Posts Tagged 'empowerment'

Art, Posters, Graffiti, Stickers and Tags = Smear, Smudge, Scribble and Scrawl

Marja Salaspuro, Amsterdam — No discussion, No tolerance, No Smudge in the Clean Image of Helsinki. Zero tolerance towards graffiti includes a strong resistance against an open discussion around what is allowed in the public space.

Last week in Helsinki, a celebration of the Anti-Smudge project gathered as a counterpart, a public demonstration demanding legal graffiti painting places. The battle was ready, several participants of the demonstration got arrested, newspapers were filled with discourse of war. To be honest, I don’t care who is right and who is wrong (I guess nobody is perfect), but I want to spread a dream of more open discussion around what is allowed in the streets of Helsinki.

Hierarchical Division

Yesterday I found from my unloaded moving box following post card. It is presenting Slovenian artist Igor Stomajers project called ‘Foreign’. Foreign was displaying current verdicts about the different countries and was especially emphasizing the stereotypical division between East and West Europe.

'Foreign' was exhibited by Visual Corresdondents

 In Stomajers’ art work, the hierarchical division between the East and West changes once you try to read the sentences. The words tumble and meanings become interchangeable, just like in the current Graffiti/War discourse in Helsinki. There is a need to break stereotypes between ‘East’ and its scrawling subcultures and ‘West’ the Public Work Department of Helsinki city. In the end, a discussion about what visual elements are allowed in the urban public space should be an ongoing dialogue following the changing needs of the citizens and done in a manner which respects diversity and freedom of expression. Unfortunately, tolerance towards more diversified street communication is zero.

For those who are not aware, an Anti-Smudge Campaign has been in charge of Helsinki’s effective cleaning process towards all kinds of unauthorized street communication in the public spaces. The definition of ‘SMUDGE’ includes graffiti paintings, posters, stickers and basically anything added in the urban public space. The zero tolerance means that there are no legal graffiti painting places and even ordered paintings have been eventually removed. The project has been going on for 10 years, but effective cleaning hasn’t stopped the dream of more open discussion around what is allowed in public space as this weeks demonstration showed.

West has solved the Problem

On Tuesday the ‘invitation only’ event in Finlandia Hall gathered Clean Image supporters for celebrating 10 years success of Anti-Smudge campaign. According to their statistics: in 1998 there were in excess of 67.000 smudges or graffiti in Helsinki, while last year the figure was a mere 5771.

The ‘invitation only’ event meant also effective gatekeeping. The reporters were kept out. According to Helsingin Sanomat, a national daily, even two Helsinki city councilors Paavo Arhinmäki (left party) and Kimmo Helistö (green), were evicted to enter the event. Not to mention that possible contradictory voices such as Youth Department was not invited neither.

Not everybody are convinced about the efficiency of zero tolerance policy (neither that Anti-Smudge has proved anything else that cleaning is done effectively). In fact, the demand for neutral non-aligned research around Anti-Smudge Campaign was even headlined in the main national daily newspaper.

Article in Helsingin Sanomat 22.9.2008 (main newspaper)

Article in Helsingin Sanomat 22.9.2008 (main newspaper)

Meanwhile in the East

Around 500 people took part in a “Smudge Fest” public demonstration, which was organised as a counterblast against the Anti-Smudge campaigns’ Anniversary celebration. The demonstrators were gathering around Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art to demand legal graffiti painting places. By nine o’clock in the evening, the police had apprehended 27 demonstrators for throwing bottles, vandalising police vehicles, and spray-painting shop windows.

Afterwards the City is pressing charges for 1500 new smears which appeared during the chaotic “Smudge Fest” demonstration. Meanwhile demonstrators are accusing police force for being too rough, and the newspapers headlines emphasize emphasize ‘war’ position.

Calming down the young demonstrators in Helsinki

News material from Helsinki: Calming down a young demonstrators

How about some tolerance and understanding?

This blog post is an open invitation to explore more tolerant ways to approach the battle around visual street communication in Finland (and everywhere). Actually stickers have already taken room from paintings. 

