Seeing These Streets: Analyzing the Visual Landscapes of Urban Spaces

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Over the past fifty years, street art has become one of the most common forms of contemporary art in urban public spaces.  Sometimes it’s called vandalism and other times the more generic term, ‘graffiti.’ These aesthetic acts in public spaces are not only worthy of discussion, but also important to teach since they often contain social cues that help us decipher the visual landscapes in which we live. Teaching students an academic vocabulary to discuss street art helps them understand and analyze the nuance that can exist in what appears to be mere paint splatters on a street sign. An important conversation is happening in our urban spaces, and you don’t need to purchase an admission ticket to see it.

This intricate discussion on Street Art, Vandalism, and Graffiti is one that I facilitate every year at Manhattan Hunter Science High School, where I teach a Contemporary Art History class. For the past eight years I’ve taught this course, I’ve had complete freedom in terms of curriculum design, and I have constructed the class I wish I could have taken in my own undergraduate studies. In the course, we investigate and study exhibitions that are currently on view, and then go see them in person. I tend to focus on exhibitions that have an edge of controversy to them, as they provide the largest possibility for dialogues that have real world consequences. For instance, when the Museum of Modern Art responded to the Trump Administration’s first travel ban of 2017 by hanging work from their collection by artists from these banned nations, we engaged with that institutional response. When the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum received threats for featuring artwork that involved live animals, my students unpacked the disagreement. Each year the curriculum is completely reinvented but I always begin the year focusing on Street Art, since it addresses the abundance of contemporary art that is constantly being refreshed in our public spaces and it is the only art form that my students have unlimited free access to. Street Art has such a presence in our day-to-day lives, especially in diverse urban spaces like New York City, and studying its roots can provide us with a wider understanding of the communities that make up our cities. Through careful observation, documentation, and categorization, we can decipher the language and concepts that reach beyond the classic combination of spray paint and a wall.

 For many of my students, studying street art is a bridge between understanding aesthetics in the real world and aesthetics in museums and galleries. It’s important for students to learn to move between their usual interaction with artistic imagery (largely via social media) to topics where they can sustain elongated discussions and dive deep into reservoirs of big ideas. When setting up this unit of study each year, I have three benchmarks that I consistently aim to reach: students should understand origins of graffiti in the 1970s, the global impact of the graffiti movement as it evolved into the street art genre of present day, and finally the aesthetics of the local neighborhoods where they live.

On the first day of this unit, I’ll often begin by asking questions about the spaces where we live: “What does your neighborhood look like? Describe it with details from memory.” This exercise always yields interesting results and provides a baseline for how students will come to understand spaces in which they live, as each night they’ll go back and find something new for homework. Through this slow accumulation of observations, students develop mental maps of their neighborhoods and within a matter of weeks, their understanding of these spaces undergoes a radical transformation. The affordability of smartphones with geotagging and high quality cameras have been a major boon for assignments like this.

In the next phase of the unit, I introduce artwork from some local street art favorites with strong connections to New York—artists like Lady Pink, Cope2, BNE, Swoon, and the collective Tats Cru (to name a few). As these lessons continue, students consistently come to class excited to have found these works of art near their homes, and academic vocabulary starts finding its way into the discussions. Soon, students are able to differentiate between stickers and wheatpastes, between tags, throw-ups, and burners. As we unpack the aesthetic descriptors for the triumvirate of Street Art/Graffiti/Vandalism, this unit inevitably ends up orbiting around the central question of who is allowed to design public spaces.

The next stage of this unit typically reviews a number of artists that are getting up locally and internationally; we cover the wheatpasted works by Human Bote, the crocheting of Olek, the wide array of amazing work by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, as well as many more artists featured on the Houston Bowery Wall, 100 Gates Project, and the Coney Island Art Walls. Of course, we discuss Shepard Fairey, whose work sets off a firestorm of curiosity in the students, who learn that the Obama ‘Hope’ graphic, the OBEY clothing brand, and a slew of other images around NYC are all connected to the same artist. His work raises a number of issues, from political criticism to social justice to propaganda to appropriation. More than anything though, his work epitomizes the idea that popularity and power can be gained through visual culture—perhaps the most relevant parallel to the digital age in which we live.

