The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal
Subconscious Art: a product of artistic merit that was created without conscious artistic intentions.
Some time ago I came across the Best of ResFest DVD series. On Vol. 3 there was this 15-minute long documentary with the most unusual title: The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal. Being a graffiti writer myself, I was immediately intrigued.
Written and directed by Matt McCormick, a filmmaker from Portland, Oregon, this ethereal short film from 2001 documents the seemingly mundane job of graffiti removal (or, as we graff writers call "buffing," or "getting buffed"). While we follow a couple of regular-joe-type city workers as they cruise the streets looking for graffiti tags and other various aerosol activity from the previous night, the filmmakers intercut with very very long artsy shots of various factory walls covered with sporadically painted shapes, complete with heady art-school voice-over ruminations about this potential "art movement."
Yes, you read that right. There is a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor that permeates throughout the film, as the female voice-over describes this activity as being "one of the more intriguing and important art movements of the early 21st century." And just as art movements have roots for their state-of-being, she even goes so far as to say that this art movement's roots stem from abstract expressionism, minimalism, and Russian constructivism. We hear the names of Rothko, Rauschenberg, and Malevich mentioned as their work exhibits stylizations that the "graffiti removal artists" are perhaps referencing. And I can definitely see why. The following two paintings are by Rothko, and you can see how the use of abstract but organized shapes evoke the same sense of this deliberate painting-over that the subconscious artists do in the third image:
Untitled (unknown date)
Untitled (Plum, Orange, Yellow), 1947
Somewhere in Portland, c. 2001
This is not to say that these subconscious artists are on the same level as Rothko. It's all about the intent.
Continuing on this academic bent, McCormick takes it a step further and designates three separate methods utilized by graffiti removal artists:
1. Symmetrical: producing identifiable shapes in a series of squares and rectangles.
2. Ghosting: painting over the tag by basically following the lines, whereby the original artwork can still be seen.
3. Radical: where the "artist" uses neither geometry nor the original tag as guidelines.
Now, at this point, I just had to laugh. I mean, it really is kinda funny to suggest that there could be art scholars out there that take the time to analyze, deconstruct and critique work done by city workers, most of whom are completely unaware that what they're doing is being considered "art." It sounds a bit absurd, doesn't it?
I sure did dig it, though. For me, it was the notion that this film dared to be taken very seriously, outlining strong points and showcasing excellent photography, all the while giving you that subtle wink that seems to say, "yeah, we know this sounds loopy, but we're having fun with it." I would even go so far as to say that Matt McCormick & Co. were poking fun at the navel-gazing art community as a whole. And I love that.
By the end of the film, they had me really thinking about all this. The idea that this "subconscious art" could be actually taken seriously raises some interesting questions:
Is it really art if the creator is not aware of it?
To these "removal artists," what they were doing was WORK. They were not thinking in creative terms. They just picked out the paint, the rollers, and did their thing. In fact, in the film, the filmmakers mention that there had to be some creative process going on, as the workers had to pick and choose which gallon of paint to use, and how to paint over the graffiti. But the big difference is that these workers were not making these choices with the knowledge of having an end result (aside from the fact of getting the job done). Is it necessary for the artist to knowingly benefit from the process?
Who really designates what "art" is, anyway? Artist or viewer?
Excerpt from "The Bride And The Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde," by Calvin Tomkins:
The artist, [Marcel] Duchamp said, is a "mediumistic being" who does not really know what he is doing or why he is doing it. It is the spectator who, through a kind of "inner osmosis," deciphers and interprets the work's inner qualifications, relates them to the external world, and thus completes the creative cycle. The spectator's contribution is consequently equal in importance to the artist's, and perhaps in the long run even greater, for, as Duchamp remarked in another context, "it is posterity that makes the masterpiece."
When it comes to the presentation of art there is a symbiotic relationship that forges itself between artist and viewer. Some artists feel that they don't need an audience in order to create. And to some degree, I feel the same way. Sometimes I like to draw and paint for myself. But someone will eventually take a look at my work, possibly offering their opinion about what they've seen. This relationship between artist and viewer is important for both as it enables the artist to keep in touch with his audience, remaining grounded, so to speak, and enables the viewer to keep in touch with his/her cultural side. Both benefit from this relationship.
This is really a discussion for another day, but for the sake of this post, once that paint was placed over those tags on those particular walls, it was officially up for judgment by the public. And from this public, a one Matt McCormick decided that the act of painting over artwork has merits as being artwork in and of itself. It is a cyclical thing, too, as the canvas changes constantly - each night or each week more and more tags have to be painted over, with the covering paint being different each time, creating a unique pattern on various walls around town. This is all subjective, as all art is, of course, because most will not agree that this activity would even be considered art. I brought this subject up with an intern at Primal Screen and he, in turn, mentioned it to his art-school classmates. They all agreed that there's no way that anything covering over artwork should be considered "art." But I believe that they missed the point. Of course it sucks to have art covered up, even if it is the bastard child of the art world, graffiti -- but what is interesting to me, as a viewer, is the way said covering up looks like in the end.
Photographers do this for a living, every single day -- they point their lenses toward every single corner of our world and somehow make the mundane mesmerizing through their artistic eye. It's all a matter of being aware of your surroundings and realizing that there are some really amazing and interesting things to look at, even if it may just be something so simple as a wall being covered up by paint.
Interesting film. If you get the chance, I definitely recommend you check it out.
UPDATE: I've taken some shots of this "subconscious art movement," myself. Check out this post as well as my Flickr photoset street gallery.