If you have seen some incredible projects that were celebrating urban visual language, feel free to share. Helsinki needs new tools for expressing (legally) more diversified voices in the city space. Maybe creativity can be solution.

Example of Concrete Ideas:

At the moment in Amsterdam, there are several projects related to Graffiti as a part of urban play and more sophisticated methods (easier to ‘remove’ or temporary by nature). Two of them are presented as a part of the Experimenta Design and Picnic cross media week.

More information:

Graffiti Research Lab

Outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies.

Projects like Green Graffiti might claim a better status for Graffiti among entrepreneurial citizens: 

Green Graffiti

Our Neighbour Cyclop – A One-eyed Beauty

Trial and Error, Stockholm – In a deserted parking lot beneath a dumpsite in the Southern suburbs of Stockholm one does not expect to find much. But here a group of hard working enthusiasts have built a culture house called Cyklopen (The Cyclop).

In the part of Stockholm where we live, called South of the South, there aren’t many cultural institutions, except a couple of small libraries. So when a group of people offered to build a new cultural center the local politicians surprisingly said: ”No, we have enough culture here”.

Fortunately this was overruled at higher level and the culture house has now been built by those running the initiative, some of which architectur at the Stockholm University, and the result is this: Two containers upon each other on each side support a simple wood construction. Together with large windows and a drawbridge this is practical, low price and cool. Inside a big beautiful space opens up with stairs on both sides up to a second floor.

After the grand opening in September the house is now to be filled with activities, focusing on culture and politics. They discribe Cyklopen as ”an autonomous space, built on the principles of DIY and self organizing.”

Welcome our new neighbour Cyklopen!

Read more on their website/blog (in Eng and Swe) >>
And here is how it all started >>

Conceptual Devices / Superflex / Superchannel

To illustrate some of the issues that have been put into discussion on Point of view, regarding the subject of ‘conceptual devices’ – see posts underneath – I would like to introduce the project Superchannel by the Danish art group Superflex.

I am fascinated by the potential of empowerment and subversive use of the conceptual device as Francesca mentions in her previous post. Superchannel is a fantastic project that illustrates how such subversive powers can be exercised by means of communication tools.

The project provides only for a device – or tool as Superflex defines all their projects – which consists of a television studio and a broadcasting medium (an internet website). It started off in Copenhagen where a free-access studio (available for anyone to use) was build in a gallery. The success of this first studio encouraged Superflex to open new studios, gradually building a network of free-access studios. Some of these were iniated to explore and discuss specific social contexts, such as the Coronation Court project in Liverpool.

Coronation Court is one the oldest housing flats in Liverpool and was about to undergo a major refurbishment when Superstudio was installed. The project dealt specifically with the concept of empowerment because the studio was used as a tool for tenants to discuss issues such as the maintenance, renovations and the rent. They developed a medium that could not only amplify these issues, but had also the potential to create a community that, by its union, was able to participate in the decision making of the building and – on another level – create social cohesion inside the building.

A couple of things intrigue me about this project. First of all, the fact that Superflex has created a playful and simple concept which radically diverts the power of communication and distribution from television studios to their clients: the viewer. And secondly, the position that Superflex takes up as artists. They have limited their role to providing and maintaining the tool and have never interfered in the production of content by its users. This position, I think, is essential to reach the full potential of the conceptual device.

Currently there are around 33 studios worldwide, and around 30.000 shows have been broadcasted.

N55 / conceptual devices

There is a logical relation between persons and the rights of persons. Persons should be treated as persons and therefore as having rights. If we deny this assertion it goes wrong: here is a person, but this person should not be treated as a person, or: here is a person, who should be treated as a person, but not as having rights. Therefore we can only talk about persons in a way that makes sense if we know that persons have rights.

The above text is by the Danish art group N55. As you can tell from it, N55 deals with empowerment. Similar to art groups such as Superflex, Learning Group, but also Joost Conijn and Antonio Scarponi (contributor on this blog) they produce works that function as tools, vehicles (or conceptual devices as Antonio calls them, if I’m not mistaking, maybe Antonio would be interested in explaining more how he defines this idea!) that become meaningful and create content when they are being used. “To use” changes the art-audience into participants or users, and as a result the works directly engage into daily life as such.

