Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Death of the Author in Street Art

You are an artist.  You have a painting you want to share, but fear it would lose impact if shared exclusively on the Internet (you do not want to shrink your design to iPhone dimensions).  If you want to share your painting with a broad audience, there are a few options:
            A). Fight the market for gallery space
            B). Fight vandalism laws and risk exhibiting your painting in a public space.
            If you choose A, your success might depend on your name—your relevance and talent are important, but there are hundreds of artists who want your gallery space who are just as relevant and talented as you are.  They could be from anywhere in the world.  They could have never stepped foot in your gallery—they might be dead---but their names are known, and this can be enough to secure them space.[1]
Still, there are ways of getting your painting into a gallery.  Your drawing professor in art school might know a curator, in which case you are fortunate to have the combined  $180,000 to pay for 4 years of tuition, room and board at the art school. You are also a minority. According to the U.S. News World Report, tuitions of the top art schools in the United States range from $22,270 (Tyler School of Art) to $32,858 (Rhode Island School of Design) per year. The median yearly household income for Americans is $50,211 (2). 
For many, art school--and all the professional connections it secures--is not an affordable luxury.  Hence the appeal of option B.  Though often dismissed as punk graffiti, alleyways and bathroom stalls can offer more accurate pictures of a culture than galleries, especially because so much of what is left in these places is left unsigned.   This erases any preconceived notions the viewer might have based on the artist’s name.  In Death of the Author, Roland Barthes says of anonymous texts:

“We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single "theological" meaning (the "message" of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.”  (1)

  Barthes is a true sociologist.  In this passage, he suggests that authors—and artists---do not go about their business in sterilized bubbles.  Their work is a direct result of the conventions their culture has established based on age, race, sex, education level, and a million other factors.  Like the texts Barnes describes, street art functions in “a space of many dimensions.”  The fact that it is often anonymous strengthens its legitamity as a cultural artifact, a “tissue of citations”.  The artist could be anybody: They could be your mother, brother, or neighbor---they could have been you.   The intimacy this creates is disarming, and can strengthen the aesthetic or poetic experience of the viewer who might feel distanced by the cold sophistication that is so often the stereotype of galleries in America.  For instance, to be a street artist, you do not have to be a college graduate.  You do not need to know somebody or knows somebody.  What get you noticed are priceless attributes: Courage, and a flippant regard for authority.
 In his essay, Barthes suggests the goal of a text should be “to reach, through a preexisting impersonality” any reader or viewer. (1) An unsigned image presents this very “impersonality.”  Graffiti is art in the now.  It is experienced for a moment (a lot of street art is designed to look good from a moving car or train) before vanishing again, traceless. If it is successful, it will leave an impression without the intrusion of the artist, whose biography can be found only when diligently sought out.
Here are two unsigned street poems:

We do not know if the author is a man or a woman.  We do not know their race, how old they are, or if they went to college.  We have no idea where the poems come from, and so focus on their content—and context.  The poems share a theme of neon grief, the strange loneliness that comes with being surrounded by bright lights in a city of unknowns.  They are appropriately located in busy, well-lit urban areas, and are stylistically similar, taking up spaces traditionally reserved for adverts.  Coming across the poems in the same city, it is safe to assume they have the same writer.  In this way, says Barthes, “the modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text.” (1) Coming across the poems, we, the readers, assign them personality and meaning.  There is no artist---no history, biography, or tradition to guide us. The “message” of the poems depends on us.  
            It is in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due that I reveal the name of the writer: Robert Montgomery, who, according to his website, “works in a poetic and melancholy post-structuralist tradition.” (3) Montgomery is known for hijacking advertising spaces and using them as platforms for his poems, which are almost always left unsigned.  He has made himself easily available for interviews, but speaks only of his work—his biography is avoided with careful precision.
Not all street artists are so willing to reveal their identities.  Banksy, by now well known, was determinedly elusive in the 80s, when his images first appeared on Bristol walls.  Since then, Banksy’s work has turned up on walls from London to Los Angeles—as well as in galleries and auctions. 
I want to talk about Banksy because he is an unusual case: A street artist who, despite all efforts to maintain anonymous  (Banksy is a street name) lost control of his reputation when a culture, seemingly at random, decided that his work was worth selling, and was therefore valuable.  Banksy did not try to sell his paintings.  People scrapped his images from walls, plastered them on canvas, and sold them on their own accord.  In his essay, Barnes stresses  “the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it.” The culture separated Banksy from his art, and it is the culture, not Banksy, who owns his images. 

