Street art, contextual art and the animate city
All acts of public visual art are inherently political. In many cases, the political aspect of artworks is obvious, evident in the visual content of the images. In other cases, it is the material or contextual situation of the images and their making, which has special political implications. In the case of street art,1 the mere existence of the work is often political in that it is created in contravention of basic assumptions about authority and control over physical and visual public space. Indeed, this authority breach can be used to distinguish otherwise visually, and even politically, similar works. Whether the creator of a particular image in a particular context and location is authorised to do so – and by whom this authority is granted – lies at the heart of the function and processes of street art.
Attempts at disambiguating the terms graffiti and street art include arguments for definitions based on their material and situational properties2 as well as arguments based on the consent of their installation.3 Whether identified as graffiti, street art, tagging, installation or other related terms,4 unauthorised artworks that appear in public space can be considered a part of the category of ‘contextual art’5 as described by Paul Ardenne. Contextual artworks of this type emerge within the urban situation as reflections of how the inhabitants live and as expressions of how they feel about their life and social situation. Contextual art is both embedded in the physical location where it appears and is also a democratic mechanism, a co-emergent aspect of the life of these spaces. Just as the surface and the image become visually co-constitutive, so too the spaces are entwined with the lived experiences of occupants, and this relationship can never be fully anticipated on the architect’s or engineer’s page. As unauthorised contributions, they capture behavioural moments in time and force the visual landscape to facilitate expressions that may be incompatible with legacy venues for the exhibition and reception of art, such as art galleries.6
The creation of physical marks in this way is the concretion of a particular idea in a particular moment. And although there is no expectation of permanence, this assertion of an idea in physical media establishes an identifiable layer in the palimpsest of the city’s surface. Through constant erasure and overwriting, these visual layers morph and move, animating through time. Participants from all aspects of this process, including artists, regulators, law enforcement, owners and the public-as-audience, are involved in a multi-factored political discussion on the right to alter the physical and visual public landscape (or the right to prevent others from doing so). The alteration of the material landscape is partly a question of laws, with punishments for defacement of property typically linked to costs of damages. Paint is, if not permanent, at least physically significant. When an artist makes a self-authorised contribution to a physical surface (such as through painting), these marks can be asserted as damages, and these damages can be asserted as having real cost, while contributions that appear less permanent (such as performances, or images made in chalk, or created by selective cleaning of surfaces) are comparatively, if not entirely, unpoliced, with charges of mischief sometimes replacing charges of damage.
Artists working in unauthorised contextual public art of all kinds contend with this issue as an inherent aspect of their work. Decisions about what is permitted, and which authority structures will be accepted as having rights to police expression and material practice, emerge as what Cameron McAuliffe calls the ‘moral geographies’7 of the artistic practice – a landscape of ethical constraints that are revealed as such primarily when their limits are tested. Importantly, these constraints are not merely legal, but also cultural and intracultural, arising as ethical, rather than legal norms of creative practice among the communities of practitioners. The culture of visual expression also generates its own culture of preservation or removal based on these moral geographies, such as when certain artworks can be justly painted over by other artists, for example. And though these ethics are not based on traditional authoritarian hierarchies and powers of control, this does not necessarily make them less relevant, useful or reliable.
There are numerous examples of regulatory authorities attempting to encapsulate or complement these moral geographies in the form of more flexible urban design policies. Alison Young describes the experience of attempting to draft strategic policy for the City of Melbourne (Australia) that would designate certain areas as being tolerant of street art and implement policies of ‘negotiated consent’8 for street artists – policy proposals that were rejected in favour of a zero-tolerance policy. In London, authorities designated a 200-metre tunnel (popularly known as the ‘Banksy Tunnel’) as an authorised graffiti area, complemented by a billboard advising the rules for the space. In the context of this contribution, there are two key issues raised by these regulatory efforts. The first is that while the increased acceptance of artistic contributions may be welcome, they serve to reinforce the ability of regulators to either grant or withhold permission for such work. This permission could be revoked at any time, and it legitimises efforts at control and punishment for expressions outside these designated areas. The second issue is that if non-consent is an integral part of the work,9 these artworks cannot fully function within these designated spaces. Deliberately highlighting the authority mechanism that disallows it is (often) an integral aspect of street art, even if that means that the work will be removed.
