Bricoleur Aesthetics and the Built Terrain An Inquiry.doc by handongqp


									        (untitled stencil, by anonymous artist, found in 2006 in New York)


                             An Ethnography
                            By Shaina DeCiryan
                                Spring 2007

        While many Americans are content to live their lives in accordance with the
established social orders they encounter, activist subcultures prefer to imagine and
actively try to cultivate grassroots changes to work towards what they consider to be a
more responsible, sustainable world. This ethnography explores several ways in which
activist artists create hybridized forms of art to express and provoke public
consciousness. Activist artists cause others to question the idea of private property by
using the cityscape as their canvas, and in doing so help the people who occupy these
spaces in their everyday lives reclaim their ability to collectively interact and voice their
opinions in these spaces. A second theme addressed in this paper is how activists are
using art as a tool for public education. By explaining the interconnected nature of the
world through images, groups such as the Beehive Collective help the viewer visualize
the current results of American foreign policy and a society based on consumerism, as
well as his or her role within the system. These examples tie into a range of social
changes that activists are pursuing through art that ‘agitates, educates and organizes’.


 PART ONE       |       INTRODUCTION           4
                        Research Statement and Questions 5
                        Overview of Paper and Each Section 6

PART TWO    |       LITERATURE REVIEW               6
                        Willis: A Homology of Style 7
                        Hebdige: Subcultural Style as Bricolage 7
                        Taussig: Defacement 8
                        Bakhtin: The Novelized Past 9
                        Foucault: Power Relations as ‘Strategic Games Between Liberties’ 10

PART THREE          |   RESEARCH METHODS & SETTINGS                   11
                        Understanding Resistance Art 11
                        Entry to Setting 14
                        Methods 15
                        Reflexive 17

PART FOUR       |       THE ACTIVIST AS ARTIST           19
                        Bricolage Aesthetics: The Inventive Style of Activist Subcultures 21
                        The Collective: an Organic, Homological Structure of Support 24


                        Engaging the Passerby: Street Art as an Arbiter of Social Dialogue 27
                        Defacing to Reveal: Rethinking the Commodification of Public Space 29

                        Reclaiming Public Space for the Public 32
                        Negotiating Alternative Histories 35


                        Bibliography 38
                        Index of Images 39
                        Glossary of Terms 39
Glossary of Activist Art Websites


        From a white-walled, professional-looking University classroom emanated a

smell born out of the dangerous combination of unusually hot weather and a crowd that

valued radical theory over the concept of bathing. Normally, students and professors fill

this classroom-- a space that often acts as a learning environment for standard liberal arts

courses, such as Economics, Philosophy and American History. The “invisible hand”,

Plato’s Republic, the epic histories of the Civil War and other notions that compose

standard American academic curricula fill the minds of the students. The disconnection

between the everyday lives of the students, and the curricula they are being educated

with, is probably not very often a topic of discussion, yet this day was different. The

classroom had become a radical theory seminar—one of many offered at the National

Conference for Organized Resistance (NCOR), hosted annually at a major university in

Washington DC. The classroom was packed wall-to-wall with quirkily dressed people

from across the country. They were brought together in this oddly formal space because

of a shared set of values—values which do not allow them to passively accept concepts

such as free-market economics, hierarchic organizations of society, and politically

scripted histories.

      The refusal of these widely accepted academic ideas by the minds that occupied the

room was made even more explicit by the apparent refusal of widely accepted notions of

fashion, and presentations of self, as well. Stretched ear lobes, distinctive facial piercing,

altered or vintage clothing, tattoos, and haircuts ranging from eccentrically snipped

mullets to impressive masses of trinket-laden dreadlocks reveal these individuals’

alignment with anarchist ideals and activist lifestyles. I did not travel to NCOR, however,

to revel in the impressive smell of the radical theory—or to sensationalize a group of

quirkily dressed 20-30 year olds. Instead, I was there to interact with the sorts of activists

who use visual tactics for advocating social dissent and public education.