At this point in the unit, both the idea of street art and the physical manifestations of it truly begin to rise to the attention of my students. I find that my morning inbox is flooded with images they’ve shot from their urban investigations the day before. Students comment that they cannot help but notice street art everywhere they go, wondering if it was always there to begin with. At this exact moment of studying street art, the mise-en-place has been set, and a final project is assigned: to create a video documentary for the visual landscape in their neighborhoods and in the process, find answers to the question of who has been affecting the design of the spaces in which they live.

This documentary project mixes anthropological studies with art history research, with a heavy emphasis on personal history. Each student must tell their story, tracing where they’re from and how those stories are visualized in their neighborhoods. Some students are wary at first—it’s difficult for areas of suburban Queens to measure up to some of the examples from class. I remind students that the point is not to find big street art names in their neighborhood, but rather to find out that their neighbors are artists who are working with the common spaces around them.

There are potential technical challenges with video recording and editing, but as long as students continue to bring in new videos and images each day, the process takes care of itself.  There’s an eagerness that takes over when students begin to learn more about the common tags and stickers they are finding. Often, students encounter a well-crafted sticker or wheatpaste, and research reveals it to be an advertisement for a product, often related to fashion or music (a corporate advertising technique known as ‘wildposting’). There’s always a tinge of disappointment when they learn this; like the clandestine aesthetic object they’ve been fascinated by has been hijacked just to sell a product. But other times they discover artists like UnCutt or Nicer (from Tats Cru) and begin following their work through Instagram, regularly updating the class and sharing news when their exhibitions pop up at Wallworks Gallery in the Bronx (one of the few local institutions that consistently exhibits new work by street artists).

Through studying street art, students can learn to look critically at how anonymous individuals are affecting the public spaces in their city. While some of it may look like vandalism on the surface, many students quickly realize that a wealth of effort and aesthetic precision often goes into these urban interventions. They begin to understand that everywhere they go has been affected by layers of artists and designers. Educators who teach in or near such aesthetically active public spaces can open this world of possibility to their students. And if you still have those around you who are clinging to the question of “Why is this art?” then I would paraphrase an answer I’ve heard once before: “That’s a boring question and it’s already been answered.” There are extensive artistic processes that can be found beyond the traditional museum or gallery—and it’s right outside your door.

Communicating Through Social Sculpture

At some point in every young person’s life they begin to learn the art of ‘code switching.’ It is this seemingly magical skill that can be like flicking on the light-switch of deep conversation with others who come from a different frame of reference. This is often generational or racial; though it can also be rooted in gender, socio-economic background, or national identity, just to name a few. For young people it’s often a trial by fire: learn to speak the language of the adults around you, or suffer the consequences. For adults, there is a bit more leeway, and in fact, there are both literal and virtual libraries to assist with ways to communicate with younger generations. Everything from child psychology courses to urban dictionary, there are resources for teachers, parents, and adults from all walks of life to decode and decipher the things that young people say. But code switching for adults is a bit different; to learn how to speak another language in your own language (purely to ease communicative woes) indicates empathy, one of the most understated aspects of all art and pedagogy (but more on that later).

To be ignorant of these other languages, or worse--to ignore them--is to play into hegemonic structures that ultimately create privilege and reinforce a dominant culture. And when a dominant culture eclipses the vocabulary of other cultures, they erase narrative, history, and over time-- collective identity. For years I’ve wondered if it was possible to construct social performances, or ‘situations’ as Tino Seghal would adamantly call them, that do more than adequately address or critique the hegemonic structures that are so easy to play into. I have always been interested in wanting to find and establish real working tools for immediate and frequent use so as to dismantle traditional power structures of communication. This is what led me to ‘Social Sculpture’ in mid 20th century. As a historical precursor of radical pedagogy, Fluxus fascinated me; and as an artist I found myself often enamored with the work of Joseph Beuys and his determined, often ranting persistence.