As street art at the edge of the moral geography provokes through its unauthorised nature, it evokes its own impermanence, reminding us of the impermanence of all urban form and image. Contextual art, as described by Ardenne, ‘lives in the present, it is generally ephemeral, it does not aim to “make something new present”’.10 This ephemeral nature of street art also highlights the range of timescales of the visual and physical cityscape – it is ephemeral in contrast to the endurance of the wall or surface on which it appears. But both are ultimately mere occurrences, or phases within the evolution of the environment, differing in their impermanence only by degree. Ardenne encourages us to understand contextual artworks not as a finite form, but as a process.11 While each image or installation of street art may be a separate expression that uses its impermanence as part of the mechanism of the work, when taken as a whole, across time, these efforts become collaborative processes displaying a succession of lived moments and are thus collectively animated, rather than static artworks.
The animated and evolving nature of street structure and the street art which appears on its surface is especially evident in times of political conflict, whether that conflict is physical or ideological. Tahrir Square in Cairo is the site of a physical revolution, which took place in January 2011; but also leading up to that event, the walls around this location became an evolving visual record of sentiment of the population of Cairo (see Figure 1). As the sentiments of the inhabitants change, so change the images and messages inscribed on the surface of the city. Once the site of visual and then actual revolution, leading to the ousting of President Mubarak, Tahrir Square is now undergoing a beautification process, with the installation of monuments and palm trees as the next phase of the animation.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality that took place across the USA in 2020 inspired many visual artworks that marked the magnitude of sentiment arising in a specific social context. Statues with disagreeable cultural connotations, such as those of leaders of Confederate States from the Civil War era, were summarily removed. Plywood barriers hosted an explosion of visual expressions which included slogans, portraiture, and messages of rage, frustration and inspiration. Many buildings and shopfronts in major US cities erected barriers that displayed commissioned artworks and messages of support (see Figure 2), but these examples are a unique case, demonstrating the function of permission and authenticity in political street art. These artworks ostensibly endorse the sentiment of the moment and yet serve as a literal defence of the status quo of a broader system of social inequality. The hastily commissioned artworks (while probably well intentioned) serve as protest camouflage, expressing support for the righteousness of the social movement, while simultaneously pre-condemning the movement with their assumption of violence.12 The consent for these graphic imitations diminishes and de-legitimises their status as artworks, yet they are still participants in the collective animation of the visual surface of cities.
These efforts at camouflage operate due to the mimicry of form, rather than authenticity, misunderstanding street art as a style, or genre, rather than as contextual art. Contextual art, as described by the Polish artist Jan Świdziński, acts not in a sphere of aesthetics, but in a sphere of meanings,13 which are always based on a practical context of reality. As such, contextual art of this type is a social practice, rather than a part of the art world (and especially the art business). When seen through this lens of contextual art, the efforts of corporations to adopt the correct visual forms is at best irrelevant, and at worst may undermine the function of art in these important moments, a sentiment echoed by Rafael Schacter, who highlights the need for criticality in street art projects, placing authenticity as a more important factor than the aesthetic content of the images.14
While spontaneous activist images primarily communicate to the immediate viewer, they are also often transmitted through a range of technological and social media platforms and are hence able to communicate to a broader audience and contribute to a broader political moment. This secondary technological effect is especially the case when they leverage two key aspects identified by Bolette Blaagaard – first, digital ‘virality’, and second, when they embody reproducible political memes or physical actions (for example, the phrase ‘hands up don’t shoot’, or ‘I can’t breathe’).15
In early 2021, during the military coup in Myanmar (which is ongoing at the time of writing), projectors were used to display images of peace, including the image of a dove flying above a three-fingered salute, a symbol originally adopted from the film The Hunger Games, that has become recognised as a symbol of solidarity and justice in the region (see Figure 3).16 This imagery, and its installation at this time, represent the potential for projection art to complement physical protest imagery (such as signs, painted installations) and a multitude of online image types and platforms that utilise digital technology for distribution and raising awareness. The use of the projector gives the artist the opportunity to literally upscale the repeatable meme, amplifying its recognisability.
