Sunday, December 20, 2009

City as Conversational Hardware

Yesterday, when in the alley taking out the trash at work, I noticed that our dumpster had been spray-painted with the words: I love u. I wondered who this was for. Was it for a certain person who the painter was hoping would see? Was it a general message to anyone who walked by? Was it written ironically on the side of a dumpster as a form of protest against garbage? Perhaps a declaration of undying love for Smithrite?

Further down from my work, on a sign advertising a public garden, there is a Jim Pattison sticker and someone has used Sharpie to scribble out his name and then write "sucks". What was the purpose of the Jim Pattison sticker in the first place? Was it put there, again ironically, because Jim Pattison owns so much space in Vancouver, but doesn't own the public garden? And who scribbled it out and wrote sucks? Was it the same person, or someone different that came along and decided to join in on the conversation.

It's these kind of questions that make graffiti, tagging, bombing, stickers, or the inside of bathroom stall doors so interesting. These are pieces of city hardware--walls, doors, alleys, dumpsters--that are being used to open a kind of public discourse, a conversation which anyone with a Sharpie marker can join in with. City's treat graffiti as visual garbage to be painted over and swept away. But really it's the most democratic form of conversation there is, combining the anonymity of the internet with the wide audience of a public podium.

Imagine our city like a metaphorical message board where you can leave messages for strangers who can then respond back to you. We have a digital version of this on the web, but it's impersonal compared to stumbling upon "Good Bye" painted on the side of a discarded mattress in an alleyway. This mattress has a story to tell. Was the writer saying goodbye to the mattress? To the person that used to sleep on the mattress? Or is the mattress saying goodbye to me?

Street artists, like Banksy, have been using, abusing, and reassigning public property as message boards for quite some time, making political and social statements. But what if we opened this up to everyone? What if we did away with the metaphorical message board of alleyway writing and quickly scrawled fuck yous on bus shelters, and set up--somewhere in the city--an actual message board.

No doubt such a message board would garner crude and offensive material, but it would also, as the dumpster with I Love U scrawled on it shows, collect other kinds of conversation. But maybe taking these messages out of alleys and billboards and bus shelters and collecting them all on a sanctioned wall would miss the whole idea behind them, kill the conversation before it even starts. There is something strangely engrossing about reading an intricate web of arrowed sentences on the back of a public washroom stall that you might lose exposing it on a public wall. Perhaps, oddly, these conversations are meant to be private in public, reaching out to other city dwellers from the safe anonymity of a dark alley or locked stall door.

Meanwhile, somewhere in a dump, that mattress still lies, shouting its mournful Goodbye to any passing birds that happen to fly over.

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