“Beuys’ notion of a social sculpture was rooted in polemic, founded in his experiences teaching (in themselves remarkable), and reinscribed through constant touring and lecturing, making chalk talks around the world. His very public lecture tours of the mid-1970s put the idea of an aggressive social sculpture out at a time when revanchist dictatorships were in full stride. His was a positive vision, preaching a hopeful role for art in a time when hope for many was closing down.” (Moore)

‘Social Sculpture’ as a term has been co-opted or transfigured by a number of artists and collectives for decades now. Though the political circumstances of Beuys’ time are not unlike our own, when populism and nationalism threaten to erase and silence others, now more than ever art should serve as a venue and an opportunity for problem identifying and solving.

Informed by these ideas, in 2015 I collaborated with Art Historian Hallie Scott on a piece called Talk to Me, which examined how we communicate and miscommunicate, specifically across the barriers of age and generation. This piece debuted as an interactive workshop at Pioneer Works' first annual ‘Summit on Pedagogy’. In preparing for an installation that featured teenagers and adults, immense debate was had over how these two groups would coagulate and collaborate. Both Hallie and I were hyper-cognizant of the risk of generating exploitative work at the expense of any audience, particularly young people. Another reference for us both was Art Historian Claire Bishop, who’s writing on ‘outsourcing authenticity’ was all too real.

“Artists choose to use people as a medium for many reasons: to challenge traditional artistic criteria by reconfiguring everyday actions as performance; to give visibility to certain social constituencies and render them more complex, immediate, and physically present; to introduce aesthetic effects of chance and risk; to problematize the binaries of live and mediated, spontaneous and staged, authentic and contrived: to examine the construction of collective identity and the extent to which people always exceed these categories.” (Bishop)

In Talk to Me, we worked towards allowing our audience, participants, and collaborators to be free to define their own roles and levels of engagement. This ethos reverberates through my entire artistic pedagogy, since it is largely about recognizing our common humanity. It is about seeing and understanding the world through a new lens, maybe even one we can share with one another. Developing empathy of course, is one of the prime drivers to solving communication breakdowns, and is a trait that really should be ubiquitous to the human experience--now more than ever.

‘Social Sculpture’, as it was originally intended by Beuys and his contemporaries, is a call to action: get out of your seat, stand up, and know that when you exit this room that your every action is the output of your social-political will. No matter the name or form the work takes, it should serve as a community corkboard, one that is most certainly multilingual, and one that emboldens all readers to do more than just pass it by.


Works Cited

Bishop, Claire. Deligated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity. CUNY Academic Works. 2012

Moore, Alan W. A Brief Genealogy of Social Sculpture. Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. 2010.




Review: Doomocracy

The artwork of Pedro Reyes’ has always held an optimistic tone, showing viewers how even the most destructive elements of our world can be transformed into something beautiful. His message has been one of resistance and defiance, like an unstoppable vessel in a storm of uncertainty and chaos. Reye’s most recent piece, Doomocracy, is a commission by New York–based non-profit Creative Time. Doomocracy is a social-political haunted house; a performance piece that brings participants intimately close to that same chaos and drags them across the room, down the hall, up the stairs, and agonizingly slowly down an elevator to where it drops you off right where you started, physically at least. In the past, I’ve left his work feeling accomplished and invigorated. Saddened but motivated—ready to challenge the systems that support the pillars of injustice in our country and in our world. And while Doomocracy is rich, ambitious, and complex in the sheer amount of terrifying issues our society needs to desperately address, it leaves participants with a distinctly different aftertaste than the last work Reyes has produced in our city.

