapping, using, mediating and making urban space.” [7] As countercultural movements, they generally function as practices of resistance against the dominant order.

Recent trends in philosophy of art also highlight the subversiveness of graffiti and street art understood as counter-cultural practices. [8] Within that debate, I have conceptualized graffiti’s and street art’s dissident nature in terms of its capacity to challenge dominant hierarchies of visibility in urban spaces. By following an insight of Martin Irvine, I have argued that graffiti and street art constitute a “counter-imagery” essentially questioning what Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible.” [9] For Rancière, this notion refers to – among other things – those norms and conventions controlling visibility in public spaces. Graffiti and street art are practices of resistance against those dominant systems of visibility.

In general, writers and street artists primarily oppose what I call the corporate regime of visibility, that is, the peculiar distribution of the sensible granting to commercial communication a monopoly over the use of the city’s visible surfaces. The corporate regime does not provide corporations with direct control over public spaces. The shift that it introduces is subtler and conceptually deeper: the corporate regime of visibility has transformed public spaces into commodities, whose functions and uses respond to the logic of profit. [10] However, as I have argued with Pamela Pietrucci in a recent essay, graffiti and street art can also question other distributions of the sensible such as those regulating visibility in post-disaster contexts. [11]

In violating the distribution of the sensible, street art and graffiti bring to the public eye spaces and communities that are generally ignored: small alleys, junkyards, abandoned buildings, and those who use them, the homeless, the marginalized, and artists. By aggressively appropriating urban surfaces, as one can see for instance in the works of the German collective Zelle Asphaltkultur, writers and street artists introduce in the city something new – witty designs and colorful forms defying economic considerations and authoritarian control.

Zelle Asphaltkultur, Detonation Boulevard (2), 2016. The work was painted on the side of a train in Italy and this photograph was included in the exhibition 1984: Evolution and Regeneration of Writing held at the Modena Civic Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist.
Zelle Asphaltkultur, Detonation Boulevard (2), 2016. The work was painted on the side of a train in Italy and this photograph was included in the exhibition 1984: Evolution and Regeneration of Writing held at the Modena Civic Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist.

And, at the same, just like when tags appear on a rusty door, they also make visible what was already there, but left unnoticed. Liminal lives, their places, and their forms of expression remain often invisible to passersby. Street artists counteracts such an order.

Tags in Beijing. Image courtesy of Fra32.
Tags in Beijing. Image courtesy of Fra32.

One can explain the political significance of writers’ and street artists’ gestures as follows. By disrupting the distribution of the sensible, they are “making strange” our streets and squares. This is in turn shows the contingency of dominant hierarchies of visibility. [12] A different way to think and manage the city is possibly: expressing themselves in public freely and at no (or little) cost is possible. As “soon as we no longer think things as one formerly thought them,” Foucault writes, “transformation becomes both very urgent, very difficult and quite possible.” [13] Street art’s disruptiveness can then open up a space for reimagining a more inclusive public space. In the following section, I explain how street art and graffiti exploit documents created and shared via communication technology as tactics of engagement and enablers of new forms of urban agency.

3. Social Media and the Ontology of Street Art

With the emergence of social media, the popularity of graffiti and street art has dramatically increased with that their tactical efficacy and political outreach. Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter are among the most popular repositories of photographs of graffiti and street artworks.

A photograph taken in April 2017 and shared through Instagram of a sticker by the French street artist Invader. The sticker was installed at one of the custom booths at the Haneda airport in Tokyo. The Instagram profile is of the author. The names of other users have been obscured for privacy.
A photograph taken in April 2017 and shared through Instagram of a sticker by the French street artist Invader. The sticker was installed at one of the custom booths at the Haneda airport in Tokyo. The Instagram profile is of the author. The names of other users have been obscured for privacy.

Tags, throw-ups, burners, stencil-graffiti, and examples from other genres of street art are a constant presence in the newsfeed of users. Writers and street artists systematically exploit the possibilities of documentation that communication technologies can unleash in order to maximize their outreach.

