It's difficult to miss street art. In the same way as space invaders, which deploy their network in the great global metropolises, the "art of the street" puts itself on display, exhibits itself, insinuates itself into the smallest urban interstices and crevices in order to put itself on the stage, irresistibly passing from the shadows into the light.
- A chronicle by Heloise Balhade, urbanist.
Urbanism and Land Planning | The World
It seems like a distant time when graffiti artists and taggers - whom some readily taxed as vandals - worked clandestinely. Street art has made a name for itself, and even better, today, it is more and more sought after, whether by major brands, art galleries, and even public collectives. Beyond the debate on what is beautiful, it interrogates the place and role of the artist in the public space and in the process of [creating] the city fabric.
The Polemical Invasion of a New Popular Street Art
All the French and international metropolises that see themselves as dynamic - from Marseilles to Berlin, going through Johannesburg, Sao Paulo, Valparaiso, Nantes, Jerusalem, and many others - adorn themselves with the colorful works of the new messengers of our modern times. The renown acquired by certain street artists flatters national egos. France is not missing out with its JR, Space Invader, Miss Tic, or even C215, among the most well-known.
A debate has been raging for several years in the street art world - largely relayed by the media. The paradigm is the intensive presence of certain artists on social networks, all the way to blogs, films (Bansky,) apps (JR), or even branding ("Obey" by Shepard Fairey). While tags and graffiti are compared to vandalism, the new paintings and stencils are considered works of art - something that does not fail to unleash passions around the market value of these works, counter to the essence of their process, which is free, public and reversible.
The debate is elsewhere. Whether "activists" or "artists," the city is their environment for action, the street their expression buffer, society their source of inspiration. Whatever their message, they interrogate public space as a meeting place, rise up against its privatization, against the ubiquitous presence of advertising, lay claim to liberty of expression, distract from representations, common places, and reveal forgotten spaces. These urban explorers reveal the city as a palimpsest, an allegory, but above all, as a place for dialogue, relationships, as a system of meaning and value.
During a conference on the "Rewriting of the Political World through Contemporary Public Art (1), Christian Ruby, PhD and teacher, analyzes: "Contemporary public art has largely conquered today's street, all the while trying to destabilize the streets that are very neatly connected to the rationalization and occupation of space ... In sum, this is not without often participating in the denunciation of the moral order established by certain urbanistic or aesthetic practices."
The actual context allotted to skepticism, disengagement - all the way to the disenchantment - of city residents, and more generally the citizens, constitutes the compost of "street artists." Their activity fully subscribes to the democratic re-appropriation of the city (2). Such practices actively participate in the emergence of a process of the fabrication of the city that is alternative, open, iterative and collaborative. In addition, the values of sharing, being free, dialogue between generations and social classes, but also of the reversibility that drives them, stimulate citizen participation.
The Institutionalization of Street Art: Ultimate Treason or Stroke of Genius?
The case of fallow and neglected urban land is edifying in this respect. The atypical places - utopian? - are historically taken over by street artists who find terrains for experimentation there at the scale of their own ambitions. A good number of them have become high places of urban culture, popular and, more and more, "bobos," victims of their own success. Let's briefly make mention of La Belle de Mai in Marseille, the Isle of Nantes or even the Niel barracks in Bordeaux.
Thus, the institutionalization of street art would be nothing more than the recognition of the social and urban utility of such a practice, of its symbolic and mobilizing form? The liberation of neglected urban spaces by street artists enters into a process of the re-symbolization and re-integration of these places in the collective urban imagination - sometimes, at the scale of an entire city, like Baltimore (3).
It's to this process that subscribes the strategy of the development of galleries for street art, with the negotiation of wall sections directly with collectives and social landlords, without financial return. Going even further, the "In Situ" project in the Fort d'Aubervilliers was imagined by an organization, Art en Ville [Art in the City], which negotiated with AFTRP, the fort's manager, the state, and its collectives. It was able to offer this unused enclave so that a project should transform it into an eco-neighborhood for street artists and then for the public during the time of its transition. In Ivry-sur-Seine, "French capital of street art," this process gave rise to the creation of an HQAC label - Haute Qualite Artistique et Culturelle [High Artistic and Cultural Quality] - working for the integration of an "artistic strategy for a restructuring program"(4).
Territorial Marketing, Independence and Externalities
So, in the current context of the race for the image of the brand and the attractiveness of metropolises, the presence of works of street art is forcibly driven to be a marker for dynamism and "creativity"(5). Hence, the attempt of elected officials to turn it into a pillar of cultural territorial marketing is irresistible.
Problem: What is the spontaneity in these interventions? Worse yet, what about the independence of these artists? According to Mehdi Ben Cheik, director of the street art gallery Itinerrance in the 18th arrondisement of Paris, the artists remain independent since they work for free and have no economic aims beyond a certain level of visibility for their work. In the same sense, the artist Invader declares, "Why should we have institutions against us if they are proposing to us the realization of a beautiful piece? I call that my legal 1 percent"(6).
However, it is still more and more difficult to ignore the externalities generated by the works today. If they are positive in the change of perspective they imply, they could however be accompanied by the creation of annuity situations, capable of generating a real estate tension that escapes them. It's there that public policy needs to intervene.
While some "star artists" export themselves, street art remains eminently contextual. If certain people regret the "wisdom" of certain works, the counter examples that testify to their liberty of expression are not lacking. The erasure of the commissioned fresco by the Italian artist Blu at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2008, an acerbic painting, against war, is emblematic.
Whether we love it or hate it, street art thus would not know how to remain indifferent, in such a way fulfilling its polemical role.
(1) Conference held at the Academie de Lille in March 2007
(2) A process, both institutionalized with the new divisions of public space into projects and urbanism documents, but also by more alternative and activist practices, such as the green guerilla
(3) See the article by Stephanie Baffico: "Baltimore, creative city? The Cultural Impulsion for an Urban Renaissance," Revue Urbanites, January 2014
(4) Extracted from the website of the Atelier Trans305
(5) In the sense of the "creative class," theorized by Richard Florida
(6) L'Express, "Street Art: A Movement that is Becoming More Institutionalized," Julie Bordier, Feb. 15, 2013