Recently I was walking down Mercer Street to the F train at Broadway-Lafayette and a face popped out at me, with its beady eyes and subtle knowing grin. I was amazed by its detail: the arching lines above the eyes mimic expressive eyebrows; the concentrated dashes below the eyes give a sense of shading; the lines around the mouth depict facial structure and give the face character; and the large splotches of black evoke a tuft of hair at the top and a collar below.
The image is on an old metal shield that protects the side of the building from being scuffed by cars as they enter a garage. Misguided cars hit the yellow shield creating blemishes and grooves of varying depth. Each groove and scuff is the mark of an accident, a miscalculation. And the collective accident gives us a skilled image of a concentrated face. (And you thought New Yorkers couldn’t drive!)
Hundreds of fumbling hands contributed to the creation of this sketch, but it would be metaphorical at best to call it a collaborative artwork. For one thing, it’s not an artwork. Whatever artistic meaning it seems to have is clearly injected into the scuffs by our clever minds. At first I thought it looked like a Kabuki actor, but then it reminded me of an old sketch of Arthur Rimbaud by Frédéric-Auguste Cazals. (Just imagine if Rimbaud turned his head fifteen degrees to the left.) Then I realized it’s actually Keanu Reeves. Anyway, even if it were art, it couldn’t be a collaboration, properly speaking. For each contribution is made randomly and independently of the others. It’s just one mark after the next.
The concept of artistic collaboration is slippery. New York Magazine’s 31st reason to love New York City in 2009 is “Because Our Street Art is Collaborative.” They cite the increasingly cluttered wall on 22nd Street in Chelsea as an example. Street artists have a tendency to find little spots to inundate with their art. Places like Chelsea’s W. 22nd Street, or the “Candy Factory” on Wooster Street in Soho look like giant chaotic collages filled with art of various styles, influences, meanings, sizes, media, and skill levels.
But it is not clear that these street art mélanges are collaborative artworks any more than the “Keanu car creation” is. Sure, each artist is intentionally contributing her artwork to the pile, but not (normally) as part of a larger artwork — they’re just putting their piece up for its own sake in a place where there are tons of other pieces and (therefore) high visibility. That’s not to say that there aren’t any street art collaborations, or that none of these improvised art collections contain collaborative elements. It’s to suggest that these concentrations of art are not best understood as collaborative street artworks.
The problem is that these spaces become normalized as places where “street art” belongs. And when a particular location becomes the place where one puts (finds) street art, it paradoxically threatens the street artistic status of artworks that inhabit the spot. It threatens to transform the space into an outdoor art gallery. But if a spot becomes a generic place-for-art, then that place’s status as “the street” is threatened, which in turn threatens the street artistic status of the art that uses the space.
This sentiment is expressed, perhaps unwittingly, by a hilarious sign someone put up at the Candy Factory last May. Someone slapped a generic sign that says “street art” (in Helvetica font) right over a Shepard Fairey wheatpaste. In doing so they both make explicit the space’s status as a generic street art place and send a mean little message to Fairey, insinuating, “Your artvertisements don’t even belong in this generic place for street art.” The bald simplicity of the sign reflects the normalized status of the predictable place where Das Man puts his edgy art.
If these are collaborations, then they are not collaborations on an artwork, but on giving street art a bland home that threatens to strip it of its significance. These spots are better understood as regressive attempts to create gallery spaces in public. They are street art’s misguided version of the cluttered salons of 18th and 19th century Paris. If they are a “collaboration,” then these artists are working together on a messy project.
So let’s revise:
Reason #31.1 to love New York City in 2009: Because our street art is some of the world’s best, and our cars make images of Keanu Reeves.