Public art and subjugation

(disegno di irene servillo)

(disegno di irene servillo)

For many years now, with two three friends who, like me, are part of the undergrowth of public art, I have a busy exchange of emails. It is about “job” proposals. The bestiary of the senders is various: associations with brilliant ideas, creative bureaucrats, unaware activists, disguised politicians. The “good ones” think these invitations relate to the alleged will to “regenerate with art”, there is no need to say that there must be the “participation of the territory”, that it must start “from the bottom” and it goes on with the same old corollary of worn words obsessively repeated, like a rosary.

Most of these collaboration requests do not come from the institutions, but rather from their direct intermediaries, ambiguous figures who wallow in a broth of slippery and inconclusive words, that yet keep a thaumaturgical effect. Urban regeneration, practiced with the picklock of the art, has sometimes had disruptive effects – in Naples, I think of the artistic metro station – in a good (new public services) or in a bad (high rents in the surroundings) way, but most of the times we face with miserable failures which – and this is the real and omitted result – satisfy only the immediate search for consensus of the on-duty promoters. Consent that obviously has to cost little (or nothing) and be clearly visible. So what is better than a nice piece of street art on the silent façade of a building? Maybe even in a pretty “difficultneighborhood. This is the old shortcut of the maximum profit with the minimal effort, according to a renewed capitalism that, at its core, is always the same.

As an example – during the festival of Sky arte (2017) the entire façade of the Damm, historical social centre of Montesanto, was being painted, while, at the same time, in front of the Cumana station in the same neighborhood, a muscular order service was being arranged to protect the art performance of the artist Roxy in the box, ending up to bury the libertarian approach that has always distinguished who operates in the street art.

This lethal mixture of artists, administrators of the lowest caliber, associationism, banks, legal (or not) social centres, produces – even before than a consolatory aesthetic – an extreme confusion between the ends and the means. The final product is taken as valid, while the processes and relations are the last to be considered – or are contaminated with monetization, bureaucracy, subjugation of the message. The portion of city that is demanded to be “regenerated” is being used as a background, turning people into ghosts, as in the renderings that are shown during the architecture festivals. They could just say: we are painting a wall, but instead they need to charge it with a load of unsustainable rhetoric that, in addition of a servile use of the new digital devices, ends up fomenting the masses’ narcissism that is narcotising any aspect of the here and now. The alleys seem to having become the privileged semantic field of marketing, with no substantial differences between music videos, dolce&gabbana, cuoredinapoli.

Who writes us this proposals, does it with a mix of reverence, daughter of a false conscience (thanks for what you do), and a complete carelessness of the work. It is as if – accustomed to scroll down the images with the thumb – of a whole articulate and complex work, one can only capture the fleeting appearance of the pixels on the surface. This must be the reason why we keep receiving invitations for works that could not be any further from the way we operate. The “bad ones”, for example, ask us to paint for those big brands (and also banks, credit funds and similar ones) that, having sensed the potential of the circulation of street art images, try – and always find someone willing to get involved – to appear cool, colored, and also a bit rebel.

What the good ones and the bad ones have in common is the language they use, that levels all the presumed differences, combining the naïve hopes of the first ones and the cheerful cynicism of the others.

Both of them, just to give an example, use the crowdfunding (paid by the crowd) as a financing form.

For some this is a real necessity, but they are unaware that this instrument forces them to wink at the potential supporters, to give demonstrations. Why would someone have to explain a passion? Why feeling compelled to tell it to the crowd? Even using a compulsorily enthusiastic language, full of exclamation points. After all, it normalises and makes habitual that kind of advertising language that, whatever it is saying, sounds an imperative that, in being “progress”, becomes moral. Then, when you see that the “fundraising from the bottom” is also used by those who would have no need of it at all, just to build around themselves a fake image of community, you understand that the circle is closed, and your neck is in the middle of the loop.

For this reason and for many others I no longer paint in the streets. To tell the truth I almost do not paint at all, and to those who write me I respond “I would prefer not to”, as Bartleby the scrivener, trying, like him, to blow up both the language and the slave-master dialectic. Agamben comes to my rescue, adding a theory to my practice. Standing still – being able to one’s own powerlessness – is sometimes necessary, because “potentiality is defined by the possibility of its non-exercise: potentiality is a suspension of the act. […] However, the potential to not be cannot be mastered and transformed into an autonomous principle that would end up precluding every work. Decisive is that the work always turns out to be a dialectic between these two intimately joined principles”.

