Review by Jason Woloski
Posted on 20 June 2005
Source From Tugboats to Polar Bears DVD
Features: The Best DVDs of 2003: The Top-Ten
At the height of its promise graffiti art takes back control of urban spaces that have been lost to industrialization and corporate overgrowth, making those who see it pay as much attention to a building’s altered surface as to the building itself. On a larger scale, graffiti breaks up uniform cityscapes by blemishing the environments of visual redundancy contained within. Tony Silver’s 1983 film, Style Wars, celebrated the battles between the pioneering graffiti artists of New York’s emerging hip-hop movement of the late 1970s and the city officials who tried to stop them (including then-mayor Ed Koch in an amusing cameo), to no avail. Despite building high-security fences and hiring guards and attack dogs to surround the subway train yards favoured by graffiti artists of the day, the City of New York could not prevent these artists from significantly altering the face of the city. Because graffiti artists’ could paint on almost any type of surface, a city the size of New York provided them with a seemingly boundless palette to work from, regardless of bureaucrats’ expensive and extensive attempts to curtail the wide spread of graffiti.
The prize being fought over in Style Wars was one of control. If industrialists and corporations were going to appropriate city spaces for their wants and needs, without regarding the opinions of those already occupying such spaces, then something would have to be done about it. Along with subway cars, buildings and warehouses became visual battlegrounds. If the austere designs of typically industrial structures represented the cool efficiency of the economic and social conformity from which they emerged, then the graffiti being sprayed on these buildings represented an alternative perspective of unrest and extreme dissatisfaction.
In the quarter of a century since Silver’s film premiered on Prairie Public Television, municipal officials continue to war with graffiti artists in cities across the continent. A solution that has worked for city officials in Portland, Oregon, has been to designate certain sectors of the city as “graffiti free zones.” In these zones, workers hired by the city look for pieces of graffiti on a daily basis, then take their painting supplies and cover any new examples of graffiti up. Ideally, the cover-up paint matches the original color of the building. In reality, these paints rarely match the building or surface on which the graffiti sits, and so buildings are left without graffiti, but are also left with large blocks, squares, and rectangles of cover-up paint.
Using these awkwardly distributed patches of paint as his muse, Portland-based filmmaker Matt McCormick came up with an intriguing and unique contribution to the ongoing battle between artists and bureaucrats over the problem of graffiti, in the form of his 2002 short, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal. In this seemingly earnest sixteen-minute documentary, McCormick, via the voice of narrator (and fellow Portland artist) Miranda July, presents the notion that in covering up existing graffiti works, painters hired by the City of Portland are creating works of artistic genius themselves, without even realizing it.
McCormick’s thesis is an elaborate one. While city workers’ paint jobs are compared to the works of abstract masters such as Mark Rothko, Kazimir Malevich and Robert Rauschenberg, narrator July details the finer points of the graffiti removal movement, dividing removal works into subcategories such as ghosting, symmetrical, and radical. July goes on to explain that the rationale behind the need for unconscious artistic creation stems from the fact that “human beings are naturally artistic and creative,” but in conforming to the expectations of “material wealth, people have to repress creative expression in order to accumulate commodities.” “When the desire to create becomes dangerously repressed,“ the unconscious takes over. At one point in the film, Hugh McDowell, Graffiti Prevention Coordinator for the City of Portland, even plays into McCormick’s hand, stating, “In terms of the rectangles you are talking about, in terms of when we clean it up, beauty and art is the intended goal that we have when we go out and clean up.”
McCormick’s filmic essay never reveals itself as an outright hoax, yet based on the elaborate and relentlessly controlled execution of the film’s premise, combined with the subtle ridiculousness of what is being proposed, it obviously is one. This does not mean, however, that McCormick’s intention for creating this film does not reside in a sincere desire to comment upon the realities of his subject matter. Since the battle over graffiti has repeatedly transpired around issues of control, McCormick’s insertion of the medium of film into the graffiti debate can be regarded as a cinematic attempt to take control – if only within the confines of his own film’s narrative – away from city officials in their successful initiative for covering up the work of Portland graffiti artists. By re-appropriating the ways in which these initiatives are to be understood within the elaborately complex world of modern art criticism, McCormick makes both the officials he interviews and the workers who paint over graffiti seem ignorant of what they are doing and unconscious in their pursuits.
While I disapprove of the repeated exploitation and disregard for the working class by hipster culture, which I consider this film to be an obvious extension of, I can appreciate McCormick’s ability to recognize the power of context over that which is contextualized. At the purely physical level, Portland politicians and artists have clashed over control of city surfaces for decades. These skirmishes have resulted in a “layering of control,” with original paint jobs being disrupted by graffiti, followed by graffiti being covered over by new layers of cover-up paint. Cinema is a unique medium to become involved in this conflict, because in filming these altered walls and surfaces, McCormick is not interested in commanding or influencing the text of the wall or surface being filmed. It seems he would rather give control of Portland’s cityscapes back to the artists who have, for the time being, lost their palette. Or, more accurately, he would like to take control from those who currently have it. Unfortunately, as powerful as cinema is in its ability to give the world back to us in new and unfamiliar forms – Andre Bazin’s belief in what makes cinema so unique – context rarely transforms that which it frames.