Tag Archives: Middle East

2011, the Year of the Street

2011 was the year of the street. The revolutions in the Middle East, the Occupy movement across the USA (with a smaller local version) and other protests in Europe were all on the street. There are problems that have been building up, like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, left unresolved for my entire life while a very few became disproportionately wealthy. And in 2011 this had gone beyond the limit of what most people can accept.

As well as the protests, street art has entered a new phase; in Melbourne’s streets and laneways it continues to flourish and diversify. On the street the woolly growth of yarn bombing expanded and yarn bombing entered the public consciousness. This is remarkable because just a few years yarn bombing was an obscure and eccentric practice. In previous years I have looked at the growth of exhibitions by street artist in galleries. There was no point in continuing doing it this year because of the exponential growth in the number of exhibitions and galleries specializing in artists from the street art movement. There were a few major street art exhibitions: “Space Invaders” exhibition at RMIT Gallery and Everfresh and other crews in NGV’s Studio space. And the documentary Writers Bench by Oriel Morrison and Spence David provided a history of the last three decades of Melbourne graffiti (read my review). Thinking about all of this I realized that the nature of public art has changed fundamentally.

The street art and the protests are interconnected. Syrian school kids started the revolution by spray-painting a wall and when they were beaten and tortured there were demonstrations that have continued and expanded as the cycle repeated. During 2011 revolution in Tunisia as most of the population was on the streets local artists carried their paintings through the streets; it was the perfect place to exhibit them. Egyptians painting walls during the protests, anti-Gaddafi paste-ups around Misrata; it is about the right to express your views.

The metaphorical significance of the street is akin to the real world. Street culture is seen as a real/symbolic cultural source: “reality-fantasy-symbol. Reality may easily be regarded as the most fantastic category, as the most crudely symbolic category. Symbol may be the realist, most accessible etc. etc.” (Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock, 1987, Da Capo Paperback, p.14 footnote 1). Control of the streets is a symbolic status for the legitimacy of any government, hence the need for violent responses to street protests or artists painting on walls (read my blog post about Controlling the Streets from earlier this year).

The question of the year was does symbolic/real control make a government legitimate or does legitimacy of a spring from democratic elections, respect for human rights and representing concerns of the population? And in 2011 the answer appeared on the streets.


Controlling the Streets

Many commentators have drawn connections between the popular uprisings in the Middle East and the arrest of Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei.  But is there any connection between the arrest of Ai Weiwei and the recent arrests of street artists in the USA? This year artist LA II, aka Angel Ortiz, a former collaborator with Keith Haring was arrested in New York. And there have been multiple arrests of street artists in Los Angeles including: Revok, aka Jason Williams, the French artist, Space Invader (arrested 20/4/11) and Smear, aka Cristian Gheorghiu (arrested 16/4/11).

Free Revok - Melbourne, Hoiser Lane

One reason for all the arrests in Los Angles was MOCA’s “Art in the Streets” exhibition attracting street artists to LA. (Sharon Mizota reviewed the exhibition for the LA Times). But this is beside the point, although the law says that the arrests are about vandalism. It is actually about image as no wall has ever been actually damaged by the application of a coat of paint. The arrest of these artists is no more about vandalism than Ai Weiwei’s arrest is about his alleged economic crimes. Although I’m sure that capable prosecutors in both countries will be able to legally prove their respective cases according to their respective laws.

Like many people around the world I have been cheering on the Arab Spring from the security of my home. I have also been trying to watch out for any street art and graffiti developments in these historic events.  I keep searching for a story about graffiti in the popular uprisings in the Middle East but it has been mostly small stuff. There is this little report about some graffiti during the protests in Egypt. On 26/3/11 SBS news reported that major demonstrations and subsequent riots in Syrian were sparked when police arrested youths for doing anti-government graffiti. In the Middle East there are donkeys that can be mobile billboards for anti-government graffiti. The added bonus to painting a donkey is that the police can’t capture or kill the donkey and maintain their dignity.

The reason for the government crack down on street artists in the USA, on artists and human rights campaigners in China, and on anyone who protests in the streets in the Middle East is basically the same. The street is highly symbolic; it is the public face of the collective consciousness. Public area is part of a political discourse – does it belong to the people, every individual person, or to the government, and a ghostly idea of “the public”? Street art is a revolt about the definition of public and private space in the modern city. And like the occupation of the streets in the Middle East, or Ai Weiwei’s activism, it is a threat to authority of the ruling party and their claim to represent the public.


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