      Keep It Spotless, a 2007 Banksy piece that sold for $1,870, 000

                The Rude Lord, a 2006 Banksy sold for $658,025

The Rude Lord, pictured above, was first exhibited in Barley Legal, an anti-art show put together by Banksy in the Hunter Street warehouse in Los Angeles.  By putting his work in a warehouse—a neutral, unpretentious space—and by not charging admission, Banksy was able to draw a considerable crowd (needless to say, the artist was absent from his own show).  That The Rude Lord, a painting made in the spirit of lowbrow fun, sold for more than half a million dollars is a testament to the power viewers can bring to an image. Roland Barthes would attest: “The true locus of writing is in its reading.”  The same goes for art.  To this day, Banksy only appears in interviews with his face hidden, voice electronically altered. Yet his paintings continue to sell.  If the artist is anonymous, the culture is free to make of him what they will—and because art is, for better or worse, married to the laws of economics, we have chosen to make Banksy a commodity.  
“A text,” says Barthes, “consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other.”  (1) What makes street art truly open to the viewer is it’s interactive nature. A viewer can add to it, much in the way that comments are added to Internet threads.  Because street art is wholly uncensored, these comments can range from profound to obscene to completely ridiculous.  Here is some graffiti I photographed in an alley behind the Castle Arcade in Cardiff, Wales:

I noticed a name scribbled on one of the St. David prints:


            Who is Becky?  Becky is whoever I want her to be.  Because I know a Becky, I am imagining a girl with short blonde hair who likes David Bowie, and who could take better care of her teeth.  Reading the name Becky, not every one will think of the Becky I know.  Deciphering Becky as anything other than a name is useless.  Everyone will think she is someone different; Barthes would call her an “open text.”  With street art, it is often impossible to “close the meaning”; texts seem to dangle as open-ended questions.  Here is some graffiti I photographed by the railroad tracks in my hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania:

It is strange how a specific name can be anonymous.  I don’t know the Chris the artist is referring to, but have, in my head, a concept of who I think he or she is. 

 I do not know what the writer of this intended, but I interpret it as a beautiful statement on the syllabic disintegration within language.  Or it could be a waste of paint. 
            “The unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination,” says Barthes.  “…this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.” (1) If, as an artist, you share your design anonymously in a public space, you are erasing your biography. Because there is an intimidating pretense in galleries (supposed “high” art) that does not exist on the street, your viewer is, more than ever, liable to relate with you: To make a direct and honest connection with your work.  Your viewer could be a child or a very old man.  They could be homeless.
            They could be you.

Word Count: 1,650

Works Cited:

Primary Text:
1.  Barthes,Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’, in The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 121-125.

Secondary Text:

2.   "Income." - U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. Census Bureau, 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 May 2012. <>.


[1] Monet never went to Pittsburgh, but a section of his water lilies hang in the Carnegie Museum of Art on Craig Street

Saturday, May 12, 2012

note from a rogue film maker

Dear Very Bored Person :

     My film is about the people who stopped me from killing myself.  It is 3ish minutes long.  The ish isn’t me being cute---It’s me saying I don’t know how long my film is because it isn’t finished yet.  Some of the people who stopped me from killing myself are dead.  Audrey Hepburn died of cancer in 1993.  Picasso died sometime before then. 

     Most are alive, though.  Bob Dylan is in my film.  So are Werner Herzog and Jack Nicholson and Morrissey.  So am I.

     So is Sherilyn Fenn, the actress with the beauty mark on Twin Peaks, a TV series written by David Lynch, who is old and will die soon.   My film is mostly about how the people who stopped me from killing myself are old and will die soon---if they’re not already dead.  For the first 2ish minutes the person holding the camera, which is me except when it's not, mopes.   He, she, it—the child, I’m certain it’s a child holding the camera—sees suburban houses as fancy tombs.  The neighborhood is husked in silence, but the child hears atomic blasts everywhere: Ka-boom the wind through the clotheslines.   Ka-boom the sun-glint of windshields.  Ka-boom the book on the windowsill (Americana by Don Delillo, who is old and will die soon).

