<body> Public Ad Campaign: Comment Response to The Hunter
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Monday, February 15, 2010

Comment Response to The Hunter

As the PublicAdCampaign project is really about opening up a dialogue on what a more socially productive public space might look like, we often enjoy answering reader comments as full on posts. The Hunter asked us to qualify one of our answers to the question, "What does the term ‘public space’ mean to you? Who has the right to public space? Is street art a way of reclaiming public space?" He writes...

"Curious as to an addendum to the final question: Where is your line drawn between private property and public space? If I own a building and want to paint it my own color, do you feel you have the right to paint over it as a reclamation of public space? You've always left me a little fuzzy on where the line is drawn. Thanks."

If Anything, I might be a bit "fuzzy" on this myself and the PublicAdCampaign project might simply be about testing where the line is drawn between private property and public space? Should the public be allowed to treat all the walls that face the street, all those vistas from the street onto private property as their own, like graffiti seems to? Should OAC's be given free reign to do what they want, demanding free speech rights, and go unregulated by the city? Should property owners be allowed to consider the outside of their buildings which face the public environment as private property in the same way they do their living rooms? The answers to these questions are important in that they constitute how we use and develop the places in which we interact as a community and therefore create our common society.

One thing I do believe is that allowing the public individual a certain level of curational responsibility without criminal consequence is an important part of a healthy public space. As I have said before I believe it engenders a sense of personal responsibility for public space that creates a more invested and concerned public citizen. For example I believe street art production should be a legal practice and the artists should have free reign of the public environment. I know this is a slippery slope but I rely on the artists interest in creating a healthy public space to determine how far they will go in claiming their fair share of our public environment.

One thing I have come to believe very earnestly is that outdoor advertising, through its monopolizing of the public environment in a quest to control public thought, silences public dialogue and therefore is incompatible with a healthy public space. A new paint job on the side of a building might deserve to be left alone while a 5 story advertisement must be aggressively reworked as it presents an obstacle to community and neighborhood development.

As for the case with The Hunter's building paint job, I think some distinctions need to be made which help answer that question. First the neighborhood in which this building is being painted must be taken into account. Modern buildings, often in business districts where the architecture imposes its own visual order, are hard places to consider ripe for public participation. The all glass sides of the IAC Gehry Building in Chelsea don't beg for an artists helping hand. Indeed it would seem that this is in some way responsible for the sterility of these spaces and why people are less inclined to consider them neighborhoods with a valued community. The possibility of public interaction here seems to determine a level of community.

If this hypothetical building is being painted on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where a rich history of public participation is a part of the community, one would treat this newly painted surface differently. I would lean towards saying that the public should be allowed to use this newly painted surface as it sees fit, embellishing it or simply commenting on the horrendous color the property owner has painted his building and what an incredible eyesore had been created. In a community in which public dialogue is part of the neighborhood discourse, this sort of expressive property disobedience only knits the community together more tightly if dealt with in a thoughtful manner. The consequences of these types of interventions are not without problems I know but the benefits I believe outweigh the detriments.

On my recent trip to LA, I stopped by the Philip Lumbang mural in Silver Lake to get a better idea of the situation for myself. Here a resident had commissioned the work of Mr. Lumbang which was largely revered by the community except for one individual. Having only what the internet was telling me about the skirmish between neighborhood residents and the resulting removal by Los Angeles impending, I favored this murals continued existence. I was at least upset that the city would force the result of this conversation through bureaucracy instead of allowing the community come to the decision on its own, fostering local communication.

As I drove to the quiet street upon which this mural was located, I must say my mind began to change. This was a much quieter neighborhood than I had imagined and the pre-school which apparently loved this mural didn't seem to be within walking distance, and if it was it didn't seem like the young ones were passing it daily. I myself liked the mural but could see how one resident might consider it out of place, although not "ghetto" as he has called it. To my delight, as Philip was being interviewed for Fox news, the resident that had complained, who had remained anonymous until then, suddenly appeared from his house, directly across the street from this mural!

Fox news approached the man for comment. He wore a t-shirt that read something about anarchy and held a cup of tea in a Sex Pistols mug. He explained that he had moved to the quiet street to remove himself from the noise on the more traveled areas surrounding the neighborhood. He complained that the mural was obnoxious and that he was not consulted on how it would affect his experience of the neighborhood. These were all reasonable claims despite the fact that the mural was of cute smiling animals. I thought to myself how he would have reacted if the wall had simply been painted a bright red or blue and I came to the conclusion that his reaction would have been similar.

So this leads us back to The Hunter's question of how we should treat property rights for those spaces which have a direct effect on other people. It would seem that this upset resident should have recourse against this mural or the less obvious aggressive color choice possibility. In this quiet, almost suburban neighborhood, I would tend to think that this recourse should come in the form of conversation, hopefully resulting in some mutual agreement between neighbors. Ideally this results in the two people becoming closer through the experience and binding the community together in mutual respect. If conversation does not do away with the problem I would lean towards some type of direct action, although the neighbor must then be responsible for the ire of the community if he destroys something beloved by many.

I know this has not fully answered the question but I think understanding that rigid concepts of property rights in situations which affect the public must be negotiable. Because property owners can rely on a strong tradition in our capitalist system of upholding their rights above the public's right when dealing with private property which affects us all, direct action answers are sometimes necessary to push the public's agenda. I do not promote wanton reclamation of private property just for the sake of it, but I do believe it should be an acceptable manner of disobedience in many cases.

There is a reason my personal work happens over outdoor advertising. I have made a conscious decision that the detrimental affects of outdoor advertising on public warrant my breaking the law in order to promote a discussion about advertising's' placement in our public spaces. I do not hit building facades and other private property because I do not feel a strong enough motivation to alter those spaces. Many street artists' interventions are placed in remote areas, hidden moments in the city, where the conflict of interest between the property owner and the artist is not an issue. This is done out of an inherent respect on the part of the artists for the sanctity of private property and allows street artists to continue working without pissing off the public.

As a study, The Hunter's question is interesting to think about, but whether or not we would see a public outcry or even need to use this newly painted wall is another story. It would seem that opening up public participation in the production of our shared environments would open the gates to a torrent of unwanted activity but I do not believe this to be the case. As a society I believe we have a vested interest in promoting certain private property norms and that given the opportunity we will not alter then as heavily as one would expect.

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