For instance, Banksy, who is the most popular street artist today, carefully documents his street production and disseminates most of his works through the internet. This strategy amplifies the subversive significance of his creations, which are often politically explicit. The installation of his works usually, documented via web-shared photographs and videos, generates reactions at a global level. Such responses are often discussed at length in mainstream med. Most notably, during the last decade or so, the digital documentation of his interventions in Palestine make visible in very effective ways this silenced and forgotten conflict, carving at times a space where to discuss the fate of this land and its suffering population. [14]

Street art’s tactical use of communication technology for creating and sharing documents follows from the peculiar ontology of this urban art kind. In effect, its appreciative practice does not significantly distinguish between the document and the documented, that is, between “originals” and “reproductions.” [15] Contrary to what happens in traditional visual arts, the appreciation of graffiti and street art does not require direct contact with the created artifact. Documents reproducing the object and the acts of its creation such as photographs, digital images, and videos do not lack any of the salient properties that are relevant to appreciation. In this sense, graffiti and street art are varieties of mass art, closer to computer art or photography than painting or sculpture.

In my previous work, I have offered an argument defending the ontology of street art as mass art. [16] For limits of space, here I can just briefly summarize such a defense. What writers and street artists do are better understood as performances rather than visual artefacts. This well accords with the emphasis that practitioners place on the performativity of their gestures. We appreciate the outcomes of their performances, that is, the visual objects, for the following reason: they yield, as David Davies would say, “a perspicuous representation of the performance whereby” they were generated. [15] Photographs or videos capturing those outcomes can also function as documents that allow us to appreciate the generative performances. The relationships connecting respectively the performance, the object, and its documentations are similar. Both objects and its reproductions, in effect, provide us with a suitable focus for appreciating street artists’ actions – which are in the most proper sense the artist’s work.

The intimate connection between digital documents, street art and graffiti is then a consequence of the ontological peculiarity of these art forms. One should notice, I hasten to add, that even before the Internet revolution street art and graffiti were primarily appreciated through photographs generally circulated through magazines and fanzines. The ephemerality of works in the street, often illegal, has naturally suggested the use of photographic documentation as means of appreciation since the earliest stages of graffiti’s history. [16] Social media offered a more convenient, direct, and effective way of sharing those documents representing the stories of writers’ and street artists’ gestures. This shift in distribution deeply affected these practices, which then broke into mainstream visual culture.

For their peculiar ontology, street art and graffiti already suggest metaphorically and metonymically the interpenetration between virtual and material reality. However, there is also a more literal way whereby street art and graffiti connect the digital with the physical. Documentations of street art often become enablers of new forms of urban agency, that is, of new ways of acting in, within, and through the city. The viral sharing of photographs and videos of street art and graffiti in social media’s newsfeeds often generates in users the desire to explore these spaces. Sites of photographed street artworks become often destinations of “pilgrimages” by the curious, the urban art lover, and those with a thrill for urban exploration, or “urbex.” [17]

The most popular example of this transition from the virtual to the material is the so-called “Banksy tourism.” This is a well-known and controversial phenomenon where followers of the elusive street artist visit locations certainly outside mainstream routes such as abandoned areas in metropolises, economically depressed regions, and areas of conflicts including, once again, Bethlehem and the West Bank Barriers in Palestine. The magnitude of this phenomenon shows that digital documents of street art can be very powerful enablers of urban agency. Graffiti and street art – and their appreciative practice – are therefore interesting examples of how the virtual can turn into the material by shaping the nature and uses of actual spaces. Street art and graffiti make visible what was hidden and silenced not only in the virtual public sphere, but they show it also through the materiality of physical space.

If street art and graffiti “pilgrimages” would not produce a digital echo, the interdependence of physical and virtual domains in street art and graffiti would not be complete. However, this is not the case. Street art and graffiti bring us there, in the materiality of the city, and back again, in the digital transubstantiation of physical urban space. The material consequences generated by visitors’ bodies interacting in and with generally unseen and silenced fragments of the city and its inhabitants (both present and imagined) create a ripple effect in the byte streams of the internet. In effect, those who decide to see street art in real-life tend also to document and share the results of their “hunts” on social media, feeding the interplay between material and virtual reality. The politics of urban spaces are then caught in between our digital screens and physical actions.

