CDH is seeking to connect with street art collectors, advocates and artists to salvage culturally important street art from demolition sites.
In my capacity facilitating street art, I see the birth of a lot of art. But I also bear witness to the end of art; works lost in a cloud of dust when a derelict building is demolished. Sometimes amongst the rubble and industrial detritus, I find street art salvage: works painted on a roller door, a wooden hoarding or a sheet metal fence. Although assigned to a pile of garbage, many of these works may have value as cultural artefacts. Without the perspective of historical hindsight, it’s often difficult to recognise the difference. In a sense, this derelict street art might be more valuable than its gallery counterpart because this is authentic street art. So the question becomes, should we try to save these works?
Unlike the controversial ‘Out of Context’ Banksy exhibition at Miami Art Basal, these works haven’t been pillaged from their original spatial context to be exhibited in a gallery. These works are already on their way to the tip. So the choice isn’t between the gallery vs the original environmental context intended by the artist. It’s a choice between a gallery and gone forever. So on first inspection it seems obvious that we should save the works. Ultimately I believe it is worth salvaging this street art, and I am seeking to connect with collectors, advocates and other artists to this end. But it is worth recognising that the issue is considerably more complex than it may appear upon superficial consideration.
Most importantly, salvaged street art can’t resurface in the secondary art market. There is the obvious practical issue that it would mean gallery exhibiting street artists would effectively be competing with themselves; it would discourage artists from painting on the street. But there’s another moral issue; the works on the street belong to the community. The wall the art is painted on might belong to a private building owner but the thin layer of paint that makes up the artwork is the property of the public. Taking a salvaged work and selling it for profit is akin to selling stolen goods. It’s more appropriate to regard people who hold salvaged street art as the custodians of a cultural artefact, until it can be re-exhibited for the general public.
It’s often argued that a key point of demarcation between street art and gallery art is ephemerality. Gallery art is perceived to have attained an immutable status through perpetual restoration, while street art is at the mercy of the environment, council cleaners and the community. The knowledge that street art is in perpetual jeopardy shapes our appreciation of it. Many people reading this article will have felt the pang of seeing a beloved street artwork suddenly gone one day. The legions of street art photographers are in part motivated by a shared angst that the works are transient and without record will be lost forever. Creating a system to preserve some of these works immediately changes this context. Yes, an artwork may still suddenly disappear tomorrow, but it may also be absorbed into a preservation collection. This changes the lenses through which we view and experience the art, by changing a key contextual element. This perpetually shifting contextual landscape has been synonymous with street art since its inception. What began as an outsider subcultural movement has been progressively recuperated into the mainstream. The politically conservative Lord Mayor of Melbourne has shifted from a zero tolerance stance on graffiti (as opposition leader of the state) to describing himself as ‘delighted’ with the city’s street art. Many street artists have moved into the commercial art system where possible. So it seems the outsider status of street art is even more fleeting than the art itself. Preserving works is part of this natural evolution, so it’s not incongruent with the direction of the movement.
Salvaging street art may contravene the wishes of the artist. Some street artists reluctantly accept ephemerality as a reality of the medium but some artists intend for their work to be transient. Ultimately many artists may prefer for their work to go to the tip, rather than see it preserved in a warehouse or a gallery. Although an artist’s consent is desirable, should it be a necessary prerequisite for preserving an artwork? On his death bed, Franz Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all his unpublished manuscripts. Brod ignored this request and published many of Kafka’s most important works posthumously. The writing was important and so the interests of broader society outweighed the preference of the artist. During the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s in Egypt, 22 ancient monuments risked being flooded. The monuments were relocated, although as religious sites it’s unlikely the original builders would have consented; imagine if the temple on the mount needed to be moved. The monuments were historically significant to us, so we acted in society’s benefit regardless. Ultimately street art is for everyone, not just the artist or the building owner. It belongs to the community so the primary directives are those in the interest of the community; the preferences of the artist are secondary, although they’re contextually important to record.
The exception is when the ephemerality is integral to the meaning of the work (not just the artist’s preference). Gustav Metzger’s Auto Destructive Art requires self-destruction to realise the meaning written into the work. To attempt to preserve ‘acid action painting, 1961’ midway through the corrosion of the work would ironically be the destruction of the art; it would become meaningless. But street art is typically quite different from the auto destructive art of Metzger. Metzger built the self-destruction of the work innately into the art. Street art is about relinquishing control of the art and handing it over to the cultural chaos of urban space. This usually causes the destruction of the art because society has diverse agendas; although 99 people might leave a work untouched, it only takes one to cap it. But if an artist relinquishes art to external forces, with a loose expectation that this will cause erasure of the work, they have to equally accept that external agents may preserve it. Unless the work requires ephemerality as an artistic imperative, it’s difficult to argue that an artists’ preference for transience should be honoured above society’s enrichment through sharing the art. As an artist, on a personal level it galls me that collectors could salvage my works from the street without my consent but from reasoned principles, I find it difficult to argue against.
So I seek to build a network of artists, advocates and collectors to salvage street artworks, with these ideas in mind. But what do you think? Is it right to salvage works imminently destined for destruction and if so, what principles should guide our actions?
If you’re interested in offering tips on works available for salvage or if you want tips on works available for salvage, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and join our network.