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Masterpieces in public: on common space and common language

“…Everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life… lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance.”

– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

In legal terms graffiti constitutes vandalism, plain and simple, but I’ve always seen it as more than the disconnected marks of discontents—the hive mind shouting, maybe, unable to contain itself. In the more urban parts of the East Bay, where I live, graffiti is to concrete what ivy is to it in the suburbs. It comes and goes, popping up again after it’s been painted over. But in its coming and going it takes forms so diverse some of them are unrecognizable, belying the traces of a similar ancestry. What, on its face, does an all-capitals scrawling of COPS OFF CAMPUS! in a UC Berkeley bathroom following the November 9th riots have in common with the word DIFFERENCE spray-painted under an Oakland overpass, or a comic but chilling eat your heart out! on the side of a cargo trailer along the subway tracks? What of the drawings, the short poems, and declarations of love dotting rest stops across America? Setting aside the relationships between them, what of each taken individually? Next to the demand that the police force be removed from the university, someone scrawled an interrogation in ballpoint: What does that even mean?

One part in Spanish installation artist Alicia Martin's series, "Biografies."

The question’s facetious—meant to call out unthinking slogans and the people who chant them—but, more than that, it’s an attempt at dialogue made at least partially in earnest. Public spaces seem to invite wear and abuse a la the Tragedy of the Commons, but some of that abuse constitutes an effort to render text onto their blank pages of stucco, cement, and metal. What drives someone to expound their feelings on the police, personal history, capitalism, Marxism, or a pantheon of other subjects inside a bathroom stall? I don’t have an answer, but I can feel the impulse: everywhere else, speech is ordained, conducted within the hallways of decency and intellectual property laws and legal repercussions. In the world’s unwatched back-alleys and restrooms, it’s free. That most clandestine statement-makers don’t sign their names drives home, even more, the quite literal disembodiment of their voices. The authors are freed of most norms, and so the name goes out with everything else. And when the name goes, so does the “I”—and at that point, so much is undone.

The Occupy movement, perhaps inadvertently, provided a case study in common language as expressed in common space. Texts appeared—on signs, on fliers, spoken, and chanted—and disappeared, were recycled, and were repurposed. Last fall at UC Berkeley, when the Occupy Cal gatherings reached the pinnacle of their momentum, a melee of creation ensued: painters set up canvases in the middle of Sproul Plaza, mass sign-makings were held, and all manner of impromptu sculptures found their way onto campus. A tent-like structure made from branches stood on the plaza for months until a police sweep removed it, along with the other unclaimed works. The academic nature of the Occupy Cal crowd (the Cal movement, as well as Occupy Oakland, garnered sizable support from university members) manifested in a number of ways, but especially via literary quotes on protest signs. An English professor, waiting to start his lecture, mentioned with no small amount of glee that he’d seen a quote from Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy” at a march in Oakland:

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’

The “many”—the common, as Arendt might say, glued together by language, but especially by place and by space. “Common” derives from the Latin communis, which is a few steps away from “communion” and “community.” And yet “common” sounds so frequently like a pejorative. At best, something common is plain and of little value; at worst, it’s base or even vulgar. But events like the Occupy protests, with their shared libraries and freely re-appropriated screeds, disassemble this hierarchy. Maybe such is necessary for the movement to be coherent; how could the goal of the “many” not celebrate the common as the antithesis of the uncommon, or that which is held by few? This creative output engendered by this process taps into an urge interested more in message than in medium. It remains to be shown whether or not what’s being conveyed can ever really be separated from its conveyance, but a spectacular byproduct of this rush is its hybridity. Manifestos in chalk, open letters written made from cardboard, and Percy Bysshe Shelley on a picket sign.

Charles Bernstein's "With Strings," a sculpture that incorporates the text of the eponymous poem.

It’s hard not to hear the echo of Shelley in Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (“…somewhere in sands of the desert/A shape with lion body and the head of a man”) or even Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” (“Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels…”). Just as individual musical notes are public property—you can’t copyright them—so are ideas, and, more particularly, the ideas and even motifs expressed in language. Traditional publishing, even in its most well-intentioned form, can’t help but partake of a hierarchical system that depends on disunity, on a withdrawing of an item from the pool of available materials. It’s a central aspect of this more “official” universe that books a) have authors, b) have titles, c) have explicit and clearly viewable copyright information, and often times even d) that they be able to classified and understood meaningfully in relation to a genre, or mode of writing. But these facts about formally published books strengthen the association of the author with the work at the expense of the public-ness of what they contain. They take a chunk of language, a permutation of linguistic possibility, and sever it off from the whole of discourse in the name of ownership.

