I recently paid a visit to MOMA’s current exhibition, Talk To Me: Design and Communication between People and Objects, which is a showing of new (and wacky) object design. This exhibit will prove to you that your personal possessions are not only boring, but also even more lifeless than you may have previously thought.
Several of the artists imbue life in their objects with words, where sometimes the objects speak for themselves (a talking chair, for instance) and where other times the objects give voice to us.
There were two pieces in particular where words were such a force that they themselves became the “objects.” SMSlingshot, a collaborative piece among four German artists, is a wooden slingshot that shoots giant laser beam messages onto buildings. The user types a message into its keypad and then slingshots his/her message into a neon splash on the wall.
The SMSlingshot piece harkens to Evan Roth’s Laser Beam project, where users used a giant laser pen and could draw and write directly onto buildings on an overwhelming scale. Roth, the co-founder of Graffiti Research Lab, is also exhibited at the MOMA. The piece, Graffiti Taxonomy New York/Paris, re-creates the variations on the letter “S” used in graffiti in New York and Paris. The variations are so vast and drastic that the letter itself becomes an object that has been appropriated and altered according to each personality.
Both pieces give voice to graffiti. SMSlingshot is a triumph in graffiti in that it allows people to get away with drawing on walls, because it isn’t permanent. Its main goal, however, is to empower people by giving them the chance to splatter a personal statement onto the public landscape. Graffiti Taxonomy looks at another aspect of graffiti – the art and personal trace of the human.
A lot of social-oriented graffiti (which is what these MOMA artists support) takes after the belief of the British graffiti king, Banksy, that graffiti isn’t about the author, but about the statement s/he makes. However, both SMSlingshot and Graffiti Taxonomy speak to the contradiction that though graffiti uses an authorless language, the presence of the author – and the constraints s/he had to break through – is what gives this language meaning.
In fact, Evan Roth and his team go to great measures to acknowledge and support the artists behind graffiti. In The EyeWriter project, software allows artists who are paralyzed to draw with their eyes. It no longer matters if the graffiti gets out there on the walls. Graffiti is important to them as artists, and they draw on screens from their homes.
The way we think of graffiti is a relatively modern concept, which came about with the birth of spray cans and largely started off as subway art. But graffiti, as an idea, and not necessarily a movement, has existed for millennia.
The artwork on the walls of the Chauvet caves comes to mind after having just recently watched Werner Herzdog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. There we are revealed an astonishing series of drawings of mostly animals. But I would like to bring our attention to a wall covered in reddish handprints. According to one of the archaeologists on the case, one can tell by the prints that the artist’s hand had a crooked pinky. Because of this quirky detail, we can identify the artist throughout the caves, where one finds more of his handprints. Though it is impossible to know the intentions behind these prints, it is nonetheless evidence of the desire to leave the trace of the self in a landscape.
Another instance that comes to mind is in one of the chateaux in the Loire Valley, chateau Chenonceau, where I recently visited while studying abroad in France. On one of the walls of its chapel, one finds graffiti dating to around 1500 (which says something or other about God in old English). The graffiti is protected by a layer of glass, suggesting that it has now become a work of value to be preserved. Considering that graffiti is today illegal and is constantly sought out after to be erased, it is interesting that old graffiti is treated differently, almost reverently.
I would argue that the illegal branding on graffiti today has helped to inspire and define it as an art form. Its language is prohibited and restrained, and because of that it often carries a bold sense of purpose, an underlying sentiment of angst. Moreover, the way it interacts with its “canvas” – the environment – is the effect of a rupture: it has to invade the space and call unusual attention to itself in order to be seen (arguably more so than the way a sculpture or painting inhabits a gallery space or museum).
On the one hand, graffiti today isn’t so different from the past – we have displayed over a long stretch of time the desire to create art and express oneself into the environment, into public view. On the other hand, the language of graffiti has evolved with the language of our time. The words themselves have taken on new aesthetics – taking after technology (laser beams) and creating individualized alphabets in an effort to establish oneself in an anonymous artistic field. Graffiti today is a conscious art form, a counter-cultural movement, and in so doing it has created its own alphabet, dictionary and semiotic understanding of words.