I would like to write the negatives of my biography, telling about all the things I have not done. It would surely help clarify everything else. At the beginning I groped around, I understood certain things over time. I practiced Luddism (I once made a painting for Nike, it was so unbearable that they destroyed the panel in front of the public) but it does not work: it doesn’t leave any mark on the giants and it ends up just watering your apparent-antagonist ego. I tried with anonymity, take the money and run. Ferrarelle (brand of bottled water) wanted a mural with some “scugnizzi” (kids) playing soccer, with the water bottle in the foreground. They were not really looking for me (my style), they just needed a writer “on Naples”. They were looking for an execution. That was the time of discussions like globalisation, private water management and so on, so I discovered with no effort that – many years earlier – the company obtained the concession to buy the water from the wellspring for a ridiculous annual cost. Anyhow, I had no money at that time so I decided to do it. So I sent the photo of the work, they paid me, and the day after I went to cover it all up.

I am not telling this story to claim a sabotage I am proud of, but to highlight those mechanisms that brought us straight to the gas chambers: it is my job, if I don’t do it someone else will. Here, I wonder, how can we avoid all this? Street artists like us, are asked to accept a whole frame of rules that we can refuse at the most, ending up feeding the myth of the rebel artist, figure that only increases the quotations we are running away from. One could ask me: why selling paints then? To live, obviously, and to keep living creating artworks that question the same processes that make them possible. Friends of mine who are workers tell me I am lucky (I earn less than they do – they do not know this –, I work less physically but I have reduced my needs to the minimum). They ask me how I can possibly refuse all that money for just a drawing. I replay I do it for my health. If I accepted certain proposals, I would feel much more discouraged than I am now, while I am immersed in an uncontrollable desire for immobility.

Maybe the misunderstanding lies in visibility, fundamental myth of graffiti – painted trains somehow anticipated the web – which, of course, brings food to your plate, air to your lungs, but no warning explains to you that beyond certain limits, it will poison you. I often think about Blu, who saw himself forced, long ago, to deprive the entire Bologna of his artworks in order to take them away from the enemy (people who broke off pieces of wall to expose them privately), almost like Russians, who set their own towns on fire to defend them from the Nazi’s advance.

An inexorable mechanism wants us famous of penniless. However, I have been taught that “you must refuse to choose between the orgy and the ascesis”. I do not clearly see how, so I lie in impotence. I only know I wanted to continue the work I started between Naples and Taranto, which was none other than research on- in- with- field. I would have liked, with all due differences, to keep doing the studies of Levi, RossiDoria, Belmonte, Fava. Doing it with the instruments I was learning to handle, like paint and presence, oral history and absence of judgement. Why cannot I still do this, then? Because, as for all the things that slightly begin to build new points of view, public art has been swallowed, digested and neutralised, and it became impossible standing on the margins of that narration that hurls everything in the same cauldron.

In the meanwhile, I suffer, I grit my teeth but also take notes, study, hypothesise pathways. I think of certain Japanese poets who write with water on the ground, short and lightning verses that vanish within seconds; I think of that African bird that says: since men acquired an infallible aim, I learned to fly never having to rest; I think of Christ, who once wrote some words that were soon covered by the sand. I think that “allowed freedoms are false freedoms”; or that, like Voltaire, witches ceased to exist in the moment we ceased burning them. This is why they wanted us to be heroes, and our resistance, when there was one, was too feeble.

It is not the first time that we would have our legs cut off, and it neither will be the last one. Cyclically the what to do now? comes back, and it can only do well. A friend of mine – a photographer who is now blind – says it is always possible to find a solution: «Think of Solženicyn, he could not take notes in the gulag, yet he wrote in his mind more than a thousand pages, using a twine and some bread crumbs to help himself remember the separation of the paragraphs».

At the moment I tend towards a desperation that is not even “gravid with hope” anymore, it’s a desperation that became sterile. Then I also think of an old teacher that said to me: art is a building that destroys the foundation on which it was build. Here, the slate has been erased, ready to greet other words. Like these, not by chance: “When my despair says: abandon yourself to discouragement, because the day is enclosed in two nights, the false consolation screams: hope, because the night is enclosed in two days. However, man does not need a consolation that is a play on words, but a consolation that enlightens. If I want to live in freedom, it must be – for now – within these forms. The world is therefore stronger than me. Against its power I have nothing to oppose other than myself – which, after all, is no small thing. As long as I do not let myself be overcome, I too am a power. And my power is fearsome as long as I have the power of my words to oppose to that of the world, because those who build prisons express themselves worse than those who build freedom. This is my only consolation. I know that the repercussions in desperation will be many and profound, but the memory of the miracle of liberation sustains me as a wing towards a vertiginous goal: a consolation that is more beautiful than a consolation and greater than a philosophy, that is to say a reason for living “.

The italics are mine. The words are Stig Dagerman’s, who however put himself – it hurts to remember it – in a gas chamber, on his own. (traduzione di Claudia Lonardo)