None of this is meant to disparage traditional publishing (and certainly not to eschew intellectual property altogether, as some have argued) as much as it is to celebrate the avenues that collective artworks—a la the plenitude of works produced by Occupy demonstrators—and artworks in public spaces open up. If art is placed in a public space, can it said to be owned by an individual? I don’t want to get too deep into the question of private versus public property, of where one ends and the other begins, but the movement certainly interrogated that divide. At the general assembly meetings for Occupy Cal, a technique known as “mic check” was used to convey information one phrase at a time to large congregations without resorting to megaphones. “Mic check!” a speaker would yell; the audience would respond in turn. Every phrase would be repeated so that people standing farther back could hear it, echoing off the administration building, becoming the property of not only the addresser but also the addressees. What took me aback most was not the idea that, somehow, the author-receiver divide had been totally overridden, but that it had been stripped down to its truest incarnation: to the language shared between the speaker and audience.

Part of Berkeley, CA's Poetry Walk, curated by Robert Hass.

And if language is shared, what, in fact, is anomalous about “public” poetry and art? On the other hand, it’s a notion of “private” creation, of “private” speech, that might be more anomalous. “Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours,” writes internationally-renowned street artist Banksy in Cut It Out. “It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.” Given the increased volume of conversation, as of late, about the neurological side of advertising—that more advertisers are mastering the fine art of figuring out the brain’s reflexes in order to better predict psychological reaction and spark neural re-wiring—Banksy’s remark can’t be chalked up as the expected opinion of someone who has built a career on “talking back” to advertisements or commercial spaces by physically making them his own. The dialogue of any text or speech can never be a one-way street, even if the intended recipient is its speaker. In the case of poetry, the two-way dialogue unfolds not on neon-lit billboards but in the quiet or not-so-quiet places where reading gets done: waiting rooms, subways, hallways, and the backseats of cars. Places where people can, if they so choose, put down books, throw them, write in them, react to them. The book and the reader are both constituent of a conversation that’s condoned because it takes place “in private”—whereas “public” art doesn’t, sometimes spurring opposition.

To characterize the entire history of speaker-listener/writer-reader/sender-recipient interaction as though it’s composed of hermetic bubbles, however, would be a mistake. Contemporary poetry and its poets have an extensive track record of making apparent artistic thought and process in Arendt’s common space. Emma Lazarus’s canonical poem, “The New Colossus,” greeted thousands upon thousands of immigrants at Ellis Island around the turn of the century via its installation on the Statue of Liberty. The sidewalks of Iowa City are glittered with a number of plaques commemorating authors from Tennessee Williams to Rita Dove, just as Addison Street in Berkeley is studded with inlays featuring whole poems and excerpts from Kenneth Rexroth, Bertolt Brecht, and lyrics from the Ohlone tribe, who first lived on the land that later became the city. Poetry has been commissioned for placement on public transportation, or as renewed versiosn of the language of “official” information, as is the case with a series of traffic-sign haiku in New York City. In the UK, a woman read a poem on the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square as it was created, in real-time, by Twitter users. And a dark pun of a line from American poet Ron Silliman’s piece “Northern Soul” (“Poetry has been Bury, Bury good to me) is enshrined in red neon at the Bury Metrolink station.

Nick Smale's photograph of Ron Silliman's installation.

The examples of text—of language, of poetry, and of meaning—inhabiting public spaces are endless, just as are the shared phrases and shapes of poems. What looks like derivativeness to one looks like originality to another, and this is, perhaps, an occasion to eliminate the negative connotations of “common” or “derivative.” It seems that to make something totally new one would need, as it were, an entirely self-contrived language, and this is presupposing that the new language wouldn’t resemble, or borrow from, other languages its creator had already adopted. Interpreted thusly, the task of total originality becomes not just daunting but impossible and even vain. But more so than futile, it becomes unnecessary: direct engagement with a quotation allows for the conversation about its meaning to be expedited—no one has to waste time saying what’s already been said. Both Silliman and his contemporary Charles Bernstein toy with the Nietzschean notion of a “prisonhouse of language”—Silliman in a 1985 issue of The Difficulties and Bernstein in his book Dark City. That both authors choose to essentially borrow that which can’t be said more precisely otherwise is, more than anything, evidence for this prisonhouse’s existence.

But prisons, cages though they may be, don’t contain dead inmates; their residents are very much alive. And the inheritance of language and ideas that passes between minds is similar. It lives, though it lives in parameters. What the literary aspects of gatherings like those of the Occupy movement—the aforementioned poem quotations, the shared libraries and anthologies—and others demonstrate, more than anything, is the need for a renewed focus on a public poetics: methods of theory and practice which recognize that the currency of poetry is language, a fundamentally shared thing in terms of both use and origin, and which also recognize its limitations.  The international FREE WORDS Project understands this, and in past years has distributed thousands of copies of a booklet containing 13,000 words “placed in the public domain” in public as well as private spaces, combatting the commercialization of words and reinstating a notion of collective ownership of language. Once the realization of collective ownership has been reached, it negates itself as a concept: if a property is universally available, how can it still be a “property”?