Three years ago, in November of 2013, Pedro Reyes’ created his first iteration of People’s United Nations (pUN) that spanned two days at the Queens Museum of Art, located in Queens, NY. This brought together ‘delegates’ from over 200 nations for a weekend of discussing world issues and experimenting with social collaboration. I was invited to be a delegate for Syria, a nation in the midst of an ongoing civil war that continues to plague my family members abroad. While global politics can be a minefield of disagreement, People’s United Nations often felt like a celebration. We were creating this brilliant work of art in the very building that housed the actual United Nations from 1946-50. There seemed to be an internationally communal mindset that the leaders of our countries were absolute shit: squabbling over who could dominate the other in a race to see who could kill our planet the fastest. But the people who were living in those countries? Those same people that were now delegates in Reyes’ pUN? Amiable. Smart. Willing to compromise and even forgive. Reyes’ choice to include an Alien Auditor to settle disputes like war crimes, border crossings, and genocide was like rapidly zooming out from how our past disagreements had transformed into something beyond themselves. The motive seemed clear to me—we have to learn to apologize and accept apologies more often in order to realize the inter-cultural overlaps of our hopes and dreams for our planet.

Doomocracy is a major deviation in tone from Reyes’ past work, and at times feels as though the artist is embracing / unleashing his Id upon the world. Every ounce of his anger (and sadness) for the depressing state of our society is absorbed by the participants. Where the artist used to present alternatives and solutions to our local and global woes, Doomocracy holds up a cold and critical mirror. It does not forgive the fact that we’ve made a bed that’s riddled with disregard for others—we’ll be sleeping in it nonetheless. Moreover, Reyes will be

there to tell us a bedtime story, one that mocks us for being so optimistic and naïve that resolutions to our man-made dilemmas would simply present themselves.

On a physical level, Doomocracy abuses the senses of the audience, and shines light on how we’ve abused each other, our planet, ourselves. Each room you enter is teeming with mistrust for others and paranoia for the future. What may be most unsettling about the piece is the frank and unapologetic realism of it. There are few scenes that are beyond the imagination, merely representations of actual processes in our messed up world. A century ago, when the dust settled from World War I, artist Paul Klee came home from the fight and said “The more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract; while a world at peace produces more realistic art.” This notion couldn’t be farther from the truth in Reyes’ work. And each performer sees fit to that. Rena Anakwe’s dual roles as classroom teacher awoke an all too familiar response in the audience. It was almost as if sitting at those school desks triggered all the tropes of classroom malaise and predictability that Americans are steeped in for the first two decades of their lives.

At another point, after leaving an absolutely miserable waiting room alongside a soccer mom addicted to prescription drugs, the audience is pushed into an intimate space and flanked on all sides by references to sugary treats, along with a large, sweaty organist who is all too comfortable to engage with direct eye contact. It’s here that Matthew Korahais’ performance as a ‘salesman’ in the religiously themed Sugar Coffin room brought the realism of a sad yet beautiful eulogy to a new level. Telling a story that is as somber as it is sarcastic, he invites you to join in a fleeting moment of sweetness on a plastic disposable spoon.

Unable to resist, I’ll admit: I joined in. As the sugar hit my tongue, for a brief moment I had escaped all this social and political horror; this unearthly pinkish-magenta frosting hijacked my senses and all the dread I was facing seemed like it was going to be okay. Korahais locked eyes with me this whole time, almost knowingly smiling at my brief escape from Reyes’ theater of the damned. “Oh it’s good, isn’t it?” he mused, before our group was swept into the next room. And the next room, and the next. As we exited, I looked back at the coffin salesman and he just kept smiling.

Reyes’ unstoppable inferno has far more than nine levels, and many rooms contain elements of deception, so I would rather not go into detail on the rest so that the experience can happen fully and without expectation. One suggestion: Silence your phone, put it in airplane mode, or just outright turn it off. You won’t need it. There will be no selfies to capture this FOMO event and your time will be better spent learning to deal and feel through the layers of precaution that Reyes will be sending your way...there will be plenty of it.

Walking away from The Army Terminal in Sunset Park proved more difficult than one could imagine. The participants of Doomocracy lingered around the entrance, unsure. Some conversed in huddled groups. Some smoked cigarettes. Upon my own exit, I sat in the October cold and thought back to the final day of the People’s United Nations in late November of 2013—leaving the Queens Museum along with delegates from Haiti, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, and Austria. As we walked to catch the 7 train, I felt caught up in this moment, thinking that if more ordinary folks got involved in the decision making process, then we’d probably have less problems in the world. As I left, Doomocracy, I wondered if that was optimistic and naïve to think this way. Honestly, I’m still wondering that.