The best of these works, both physical and digital, highlight the key features of street art mentioned above – the use of the street and location as an integral aspect of the work, their appearance without concern for consent and the potential to address a larger digital audience through their virality. They highlight the extended material potential of street art into the technological space where digital technology becomes a part of the broadening material conditions of the work.
These works are inherently temporary. Graffiti is overwritten or erased, and the plywood shutters of the 2020 protests in the USA soon gave way to the conventional visual landscape. While impressive efforts have been made to preserve and archive the physical materials that were created throughout the summer of 2020,17 when taken out of the protest moment, they become something different – no longer contextual art itself, but now a mere record or archive of a contextual event. As they are removed from the façades and shopfronts, they are revealed as another temporary phase of the overlapping expression and erasure of public images that are always animating and transforming public space, highlighting the urban landscape as a living, animate entity.
The current technological phase provides opportunities for new forms of contextual art using illumination and projection to create ephemeral works that complicate the questions of erasure and authority in the public visual landscape, by leveraging their immateriality and temporality.
Operations of projection activism
The evolution of lighting technology is integral to the evolution of projection-based art. Early projection lanterns using candles or oil wicks enabled public performances akin to slide-shows, but only in limited, light-controlled situations. The use of electric lights and electric motors to drive film strips in Edison’s early projection kinetoscopes facilitated the emergence of cinema forms, though again, the situations for viewing were somewhat limited by the available brightness and the cost of the technology. These two key factors, one physical and one economic, defined the potentials of early projection technology in the social sphere – the brightness of the projection limiting the number (and potentially the social status) of people who might witness a display, and the cost of the technology (camera, film and processing, projector and cinema setting) demanding that the social act of the projected image also be economically viable. As practices developed through the expanded cinema movement and other experimental art and animation forms throughout the twentieth century, these limitations persisted, though in evolving forms. We might express this limitation as the cost per lumen, or in the context of public presentations, the cost per ‘on-site’ lumen.
Happily, through advances in projection technology, availability of equipment, new battery technology (in certain cases) and the evolution of media hardware in general, the cost barrier has decreased rapidly, while, concurrently, both brightness and portability of projection devices have increased. Digital projectors, not needing the careful handling of film reels or slide projectors, have made public projection as contextual art increasingly accessible. Instances of both authorised and unauthorised projection installations, both aesthetic and political, have boomed over the past 10 years.
In 2011 Mark Read and collaborators projected large-scale messages onto a prominent New York building during the Occupy Wall Street protest movement. The practicalities and permission for this installation were negotiated not with authorities who owned the building where the images appeared, but rather with the occupant of the apartment from where the image was projected. In this case, the nature of the projection equipment made it possible for the artists to explore the moral geography18 of the action in a very explicit manner that aligned with their political intent. It is fitting that imagery supporting the Occupy movement would be arranged at the level of the human occupant, rather than the corporate controller of the surface on which the image was displayed.
In 2015 activists placed a sculpted bust of Edward Snowden in a park in New York, atop a plinth commemorating American prisoners of war. When authorities censored and then removed the physical bust, artists from The Illuminator collective (including Read, mentioned above) replaced it with a projected image of Snowden, beamed onto a cloud of smoke. While the projection was certainly no more permanent than the physical bust that was removed, it demonstrated the limits of control that authorities were able to exert over public expression in that location. And while the projection was temporary, the impact was amplified through images shared online indefinitely.19
The same group later beamed messages encouraging a broadening of economic theory and education at the site of a major economics conference20 (among many other similar projection-based artworks). These actions include the use of projection technology to evade the practical and legal restrictions of their physical locations; busts are easily removed, and authorities could prevent the painting of the side of a convention centre. But it is far more difficult to prevent the installation of light beams that do not cause permanent change to the physical surface. In the words of the artists, ‘while the State may remove any material artifacts that speak in defiance against incumbent authoritarianism, the acts of resistance remain in the public consciousness. And it is in sharing that act of defiance that hope resides.’21
Attempts at legal action against the projection artists involved in these types of actions has been largely unsuccessful, deemed insufficient in part because laws on unlawful advertising are often based on assumptions about materiality and material damage.22 Projections leave no damage, so the legal status of the images reflects their materiality – somewhat ephemeral, and hard to define. Projection activism can therefore operate not only through the explicit messages and content it displays, but also through its existence as contextual art that causes us to reconsider the democratic processes that try to delimit its existence (and the existence of other contextual art).
