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Macmillan Art Publishing
RRP: PB $39.95
Conform is a glossy record of and tribute to recent Australian graffiti practices. The book contains images of poster art, stencils, guerrilla slogans, tags and murals gathered by photographer, Saskia Folk, from various urban sites. While there is documentary sense to these images, they are framed and selected by the photographer, and given a sense of equivalence through the format of the book. The book contains no commentary or captions. Folk offers some explanation in quotes from International Stencil artist Banksy who has a utopian vision of the city.
The urban imagination has been shaped by photography, a visual practice which emerged with the growth of the modern city. In this sense the photographer is participating in a kind of dialectical urbanism characterized by the mobile gaze, fleeting relations between subjects and the world, negativity and alienation. Folk documents a series of empty abandoned spaces (a city abandoned by its citizens) in which a series of occurrences have taken place. It is as though the images are photographic evidence of a crime. We do not see graffiti being enacted: we do not see the graffitist at work. This focus is potentially mystifying of a practice which is often time consuming and considered. Folk seems to stick to the streets rather than traveling the urban trainlines covered in tags and murals.
The book contains examples of work by emerging artists such as James Dodd (whose practice also includes gallery exhibitions), images of cultural icons, political incitement, expressions of unspeakable sadness, and allusions to war and cyberculture. Public sites are a place of externalising and making visible the personal, the political and the consumer ethic of advertising and promotion. These messages collide and compete as the 'semiotic guerrilla warfare' described by Umberto Eco in the culture of hyperreality.' Graffiti is a signifier of the deterritorialized flow of global consumer culture's codes and simulacra. The medium is the message. These semiotic texts address the spectator-consumer as an active reader and interpreter. As there is a temporal aspect to graffiti and consumer desire-the message is temporary and transient-this document is already obsolete and redundant. The fragmented, mobile gaze and speed of hyperreality also posit forgetting and erasure.
Graffiti is celebrated as an expression of resistance and affirmation of difference in the face of violent transformation and estrangement of art and citizenship by technological reason, cybernetic totalitarianism and homogenising terror. It affirms the space of the possible. Graffiti is an enigmatic trace of practices by which subjects appropriate the spaces organised by techniques of socio-cultural legitimation. Debates around the practice of self-expression draw attention to the colonisation and exploitation of space and surveillance of citizens. The practice is a means of decoding and deconstructing ideologies (momentary culture jamming) while offering alternative readings of the city, art, work and consumption. Graffiti participates in discourses of power and everyday life as outlined by Michel de Certeau. 2 Strategies are official acts of cultural legitimation while tactics are those unofficial and subversive actions which belong to the other. From this perspective graffiti can be seen as the art of the weak or disempowered which comes from below.
Folk does not adequately consider the objectification and fragmentation of the text and its urban environment. Diversity becomes style, difference is inscribed into the consumer ethic and resistance is appropriated as numerable commodity forms offered up to the consumer. The Do-it-Yourself ethos of Graffiti is a means of customising one's identity in consumer culture. It can be bought in numerous ways in fashion, retail and music, both a product and a means of expression. The surface-gloss of style presents a superficiality profound in its depth.
Folk's gaze and the book's format shift from the perspective offered by Ronnie Ellis and I an Turner who documented graffiti in the 1970s.3 Changes in countercultural activity and political activism, the intensification of consumer society, changing cities, political and economic climates make the artist and consumer as much a cultural producer as user. In this sense graffiti conflates art and work, productivity and consumption. The legitimation of graffiti undermines notions of the artist as outsider, unemployed, antisocial and delinquent. The necessity of survival and streetwise strategies produce mobile and performative identities implicated in and working inside cultural institutions and corporations with an insider's knowledge. They are both consumers and producers aware of corporate strategies and the effects of advertising in consumer culture.
There was potential for Saskia Folk to ground her work in these debates and extend existing connections. The format without text could have been extended to identify the sites she documents and the work of artists she records. Folk's absence of critical engagement fails to consider whether much of the work she documents is derivative of styles and artists working internationally or whether there are moments of departure and cultural specificity. The work is a local contribution to a growing number of graffix documents which can be used as a resource in one's consumer practice.
1. Eco, Umberto, Travels in Hypereality, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York & London, 1986, pp.135-144.
2. De Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles & London, 1984, pp.29-42.
3. Ellis, Ronnie and Turner, lan, Australian Graffiti Revisited, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1979.
From Conform, 2004. Macmillan Art Publishing.