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Graffiti Figure Admired as Artist Now Faces Vandalism Charges

Despite being having been accepted in the art community as a well-known and signifiant graffiti artist, Alan Ket, a CEO and the graffiti and environment consultant on Marc Ecko’s Getting Up, was prosecuted on graffiti charges using mostly evidence found on his computer:

The case could pose an important test for prosecutors and the police, since Mr. Maridueña was never caught in the act and has no previous criminal record in New York City. Instead, the government’s case appears to be based largely on what prosecutors say is the unmistakable detail of his graffiti signature — his “KET” tag — and the fact that the tag is visible on photographs of illegal subway graffiti that were entered into Mr. Maridueña’s home computer only hours after identical work was discovered on subway cars.

That’s right. He was never caught in the act. The only evidence is his tag and image files on his computer. This is one of those cases in which new media and the internet have that ambiguous relation to power. On the one hand, you can put up your images so the whole world can see. On the other, those images link back to your real world body and state legal action. Having a graffiti tag is a lot like having a screenname. It isn’t a legal birth name. You wouldn’t sign your checks with it. Part of the reason you use a tag name is to detach the art from your physical, open-to-legal-sanction body. Similarly, screennames have been hailed as detached from the body as well, offering a kind of telepresence as opposed to embodiment. Setting aside the problems with that position, this example of Alan Ket demonstrates how power still manages to function in the same way; through presence and signature, even when dealing with codenames and digital media.

My final thought on this: what kind of precident is being set? Images and videos of people getting up are all over the internet. Will law enforcement just start going after anyone with graffiti videos on their YouTube account? Will this stiffle some of that activity which seems strongly correlated with the upswing in popular attention to what has classically been a marginalized artform? What happens to a blog like Wooster Collective, which has an oddly appropriate image up today?

Great Music, Urban Environs

I was interested by this little “experiment” done by the Washington Post, in which Joshua Bell, a famous classical musician, played in a DC subway to see if anyone would stop.

I generally hate this sort of dressing up in sheep’s clothing experimentation made mainstream by Tyra Banks and 20/20. However, this project is less about attempting to experience poverty and more about intersections of art and daily routines. Really interesting questions here about the power of routine in the everyday, art, taste, street performance, and relation between classes.

This is my favorite quotation from the article, in which the music experts marvel that the power and beauty of the art did not have a more significant attraction to the passers-by:

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world’s great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

“Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”

So, a crowd would gather?

“Oh, yes.”

And how much will he make?

“About $150.”

Thanks, Maestro. As it happens, this is not hypothetical. It really happened.

“How’d I do?”

We’ll tell you in a minute.

“Well, who was the musician?”

Joshua Bell.

“NO!!!”

Setting aside the universalist assumptions about good art, interesting questions are raised here about spectacle. Precisely, what kinds of spectacle distract us from daily life? Does spectacle require a recognizability rather than an aesthetic? Is it more context and social significance than the actual object of attention? Only about 4 of the over 1000 people who passed saw this as something to stop and look at, despite the staging, video taping, and soundtrack. Interestingly enough, Joshua Bell is, I guess, known for being a showman and proposed the performance himself, not as a sociological experiment but just to show off his stuff.

Ethical spectacle

An interesting argument found on the Slate.com summarizing Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe. The short summary is that progressives fail to understand the power of spectacle in contemporary politics.

Worse, today’s progressives fail to tap into America’s collective unconscious through spectacle, which Duncombe defines as “a way of making an argument … through story and myth, fears and desire, imagination and fantasy.” Republican Party leaders don’t hesitate to derive inspiration from Madison Avenue and Hollywood. George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo-op may have backfired, but it demonstrated an impressive commitment to spectacle. In this way, Republicans are actually far more populist than the New Democrats.

Duncombe claims that progressives have lately become more involved with top-down, passive spectator politics. Argument, write your congressman, civil protest, etc. The right, on the other hand, has a firm grip on Hollywood-style spectacle to capture imagination and fantasy — see “Mission Accomplished” staging.

Duncombe’s solution is for progressives to study games like Grand Theft Auto [hey!] to try to understand why stable middle-class voters want to pretend to car jack and kill cops all night. His hunch is that GTA offers a kind of participatory involvement in fantasy production that the current political modes can’t.

So, how might today’s progressives develop an alternative political aesthetic? Duncombe suggests that Democrats co-opt and transform the fantasies against which they have for so long inveighed. He urges progressive activists, for example, to study video games like Grand Theft Auto. Doesn’t the game’s popularity blatantly indicate that many of us fantasize about carjacking and other violent crimes? Yes, it may, admits Duncombe, before drawing a more optimistic conclusion. “If a game offers power, excitement, and the room to explore, people will play evening after evening after evening, almost regardless of the results,” he writes. “Perhaps the problem is not that people don’t want to get involved in politics, but rather that they don’t want to take part in a professionalized politics so interested in efficiency that there is no space for them, or they don’t want to spend time in a political world so cramped that there’s no freedom to explore and discover, to know or master.” Which brings us back to where we started: How can progressives invent a political process that figuratively and literally involves us?

He calls then for an ‘ethical spectacle’:

“Our spectacles will be participatory: dreams the public can mold and shape themselves,” he claims. “And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire.”

This bears a reconsideration of what a spectacle is. According to Lefebvre, Debord, and the Situationists spectacle is inherently passive, not paticipatory, a distraction from the displeasure of labor. Even so, with the Web 2.0, perhaps the spectacle of the future is one that calls for our involvement. Sticking to Duncombe’s argument, the form of serious critical engagement and stern engagement with facts that materialists [Debord certainly wasn’t one] would desire is what led democrats to their current impotence, isolated from the dreams and desires of regular folks.

I am not sure that makes it truly participatory in liberating fashion, however. If we go to Zizek on this, our fantasies have always been participatory without being liberating. The commodity exchange for example is a prime example of relation mediated by fantasy, however, it is the structuring of our consciousness and not a choice of a social future. Also, as Zizek points out in Marx, capitalism constantly forces a choice which is not one, exemplified in the ‘freedom’ to sell one’s labor on the open market. Global capitalism is thus precisely a kind of participatory fantasy without freedom.

On the whole the article raises an interesting question: Can the spectacular fixation already captivating society be used to foster political engagement and to forward a progressive agenda? And, I agree with its fundamental assumptions, that imagination is not singular, is not apolitical, is intimately invovled with how we conceptualize our world and that there is no true outside the society ofspectacle, only working within it. My problem, however, is the assumption that tapping into imagination is more exploratory or liberatory by default, which is what this article seems to suggest. Yes, it would be great if politics were open to exploration and fantasies and imagination were mobilized for progressive political ends. The question is whether or not this can be done without lapsing into distraction or the replacing of one version of utopia with another.