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To Be Seen

by Alice Arnold, Director
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2005
VHS, 30 mins., col.
Sales (Video-DVD) $225; rental (Video-DVD) $75
Distributor’s Web site: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Rob Harle (Australia)


This short film indirectly poses many more questions than it answers. This I see as its main contribution to the complex issues involved with art, commercial art (advertising), graffiti, and street art. It runs for a mere 30 minutes, just long enough to raise important issues regarding reclamation of public space by street artists, but not long enough to investigate the issues involved thoroughly. I see the film as a pilot for either a full length, in-depth documentary or as a catalyst for serious academic discourse regarding humanitarian values.

The camera-work is excellent, the interviews with artists interesting, and the footage, whilst restricted to a very small section of the planet (lower east-side of New York), shows a broad range of artistic styles and innovative solutions to the challenges of getting one’s work "out there". Some of these challenges include avoiding police intervention, combating the harshness of the weather, the dangers of getting to awkward spots high above the ground, and being seen above the cacophony of other images, most of which are corporate advertising.

One street artist in the film counters the charge of vandalism against street art by coining the term brandalism. This, of course, refers to the intense obscenity of flashing neon, young, almost naked provocative bodies and strategically located images whose existence is only justified if it sells "n" number of units——whether they be jeans, soft drinks, or electronic appliances. The charge of corporate "art" owning the street or public space is quite justified, and the street artists in this film see it as their purpose to return the street to the public and, yes, subvert the dominant paradigm of rampant capitalism——if it doesn’t turn a dollar, then its worthless.

The street artists represented also want their art to be seen, this might sound like a tautology; however, talent and brilliance do not guarantee shows at prestigious art galleries. The art circus (my derogative term) is as much, if not more commodity orientated, than companies flogging underwear. Street art is really an "equal opportunity" gig, without a curator, no monetary value, and no art critic suggesting the artist should change their colour schemes because the one they use isn’t selling well at the moment!

The powerful effects of street art are no illusion as the latter part of the film shows. Corporations are now employing street art styles and techniques, together with prostituting some street artists who have "sold out" to advertise their products. As one artist in the film states, "It is very difficult in many cases to tell the difference between corporate graffiti and the genuine article". The corporations have their huge advertising budgets to legally rent building façade space and so on.

In another review of this film (Leonardo Reviews April 2006), Roy Behrens implies that these street artists are, in a sense, biting the hand that feeds them in that their parents probably (an unfounded assumption) paid for their art education from wages probably (again ditto) earned from the corporations they are criticising. Does Behrens really believe these artists should make nice safe art that reinforces the status quo? If so, he misses the point of making art completely. If anything, many of these art schools owe the artists an apology for stifling their natural creativity by insidiously moulding them into standard art school clones.

One niggling, rather understated, problem the film raises is the difference, if any, between graffiti and street art. This is a complex philosophical problem that I doubt has ever been satisfactorily resolved. Plato argued that a crime is a crime regardless of whether it is a loaf of bread or a fortune in gold bullion that has been stolen. Are decaying, derelict ugly buildings (largely abandoned because they are no longer profitable) an offence to the passing public? Are brash "in your face" advertising billboards an offence to public sensibility? Is writing, "End Poverty" by a disenfranchised hungry youth on one of these buildings a crime compared to the obscene profits made by corporations advertising designer shoes on an adjacent building? My view is echoed by the words of Simon and Garfunkel’s song –Sound of Silence:

"And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence." (read, apathy)

A great film, if for no other reason than because it challenges the status quo.




Updated 1st July 2006

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