The Streets Make the Canvas

The word makes the market.
– Marshall McLuhan

How can we reimagine McLuhan’s probe? I ride around Venice everyday on a bicycle built for fools. I have noticed lately that our neighborhoods have become canvases for my eager eyes. The pavement and sidewalks are used to spread art and political statements. Murals and lawn signs create wallscapes as cave paintings of our times. They seem to shout to all passerbys our mutual concerns.

The streets are not the only canvases. The cardboard signs, poster boards, and billboards also transform the very idea of galleries and museums into the real forum for people’s art. The possibilities are endless. I saw an empty refrigerator box artistically painted over with the words “Your comfort zone will kill you.” There’s a t-shirt hanging on a clothesline at the Boardwalk and Dudley that reads “November 3 Matters.” The words “This is a 24 hour protest” are painted on the pavement of the Venice Boardwalk

Kudos to Carol A. Wells, who has archived and displayed protest posters (many of them local ones) with the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. Currently, Venice’s own SPARC has billboards showcasing the The Patchwork Healing Blanket: Piece-by-Piece and Country-by-Country, an international textile art project that unites generations of women in a global movement against gender-based violence and the destruction of Mother Earth. Bravo to their mission statement: “SPARC espouses public art as an organizing tool for addressing contemporary issues, fostering cross-cultural understanding and promoting civic dialogue.”

Street artist & political activist Banksy declares, “Bus stops are far more interesting and useful places to have art than in museums. Graffiti has more chance of meaning something or changing stuff than anything indoors. Graffiti has been used to start revolutions, stop wars, and generally is the voice of people who aren’t listened to. Grafti is one of those few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make somebody smile while they’re having a piss.”

How does one distinguish between graffiti, art, and vandalism? I remember the billboards for the 2002 film Resident Evil, which was easily culture jammed by simply spray painting a letter “P” in front of the word “resident,” resulting in a big sign “President Evil.” Some may call this “improving ad copy, “ and others may deem this action as “defacement.” How and why are the streets a showplace for people to express their bias?

The title of this essay could be “The paint makes the protest.” I was bafed by a particular portrait stencil of George Floyd on the sidewalk where someone had painted the words “worship criminals” under his face. It seems the intention was to diss the Black Lives Matter movement, or it could be interpreted to imply that the cops who killed him are criminals. Then a week later, the “worship criminals” was covered completely and not readable. Another week later, the George Floyd was covered with a white “X” over his face. This battle of the paint brushes reveals a lot about our community.

Take a walk. Stroll with new eyes. What can you learn?

In the 1977 book, City as Classroom: Understanding Language & Media, McLuhan wrote, “Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction.”

Poets like Robert Browning express my confusion over vandalism and art. He wrote: “Our interest is on the dangerous edge of things. The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist.”

The writer, Arundhati Roy wrote: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way you’re accountable.”

What are the hidden psychic efects of the scribblings on the streets? Stanley Kubrick, who started as a street photographer, said: “Governments, politicians and generals are leading the world with their eyes wide shut.”

I encourage you to go out into the community and observe, listen, interview, research, and think about the way in which the streets of Venice influence what you think and feel. Open your eyes to what the Venice cityscape is saying!

Newport Beach just increased speeding on Boardwalk ticket from $50 to $200. Should Venice do the same?

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