Olivier Dabène identifies three important contributions that street art makes to democratic process: enhancing political expression, the empowerment of citizens, and the stretching of the public sphere.23 The public sphere is expanded in three dimensions: sociological (through the new empowered actors); spatial (through the utilisation of new physical spaces and surfaces); and technological (through digital technologies including digital imaging, social media and other technological mechanisms).24 It is in these final categories where projection art and projection activism has most obvious impact. By integrating physical surfaces, digital images and audiences, projection art establishes a new sociotechnical materiality that includes both its on-site presence and its ongoing digital life.
The materiality (and immateriality) of projection art and activism is on one hand pragmatic, arising from the opportunities of technology. But from another view, the material practices form an important part of what Awad and Wagoner describe as the ‘social life of the image’,25 a life that includes the practices of production as well as material instance. The use of light as material reveals a paradox of the immediacy and impermanence of the digital, mixed with the concrete reality of the physical. One is persistent, one is ephemeral, though both (as outlined above) are participants in an animate and impermanent visual display. Once projected, the images are transformed by integrating with the surface on which they are projected, and when captured and shared online these new composite images have an ongoing life in the extended public sphere online, recontextualising, amplifying and extending their life.
Activating the politics of public spaces
Projection art and projection activism operate not only through the content that is projected and the unique attributes of the display technology, but also through the specific physical surfaces on which the content appears, and the context of these surfaces in the lives of the audiences that bear witness. When it was reported in 2017 that the Trump administration had banned the Centers for Disease Control from using certain terms including ‘evidence-based’, ‘science-based’, ‘diversity’ or ‘transgender’, artist Robin Bell and the Human Rights Campaign organisation responded by projecting these words onto the façade of the Trump Tower in Washington, DC.26 In 2019, when Boris Johnson was elected to the office of prime minister, the Led By Donkeys group projected an image of the new prime minister onto the wall of Buckingham Palace along with the text: ‘Your Majesty, your new prime minister is a LIAR.’27
There are a number of semiotic mechanisms relevant to these examples that demonstrate how these image installations operate in the socio-technical sphere as image and surface composites. The selected locations have obvious symbolic and functional meanings. These are no random walls – the buildings selected represent the ostensibly intended recipient of the message (President Trump and the Queen of England respectively). This is a case of site-based metonymy, as the physical building stands symbolically for the key occupant. To project onto Trump Tower is to project a message onto Trump himself. The built environment is punctuated by these buildings of note that hold special semiotic implications in our cultural lives and form an important part of the structure of the image and the selection of sites is a deliberate act of meaning making. The metonymy (or synecdoche) is extended further, because the stated target of the message is not actually (or not only) the individual indicated, but just as the site represents the individual figurehead, this individual stands for the system they lead. The message ‘Pay Trump Bribes Here’ projected onto Trump Tower28 seems to operate both as an accusation of Trump, and of the system that allows corruption to occur (see Figure 4).
Are these messages actually intended to communicate with Trump or the Queen of England? Perhaps. But clearly these are also messages to the general public, both to those who see the projections live and those who see the images preserved online in the expanded technical public sphere. And the messages are not just that Trump or Johnson are dishonest, but also about the ability to make these assertions publicly, brightly and spontaneously by re-democratising the built environment and by extension the political structures they represent. This mechanism is not fundamentally different from other politically motivated contextual art, but the image projection technology deployed and the digital re-broadcasting of the images amplifies its impact. The images or messages are projected twice – once onto the surface of the building, a shared visual and edifice in the physical landscape, and then again as composite images projected into the digital public landscape. These secondary projections never fully transcend their physical, situational priors, rather they carry something of the physical world into the digital.