N55 produced a huge amount of these tools/devices/vehicles: a home hydroponic unit which enables persons to produce their own food; a soil factory with which users can produce soil out of their garbage; all kinds of crazy modular living units that can be easily rebuild and transported and take up social life in public space as its locus (Public things, picture below).
The last years they have been creating ‘manuals’. In these projects they don’t create any physical objects but rather instructions for better use of leftover materials, space or practices. I love this idea of not producing anything, it’s very sustainable (there is enough trash in the world already) and it puts more focus on the using and the social dimensions of the works. Two ongoing works are particularly thought provoking: ROOMS and LAND (picture above). They both consist of a list of land and rooms that is free to use. In the words of N55:
LAND gives access to land. Any person can stay at land and use it.

Very simple, very effective and there are currently around 20 lots of LAND available, some at remote areas, some in the middle of big cities.
Please use.

Ps. You can download a very extensive and beautiful catalogue of N55 here.

Learning Group / Sustainable Art

I like about everything there is to like about Learning Group: their intentions, their way of collaborating, the issues they deal with and their methods and strategies.

Learning Group is an art group that is comprised of three other art groups (N55 (check out their Land project), Temporary Services and Tercerunquinto; all equally great) and as such they are collaboration to the power of three. They deal with issues such as sustainability, re-use of waste and self-empowerement.
I particularly have a crush on the the project ‘Collecting system’ (pictures above and below) which was carried out during an artists’ residency in Moriya, Japan. After studying the city (what materials and human resources are leftover or unused; what conditions people are living in etc) they decided to work with leftover cardboard. It was used to produce an outdoor cardboard dwelling (picture below) and the construction of a ‘Walking city’ (reminding me of course of the famous walking city project by ArchigramsRon Herron) during a workshop at an elementary school (picture above).

The feeling of playfulness on the one hand, and the seriousness and relevance on the other is what makes the project unique. A great combination of intellectual content and joy and improvisation!

Rotterdam / MSLM Magazine & exhibition


MSLM: An exhibition and publication or magazine (hopefully the latter) that started off last friday. Dealing with fashion for and by Muslim women, the organisation succeeds at emancipation and positive image-building of Muslim women. However, they face a couple of possible pitfalls as well.

First of all: at last an exhibition at artists’-run space Mama that is worthwhile and takes up a subject that truly matters. After the gradual departure of its founding members, one of the most unique and innovative art spaces in Rotterdam slowly turned bleach by piling up one pointless exhibition after the other. MSLM takes up Mamas’ former street credibility and sense of momentum and adds a portion of biting political relevance.

In the public debate the headscarf that Muslim women wear has turned into a symbol of suppression of women and Islam fundamentalism. MLSM magazine and the accompanying exhibition strongly and very convincingly create an opposite image: that of a young Muslim woman who is self-confident and self-determined; who self-consciously puts on her headscarf and proudly wears it as both fashion item or accessory, and as signifier of her identity. MSLM proves the headscarf is mysterious, concealing, fashionable, seducing and very female, furthermore, it makes the user stand out as an individual.

Nonetheless, the organisers face some complicated issues. Despite the fact that the entire editorial team is comprised of young, female Muslims, the editor-in-chief is Dutch and not Muslim. She deserves all credits for pulling off a fantastic job and putting the issue on the map – the exhibition was on national news, front page news in the largest news papers and as such successful in putting Muslim women positively in the public debate. Nevertheless I wonder if the organisers should have put themselves in another position as such. For instance as initiators and project leaders and rather leave the entire editorship to Muslim women.
This is essential, because similar to the freedom of choice of wearing a headscarf, Muslim women should also be entirely in charge themselves in deciding how they are being presented. A final – and necessary – step the organisation needs to take towards complete emancipation.

Finally, my favourite piece in the exhibition: a video by Nicole Martens who filmed women one-on-one putting on their headscarfs. She lays focus on the pride and self-consciousness of the act, and puts the person who is putting it on in the center: a free and self-determined individual.

More on the magazine, check the website of Studio beige who did the better-than-vogue design
Until 10 June at Mama, Witte de Withstraat 29-31


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