In a Foreign Tongue
After the Tour
La Corunna, Spain 1990
The Improvised Image
and the Public Sphere
Urban Wallpaper is a series of photographs of distressed posters and graffiti taken between 1990 and 2003. Each of the images is associated with a European or North American city and selected to demonstrate an improvised montage defining contested urban cultural spaces. The layering and tearing away of posters announcing coming events signifies an important cultural practice though it is often seen as a kind of detritus or visual pollution (a number of cities have tried to control it.) This presentation will argue that the profusion of layered and distressed posters in a city signifies a dynamic intertextual dialogue, and exemplifies characteristics of spontaneous, improvised art traced as a thread through 20th C. artistic practices. As a challenge to hegemonic cultural formation, the improvisational nature of Urban Wallpaper suggests analogies with the resistant sounds of jazz.
The form of layering paper that is familiar to us as collage or montage has origins in Cézanne's use of passage--the interpenetration and overlapping of forms--as a compositional technique. Later adopted and developed by the Cubists, Cézanne's technique found application in the collages of the Dadaists and compositions of the Surrealists. The work of Kurt Schwitters--especially his Merz-pictures--shows a high degree of accomplishment in the artful composition of visual "improvisations" using scraps of paper usually destined for the trash heap. Both Dada and Surrealist artists used chance operations and improvisatory techniques to foster the use of the unconscious in their works. Duchamp's ready-mades, or constructions such as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) initiate an important exploration of found and improvised art documented by Jencks and Silver in Adhocism. The Surrealist activity known as le cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) uses chance operations distributed amongst a group of artists to generate random juxtapositions that subvert rational analysis. In mid-century France, Les Nouveaux Realistes--especially Dufrêne, Villeglé, Hains, Christo, César, Restany, Rotella--introduced distressed affiches into their explorations of cultural improvisations and contested urban spaces. The British Columbia artist Michael de Courcy continued this exploration in Surveying the Territory: Urban Wilderness Revisited, a 1995 retrospective of his work.
Walter Benjamin provides significant insights into these visual layerings and chance juxtapositions in a number of his essays--including "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"--and his unfinished magnum opus Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project). An ambiguous critique of bourgeois culture, Benjamin's work is keenly attuned to hierarchies of materialism, its display and archiving in a variety of repositories and collections. The ability to circulate freely within urban spaces has become indelibly associated with the meanderings of the decadent flâneur; however, Benjamin's peripatetic urban wanderer can also be seen as an analogy for the disinterested cultural fabricator whose choice of materials reveals veiled assumptions about cultural production and temporary autonomous zones. Guy Debord's critique of the "society of the spectacle" continues Benjamin's wanderings with the notion of the dérive (literally "drifting"), an important technique in the Situationist International's toolbox of subversion: "In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones" (Debord, 1958).
Urban Wallpaper charts the "psychogeographical contours" of selected cities by documenting the improvised juxtapositions--and deconstruction--of cultural announcements. Each image is a narrative of passing events requiring patient translation. Each image is a collective improvisation reminding us that the construction of culture derives from a series of contrapuntal actions partly ruled by chance within a matrix of protocols, and partly created by individual self-assertion. Not unlike jazz.
Images from the series Urban Wallpaper were presented as a curated one-person show at the Nanaimo Art Gallery in 1997. All of the images are found, not manipulated or torn beforehand, and taken under natural lighting conditions.
Tour of Urban Wallpaper images.
Cover Up! (Bleeding Edges): Images from across Canada set to improvised music for the group show Datastream 4 at the Nanaimo Art Gallery (Downtown), January 2012.
Signs on the Wall: Unsanctioned Images in the Public Sphere: This collaborative project with Tricia Irish examines graffiti and postering in from their social context to the legislation used to regulate it, with a specific focus on municipal legislation in Canadian cities. The website includes our presentation to the Visual Culture Conference at Kansas State University on March 10, 2005, and extensive resources on the subject of unsanctioned images in urban spaces.
Anonymous Identities (Remembering Community): Street art from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for the group exhibit Datastream 3 (Machine Communities), Nanaimo Art Gallery (Downtown), January-February 2010.
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