I think we’re missing the boat on street-level design R&D.
That’s pretty much the summary of my latest essay and photo gallery exploring the visual and physical interplay which is taking place between urban intervention, street art and the urban landscape which was just published in the journal CITY: Analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action. When they asked me to do a piece for them on a trend in urban aesthetics that I felt needed more attention, I gave them the above sentence, but they said that they usually like pieces longer than 11 word statements. Fine, I thought. I’ll flesh it out some more. So here’s some more of what I’ve been thinking.
As many people know, I’ve long been fascinated by the resonance between objects in the city and its inhabitants. My Urban Play project looked into this in great deal in both the exhibition and the city-wide design intervention project I did with Droog Design in Amsterdam in 2008. What continues to inspire me is the ongoing relational design that is taking place at the margins of urban culture – the interventions which form intrinsic relationships between individual creativity and the physical city.
Most dismiss these non-sanctioned urban interventions as playful tokens of creativity at best, and vandalism at worst. But there is a lot more going on beneath the surface of this activity. As I say in the essay:
If we were to consider the dialogue of design in the same way we do the linguistic development of a culture’s language, then just as informal street-level vernacular has innovated and filled in the gaps of a culture’s formal language, the street has as well developed its own vernacular to fill the gaps in the city’s formal design. This new street-level language of design – non-commissioned, non-invited interventions in the urban landscape – transforms the fixed landscape of the city into a platform for a design dialogue.
Take, for example, the work of Gualicho:
Interventions such as these, at their core, are more than simply creative play in the streets – they signal a new aesthetic correspondence between the individual and the physical city; a step-change in not only the street art scene but in the relationship between the power of the individual and the aesthetics of the city.
Of note are those works which not only reflect a specific relationship with space, but also with time. For example, the shadow skaters by Singapore’s TR853-1, which only have a terrain to skate on at night:
And of course, Montreal’s Roadsworth:
Some of the great victories in this genre are those works inspired by the cast-off, degraded objects and areas of the city. The objects kicked to the side of daily life in the city. It is from these areas of urban compost that new crops of work grow. DIY up-cycling? Creative urban re-use? For people like Jim Darling, the cast-offs you might find in an alley – old mattresses, discarded tires – become source material, returned to the alley in a new form:
Artist Mark Jenkins is in a category of his own in this field. For Jenkins, there is a dramatic tension in the objects and detritus of the city waiting to be revealed.
“Sometimes I’ll come across something in the city that will give me the idea to do something site specific. But other pieces aren’t so much about a particular site but more about affecting city objects and structures [and] exposing the vulnerabilities of these structures to be extended into the surreal.” – Mark Jenkins
At times, all that is needed is a discarded bed frame and an exposed lamp box for his characters to get up to mischief in the city:
Or an overlooked trash can in Moscow to add a twist to people’s daily experience:
Echoing Guy Debord’s belief that “what changes our way of seeing the streets is more important than what changes our way of seeing painting”, there is an opportunity for contemporary urbanism itself to pay attention to the energy and innovation that can be found in the streets today and learn from the relationships it creates between people and their physical city. Just as online and digital media has been transformed by remix culture and open source methodologies, the same metamorphosis is occurring in the creative relationship of the individual and the physical city. We should be paying attention to this as an equally transformative movement.
The full text is published in the current issue of CITY, featuring Above’s signature work from Lisbon on the cover.
If you would like to read the essay in full, you can find it online here. A PDF is also available on the site featuring an extended image gallery of some of the artists and works shown here.