On the Wall/Within the Street: Re-Engaging Urbanites with their Environment
By Claire Tunnacliffe, on 30 June 2015
Walking along the Regents Canal at the end of last year, this Tasmanian Tiger caught my eye. As Londoners, life can be fast-paced, and not in the least stressful – everything happens at 100 miles per hour, and if it’s not, then you’re probably not doing it right. Or at least, it certainly feels that way… And yet, this encounter made me stop and pause and look and reflect.
The Tasmanian Tiger is extinct, and amongst the bleak backdrop of greying sky and murky canal water – I couldn’t help but wonder if it had been worth it? Did the person who placed this up want me to reflect on the Tasmanian Tiger (okay, not indigenous to London) but on the wider disappearance of the natural world within our very urban existence?
A quick Google search revealed that the artist behind these eulogy-style pieces is Indiana and The Extinction Project, “my work has focused on the idea of wilderness and freedom, in escaping from the current modern society and moving to the country. This society steals most of our time in exchange for money that we spend on things we do not need, and in the process we are destroying what we really belong to: the nature and the world”.
Walking the streets of many cities around the world, I’ve often come across artistic interventions from people having taken to the streets and scribbled, scratched, pasted, created beautiful murals or one-word retorts. While the expanse of what can be described as street art is huge, I define it as the act of taking to the streets and inscribing on the walls artistic, but also a political, social and environmental responses to the state of the world from a very personal perspective.
Over the last few years, I’ve researched urban street art as a tool for social transformation. The world has an infinite depth of artists, writers, and creative individuals marking their place in the world. Street art is a powerful tool in reflecting the experience of the urban, provoking an engagement of urbanites with their environment.
As a global artistic and social movement, it repurposes space through experimental interventions and challenging the dominant visual culture (an unending stream of advertising, commodity, industrialisation, consumption and alienation), it provides alternatives to this vision. Encounters with urban street art within the everyday create social interstices, opening up ways of seeing and feeling the world differently.
Through its lens, we reconnect within an increasingly urban existence, one we had forgotten the natural and social entanglements that make up the fabric of the urban context. With urban street art disrupting the mainstream experience of the urban, the spectator is provided with an alternative vision of the world at play.
As a result, at the crossroads between urban street art and everyday life, the spectator evolves from a passive to an active participant. By awakening new understandings and raising consciousness, engaged urban street art provokes a re-engagement of urbanites with the environment, acting as a catalyst for transformative social change.
So, that’s the theory. But in practice? To move beyond the topical and speculative to the practical act of catalysing transformative social change, there needs a more grounded understanding of the cultural effect of urban street art itself: Who are the spectators? How does it make them feel? What do they take away from the encounter? Do they change their routine because of it? How can we understand more fully the role of the active participant?
The same question started rolling itself in my head: “How does urban street art open up new ways of seeing and feeling the world around us?” I began to ask around, artists and academics, everyday encounters and in-depth research. These interviews are part of a wider project around documenting these encounters around the city.
The answer has, up till now, always been a reverberating Yes. But how? Speaking to Lee Bofkin, co-founder of Global Street Art, “Of course street art has the opportunity to encourage social transformation, for so many reasons. It enables talented artists to leave gifts around the city, which are beautiful and site sensitive. It allows artists to be challenging and ask difficult questions. It counters the idea of a single authoritative aesthetic, which allows for a diversity of opinion and a diversity of voices. Its transience gives people something to look out for, to be interested in, less threatened by and maybe even excited by change.”
In very different ways, illegal and legal street art play a role in the shaping of public spaces; an interplay for confrontation, awareness, beautification, response, anger, activity. It is this activity, which allows people to participate and take responsibility for their public spaces. There is a dualistic role between the counter-culture and anti-capitalist retorts of illegal pieces as there is a desire and need for legal wall spaces, carefully chosen to brighten and breath life into others.
This is not an either/or. The beauty of what is called urban street art today, will be called something different tomorrow, but the act of taking to the street and inscribing on the walls is nothing new.
What we should hold onto are the messages; the powerful voices which interlace personal with political, social, and environmental, which momentarily occupy the space on the walls and between the streets as well as living on beyond, once documented online. I would tread carefully in describing urban street art as a subculture, as it has been expunged by the mainstream attempts to monetise it.
Yet, there remain many artists who continue to use the streets, both illegally and legally, to speak about issues they hold important, some of whose notoriety is spread across the timelessness of the internet, and others who remain faceless scribbles.
All of whom, nevertheless, play a part of this artistic and social movement. I would more easily call myself a researcher and an urban planner before an artist, but I strongly believe that one of the greatest attributes of urban street art in creating social transformation is that it awakens a dormant creativity within us all, and with it, a refreshed curiosity in how we shape, create and impact our everyday.
So, the next time you Instagram that piece that caught your eye, ask yourself: what just woke up inside me?
Claire is a DPU MSc Environment & Sustainable Development alumna. Since graduating in 2012, she continues to research the role of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences. She is applying for a PhD to begin in 2015 on urban street art in West Africa and the effect of marking surfaces in public spaces, however her interests are rather more interdisciplinary, lying at the cross-sections of; community engagement, urban street art, public interest design, sustainable development, town planning, creative cities, art psychotherapy, mental health, the psychodynamics of public spaces, and their impact on place making in the city.
She will be publishing a fuller version of the account above as a DPU working paper in the coming months entitled “The power of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences”.