This process of continuously reminding to one another testifies to the porous nature of the distinction between the physical and the digital domains, showing the conceptual and practical impossibility of their neat separation. Urban space is produced and reproduced through the interaction between the material and the virtual. And, as the case of street art and graffiti perfectly embodies, in a contemporary city its nature is not merely shaped through the materiality of everyday actions, but also through what appears as the political significance of virtual reality.

At a more general level, the case of street art allows us to clearly observe how documents in the city can shape urban agency. It is important to emphasize that the plethora of documents, whose proliferation is a direct consequence of digital technologies, do not merely record what has been. Documents are in effect causally efficacious: they do not simply represent agency from the past, but also create new forms of agency in the present. Digital documentation – and the millions of eyes in the city that produce it – can, therefore, be not only a force of control and domination transforming the city into a gigantic panopticon. Documents can also initiate agency: they can show new ways of using the city, therefore, suggesting alternative ways of practicing our urban spaces. This in turn opens up possibilities for enacting behaviors and conducts that resist against and counteract the growing strictures that policies of urban control are implementing. The binary code can be hacked to reprogram the material world. Control and rebellion today both speak in binary language.

1. “Blu, Muto, 2008.,” artforum.com, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.artforum.com/video/mode=large&id=24319.

2. I defend the view that graffiti is the original and most radical form of street art in Andrea Baldini, A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 9—10.

3. Vanessa Chang, “Animating the City: Street Art, Blu and the Poetics of Visual Encounter,” Animation 8, no. 3 (2013): 215–33, doi:10.1177/1746847713503280; Brad Yarhouse, “Animation in the Street: The Seductive Silence of Blu,” Animation Studies Online Journal 8 (2013), https://journal.animationstudies.org/brad-yarhouse-animation-in-the-street-the-seductive-silence-of-blu/; Pietro Rivasi, “Megunica,” Garage, 2007.

4. Jeff Ferrell, Crimes of Style. Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1996); Nancy MacDonald, The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity, and Identity in London and New York (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

5. Andrea Brighenti, “At the Wall: Graffiti Writers, Urban Territoriality, and the Public Domain,” Space and Culture 13, no. 3 (2010): 315–32, https://doi.org/10.1177/1206331210365283; Ricardo Campos, “Graffiti Writer as Superhero,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 16, no. 2 (2013): 155–70, https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549412467177.

6. Kurt Iveson, “Cities within the City: Do-It-Yourself Urbanism and the Right to the City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37, no. 3 (May 1, 2013): 941–56, https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2427.12053.

7. Kurt Iveson, “Introduction,” City 14, no. 1–2 (2010): 26, https://doi.org/10.1080/13604811003638320.

8. Sondra Bacharach, “Street Art and Consent,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 55, no. 4 (2015): 481–95, https://doi.org/10.1093/aesthj/ayv030; Tony Chackal, “Of Materiality and Meaning: The Illegality Condition in Street Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74, no. 4 (2016): 359–70, https://doi.org/10.1111/jaac.12325.

8. Baldini, A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law, 6—7; Andrea Baldini, “Quand Les Murs de Béton Muets Se Transforment En Un Carnaval de Couleur. Le Street Art Comme Stratégie de Résistance Sociale Contre Le Modèle Commercial de La Visibilité,” Cahiers de Narratologie. Analyse et Théorie Narratives 30 (2016): par. 16—18.

9. Martin Irvine, “The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture,” in The Handbook of Visual Culture, ed. Ian Heywood et al. (London: Berg, 2012), 251; Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (London and New York: Continuum, 2004).

10. Baldini, A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law; Andrea Baldini, “Street Art: A Reply to Riggle,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74, no. 2 (2016): 187–91; Baldini, “Quand Les Murs de Béton Muets Se Transforment En Un Carnaval de Couleur.”

11. Andrea Baldini and Pamela Pietrucci, “Knitting a Community Back Together: Spontaneous Public Art as Citizenship Engagement in Post-Earthquake L’Aquila,” in Performative Citizenship. Public Art, Urban Design, and Political Participation, ed. Luigi Musarò and Laura Iannelli (Milan: Mimesis International, 2017), 115–32.

