HRAFF Panel Discussion – Off the Wall: Is Street Art an Appropriate Medium to Voice Human Rights Issues?

By Sonia Nair

The recent desecration of accomplished street artist Banksy’s Parachuting Rat in Prahran has yet again thrust street art into the forefront of Melbourne’s cultural and political psyche. As residents of Prahran and art aficionados alike cried foul over the installation of pipes for a new cafe that currently presides over the rat, a debate continues to rage in the background: what is street art and is it a suitable medium to inform human rights?

As part of the Human Rights and Arts Film Festival, the ‘Off the Wall: Is Street Art An Appropriate Medium to Voice Human Rights Issues’ forum was held in the expansive Kaleide Theatre of RMIT where a panel of five discussed the vagaries of street art and its instrumental role in the expression of human rights.

“… the police and government are seen as playing art critic and ultimately deciding which street art is good art and which constitutes bad art.”

The eclectic panel comprised street artists Boo and Tom Civil, cultural researcher Lachlan MacDowall, ABC research fellow Kate Shaw and RMIT painting and public art-coordinator Fiona Hillary who played host and mediator.

A reclamation of the public space and beautification of urban decay are integral to Boo’s work as a stencil artist while Civil is interested in how street art and graffiti create community, mark space and act as a human-scaled form of urban architecture. In celebration of HRAFF this year, Civil painted a wall on the RMIT campus, near the corner of Swanston Street and LaTrobe street.

The forum drew upon its eclectic panel to deconstruct popular notions of street art, redefine the role street art plays in the current political climate and shed light on how it goes about instituting change.

Precisely what makes street art so political is the fact that it is illegal, according to Civil. “It’s hard to work with government and authorities when street art – alongside posters, stickers and any other unauthorised activity on the street – is banned.”

At different periods throughout the forum, each member of the panel brought the audience’s attention to the fact that authorities appear to display a highly paradoxical agenda when it comes to street art.

Street art is often employed in car advertisements and the Myer basement because it is perceived to be ‘cool’ but the use of spray cans is effectively banned in a move a member of the audience called ‘hypocritical’ in the Q&A session. In effect, the police and government are seen as playing art critic and ultimately deciding which street art is good art and which constitutes bad art.

“People think street art gets watered down by populism. I think the opposite happens.”

And then there’s the question of commoditisation of street art which sees it feature in galleries, promotional brochures for festivals, album covers of huge rock bands such as Blur and car advertisements – the last of which Civil finds mightily depressing.

Boo however, has a different view. “People think street art gets watered down by populism. I think the opposite happens. It becomes inherently more interesting because you’re reaching people that wouldn’t otherwise have been touched by street art.”

When asked by a member of the audience if street art is at a disadvantage because people pass it by in the street without critically analysing it as they would in an art gallery, Boo says therein lies its strength.

“Galleries are confronting, closed spaces that are not accessible by everyone. Even I, with my arts background, do not go to galleries. People form a personal attachment to street art as opposed to gallery art.”

“Authorities feel disempowered by the legal system because people easily get off when the case goes to court so they use violence instead.”

In the same line of thought, MacDowall says the very nature of street art in that it is “easily recuperated and reinvented” renders it a dynamic medium that will never become obsolete. “While street art becomes mainstream, graffiti shows an ability to renew itself in terms of what sites they focus on.”

A recent example would be how David Burgess and Will Saunders painted “No War” on the tallest sail of the Sydney Opera House in March 2003 as a sign of protest against the Iraq war.

Hard as it may make the life of street artists, the constant interplay between the illegitimacy of street art and the desire of street artists to propagate their vein of work seems to be a potent driver of change.

“It’s all about being angry and seeing inequity,” says Shaw as she points out that both Civil and Boo belong to a fantastic lineage of subversive art where people have debated their “right to the city” to empower change.

“The work that Boo and Civil do is furiously important and dangerous. All good art is political and all political art happens in the street.”

“A cultural divide exists between the inner and outer city suburbs – it’s called the concept of ‘A Donut City’ – and it is a case for conflict because people from the outer city suburbs feel like the city is not their own.”

Civil highlights the danger rife in the life of a street artist and talks about how police officers use physical violence as opposed to the legal system to intimidate street artists – a tactic that unfortunately works a lot of the time.

“Authorities feel disempowered by the legal system because people easily get off when the case goes to court so they use violence instead.”

While French acclaimed photographer JR once held the biggest illegal photographic exhibition to show that nothing separates Israelis and Palestinians from each other, Civil and Boo use street art to foster and regenerate a sense of community in their own backyards.

“Street art is about creating a sense of community in the streets so people can say, ‘Oh, something has gone on here’. It crosses cultural and language barriers and I’ve recently realised how powerful that is,” Civil says.

Looking forward to what lies ahead for street art, MacDowall says the next challenge for Melburnian street artists is to extend their artwork beyond the city centre.

“A cultural divide exists between the inner and outer city suburbs – it’s called the concept of ‘A Donut City’ – and it is a case for conflict because people from the outer city suburbs feel like the city is not their own.”

“The challenge for street artists is to make art democratic in a suburban context as there is a real divide between Melbourne and the next ring of the donut when it comes to access to public space and expression.”

Boo says a clear divide exists as apart from the city, she only makes street art in suburbs such as Fitzroy and Brunswick where such expressions of art are lauded and embraced. It is a boundary that has to gradually diminish if there is any hope for street art to proliferate beyond existing barriers and make an impact.

All in all, the forum was enlightening, fascinating and challenging. The audience appeared to be thoroughly engaged from start to finish as there were a flurry of questions towards the end of the session and robust discussion between the five panel members alongside effective hosting by Hillary steered the discussion seamlessly from frontier to frontier.

Together, the panel debunked misinformed stereotypes of street art, shed light on the profound role street art plays in the political discourse that underlines society and brainstormed various ways in which street art will continue to flourish and explore human rights.

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