      These interactions have fueled this ethnography, and have allowed me to inquire

into the lifestyle and intentions of the individuals and collectives who create art with the

intention to “agitate, educate and organize”1 others about a range of social issues. By

extending the theories outlined in my literature review to the data and knowledge I have

gathered throughout my research, this ethnography forms a basis of understanding about

the growing subculture of activist artists and their connection with the street art

movement. Few academic reviews have been published on this topic; this ethnography is

intended to fill this gap in the research, and also serve as a point of departure for others

who wish to explore this topic.

Research Statement

      In order to focus my research, I have developed several research questions to base

my inquiry on. As my knowledge about my participants and their interests has grown,

these questions have undergone a dramatic evolution that has allowed me to continually

refine the intent of my research. This ethnography will explore several ways of answering

the following research questions-- based on the information I have gathered, as well as a

theoretical analysis that will make sense of and situate the data into its global context:

      In what ways do activists use art and visual media to:
             a. express and advocate their radical beliefs?
             b. actively occupy public spaces

 Josh MacPhee, of, used this phrase to describe the purpose of activist art in an NCOR
seminar. However, the phrase is a sort of ‘anti-copyright’ idea used by many activist groups, and cannot be
attributed to a specific individual.

               c. reorder and subvert the range of public media and symbols available in
                  the wider community?
               d. reclaim public spaces to explore social issues and alternative histories?

Overview of Paper and Each Section

       This paper is by no means a comprehensive study, but rather an inquiry into the

process of visual resistance that the activist artists I have observed and interacted with

have used to subvert, occupy and actively transform the material world around them. In

order to create a cohesive review of the methods that activist artists use to accomplish

these goals, I have focused on several key aspects of activist art. After the introduction, I

have included a review of the literature and theoretical bases that have informed my

analysis. My research methods, and a description of the setting follow the literature

review, to give the reader an idea of how I found my data and the sort of subcultural

groups I have been studying. The first section of my paper focuses on describing several

elements of activists artists, including the way they use aesthetic styles and collective

group organizations to carry out their work successfully. A second section expands upon

several examples of street art forms, and the intentions they are created with. The final

and third section is an analysis of the importance of occupying space to the street art

movement as a way of negotiating power relations.


     Grounding the data in theoretical frameworks developed by established

anthropologists is essential to the process of situating the research in the larger body of

academic knowledge. This not only helps make sense of the data itself, but also allows

the data to connect and contribute to others who wish to gain knowledge in this area.

Throughout the course of my initial research, I was unable to find ethnographic studies

that were particularly relevant to my topic. This may be due to the relatively recent

development of the style of activist art I am examining in this paper, which has been

developed by the current generation of 20-30 year olds. Thus, in order to make sense of

my findings, I have drawn upon the work of theorists who have studied quite different

cultural contexts, but have used theoretical frameworks that I can reapply and extend to

my own research.

Willis: Collective Homology

        First applied to the social sciences by Levi-Strauss, the idea of a homology of

style has been applied to subcultural style by Paul Willis (1978) to describe a sort of

aesthetic resonance that connected the ideals of the group with their lifestyle and forms of

expression. Popular myth and media often frames the activists and anarchist subcultural

groups, who create visual forms of resistance, to be “lawless” (Gelder and Thornton

1997: 139). Yet, while they do not subscribe to traditional American values and politics,

this does not mean these groups function without any sort of underlying order. Instead,

an order is composed by a “symbolic fit” between the way groups are organized, the way

members of the group make sense of the world ideologically, and the aesthetic

expressions that result from their lifestyles. Thus, activist arts appropriate into their

distinctive creations and ensembles symbols and objects which are “homologous with the

focal concerns, activities, group structure, and collective self-image of the subculture”

(Gelder and Thornton 1997: 137).

Hebdige: Subcultural Style as Bricolage

        The functions of subcultural aesthetics that developed within the 1970s punk

movement, as described by Dick Hebdige in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, continue

to inspire and identify members of subcultural genres today. Hebdige’s use of the term

Bricolage to refer to radical fashion is one of the key theories I am extending in my

analysis of the techniques activists use to create an art of rebellion (Gelder and Thornton

1997: 137) .

