Invisible City - The Significance of Painting Reality
Derick Smith 2011
On the 25th April 2010, 500 litres of paint was strategically spilled at a busy Berlin intersection called Rosenthaler Platz. A colourful tapestry slowly emerged as the tracks of the city’s traffic became visible on the concrete canvas. Each new passing vehicle overlaid a fresh path which, like memory, superseded earlier passages. (see Fig.1)
I would like to examine this work, titled Painting Reality, when considered from a semiotic perspective. By placing it in the context of critical art theory and examining influencing art movements, such as Situationism and Guerrilla Art, as well as interpretations of the city and its effects, I hope to explore the significance of the production. (The artist’s video can be viewed here http://painting.iepe.net/)
The initial coordination and execution of this large scale piece was credited to a Dutch born artist, Iepe Rubingh, and some 60 helpers. It was over 1 year after the paint dump that the artist, who waited to see if the work was positively accepted by the people of Berlin, gave a short phone interview to the Toronto Star.
“Because I work a lot in a public space it feels that I am painting reality. I am not a painter but my work always feels like I am painting reality myself and the world myself.”
The artist explained how he first tested the environmentally friendly paint with bicycles as well as conducting a small street trial in order to gauge driver’s reactions and to ensure the paint did not cause the road to be too slippery. (Haggarty, 2011) Once the main paint dump occurred and the helpers dispersed, the artist no longer played a role in the direction of the unfolding urban intervention with the exception of recording it with video.
The work was staged without permission in public therefore could first be viewed through the perspective of Street Art, the origin of which can be traced back to 1949 when Ed Seymour invented paint that could be applied using an aerosol can. In the 60s and 70s people began experimenting with this spray paint in public places (2011, Greenbaum/ Rubinstein) around which culminated a graffiti art sub-culture. Though often highly ornate and requiring a great deal of skill, it was not formally recognized as a ‘legitimate’ form of art and was often dismissed as little more than petty vandalism. (see fig. 2)
Street Art eventually gave rise to ‘Guerrilla Art’, of which Painting Reality is considered a form. Working outside of the gallery system and often employing more sophisticated techniques and subversion tactics than spray paint alone and which, as Pieter notes in his book of the same title: “does not rely on highbrow references favouring humour and anarchy to convey a message instead.” (Peiter, 2009, p.5)
It was not until more recently that there seems to have been a shift in attitude toward street art. (Perhaps in part due to the high prices now attached to the work of many street artists in particular the most notorious of which, Banksy.) Kimmelman in his work, The Accidental Masterpiece, suggests that the spectacular nature of huge shows and noisy museums may have helped to foster this change in attitude:
“Artists make works one at a time… which is how we should experience them. The ethos of giant exhibitions, with dozens or hundreds of paintings...is antithetical to the conception of a work of art. Installation art today… seems in part an implicit reaction by young artists to a culture increasingly defined by huge shows, noisy museums, and a distraction prone public.”
(Kimmelman, 2005, p.178 / 179)
It was over 50 years earlier when an influential collective of artists known as ‘The Situationist International’ also explored notions of the spectacle in daily life. Founded in 1957 the highly theoretical group saw capitalism as having the effect of transforming its citizens into passive consumers of the depoliticized spectacle that had replaced active participation in public life. Situationism explored ideas of derive (drift), urbanisme unitaire (integrated city life) and detournment (diversion or displacement) and whose roots can be traced back to the surrealist mission of radically disrupting conventional, bourgeois life. (Atkins, 1997, p.170/171) In particular it was the work of Guy Debord in his book The Society of the Spectacle who articulated these ideas best:
“The spectator’s alienation from and submission to the contemplated object (which is the outcome of his unthinking activity) works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires..”
(Debord,1967 / 2004, p.23).
When Situationism is compared to today’s Guerrilla Art they both share the common goal of disrupting or subverting daily life, typically in the public domain.
Although spectacular in its own right, Painting Reality had more to do with the experience and interaction of the passing city commuters, without whom, there would be no work. John Dewey, in his book ‘Art as Experience’, notes:
“Things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift… There is experience, but so slack and discursive that it is not an experience. Needless to say, such experiences are anaesthetic.”
(Dewey, 1980, p.40)
Parallels could be drawn here between Dewey’s conception of ‘anaesthetic’ and Debord’s aforementioned ‘unthinking activity’ as both authors make allusions towards not being fully engaged by something or because of something.
In another, perhaps more elegant and illustrative form, Italo Calvino, in his work of fiction Invisible Cities describes the experience of an inhabitant of a city named Phyllis and outlines the shift of attention from the outward gaze in favour of that of the inward, which is also in line with Dewey’s idea of the anaesthetizing.
“Soon the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes. Like all of Phyllis's inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible...Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased…. Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.”
(Calvino, 1972/1997, p.81)
The experience of the public spaces in a city tends to be interpreted and assigned a meaning based on the dominant system of governance. A bus shelter next to a bus stop sign where the behaviours of waiting, standing, reading one’s book or phone are all common sights to the passer-by. There is nothing about the space that invites you to do anything else but wait which is akin to anaesthetising experience. Perhaps in the morning some fresh graffiti has appeared but rarely do you see the artist leaving his mark as, after all, only authorised messages are permitted to be posted in public places. (see fig. 3) As Berger notes on advertising:
“It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer for having spent our money”
(Berger, 1972, p.131)
As with a bus shelter, a park bench, a path or roadway, each part of the city functions in a predetermined or largely expected way. A range of behaviours are permitted in one space while not in another. Consider the early morning pilgrims outside the church or mosque whose same shared streets, but hours earlier, ferried home the hordes of late night drinkers. If you substituted a member from each group and placed them in the other’s environment, how different their behaviour would appear from the expected. It is only the exceptional then, the unusual, which seems to awaken us from our unthinking activity of ‘zig-zagging’ through the city. When considering how the brightly coloured paint splashed across the Platz was received by (potentially inward looking / anaesthetized / unthinking) city commuters perhaps the curious sight provided a temporary interruption from the comings and goings and could therefore be considered ‘an experience’ in the Dewey sense as the element of surprise may have called the attention outward to investigate.
