17 + 3 AP
2020 – 2021
Why would anyone be inspired by political graffiti, you might ask. What is the value of engaging with scribbles and smears?
Although graffiti has been elevated to the realm of high-brow art, political graffiti is considered a form of low-key crime – a mode of expression that has no place amongst the tasteful cultural practices of our time. But what if a building’s outer membrane, its concrete, marble and mortar facades, were to be seen as something more than a polished exterior? Take Athens, for example; a wall can be both a political text and public diary. A stroll through the streets of the city centre is a good way to pick up on current political events from the perspective of the fringe. You just have to keep an eye out for the writings on the wall.
But let’s approach the issue by means of a detour. (I love detours).
– “Die Häuser denen, die drin wohnen!” This slogan is pretty old – but in Berlin its revival is in full swing. “The houses [ought to belong] to those who live in them”. The systematic ousting of those with less income from the – once unattractive – inner city areas, where they live(d), is not something that’s just happening in Berlin. Aggressive gentrification is underway in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Athens, Barcelona… – the list could go on and on. As it is quite an incremental process, many don’t realise that gentrification is taking place at all – until it has. In fact, a war is raging behind the peacefully silent and clean facades of most European cities. It goes hand in hand with the privatization of public spaces, aggressive real estate speculation and the discount prices offered by the tourism industry.
– “City Breaks for €19,99!”
– “Athens is the new Berlin!” This is the tacky, hipster-art-scene meme that spread like wildfire among art crowds during Documenta 14, an international contemporary art exhibition that took place in both Athens and Kassel – “in an act of socio-political solidarity” – in 2017. Its agenda: “Learning from Athens”. In stark contrast to this objective, many Athenians viewed Documenta 14 as a cancerous growth that swallowed their city and overran their lives. People in Athens mocked the event, dubbing it the “Crapumenta 14”. In the streets, the organization’s official posters were appropriated as such. The letter “L” from “Learning” was scratched out. It would appear that the slogan “Earning from Athens” felt more accurate.
Whereas in Berlin, where one would be pressed to find a street that hasn’t been tagged, there are comparatively fewer political writings on facades than on the walls in the city centre of Athens. There, political graffiti is a common and on-going practice. The statements appear, grow, change; words are added, crossed-out and written over. Eventually, in some instances, someone will paint over an entire set of statements using an opaque colour, laying the stage for the next round of writings. The graffiti varies, from felt-pen scribbles, hastily drawn on the concrete and stone entrances of residential high-rises, to large spray-painted sections, sometimes covering the entire lower half of a facade.
Cultural sociologist Richard Sennett is just one of many who wrote about the ways in which city planning and architecture affect our emotional response to life in the city. Sennet argues that in ancient Greek cities, “one could use their eyes…to think about political, religious and erotic experiences” (Sennett in The Conscience of the Eye). The reason being that these cities granted free access to certain public sites where one could engage in political, religious and erotic thinking and behaviour. Moreover, in city states like Athens, these sites were born out of collective decision-making processes. People identified with their surroundings more as a result. Where amongst the malls, shopping promenades and car parks of a contemporary metropolis could you visit a public site conceived for peer-to-peer political exchange?
What if instead of understanding a city’s facade as “merely architecture”, we could consider it as a canvas for political expression? In fact, this idea isn’t even new. Throughout the last century, city facades have been used time and again by citizens to express their political beliefs and demands. Nowadays in northern Europe, political protest is oftentimes carried out on the Internet. Writing on walls would appear to be an archaic practice.
I have deliberately avoided depicting specific political writings in UNDER ERASURE. My work aims to highlight the practice of claiming a slice of public space for political expression. The act of using a building’s outer membrane in such a way is both meaningful and aesthetic – and aesthetics are always political. Athens is a perfect example of this. To “restore” beauty, some just simply grab a bucket of paint and cover up the writings. The intention to restore a wall to its “original” pristineness is essentially what I have aimed to capture in my photographs.
What you see in UNDER ERASURE are photographs of what remains after such „restorative measures” are taken: opaque-coloured patches, applied to a wall to “silence a political statement”. Materials have their own place in my work: plaster and stones, concrete walls with various finishings, and marble-clad entrance areas, all come into play in UNDER ERASURE. I’ve also deliberately suppressed the third dimension. What you’re left with are surfaces and a very controlled depiction of a few architectural details, small glimpses of facades, or shadows projected onto the walls by the beating Mediterranean sun. The images are kept resolutely flat, accentuating the painterly dimension of the depicted motifs. My decision to frame the walls by focusing on colour fields and materials echoes abstract expressionist painting, peinture informelle, and at times the work of Catalan artist Antony Tàpies. Walking through the city and snatching ready-mades from public spaces draws on the urban “hunter-gatherer” practices of artists like Raymond Haines.
By not explicitly capturing the actual writings and instead concentrating on the traces left behind after “restorative measures have been carried out”, I am able to document the political back-and-forth taking place on the city’s walls. The practice of writing and erasing; and the resultant – visual – conflict concerning the city is at the heart of this series of photographic works. The “defacers” claim the right to have a political voice where they see fit. Working to silence them are, first and foremost, the state, with all its staff and machinery of law and order – and also certain citizens impelled to defend the city’s “pristine” image. Ironically, the “clean police” are defacers, too. They don’t even bother to find the right colour, nor do they re-paint the entire wall. Observed from a distance, their efforts simply add another semantic layer to the facades. Soon, the “pristine” areas, seen to some as blank and obliging canvases, will be reclaimed once again.
(This project also relates to: Excerpts from the Book of Street Verse)