Customised City | icon 050 | August 2007 | icon 050 | August 2007

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words Scott Burnham

Approaching a billboard with ladders and razors, London collective Cutup peels off large panels of the print and slices them into small squares, reducing the vast imagery into hundreds of physical pixels that are then re-assembled.

What emerges is an entirely new image using only the palette of colours and textures offered in the original billboard. An advert for the mobile phone company 02 now becomes the face of a screaming child.

There is a collective movement to customise the city. Frustrating the almost universal municipal policies of zero tolerance towards what they generalise as vandalism, a fresh wave of guerrilla urban design is taking place internationally, taking the physical objects, media channels and aesthetics of the city as source material. To borrow from the lexicon of open-source software, the code of the physical city is being opened up, urban 2.0 style.

“A few years ago I started to notice video billboards popping up everywhere in New York. I hated them. They’re intrusive, ugly and dumb. So I decided to abstract them,” says Korean designer Ji Lee. He responded by creating Abstractor, taking it upon himself to alter the public video screens spreading throughout New York into something more interesting than advertising vehicles. Using two pieces of black, matte board, he covered the top and bottom of the video screen, leaving only a thin slice visible in the middle, creating a beaming, Knight Rider-esque horizontal line of shifting imagery.

Soon after Lee posted his motivation and methods on the net, variations of his project began appearing throughout the city. One of these was Light Criticism by the Anti-Advertising Agency, which placed cut-out, anti-corporate messages over video boards, while Jason Eppink’s Pixelator echoes that by morphing the original video into a bold sheet of 45 shifting coloured blocks.

Jackson Pollock once said, when explaining his departure from traditional painting, “new needs need new techniques”. A new wave of street-level creatives is reflecting an increasing desire to connect with and contribute to the city. Every conversation with street interventionists will yield the same words – “customising… contributing… engaging… improving.” The current physical city is seen merely as a starting point – its streetscapes malleable and interactive.

“When I realised I could actually become a part of the visual dialogue,” says Eppink, “I started looking at the city in a completely new way. The urban landscape was suddenly full of potential. Objects weren’t just objects anymore; they were opportunities.”

Leon Reid, another New York-based artist, plays a more aggressive game with the bric-a-brac of the urban landscape – bending, bolting on, re-working and at times re-welding objects in the street to infuse them with a sense of play, humour and, most importantly, humanity.

“I occasionally stumble upon an area so devoid of either life or humour that I have an incredible urge to contribute something,” he says. “This is when I take pictures of the area, study them and develop a piece around what exactly is missing from the space. I look at it like a tailor measuring a client to make the best fitting suit, or a doctor examining a patient to prescribe the right medication.”

Reid, along with former partner Brad Downey, operated for years as the duo Darius + Downey, which is widely credited with elevating physical street interventions to the status of art. Cutup, Reid, Downey, Lee and Eppink are only a handful of practitioners in an exponentially expanding field of street interventionists.

“The pragmatism that infiltrates all design is so repressive of the human imagination,” says designer Scott Wayne Indiana. “Parking meters, sidewalks, fences, gates, awnings, alleys, manhole covers… there is a list of things that could be designed in such a way as to engage with cities [and shift] the focus on the urban environment as a vibrant place that inspires the imagination, intellect and wonders of the human experience.”

Another who has made a name for himself by appropriating urban space is Montreal’s Roadsworth (icon 021) – a moniker adopted in tribute to Andy Goldsworthy’s rural interventions. Roadsworth’s starting point is the obvious yet anonymous icons of the city itself – the visual demarcations of parking bays, pedestrian crossings, bike paths and road merges.

Perfectly mimicking the colours and aesthetics of Montreal’s metropolitan street markings, Roadsworth plays with the visual language of the street itself – joining two streets by painting an oversized zipper head where their lines merge, or transforming a pedestrian crossing into a row of oversized birthday candles. The city’s visual grid no longer functions as a symbol of control but as a catalyst for expression. Or the opportunity to ponder, as he says, “what would happen if the guys who are hired by the city to paint the lines on the street decided to drop acid”.

As well as remixing elements of the city head on, some take a more simple, aesthetic-led response, augmenting what is already there. Polish artist Krystian Czaplicki, aka Truth Tag (icon 047), has set his sights on some of the more bleak and unloved architectural elements of Warsaw and Krakow, animating grey, Communist-era buildings with subtle geometric shapes and colourful tactile additions inspired by Russian constructivist art. Czaplicki, who refers to his work as a way to “play with surroundings, architecture and passers-by”, also embraces the organic forces at work in the city, documenting on his website how the passage of time, and people, alter and adjust his interventions into their final state.

Similarly in Houston, Texas, the collective Knitta Please literalises the idea of reworking the “urban fabric”. A crew of knitters tags inner cities with woollen weaves, covering everything from fire hydrants to New York City subway poles. “We have a different pattern for each object we come across,” says Knitta founder Magda Sayeg, aka PolyCotN. “We’ve figured out what pattern works for an antenna, which pattern works  for a stop sign… I can tell you the circumference of any stop sign pole in Houston, and how it is different from a pole in New York. Which is useful, as you can weave its covering on the flight and tag it when you get there.”

While Knitta’s unique approach has garnered it coverage ranging from Paris Glamour magazine to a mention on Saturday Night Live, it has yet to hit the status of Washington DC’s Mark Jenkins. Despite his increasing status in the field (he admits that the most difficult thing he faces when installing a piece is “a sort of makeshift paparazzi” of people taking photos of his work), the origins of his activities have an altruistic edge common to most interventionists. “The idea of doing art in the street seemed a sort of liberating way to share myself with the city,” he says. Creating his first pieces in Rio de Janeiro, his limited ability to communicate with the locals gave birth to a particular style of work. “Beaching a giant [Sello]tape sperm whale on Copacabana beach or a placing a fake man in my neighbourhood dumpster was a way to share a side of myself I couldn’t do with language.”

Jenkins’ recent street interventions include placing lifelike hooded figures in public places with humorous and sometimes menacing results – a man leaning into a building with his head embedded into the stone wall, parking meters topped with large resin circles creating a row of oversized lollipops, and Sellotape sculptures of ducks floating in puddles or babies wandering in the margins of the streets.

Yet in the face of such work, the authorities remain largely unforgiving – intervention equals vandalism, and many of the cities coming down hardest are those that lust most for “creative city” status. There are, however, some nascent signs of a shift of attitude – Roadsworth receiving commissions from the city of Montreal, Reid being approached to create a public art project in the UK and Knitta being invited to Seattle to do public works on the monorail.

The practitioners themselves are discovering that as their own working mediums and methods change, this in turn begins to change the way in which the city’s authorities engage with them. “I’d say the cops are in general ‘pleasantly confused’ when they come across a knitted piece in the streets,” says Sayeg. “Some of them are even clearly charmed. Of course, they never actually say that.”

Even the bolder acts of taking on New York’s video billboards have their advantages, as Eppink admits: “One advantage of working outside of the traditional graffiti media is that cops aren’t really looking for guys attaching grids of foam board to giant TVs.”

As this kind of activity becomes increasingly common, more technologically minded artists are carving out a new frontier. “As much as Banksy seems to have done everything, innovations by outfits such as Graffiti Research Lab with their laser tag system come along and blow things up to a whole new level.”

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