Though, it’s important to recognize that entering Doomocracy may be the last moment of innocence you’ll ever have when it comes to social and political discourse in our country. Recalling Alan Moore’s prescient writing from 1989, “How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.” Upon your exit from this performance, you’ll (hopefully) suffer a responsibility of conscience: every time you enter a voting booth Reyes will be there to hold up the mirror; or the next time you throw away plastic rather than recycling it, the mirror will show itself; or in conversation with a coworker, friend or family member, perhaps you’ll be the one to hold up the mirror. There’s so much hanging in precarious balance as humanity begins to draw its next breath in what has now been dubbed the Anthropocene, a new geological age we are living in when one species dominates the state of the climate and environment. It is conclusively inevitable that our global temperatures will explode, water will be scarce, and species will continue die off at alarming rates. We, the humans of Earth, may in fact choose to throw down our plastic bottles of sugary drinks and raise our fists to say “Enough!” or we may meekly ask how our demise could have ever happened when we were at literally every part of the engineering process. I wonder for Pedro Reyes, will there be forgiveness when there is no future? Or is it possible that there will only be the doom that we created, nurtured, raised to adulthood, and then unleashed upon ourselves.

Go see Doomocracy and find out for yourself.




The Language Gap

The Language Gap was born out of a very literal “gap” between Paul Pfeiffer and me. Through a series of discussions that occurred digitally from opposite sides of the planet (myself in New York, Paul in Manila), the two of us found a common interest in how communication skills are formed.
For Paul, it was seen in work he'd done at schools in the Philippines, specifically surrounding a class called Speech Choir, which was related to the rote memorization of English texts. And for me, I encounter communication issues every day in my teaching practice at a local NYC public high school. This is, as I've often said, where social norms get ‘poured into concrete,’ and the world becomes much more finite.

Paul and I spent a day chatting with the students about their own experiences with miscommunication and language, and we came up with four topics: Social Hierarchies1, Social Norms2, Accents/Dialects3, and Cultural Diffusion4. Both the artists and the teens agreed that most miscommunications have origins in these four areas. The discussions that day often brought up questions that we couldn’t always answer but could always relate our life experience to. It was a juxtaposition of connecting with something but not necessarily understanding the workings of it— and that became the makings of our workshop for Art21’s Creative Chemistries in 2015.

What followed was a small piece of awesome: For our workshop, we broke up the room into four groups: the teens each selected one of the topics and worked to facilitate and balance a group conversation with the adults in attendance. There were about three adults for every student, and the conversations we had were the result of each participant’s own experience and personal history.

In our debrief, students remarked with alarming frequency “when adults talk, they seem like they do it with purpose, as if they’re out to prove something.”

For a few teens, this caught them off guard, but for most they said it was all too common. Their parents, teachers, or any other adult they’d ever spoken to seemed to have an agenda. And ultimately, I believe the process of unearthing those agendas helps break down the social structures that seem to divide us—it put all our cards on the table. I wasn’t necessarily left with an answer as to how these kinds of language gaps are formed, but I certainly left with new life experience(s) to drawn from it; as did the students; as did the participants.

In closing, there’s a lot of hot noise about social justice these days, and how to infuse one's practice with it. But in the end, I would say real justice is simply providing opportunities for marginalized people to have a voice when it comes to political discourse—to share the mic when sharing perspectives. This happens when I help find my students employment, when they get internships at museums, and when they’re allotted a chance to talk to adults on common level ground. And for me personally, the result of putting a group of multicultural teens in charge of a room of multicultural adults couldn't be closer to core of what I had intended to achieve: to unite people by defining what commonly divides them.


1 Social Hierarchies were defined as: How certain people in society are seen to be "above" or "below" one another, almost like a caste system. It's unofficial, but it's there. And it guides the way we interact with each other.

2 Social Norms were defined as: How we behave in different company, how the people who are in the room change the way we act.
3 Accents/Dialects were defined as: The way we talk and how others may relate to us / judge us.
4 Cultural Diffusion was defined as: How we learn to imitate or blend into a culture we're living in.

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