Saturday, September 12, 2009

Graffiti Archaeology

My last posting on street art made me realize that archaeologists have not embraced modern graffiti as an object of scientific documentation. Graffiti is a vernacular art form (like tattoos and sticker art) that doesn't comfortably fit in museums (unless re-presented by Jean-Michele Basquiat or Banksy). The strength of vernacular arts derives less from creative individuality and more from the overabundance, variation and statistical distribution of its specimen. Graffiti is ephemeral, derivative and formulaic. Archaeologists and anthropologists are hence uniquely trained to document and study it. After all, archaeologists have been studying ancient graffiti for centuries. Measured drawings, location in space, codified systems of analysis and other such tools are essential in creating a complete record of an artifact that will ultimately be destroyed.

As far as I can tell, those tools have not been pervasively applied to street art. Many thanks to Nick Stap for pointing me to the direction of Graffiti Archaeology. Conceived by Cassidy Curtis, a computer programmer from San Francisco, Graffiti Archaeology is an exemplary project of recording graffiti's temporal dimension (creation, preservation, defacement). The Archaeological Institute of America understood the project's significance back in 2007, see Samir S. Patel "Writing on the Wall,"
Archaeology 60:4 (Jul./Aug. 2007). Using Flash-based animation, Curtis illustrates the changes of graffiti walls over time. Graffiti Archaeology has also built a democratic platform, where thousands of individual contribute their images to the public domain (through Flickr). Today for instance, Flickr's Graffiti Archaeology group includes 7,484 members (+1 when I signed up) and 70,338 images. The images are beautiful but lack any documentational discipline (size, scale, color value, location, angle). The only disappointing aspect of the project is that the interactive website features only 13 sites. Technical documentation is so labor intensive as to cease being democratic (Hannah Arendt comes to mind).

I know a couple of archaeologists who photograph street art and graffiti. Bill Caraher and Dimitris Plantzos, for instance, have included images on their blogs. I personally just singed up on Flickr's Graffiti Archaeology group and submit samples, like the image above, which I took in Philadelphia on May 13, 2002. I remain pessimistic, however, about the value of this endeavor. Flicks is inundated with street art images. They are simple photos, accumulating day by day, without any clear direction. I browse through Flickr's Philly Street Art group and find 381 members and 5,277 images. I cannot see how adding my image to this pool will help anyone's understanding of street art.

Speaking of ephemeral arts, I must confess that yesterday, I committed my first political act at Franklin and Marshall. I succumbed to two students and signed a petition. Arts House is a residence dedicated to art majors, who take pride in decorating theis spaces with original murals. Returning from summer vacation, the students discovered that F&M had painted all the walls without ever consulting them. From what I can tell, the college has been tightening the reigns on its properties because the city of Lancaster is inspecting more scrupoulously. Two fraternity houses, for example, were closed down because of city code violations. The residents of Arts House are petitioning more self control in the management, display and preservation of their art space. Not knowing all the details, I agreed in principle and signed the petition, encouraging the college to relinquish some control to creative interventions. The petition, however, has not addressed the more interesting question of governance. How will Arts House codify the destruction and recreation of its own murals?

1 comment:

Colleen said...

Sven Ouzman has written extensively about graffiti and archaeology, and there are quite a few of us archaeologists who photograph graffiti. :)

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States