Of the vehicle drivers, Martin notes, a vast number:
“live their lives between enclosed structures and the controlled, insular space of their cars, from which they make a ‘pass’ at nature”
(Martin, 2010, p.442)
The driver is removed, detached, from the city. Side impact bars, airbags and seatbelts form a safety cocoon or a womb of sorts from the ‘out there’. The city scenes unfurl across the windscreen as though on a television screen and can be manipulated with the press of a pedal or turn of the wheel.
De Certeau in his work The Practice of Everyday Life describes ordinary city practitioners whose
“intertwining paths write an urban text which eludes legibility”.
(De Certeau, 1988, p.93)
The notion of an illegible text created or ‘written’ by the intertwining paths of the city suggests a confusion or lack of clarity of sorts. The trailed paint spread by the cars, bicycles and walkers left impressions of the paths just taken and perhaps served, at the very least, to assist in highlighting this urban text in a humorous or subversive way. Furthermore De Certeau notes that city practitioners are
“living below the threshold at which visibility begins”
(De Certeau, 1988, p.93).
Could clarity, then, be found at or on this threshold of visibility?
In the Nazca desert in southern Peru giant figures such as monkeys, fish and lizards are traced out upon the desert floor, many of which are believed to be over 2000 years old. The acute perspective when viewed from the ground does not allow for the totality of the figures to be distinguished and so it was not until the 1920s that they were ‘rediscovered’ by a passing airplane. (Hall, 2010) All at once the commanding perspective provided by an elevated viewpoint granted the opportunity for the full extent of the creations to be taken in. It was now possible, perhaps for the first time ever, to view them from a significant height or from De Certeau’s ‘threshold’. (see fig.4)
As with the Nazca line figures so too with Painting Reality. The main camera for the artist’s released video was located at a high window or balcony of an overlooking building thereby allowing the totality of the unfolding event and its colourful consequences to be taken in with ease. The scale of the work calls for it to be viewed from above in order to fully appreciate its curious beauty. Upon encountering the tapestry from the ground one can assume how the viewer’s eye would trail off in the direction of the paint tracks and then seek to be raised up in order to read more of the play of lines. (see fig.5) As with the elevating effect upon the mind’s eye, so too, might the spirit be uplifted and raised above the daily city streets, if even only for a few moments.
The repetition of transitioning through a seemingly unchanging city where only a fresh coat of paint, a new shop or billboard snags our passing glances, may be responsible for making the city become ‘invisible’ in the Calvino sense. It seems that only at certain times and certain places, vis-a-vis ‘spectacles’, are we expected or expecting to be more engaged or awakened from whatever dream it is we are dreaming. In this regard the common shared spaces of the city, where our intertwining and overlapping paths meet and intersect and where nothing is expected to be other than it ‘usually’ is, present an opportunity for awakening. Painting Reality, in my opinion, set about to draw our attention to the illegible urban text and, for the duration of our engagement, set us free from unthinking activity.
The following hyperlinks were correct at time of creation July 2011
Haggarty, E. (2011) Painting Reality with Spilled Paint in Berlin.
Greenbaum, H / Rubinstein, D. (2011) The Origin of Spraypaint.
The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/magazine/who-made-spray-paint.html
Peiter, S. (2009) Guerilla Art. Laurence King Publishing, London.
Kimmelman, M. (2005) The Accidental Masterpiece – On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York, Penguin.
Atkins, R. (1997) Artspeak – A guide to contemporary, ideas, buzzwords and movements – 1945 to the present. New York, Abbeville Press.
Debord, G. (1967 / 2004) The Society of the Spectacle. New York, Zone Books.
Dewey, J. (1980) Art as Experience. New York, Perigee.
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London, British Broadcasting Corporation.
Calvino, I. (1997) Invisible Cities. London, Vintage.
Martin, K. (2010) The Book of Symbols. Koln, Taschen.
De Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. London, University of California Press.
Hall, S. (2010) Spirits in the Sand. National Geographic http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/03/nasca/
Images by figure number
1. Photographer unknown - http://weblogs.nrc.nl/cultuurblog/files/2011/02/kruispunt-1024x682.jpg
2. Photographer unknown - http://www.alphabetcityblog.com/2008/12/1970s-nyc-subway-graffiti.html
3. Photographer unknown - http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_5r8dFDtqZ-0/SeGuS5_S5I/AAAAAAAAAYM/ZwrJzD_jQHs/s400/BallymunBusShelter.JPG
4. Robert Clark - http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/03/nasca/hall-text/2
5. Photographer unknown - http://www.streetartutopia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/4551617920_7c1c9e63fd_b.jpeg
Fig. 4 – The Nazca Lines depicting a spider, as seen from the air.
Fig.3 – A bus shelter with advertising poster
Fig.2 – Example of late 1970s graffiti, New York.
Fig 5 – Paint trailing off into the distance at Rosenthaler Platz.
Fig.1 - Traffic trails paint across Rosenthaler Platz, Berlin.