12. Andrea Baldini, “An Urban Carnival on the City Walls: The Visual Representation of Financial Power in European Street Art,” Journal of Visual Culture 14, no. 2 (2015): 246–52.

13. Michel Foucault, “Practicing Criticism,” in Politics, Philosophy, Culture Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984, ed. L. D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1988), 155.

14. See, for instance, Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Banksy Walled Off Hotel in Palestine to Sell New Works by Elusive Artist,” The Guardian, September 7, 2017, sec. Art and design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/sep/07/banksy-walled-off-hotel-palestine-gift-shop. 

15. For a discussion of the notion of appreciative practice, see Dominic McIver Lopes, Beyond Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

16. Andrea Baldini, “Dangerous Liaisons: Graffiti in Da Museum,” in Un(Authorized)//Commissioned, by Pietro Rivasi and Andrea Baldini (Rome: WholeTrain Press, 2017), 26–32.

15. David Davies, Art as Performance (Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2004), 116.

16. Pietro Rivasi’s exhibition 1984: Evolution and Regeneration of Writing best explores the theme of the connection between graffiti and documentation. See also Pietro Rivasi, “Vandalism as Art: Unauthorized Paintings Vs Institutional Art Shows and Events - the Modena Case Study,” in Un(Authorized)//Commissioned, 11–15.

17. Pietro Rivasi, “Photography for Urban Art,” in Reggiane, by Carlo Vannini (Reggio Emilia: Corsiero, 2017).

About the Author

Andrea Baldini is Associate Professor of Art Theory and Aesthetics at the School of Arts of Nanjing University and Director of the NJU Center for Sino-Italian Cultural Studies. He is also Young Ambassador of the Jiangsu Province. A native of Italy, he studied as a Fulbright Fellow at the Department of Philosophy at Temple University in Philadelphia (USA), where he obtained a PhD (2014). He also holds a PhD (2011) in Texts Sciences from the University of Siena. Since 2015, he is also the coordinator of the Jinling Artist-in-Residence Program, whose aim is to promote cultural exchange between China and Italy. From 2014 to 2016, he was International Postdoctoral Exchange Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanjing University. He has published extensively on issues related to aesthetics, philosophy of art, and visual culture. Recent articles appeared in the Journal of Visual Culture and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. His monograph A Philosophy Guide to Street Art and the Law has been published by Brill. He is also an independent curator with international experience. His curatorial work focuses on issues emerging in cross-cultural contexts of artistic and aesthetic appreciation. He is also a board member of AAIIC, the Association of Italian Scholars in China and Delegate-at-Large of the International Association of Aesthetics.

"Urban Interactions": Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen) - 8th edition. Shenzhen, China

http://www.szhkbiennale.org.cn/

Opening in December, 2019 in Shenzhen, China, "Urban Interactions" is the 8th edition of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). The exhibition consists of two sections, namely “Eyes of the City” and “Ascending City”, which will explore the evolving relationship between urban space and technological innovation from different perspectives. The “Eyes of the City" section features MIT professor and architect Carlo Ratti as Chief Curator and Politecnico di Torino-South China University of Technology as Academic Curator. The "Ascending City" section features Chinese academician Meng Jianmin and Italian art critic Fabio Cavallucci as Chief Curators.

"Eyes of The City" section

Chief Curator: Carlo Ratti.

Academic Curator: South China-Torino Lab (Politecnico di Torino - Michele Bonino; South ChinaUniversity of Technology - Sun Yimin)

Executive Curators: Daniele Belleri [CRA], Edoardo Bruno, Xu Haohao    

Curator of the GBA Academy: Politecnico di Milano (Adalberto Del Bo)

"Ascending City" section

Chief Curators: Meng Jianmin, Fabio Cavallucci

Co-Curator: Science and Human Imagination Center of Southern University of Science and Technology (Wu Yan)

Executive Curators: Chen Qiufan, Manuela Lietti, Wang Kuan, Zhang Li

About this author
Cite: Andrea Baldini. "Street Art in the Digital Age: Photos, Documents, Urban Agency" 18 Feb 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/933982/street-art-in-the-digital-age-photos-documents-urban-agency/> ISSN 0719-8884

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