     When I realized that even artists must, at some point, die, the feeling was like the blast from an atom bomb, but cold, somehow, as if the smoke were blue: A negative film.  An inverted winter.   Shell-shocked, the child wonders in winter.  Lies down.  Waits for a plastic bag to blow over her face and kill her.  Kill him.  Kill it.  Kill our Post-Gender Hero.

     It doesn’t, though.  The child realizes it’s not that easy. Nothing ends.  Nothing ever ends.  A million Hitlers couldn’t end things.   Neither could a million atom bombs.  Life stampedes over the bones of a million Audrey Hepburns, flushes the lyrics of a million forgotten Dylans into the sea.  

     Waiting to die won’t stop a six-lane highway.  It won’t stop computers.  And it certainly won’t bring the dead back to life.  You might as well get the hell up; After all, isn’t that what the people who stopped you from killing yourself did?  They got the hell up and got the hell out.  Made things.  

     The people who validated the child’s existence are gone. Wielding their memories like magic cameras, the child must validate existence its way

     The film is unfinished because the child, who is me, doesn’t know how to validate existence my way.  I didn’t even use the word “validate until this year.  I’m not completely sure I know what it means.  Because I took Latin in high school, I know it has the same root as “vitality”, which means life.   Validate, I think, is the verb: To life

     In the wasteland outside Pittsburgh where I grew up, kids spray paint train tunnels with wacky pictures.  Once I saw a worm eating a piece of cake.   Scribbled above the worm’s head was the phrase:


     These 6 words are brilliant.  They are my mantra as I validate my existence, which I do by making things that, because they are mostly pictures, I call Art.  Making Art is a slow process, like a really fat person getting up from a chair.  I cling to the vitality this process gives me.  Slow motion better than no motion.

     The music in my film is by Lana Del Rey and Jeff Mangum, neither of whom stopped me from killing myself.  I like their songs “Summertime sadness” and “In An Aeroplane Over The Sea" anyway.  You should listen to the songs by themselves, without my film.  They’re hip tunes.

     Walking back to my room from the library, I saw a boy playing a guitar.  I saw a seagull eating a sandwich on the roof of a car.  I saw a shiny, silver banner tapped to a door that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY.

     And these things are important.  I would not have seen them if I had a bag over my head.


    Rogue Film Maker

P.S. Because I am a rogue film maker, or a cheap one, I did not use a pretty camera.  I did not set out to make a pretty film.  Just one that made sense to me.  Filming was done with a potato.  When this failed I used a loaf or bread.  To be honest, I even stole some footage from other movies and screen-tests.  How else was I going to get footage of dead people?

P.S. There's nothing after the white noise except the memory of something beautiful we thought we saw once.

But that's okay.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

some old photographs, some poem.

Eulogy for a Philosophy Major Who Believed in God


And this is how things begin, with questions
you or me or even Dr. Ault can’t answer like
What is Karma and Why do young people die
in the Spring?  Our after-class cigarettes smell
wet and wormy.  Soggy sticks. Corpses--No!  Kids don’t die
in real life.  Not Here not Now not Ever and what’s real anyway,
man?  Puff. Tastes like Europe. 
Puff Puff. Spain.   


You roll your paper delicado, a scroll unraveling
a Don Quixote myth, his vision, your vision, my vision---
I’m confusing your vision with mine.  Puff.  Remember. Puff.
Remember the night I saw your veins
for a second.  Your match shone through your skin. Hot.
Delicado. I used to paint skulls over the Bible verses
in your pocket, saying Dr. Ault can’t be right about archetypes so
Why exist?  And you said Puff. 


I don’t want to lie.
I don’t remember what you said. 
Your match went out.  I went so Spain.
Your match went out so I went to Spain where your vision became my vision
And I am hot and unfair. And this
is how things end.  Thick.  Indelicate.
With questions.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

This is a post in favor of censorship

I only know that I love strength in my friends
And greatness
And hate the way their bodies crack when they die
And are eaten by images.

--Jack Spicer, A Poem Without A Single Bird In It

I am a visual artist who hates images.
Correction: I am a visual artist who hates untrue images.

An untrue image is a picture of a fairy. People believe in fairies. People create their reality. If enough people believe fairies, the fairies become real.

