Street Art World by Alison Young (Professor of Criminology at the University of Melbourne and author of Street Art, Public City and Street / Studio), was recently published by Reaktion in October 2016. This title has already been reduced to half of its publisher’s price by Amazon and appears a long way down in its list of books on the subject – superseded by Street Art from Around the World; The World Atlas of Street Art; London Graffiti; Wild Art; Street Art in the Counter Culture, etc., etc. It is almost as if the notion of street art can’t keep up with its own currentness – to think about street art is to conjure images of the now, the new and the hip. Collapsed with urban tourism it is both counter to and synonymous with the idea of urban chic. There’s a sense of urgency attached to it as if at any moment it will be washed away by censorious councils or erased by the vagaries of taste or appropriated into the mainstream. Young’s book though probes just that – street art in the art world as defined by its commercial value, its place in international auction houses and collections and its commodification in market terms (that street art can be stolen is a possibility that is no longer new or shockable).
Perhaps it is the street itself that is endlessly compelling? A review of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin (Chatto, 2016) outlines the breadth of focus of the female flâneur, that wandering figure epitomized by Baudelaire and the dèrive, from writers from Virginia Woolf to Jean Rhys and artists such as Sophie Calle and Agnès Varda. The urban textures of these are set against an autobiographical chapter on Long Island and the purposeless and isolation of its strip malls and unwalkable streets where Elkin warns against ‘the creeping feeling that you belong’.
Elkin’s book is a contemporary alternative political history of women through the city whose predecessors include Elizabeth Wilson’s The Sphinx in the City (a deconstruction of the relationships between the urban, women and disorder) and Doreen Massey ‘s Space, Place and Gender. Massey (Obituary, The Guardian, March 2016: ‘Radical geographer, feminist, theorist and political activist’) applied her ideas to generate new insights and action which focused on four themes: spatial justice and the state, political solidarities, spatial divisions of labour and environmental politics. She engaged with the Occupy London and Take Back the City movements through imagining ‘the webs that tie us all together through relations of power’ and called for a view of London that’s ‘more complex and more multi-faceted and less dominated by finance’. Kilburn, where she lived in north London, she argued was an example of how London is impossible to understand ‘without bringing into play half the world and a considerable amount of British imperialist history.’ Her chapter on Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 work, House (James Lingwood, ed. Phaidon), was a model example on the insights of feminist geography on art, demonstrating the impossibility of reflecting critically on site-specific art without consideration of its wider contexts.
The Narcissistic City (MACK, 2016) is a book of images that photographer Takashi Homma made using a pinhole camera (a simple camera consisting of a box with a pinhole at one end and light-sensitive film or paper at the other) which he set up in hotel rooms in Japan and the US. The resulting cityscapes merge together in dissonant collages of smudged flat greys and blues and violets as he changed the positions of the camera to point in different directions. According to the publisher, the work probes the nature of the gaze and what constitutes the reality of the city. The fragmented photographs sometimes suggest crude screenprinted surfaces mediated not by ink but by light and its unpredictability. Doubt seems to permeate the blurred and smeared surfaces – they appear dissolute, ambiguous and dreamlike where concrete and glass is rendered in a liquid provisionality. Evoking the films and images of Robert Frank and Warhol (it can’t be helped) they have a cinematic resonance where the city becomes mirage seen from afar, through glass and across cultural time – a phantasmagoria freed from rational representation.
In considering Homma’s photographs Hubert Damisch proposes, in a leap of faith, that the black box of the camera ‘doubles as the city’s unconscious’. This was the Freudian allusion made however in Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, a book of photographs made in 1966 documenting the fragments of a typewriter thrown from a moving car crossing the desert. Cheaply produced, Royal Road Test parodied both limited edition photography and the culturally popular romantic idea of ‘the road’ as a journey into desire and constructed notions of freedom. Where Freud claimed that dream analysis represented the ‘royal road to the unconscious’, the negligible, overlooked and forgotten are elements which interest Ruscha (the photographs focused on details such as the typewriter’s broken keys and smashed carriage assembly). His recent pencil and acrylic drawings of old mattresses dumped at the side of the road – where ‘the road’ is an anonymous site of abandonment – follow his ‘Psycho Spaghetti Westerns’ (Gagosian Gallery, 2011) a series of paintings of broken furniture, tyres, cardboard boxes and pieces of indeterminate objects in states of decay, piled up against a slanting horizon and evoking ideas of transience.
In ‘A Walk on the Wild Side: Urban Ethnography Meets the Flaneur’ (Cultural Values, 4,1,2000), Chris Jenks and Tiago Neves unpick the concept of the flâneur as being intrinsically bound to a micro-sociology of urban life and the observation of the trivial, the ephemeral and the fleeting. They cite sociologist Zygmunt Bauman that the art of the flâneur is ‘that of seeing without being caught looking’. A forced sense of detachment is what permeates works of artists such as Christian Marclay’s stop-motion films on the detritus of the city where discarded items found on the street such as the plastic tops of coffee cups and cigarette ends were projected in a gigantic scale onto the wall of White Cube, Bermondsey; and Yuri Patterson’s Instagram images – with over 20,000 followers – of empty reception desks and rumpled packaging.
For all the ongoing fascination of the street, Durkheim’s nineteenth century concept of anomie seems more appropriate for our time, one interpretation of which is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community, the fragmentation of social identity and a pervading sense of inertia.