       According to Hebdige, there are two main ways in which the media undermines

forms of subcultural resistance: through the commodification of punk styles and fetishes,

and the ideological redefinition and resituation of deviance by governing forces (Gelder

and Thornton 1997: 131). Similarly, in the context of activist artists, this resituation of

deviant behavior allows the media to consign activists into a framework of dominant

meanings, which categorize their behaviors and actions under limited or demonized

categories and essentially undermines their opinions. These categories prevent them from

being heard or taken seriously, and often cause discrimination based on age or sexuality.

       As far as commodification goes, however, activists do not seem to be merely

letting the media absorb and neutralize their tactics by selling their style. Instead, they are

taking direct actions to subvert and re-appropriate corporate media so they can undermine

the companies and organizations that they feel are morally corrupt in their use of

financial power—sort of turning the tables from what Hebdige observed in the 1970s.

Taussig: Defacement

       Michael Taussig takes on the complex nature of public secrecy and the act of

defacing the things society holds most sacred in Defacement: Public Secrecy and the

Labour of the Negative. When applied to the idea of activists defacing the facades of

buildings, and thus edifying the urban terrain with their art, Taussig’s claims form an

interesting point of departure for understanding the implications of using activist art to

subvert and ‘deface’ public property.

       According to activists, corporations create many public secrets that exist to

protect their private economic practices. However, by defacing an advertisement, or the

wall of an abandoned building, activists are not only creating a new object—a defaced

object, which carries subverted meanings—but also creating a more critical sense of what

the object was before it was defaced. In this way, activists can be seen as overturning

corporate secrets—uncovering the salary of Exxon’s CEO here, or discovering the

practices of KFC chicken farms – in an attempt to hold them more socially responsible.

By deconstructing and subverting the secrets of these companies through visual

narratives, or tagging an otherwise eschewed city space into a place for art, activists

“deface to reveal” (Taussig 1999: 7).

Bakhtin: The Novelized Past

         In the Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin (1981) describes the way in which elite

histories are constructed as a way of cementing an favorably epic version of the past in a

sort of fixed mode that allows it to be distanced from the everyday. Typical American

history textbooks contain many of these epic histories, such as Columbus discovering

America, and the idea of “manifest destiny” that allowed the brave American pioneers to

claim the West as a place given to them by God. “Everything incorporated into this past

was simultaneously incorporated into a condition of authentic essence and significance,

but therefore also took on conclusiveness and finality” (Bakhtin 1981: 16).

         Yet the elite version of history is not the only version of the past. A form of

novelized history that has a more everyday familiarity to the people who value it also

exists, in what Bakhtin relates to the idea of carnival, calling it “the low language of the

contemporary” (1981: 21). Activist street artists are creating a similar phenomenon

through alternative history projects that aim to reconnect people with the histories that are

relevant and important to their everyday lives.

Foucault: Power Relations as “Strategic Games Between Liberties”

        When Foucault was asked to explicitly distinguish power from domination--

concepts which had previously remained unexplained in his work, he explained

“Minimizing domination is the task which connects ethics and politics”(O’Leary: 2002,

158). Power is a concept of universal proportion, as the fluctuating forces of the world

manifest differences in both the order of the natural realm, and the relative order

contrived by the human forces of social proportion. Domination, as Foucault argued, is

the perversion of power, and is unhealthy in its repression of separation between society

and politics.

        The American discourse of ‘freedom’ as written in the Constitution allows for the

perversity of power in the eyes of activist artists. The direct actions they carry out to

enact social change pursue a different discourse of freedom, and as Foucault writes “is

rooted in our unwillingness to comply”(O’Leary: 2002, 160). This may be applied to

understanding the goals of activist artists, as it opposes both the discourse of ‘American

patriotic freedom’, as well as the Hegelian notion that frames freedom as a utopian end

that can only result in a society of perfect equality. Instead, activist artists navigate the

power relations in what Foucault called a “strategic game between liberties” through

forms of visual resistance.


