Graffiti by Roadsworth, photo by Peter Gibson

Graffiti by Montreal's Peter Gibson, AKA "Roadsworth".

I think my intention was to create a language that would function as a form of satire, accentuating the absurdity inherent to certain aspects of urban living, urban space, [and] public policy.

– Peter Gibson, Spacing

This is a case in point. How should graffiti artists, like Gibson, explain themselves to the authorities should they be arrested and charged with offenses punishable by the law? This is a good question, though many artists, I’m sure, are not prepared to answer. Peter Gibson was arrested for vandalism in Montreal in 2006 and had to prepare a case before the judge. Because his well-known road art was appreciated by virtually everyone in th city, eventually his sentence was reduced from a $10,000 fine to community service and a small fine. But why, in the first place, should such exemplary art be punishable at all?

And what possible defense can an artist give to a legal system that is prepared to judge him or her according to the law books? The judgment is obvious, and a straightforward answer to the question, “Did you paint on public property Yes or No?”

I love life in the city. I love the possibility for cultural and economic exchange… Painting images on the street is actually a very innocuous gesture in the face of the problems that exist. We are living in serious denial if we feel that business as usual is going to ensure our continued survival and well-being.

– Peter Gibson

I just don’t see how the artist’s ideals and the bourgeois laws can ever sync up. The problem is they likely never will. And the reason why the artists have not overcome this is because there are more bureaucrats than artists in the world. (I am supposed to say everyone is an artist but we, of course, know that’s not true. For some people modern capitalism has sucked all the art there is out of them.)  But get enough artists together and they will have their way.

For example, in 1956 a congregation of artists from all over Europe assembled in Italy for what was called the Alba Congress, and agreed on a six-point platform called the Alba Platform. The platform included a recognition of the “necessity of an integral construction of the environment by a unitary urbanism that must utilize all the arts and modern techniques.” And they declared that “any renovation of an art within its traditional limits” was an inevitable “outmodedness.” The problem, they reasoned, is struggling to reach beyond the stages of outmodedness.

What is our Alba Platform? Do we have one?

The 1956 Lettrist International wrote that the Alba Congress and its six points of unity would be viewed in the future as a key moment in the struggling stages for a new sensibility and a new culture, “A struggle which is itself part of the general revolutionary resurgence characterizing the year 1956.” Fifty years later, we still struggle with the same outmoded institutions of city government, and opposition from the spectacle.

The knowledge of urban social relations already exists, and its our task to make sense of the new sensibility, to make sense of guerilla street artist’s creed. When for one reason or another enough people begin to ingore rules so that they can do so with impunity, then the whole illusion of commercial zoning collapses. What was thought to be inevitable and necessary is now at the mercy of new people with new ideas.

Crossing the Line, a film about Peter Gibson’s street art. More video clips available on the NFB CitizenShift blog.