Opinion

Street Art as Public Memorial

A view from N5th and Kent of the block-long mural by WK Interact in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (image via flickr.com/hragvartanian)

There’s been a lot of talk about 9/11 and art around these parts lately. I can’t help but feel torn. I agree that some of what I’ve seen seems to be aimed at grabbing onto media attention. After any event of collective trauma public remembrance is part of the standard practice. The official public monument is an unavoidable part of this practice. 9/11 has prompted a range of memorials, from Paul Myoda’s “Tribute in Light” to the now officially open 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center. This kind of public art is important. There are a number of unofficial projects that serve an equally important role. Brian August’s “110 Stories” is I think, a particularly good example of effective, unsolicited public art. His smartphone application is an augmented reality piece offered for free online. Other projects range from photo documentation and public installation to street art. It is this that makes me wonder. What role can/ should street art play in a broader program of national memorials and monuments. Can we as a public take these kinds of installations seriously, or will the intent of the artist always be suspect?

WK Interact, "Project Brave" (2011) (all photos by the author)

On September 9, Wooster Collective posted coverage of this new mural by French-born New York street artist WK Interact. WK’s “Project Brave” on North 5th in Williamsburg is a block long tribute to the firefighters who served and lost their lives at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this project is that the artist collaborated on the mural with New York City firefighters, who posed for photographs. Including those who have been affected by tragedy in the creation of memorials and public art projects is key. While aesthetically this mural is pretty much par for the course in terms of the artists work the images are striking. While this is certainly not the case across the board “Project Brave” seems a positive if not exaggerated gesture in the right direction.

WK Interact, "Project Brave" (2011)

The ground up, gorilla approach employed by artists like JR and Swoon, for example, brings community focused art to groups of people across the world. Socially conscious street art of this variety can be affective in ways that official public monuments fall flat. What we need is an evolving set of criteria with which to address these sorts of projects. Perhaps this quote from independent curator Mary Jaob is helpful:

To know how well something is accomplished, we have to know what is its aim. By this I don’t mean a work’s surface description but its deeper reason for being (such as, to contribute to the health of a community or to social good or to the beauty of a place; to touch people, to change them, to have a positive effect on the way they feel) rather than immediate goals (like, to have a certain size audience, to teach children to read, or to convince people that contemporary art is great).

WK Interact, "Project Brave" (2011)

Note: There are many images of the WK Interact mural on Hrag Vartanian’s Flickrstream.

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