Mainstream fashion is notoriously discriminatory towards most body types. Gemma Ward, a young model, was criticized for looking "bloated" in 2010, when she walked for Chanel in a denim bikini:

The New York Fashion website commented on the issue:

"Coco Rocha has said that when she weighed 108 pounds, at 5'10", clients told her to lose weight. So how much can Ward have weighed at that show? 120 pounds? And that is, according to the industry, "big, almost bloated." A photo agent who worked with Ward said that for every model with staying power, there are twenty who don't make it past age 18 — that time when girls become women, and grow breasts and hips, and gain the weight that is a natural part of growing up."

We've accepted a realistic representation in fashion as a lost cause, but have failed to consider the impact that these images--not only fashion photography, but advertisements, films, etc.--have on a society.
On young people.
On my friends.
And, selfish fuck that I am, on me.

I am tired of how I look prefacing what I do. I'm tired of a society that values a single, untrue image.

So do I think that untrue images--images that diminish a person's humanity--should be censored?
Yes. Why? Because control of media is control of everything. Period. And an image that advertises an agenda rather than the truth is propaganda.


If I'm going to be criticized, I want the criticisms to address my character or my commitment to my craft. Not what I'm eating or not eating for breakfast.

I'm afraid that if anyone reads this post, they'll read it as a "FUCK YOU FOR SAYING I'M PRETTY" rant, when I mean it as a "FUCK YOU FOR SAYING I'M ONLY PRETTY" rant. There's a branch of feminism that maintains that as long as the woman has power, she is a feminist. If she wants to degrade herself, that's her choice, and isn't that just beautiful?

Fuck that. I don't know any human who, outside of fun&kinky sex, wants to degrade themselves. It's a slave mentality, the Uncle Tom of feminism: A woman who, happily, chooses to be seen as two dimensional.

Naturally, the same goes for men who want to be seen as more than muscly, car driving wage earners. This, too, is a single, untrue image often portrayed in fashion, film, and--worst of all--advertising.

Why can't we advertise self-reliance? Confidence? Generosity?

I hate that i wake up an hour early to do my make-up. I hate that all my methods for "self-improvement" revolve around weight loss instead of character. I know blaming the system is futile, that change starts within yourself, but this is the first time i've become truly aware of how toxic tour image culture is.
And here I am, working within it! I have only ever made images. It is all I know how to do, so I will do what I can:


and Run.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

stay golden

Gold, gold, gold.

Someone was bound to find it. Dig it up. Weigh it. Price it. I wonder who was the first person to say "This mustard-colored rock's gotta be worth something."

I'm remembering an Andy Warhol story, how he started painting money after a lady friend asked him "Well, what do you love most?"

Loving money is traumatic. It's always coming and going, switching hands, hanging out of some stripper's G-string.

I remember in kindergarden, being asked how I would make money when I grew up. "Veterinarian," I said because I wanted to bandage dogs.

In my public high school, we learned how to balance check books--there was a whole class on it.

I wish no one had to love money. I wish it didn't matter. No more poor people getting fat because they can't afford vegetables. No more humane societies killing dogs. All the kids who want to go to school in New York can just go.

Then I wonder: What would New York be without money? Or Los Angeles?
Or Vegas?

O America, land of a million sunset traumas, even now I hear the greasers in abandoned Allegheny junk-houses whisper...

"...stay golden."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You Are My Ulysses That I'll Never End

The streets howl with ghosts, the smell of cold rocks.

Edinburgh: Warm people bustling outside thorny houses.

I spend much of Scotland drunk/hung-over. Despite this I meet few Scotsmen. The hostel is run by Australians, and our roommates are French. When we meet, it is in an open door.

Ello," they say.

“Hello,” We say.

Ello," they say.

And so on. We must have stayed there, in the doorway, for at least two minutes greeting each other. We told them to eat a Hershey bar. They told us to watch Godard.

You have two minutes and an open door to communicate your cultural legacy. What will you say?

That night the Australians take us on a pub crawl ending at The Hive. Take the house from Mask of the Red Death and put a deejay in every room. Hang disco balls and strobes from the ceilings. Give Poe's worried guests cheap drinks and gyrating hips.

ViolĂ  Hive.

The next morning, I nurse my hangover with a peanut butter banana milk shake. Chelsea stirs a bowl of porridge. She's so groggy, she's talking about the future.