While the examples given above are directly, bluntly political (occupying the space of meaning rather than aesthetics, to recall Świdziński’s phrasing of contextual art), projection and light-based art can also act politically by simply activating spaces and their occupants in novel situations, revealing presumptions, restrictions and conventions of the use of shared space, with the addition of projected images or light displays evoking a reassessment of the built environment. Birgitta Hosea’s participatory light action dotdot dash 29 involves a voyage through an area of London largely unused directly by humans, culminating in a light and voice performance in a large concrete tunnel. Inspired by the night walks of Charles Dickens, and reminiscent of the psychogeography of Debord’s dérive, this action connects inhabitants to the often overlooked physical structures of the city which are re-birthed through light and sound, and made to live at an accelerated pace of action. Although the artwork leaves no trace of its passage, participants are left with a sense of transforming the material of the concrete reality of the site. In such works, the effect of the illumination and motion animates the location and the attention of the viewer. Here, the relationship between the physical and the ephemeral is inverted, as the physical space becomes the spectral element – somewhat ungraspable as it lurks underneath the animate visions, reverting to its unoccupied status once the participants and viewers leave. In this way, projection art fulfils the claims of Dabène (and others) regarding the democratic function of street art, not only through direct messaging but also through the contestation of urban space, ownership, function and occupation. These political projections make the urban environment accessible at human scale, and able to be transformed in ways that architecture often is not. It forces the sometimes slow pace of architectural transformation to contend with the hyper-speed of digital expression which can transform these surfaces from night to night, or even moment to moment through the use of moving images.
New and extended practices based on the projection of light and animation into physical spaces are constantly evolving, such as projection mapping, or augmented reality installations. In the case of projection mapping, images can be aligned with built elements, with specific content aligned on each part of a built surface (or on any other surface, such as a physical sculpture or object designed specifically for the installation). This creates a wonderful decorative effect, which can enhance and enliven the actual structures with an array of aesthetic potential too vast to mention in detail in this article. This is achieved by incorporating the space of the built environment into the space of animation production, as the building elevations replace the default production and design ‘frame’. In many cases, the building (or object) itself is modelled and projected back onto itself, with the virtual double aligned to the original structure, but then changing, morphing, collapsing or animating in some other way. Animation scholar Dan Torre observes this unique arrangement, noting that as the reality of the structure encounters the irreality of animation, there is a unique opportunity for ‘situated metamorphosis’,30 where the specific can become abstract, and hence avail itself of all the transformative potentials of the medium of animation. While often visually stunning, there is also a deeper potential for these visual interventions to highlight the transformation of the built environment as analogy for our situated political lives. As the ostensibly solid and permanent buildings are transformed, we are able to observe the potential for transformation of other systems and social constraints.
The ongoing project MoMAR31 creates a situation of contested space through the use augmented reality (AR) technology. This project uses personal media devices (such as a smartphone) to overlay new artworks on top of existing artworks displayed in part of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This project operates without the permission of the gallery in which it is located, and importantly, without the need for such permission, as the virtual space remains as yet uncaptured by corporate and institutional powers. Similar to the installation of a light-and-smoke image of Edward Snowden, the ethereal nature of virtual space remains somewhat democratic and accessible to new content. In this case, it is the viewer who retains authority over what is seen in a particular location (through choosing to use the MoMAR application), hinting at a potential future where all visual space could be personalised, returned to the individual through augmentation technology. In these ways, contemporary image technology, both in the form of image production and image viewing devices, as well as the broader sociotechnical and extended lives of the image, can therefore restructure our political experiences of public space and our situated political lives.
What will happen in the space of contextual art as projection technology continues to get cheaper, brighter, and more portable, and as new platforms for adding content to public spaces proliferate? Projection art and projection activism can operate to disestablish authority over expression and appearance in public space. Mere denial of access and assertion of damages that can make these interventions difficult in physical media do not necessarily apply to projection art. Will regulators react with new conventions based perhaps on menace, harassment or defamation? Will existing authority structures assert rights over location-based virtual space, as well as real space?
Both Ardenne and Dabène cite the risk of the emergence of a ‘culture of compensation’,32 where authorities move to integrate, or co-opt, contextual art practices or where artists respond to the commodification effect of social media by altering their agenda to suit this medium. This is already evident in sanctioned street art zones and performative corporate participation in the visual and artistic aspects of protest movements. The potential for full digital activation of the city surface either through public projection or to broadcast via personal media networks, and the integration of digital, social and physical space, will demand a reassessment of digital contextual art that should not necessarily be conducted only by regulators. The concept of the street having evolved naturally from the necessary existence of shared accessways has come to stand for a political, not merely physical, space where democracies and processes of social life are contested. The tendency towards privatisation of physical space likely cannot apply to visual space, to temporary interventions, free expression or virtual use of space.