Jim Sanborn's Kryptos, a sculpture whose encrypted text has yet to be entirely decoded.

The intertextuality and cross-genre hybridity (poems on sculptures, text made into image, etc.) that so often seems to find its way into publicly-authored art is not without its challengers, who most often seem to think such projects accomplish little more than the dilution of an idea of “quality” art. But to say that a more publicly available and more publicly participatory poetics reduces the “quality” of the work itself is just to say that such a methodology can fall victim to the same quandaries that any other, more “elite” methodology can. It is also to assume that the work itself—and not the making of the work, or its role in social context—is of paramount importance to the reason for artistic creation. In any case, public art, if one remains uncommitted to an idea of the “common” as vulgar by definition, need not automatically fall in with “low” culture, if that distinction ever meant much at all. If anything, an explicit renewal of public art might succeed at reinvigorating the conversations about the role of creative works in life and society, just as it seemed to have done for the young men and women who set up tents on the steps of Sproul Hall in Berkeley last November. It’d be difficult to argue, after all, that the modification of poetry by the physical doesn’t also include the reverse scenario—poetry influencing the nature of a public space itself. As fellow KR blogger Jake Adam York writes in The Architecture of Address: The Monument and Public Speech in American Poetry about poems that take as their subjects monuments or memorialization, certain works can “alter the knowledge such [public] monuments communicate.”

The other charge against public acts of creation is perhaps more useful to analyze: that a multitude of simultaneous voices constitutes, or invites, chaos. And while this is obviously true in certain instances, it’s difficult to see how it holds generally. Instead of mass expression being the problem, it seems rather that the artifice of individual artistic “units”—books, publishers, authors, the entire commercial rigmarole of distribution—makes more of a dissonant racket than that which exists in a common space. Take away the speaker, the structure of presentation, the sales angle, and what do you have left? In ideal circumstances, the dialogue itself, detached and bare: why no art here? a permanent marker wondered on the side of a gutted telephone box in Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall. Anonymity’s been given a bad name, as a quick glance at the comments section of any YouTube video can tell you, but this need not be the case; certainly, if a requirement of publishing were that the author’s name did not appear on the finished product, we might just as well see more interesting ideas. Anonymity’s affording of freedom is twofold: untied to a name, and the social responsibility that comes with names, one might argue that people speak more honestly, or at least more daringly.

A segment of Ashbery's poem seen on the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge.

The question of public art versus private is at best a false binary, but its consideration can be productive, especially in light of major changes in American society and publishing. Unable to traverse the avenues of commercial publishing, public artworks are not subject to its constraints: they resist the clear categories that speed along marketing, and this lack of a financial foundation opens at least as many doors as it closes. And though some might be understandably hesitant to embrace an idea of poetry as oriented around the community before the individual, people who admit to being influenced by other writers also include themselves somewhat in this heritage. From the Agit-Truth Collective’s editing of government signs to the federally-commissioned murals of the Works Progress Administration to the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis (on which a John Ashbery poem is inscribed), “private” writing—work attributed to a single individual, regardless of what sources that individual used to make his or her piece—is not just made available to public space but becomes a part of that space, altering two landscapes: the physical as well as the mental.

But a walk down the historic beachfront of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, will erase any hope for the permanence of either. Beneath the feet of vendors and tourists is a poem, printed into the sidewalk, its lines spaced apart so that it stretches across blocks—readable in some places, but in others, rubbed smooth. Maybe the best we can hope for, in terms of public art, is a rich and fertile stream of speech, an unending sequence of minds talking to one another that takes as its stage the infrastructure of society and not only the protected echelons of “high” culture. An exchange that continues despite the coming and going of hierarchies, of gatekeepers, of haves and have-nots. The request of any speech, printed or megaphoned or otherwise, is to listen to what is being said, but first and foremost it is to listen: to construct a connection between two thinkers that both of them can traverse. Placing poetry in public spaces propagates these voices, and the connections they make, long after their authors have faded away; public poems re-awaken awareness of a place’s significance. As Donald Justice’s plaque on an Iowa City sidewalk—a quotation from his poem, “Villanelle at Sundown”—reads: “Turn your head. Look. The light is turning yellow. The river seems enriched thereby, not to say deepened. Why this is, I’ll never be able to tell you.” That Justice tells it anyway, from one person to infinite others, is enough.