The Future: What I'm always preparing for / what I hope never-ever comes.

When we get to Dublin, the first thing we do is feast with our hosts, students at the local university. The three boys juggle studying and music (two guitars, some rat-a-tating) with happy yet critical cooking:

"Remember when Gregg burnt the chips?"

"Let's not speak of it."

When it's our turn to make dinner, I diligently chop half an onion before giving in to the Bailey's, already open. All is saved by Chelsea, her spicy, angelic pesto. I aid digestion by reading Flan O' Brian in a Yankee drawl.

Then, a party. The guests arrive. The smell of loose tobacco. A song by R.E.M:

The fear of getting caught
Of restlessness and water--
They cannot see me naked--

James Joyce is the slurred subject of the night. I never finished Ulysses, though I reference the book in my poetry. I love anything making me feel small: Highways, movie screens...James Joyce. My poems try and fail to hold oceans in paper cups. "No one's actually read Ulysses."

A chorus of objections. I stand corrected: At the Dublin city college, there is a whole class devoted to the book. The Irish fetishize Joyce much in the way that Americans build shrines to Hemingway's baby shoes.

Joyce and Hemingway: No, Joyce/Hemingway! By the time I finish a bottle of whisky, I'm convinced they're the same person, one far-flung sailor following s siren.

I've discovered the bridge between modernism and post-modernism. I want to call everyone I know. I want to give high-fives to animals. Break my bones and build fires.

Pour another drink.

The next night is spent in tense sobriety, huddled around a deck of cards. The game is Higher/Lower. We successfully guess that 34 cards are higher or lower than their previous card. The next card, card 35, has us biting our lips. We've come so far, we've drawn diagrams. Calculated probabilies. "Surely it's higher."




Chelsea flips the card, and we flip a shit.

The card is lower.


Thus concludes my Scots-Irish-week-long-bus-hopping-hubaballoo.

The sun was too bright, the cemeteries too old. I can’t describe it. The people were too generous. So much happened, and in so short a time.

You know when film makers adapt Hunter S. Thompson by layering images in glittery, drug-induced sequences?

It was nothing like that.

It was a bottle of whisky with no hangover, a night talking about childhood bedrooms. Another night spent dancing. Birthday candles. Castles. The most masculine lip-ring you ever saw. "Jaysus!". The smell of seagulls. A ghost story.

Then, my forehead against the bus window, highway lights stabbing my eyes as if to say “wake up, wake up—”

The feeling of missing something I never lost.

In the song Voltaic Crusher/Undrum to Muted Da (typical title for Of Montreal), Kevin Barnes sings "You are my Ulysses that I'll never end."

Even though I'm back to writing essays and drinking shitty English coffee, part of me is still traveling--Hell if i know where.

Somewhere, I'm putting off a shower, writing a book I'll never end.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


I call this 'Two Wes Anderson Houses Almost Kissing.' It is the best photograph i will ever take.

This morning, I got an email saying my paintings were accepted to be featured in a lil' lit' mag. Every time someone accepts my work, this is my reaction (sans the panning shot of past awards and published novels) :

I love the city. Especially now that spring's here.

I call this 'Two Colors of Levi Jean Almost Kissing.' It is the worst photograph I will ever take.

While getting my hair cut, back massaged, and feet detoxed at Ocean (a luxurious yet inexpensive salon. I didn't spend more than 70 pounds), I browsed the latest Vogue. Lana Del Rey was on the cover. I admire her (recorded) music, and her style--"Lolita gets lost in the hood"--so read the interview.

From the intersection of Nabokov and David Lynch

When asked why she didn't want to make another album, Lana shrugged: "I've said everything I want to say."

I feel like there's something heavy in me, a book, maybe. If i could just get it out, i know i would feel so much lighter. I wouldn't have to make anything again.

Academics are second to traveling. From March 4th - 10th, Chelsea and I will be in Edinburgh and Dublin. That said, I've taken to my Critical Theory class, especially our discussions about Untranslatable Terms. Here's an Arabic word that doesn't exist in the English language:

Ya’aburnee: Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they’ll die before another person because of how difficult it would be to live without them.

It's Sunday, and I don't want to do homework. Goodbye Internet. Hello dead white poets. Hello a song to pass the time: