Lydia Pauly explores the relationship between street art and the increasing rise of surveillance
During December 2016, a shipping container was placed just outside the Ivor Crewe lecture hall. It was massive—just over 40ft long—covered in graffiti and peep holes. It didn’t move, but people were invited to look inside. Why?
The container was locked, in order to house an ambitious model, which was the main exhibition. The model was of fictional ‘Old Bedford’, an uninhabited town, completely in ruins. Its citizens had mysteriously disappeared, leaving only the police and media crews to wander around in their absence, to photograph the collapsed bridges and the truck rammed through the local McDonalds.
The shipping container was part of the Aftermath Dislocation Principle exhibition, a part of the Riot Tour by Jimmy Cauty, who is also known for being one half of the electronic band called ‘The KLF’ and the guy who burnt one million pounds. The shipping container, as part of a set of three, travelled around the UK, visiting historic riot sites, of which Essex University was one, back in 1968.
“This is a romanticised image of street art: the image of the young, hidden in the shadows, allowing their voices to be heard.”
However, the graffiti itself was also just as much part of the spectacle. A huge array of messages could be seen, from tiny letters scrawled in marker, to letters emblazoned across in black paint. Someone gave a call out to their home town; another wrote ‘when the going gets tough, the tough gets weird’; one person wrote ‘GREEDY BANKS = FOOD BANKS’ in massive letters down the left side, dominating the entire space. It was a vibrant and chaotic mix of messages, both strange, poetic, and sometimes making no sense at all.
We all know, however, that this is a romanticised image of street art: the image of the young, hidden in the shadows, allowing their voices to be heard in a way that spits in the face of the grey and sociopathic authority. The effect of this, on the other hand, is slightly diminished when you realise that by being encouraged to write on the side of a shipping container, you are simply doing an artist’s work for him, rather than making any kind of political stand. Nevertheless, it was an homage to an undeniably important part of our contemporary cultural history.
So, what has happened to our street artists today? Where have they gone? Banksy’s early career – before he became a massive commercial sell-out – was between the 90s and the early 2000s. This is far across the ocean from 2017, where the UK today has cultivated its surveillance state to the fine tune of 4.9 million CCTV cameras throughout the country. Not only that, but technology has grown up alongside it: Viseum (a surveillance technology development company) now offers Facial Recognition software alongside its camera, providing both companies and our government ways to capture biometric information about an individual from up to 70 meters away. And while data protection laws currently prevent this from being an automatic process, you only really have to look at the recently passed bills about Internet privacy to know that won’t be the case by the end of this new year.
A rise in surveillance doesn’t necessarily mean that graffiti is on the decline; that is only a proposed link. However, it’s hard to find data on levels of graffiti itself – it’s charged under the Anti Social Behaviour Act of 2003, which defines graffiti as “painting, writing, soiling, marking, or defacing by whatever means”. In the Anti-Social Behaviour Order statistics from 2013, the Home Office declares that 24 427 ASBOs have been issued since April 1999 and December 2013, with a peak in 2005 but falling each consecutive year after that. Of course, this doesn’t mean anything to us; the 2003 ASB Act also covers firearms, unlawful drug use, and high hedges. There is also no centralised bank of expenditure data on graffiti clean up (a fall in expenditure could indicate a fall in demand) – however, in a 2015 FOI (Freedom of Information Request) to Transport for London, TfL acknowledges that it holds “a joint policy/strategy [with the British Transport Police] relating to graffiti”, which has resulted in “the lowest levels of graffiti” since they first enacted this policy 14 years ago. So, if we take London transport graffiti as indicative of the whole, we could make the assumption that graffiti itself is declining.
This is important. Street art was meant to be the cultural backlash of the 2000s. The act of transforming the brutalist, concrete buildings into something more unique and creative was just one way for citizens to reclaim their environment. More and more, in today’s society, we are forced into being nomadic. We no longer settle down into bought houses – we rent instead. Land is increasingly sold to private companies, into spaces that are priced by how long you can stay there. Travel across the world has become so easy and so cheap, it becomes the norm, instead of the massive undertaking it once was. As a result, we lose our claim to the environment we exist in. How many times have you really felt that, in your rented accommodation, that that was your space? How many times in your life will you live in a city, but only describe it as ‘a short stay before you settle elsewhere’? Street art was about reclaiming the space where you existed. Even the small act of tagging, of putting your name on the foundations of a bridge by the M12, was about someone trying to make their mark.
“We lose our claim to the environment we exist in”
There are still artists around who are part of the ‘guerrilla art movement’. Paolo Cirio’s 2015 Overexposed took personal social media photos from ‘high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials of NSA, CIA, NI, and FBI that were related to the Edward Snowden’s revelations’, blew them up to massive proportions, and displayed them around global capital cities. Hasan Elahi—who was falsely accused of terrorism and interrogated for six months—now permanently records himself and broadcasts it to the internet in a giant ‘fuck off’ to the CIA data analysts. But while this is a good effort to promote discussion about surveillance and our rights as citizens, there’s nothing particularly ‘reclaiming’ about this. They’re different discussions.
Perhaps street art is simply transforming, or becoming more underground. However, I do believe that it’s traditional form is dying out. When Tox, a British graffiti writer, was sentenced, Prosecutor Hugo Lodge announced that “he is no Banksy… he doesn’t have the artistic skills, so he has to get his tag up as much as possible”. The judge followed this up with his closing comment: “there is nothing artistic about what you do.” After his imprisonment, Banksy created a mural in Camden Town, which was subsequently immortalised with Perspex glass and most likely praised for it’s subsequent worth to local housing prices. You now have two choices as a graffiti artist: have the court become your latest art critic, or become the latest tool of gentrification. If that doesn’t put graffiti artists off, I don’t know what would.
The citizens of Old Bedford are poetic because they aren’t there. They have been entirely removed from the environment in which they are supposed to exist; they have no claim to the houses and roads around them. In their absence, the town crumbles, with only the police and the media left behind, the proponents of surveillance. And all the expression and creativity of the citizens exist out of view, on the outside of the shipping container. No matter how brilliant and vivid the colours are, none of the paint reaches inside, and the people that are meant to populate Old Bedford are instead temporary citizens; they do not belong. And if we don’t find a new way to reclaim our environment, we’ll be living in Old Bedford too.