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My Space

Why four BC artists go the wall for public art.

By Bryan Zandberg 15 Jun 2007 |

Bryan Zandberg is the assistant editor of The Tyee.

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Vandalism or art? Photo by Mark Dahl.

Lauren Marsden is a waitress by day, "interventionist" by night. Translation: while her talent for pouring coffee is authorized, her habit of subverting of public places with art is not.

"There's a very fine line -- perhaps none at all -- between vandalism and interventionism," says Marsden of her guerilla form of art, though she's no spray-can wielding punk.

Instead, she's spent the last year knitting sweaters for the street signs on every block where she lived while an art student at the University of Victoria. They're not the bright and gaudy kind of knitting grandma used to make, but replicas of the signs themselves. It takes a sharp eye to see they're even there.

Marsden says it's a way to take power into her own hands and tell her story in places where she's not supposed to. And she says she uses sweaters over other forms of expression because knits are symbols of caring, and because so much time, labour and tenderness go into the craft.

"It was a reaction to traditional graffiti, which is normally quickly produced and not so site-relevant," Marsden relates.

The growing number of interventions cropping up around the Lower Mainland shows she's not the only only artist with an interest in reclaiming public space. Some people are even shelling out up to $2000 a year to hang their work on public walls. Why? Part of the reason has to do with the current status of galleries in the area, which they say are backlogged, boring and too limiting a place for something as important and social as art. And there's a healthy dose of anti-establishment sentiment mixed in, too.

Curate this!

Don't get confused between public and performance art, says Vancouver author Wayde Compton. "If you finish the project you can call it public art," he writes, "if you get caught in the act you call it performance."

But if you're asking yourself what's new about either, the short answer is nothing, says Marsden. She singles out movements like happenings, land art, performance and culture jamming as earlier incarnations with a pretty similar ethos. But the issues and mediums of the current B.C. artists set them apart from the past.

Marsden praises the gods of yarn for the fact that, so far, parts of her "Territorial Knittings" installation are still warming public spaces.

Oddly, guerilla knits have been turning up across the continent, including those by a clandestine Texas-based group called Knitta, (not to mention other anonymous Vancouver knitting-needle wielding folk Marsden's never met.) Knitta "bombs" U.S. cities with tagged sweaters wrapped around everything from "beer bottles on easy nights to public monuments and utility poles on more ambitious outings."

"There is a bit of a trend happening there with craft getting out into the public space," says Marsden. Craft, she explains, is increasingly being recast as a fine art, yet there remain few venues for it to be exhibited.

Digital digs

But it's not just on street signs and concrete locations; the Internet is a repository for the stunts of public artists, and is arguably helping to swell their ranks.

Take the green cardboard phones Victoria artist Chris Lin has been putting up around Chicago, for instance.

When he first moved there to enroll as a Master's student at the Art Institute in Chicago, he had no cell phone or landline, so he relied on payphones. But when he went walking around his neighbourhood, home to mostly Hispanics and Ukrainians, Lin says he was disappointed not to find any.

Alarmed at what the scarcity of pay phones meant for low-income recent immigrants, and also to play with the concepts of homesickness and how pay phones themselves are symbols of the people we call from them, Lin saw room to make art. He built a spate of spruce-green cardboard replicas and installed them in empty pay phone housings around the city.

It was sometimes a matter of hours before somebody pulled the cardboard replicas down, says Lin. But not before he'd snapped digital photos of them to put up on the web. According to Marsden, almost every intervention now has an associated e-mail, website, or blog address, all of which give longevity to what would otherwise be ephemeral.

Art unhoused

In fact, Marsen goes so far as to call the notion of permanence in art "antiquated." And each of the four interventionists who spoke to The Tyee referred, in one way or another, to a sense of "gallery fatigue."

Mark Dahl is one example. The 25-year-old door and hardware installer devotes much of his time to draping 20-foot white banners above vacant lots with bold poetic phrases like "gentle softness" written across them. He says he enjoys the "qualitative effect" of these on passersby.

"A fairly mundane part of our existence is the routine environments that we frequent," says Dahl, who aims to get people to see these spaces differently.

He'll genereally take public spaces over galleries to display his work because he's dubious of the power relations in the art world. "The Vancouver Art Gallery is supposed to represent something populist, but it ends up being a kind of container for cultural wealth," says Dahl.

'Stupid and pathetic'

In addition to bucking the notion that there are specific and 'legitimate' places to showcase art, there's resistance to galleries because booking one can take too long. After submitting an exhibition proposal artists often wait a couple of years to hear back from some galleries. "That's a pretty long wait for transient, emerging artists," says Marsden.

Galleries, for their part, are dependent on funding, which is often slow and unstable.

The potential canvas of the city, meanwhile, is immediate and next to limitless. Lin believes it's also where his art gets the most organic response.

"People's reactions are not as sincere [in galleries]" he says. "My work is funny and whimsical and kind of stupid and pathetic, and that's not the normal mode under which the gallery operates."

He says audiences are less prone to being fake on the street, where he documents their reactions with photo and video. "Sometimes people are laughing, people are confused or people are shocked," he explains. "I want the surprise shot."

Foreign interventions

Shock-value, rather than the element of surprise, is what interventionist posterer A.S. Dhillon looks for when he unfurls his politically charged banners.

Ever since 9-11, the 32-year-old Emily Carr graduate has been striving to alter the conversation around Canada's foreign policy. Troubled by the nation's foray into Afghanistan, Dhillon began finding that Canada's international activities (in Haiti, Indonesia, Vietnam as well as Afghanistan) were in stark contrast to Canadians' cherished and simplistic notion of being a peace-keeping nation and human rights defenders.

In the last couple years he's pasted between 60 and 70 banners in Vancouver and Berlin.

Eschewing a cheap can of paint, Dhillon spends up to two grand a year on his ongoing project. "A sign can be 50 to 60 dollars pretty quick."

So why does he do it? He says the kinds of messages often spray-painted on walls about foreign or domestic policy -- like "Smoke crack not Iraq" or "2010 riot" -- generally don't make people stop and consider the issues in new ways.

"My provocative text works are constructed in part to be digested before the viewer can get their defenses up."

Starving narcissists?

And how does this help the interventionists' careers? "It doesn't," laughs Dhillon. "But I could be wrong."

"I don't think it's hurting my portfolio, I think it's helping it," says Lin. His work, and photos of audience surprise, are earning him a reputation as being unorthodox, and distinguishes him from the pack in Chicago.

Career moves aside, making illicit art in public is a rush, say artists, who add that it's also part of a lively and anonymous urban conversation. Dhillon, for example, is a part of an ongoing intervention on Commercial Drive: someone has taken a picture of him looking at a picture, and glued it on the wall. He has no idea who's doing it. Fluke?

Another local interventionist stuck dozens of McDonald's stickers to a lit-up golden arches sign at a drive-through, for the sheer ironic pleasure of watching an employee scraping McDonald's propaganda from a piece of McDonald's itself.

Marsden will take visibility over "holding on" to her art any day. Besides, the web offers a whole new way to immortalize work.

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