Teresa Caldeira: Street Art

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Teresa Caldeira, Professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley.  It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

Keyword: Street art

“Street art” is the umbrella expression to refer to several forms of intervention that use the streets as their domain.  It covers not only visual productions such as graffiti and tagging, but also performances like skateboarding, parkour, and break dance.  The literature on street art is extensive and framed by a reference to mainstream artistic production.  “Is graffiti (or tagging, or skateboarding) art?”  seems to be an unavoidable question addressed again and again and consistently answered affirmatively.  In my research, this approach is secondary.  Instead, I am interested in asking:  what is the kind of intervention that these urban manifestations make in the everyday life of the city?  How do they modify and shape public space?  What is the kind of political agency they produce?  How do citizens engage with them in their everyday movements around the city?  I consider that one of the oldest analyses of graffiti/tagging is still one of the most provocative:  that published by Jean Baudrillard in 1976.  He argued that the power of New York graffiti resided in their emptiness as signifiers.  Their “revolutionary intuition,” argued Baudrillard, comes from the perception that “ideology no longer functions at the level of political signifieds, but at the level of the signifier, and that this is where the system is vulnerable and must be dismantled” (‘Kool Killer or the insurrection of signs’).  Graffiti and especially tagging are attacks at the level of the signifier.

Baudrillard’s argument has intrigued me during the time in which I have developed the research for my current project investigating these interventions in public space in São Paulo.  It has led me to formulate questions about the type of political agency and of politics that these performances in fact enact in the city, transforming its public.  Thus, the literature that I explore is mainly that reflecting on some of the predicaments of contemporary politics.  I am especially interested in the work of Jacques Rancière.  For him, politics is “the accident that interrupts the logic by which those who have a title to govern dominate. … Political subjects are … processes of subjectification which introduce a disagreement, a dissensus.  And political dissensus is not simply a conflict of interests, opinions, or values.  It is a conflict over the common itself… a dispute over what is visible as an element of a situation, over which elements belong to what is common, over the capacity of subjects to designate this common and argue over it.” (‘Introducing disagreement’, Angelaki, 9:6, 2004).   It is in this sense that I consider arguing that the practices labeled by the expression “street art” constitute a powerful form of contemporary politics.

I consider this argument in relation to other views of contemporary politics articulated by authors such as Asef Bayat, Partha Chatterjee, James Holston, and AbdouMaliq Simone.  Although they have quite diverse perspectives and are far from coinciding in their analyzes, they all share a deep dissatisfaction with current views of political agency framed by analyzes of North Atlantic democracies and a commitment to theorizing politics and urban citizenship from the perspective of the spaces of the subalterns, especially from disjunctive democracies of the global south.

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