        Constructing a working definition of what ‘radical art’ or ‘activist art’ is, or can

be, is a rather delicate issue. There are many different styles and forms of visual media

that could be considered to be of this category, including wheat pasting, graffiti,

stenciling, and street art, protest banners, educational visual narratives, recycled

sculpture, and many more. New forms and new combinations of forms are evolving

everyday. Thus, if one considered activist art to be a movement, it would not be a

movement defined by medium, but rather, the essence that links these art forms to one

another is the intention they are created with, and most importantly, the spaces they are

intended to occupy. Traditional forms of art are often displayed with varying levels of

ritual as ‘decoration’ or ‘high art’ in galleries, homes, and the waiting rooms of dental

offices. Being ‘displayed’ means the work of the artist is somewhat passively occupying

space. This form of art is to be looked at and enjoyed aesthetically, and perhaps it will

even provoke philosophical reflection, but it does so with little risk because it is fulfilling

a previously established public function.

Understanding Resistance Art

        The people behind the art that this ethnography examines are not merely artists

creating art. What they create is not meant to passively fulfill the function that art has

been given in the past century. Instead, they are activists creating art, art that is an active

tool for exploring new ways of interacting in the world, for educating people about the

social injustices taking place around them, and as a way for reclaiming public space for

the everyday people that occupy it.

          Thus, a key aspect to understanding the art made by activists is the dynamic

nature it takes on. Instead of politely resting their work within a framed space, activist

artists intrude upon private property. Work, such as that of the artist Blu, pictured below,

fill spaces the artist was not asked to fill with messages the artist was not paid or asked to

tell. This piece, painted in Barcelona, provokes one to consider the idea of evolution.

Furthermore, activist art does not merely serve to contrast traditional art forms. Because

of its typically urban setting, it stands in direct contrast to advertisements—sponsored

media, which is deemed legitimate by governing officials, and is a sight that is generally


          Opinions on the marking of public space vary greatly, usually in accordance with

one’s cultural lenses and aesthetic persuasions. Some people call it graffiti, others call it

‘vandalism’, or simply a ‘nuisance’. Often, graffiti is attributed to the ever-culpable

rebellious teenager. However, a closer look at some of the images that are produced in

the spirit of street art reveal that they are crafted much more intentionally than one might


          Activists who make art, which I am referring to throughout this paper as ‘activist

artists’, come from a variety of backgrounds, but they all have in common a passion for

resistance and the active pursuit of a better world. The people I involved in this

ethnography range from being in their early twenties to their mid-thirties. While people

of all ages are creating forms of visual resistance in the world today, the members of this

rising generation seem to be the predominant force that refuses to perpetuate the lifestyles

of the previous generation, and the ones who are thus pushing activist art to new levels.

Many are university students, or college graduates, and are using their education to make

grassroots changes in the world. Some work as designers or do other jobs by day to make

a living, but at night they create the work that allows them to express the ideals they are

passionate about. As Jesse, a Chicago-based artist that I met at NCOR, explained to me

through an e-mail interview, “During the day I do the work that supports me financially, I

do graphic design […] but when I have a night off I go tagging with my friends and that

is when I actually get to express my opinion about the world”.

        Often, these individuals are active members of ‘collectives’, which allow them to

develop their work and ideas collaboratively, and enables them to carry out larger-scale,

more ambitious projects with the many hands of the group. These groups often take on an

almost subcultural quality, the characteristics of which vary based on the degree of

radical ideology they align themselves with, as well as their overall lifestyle choices. I’ve

come across several different methods of visual resistance used by activist subcultures.

Groups such as the Beehive Collective educate and raise awareness in a humble,

organized manner through images that serve as compelling visual narratives that inform

the viewers about social issues. The groups mission statement, available on their website,

expresses these values that Beehive tries to reflect in every aspect of their work,

       An important aspect of our mission is that all our work is anonymous and anti-
       copyright, for free use as popular education tools. We are trying to dispel the
       tradition of activism that is based on books, experts, speeches, and “hoarding
       knowledge”, by creating communication methods that are more holistic,
       accessible and invite participation… inspiring action, instead of passive listening
       or absorbing. []

This picture of a polar bear entangled in a leaking oil

pipeline reveals the troubles of drilling in the Arctic

Wildlife Refuge. The image is a cropped portion

from a larger visual narrative which visually places

this polar bear, and the issue of oil drilling, in the

context of ‘bad guy’ oil companies, other forms of environmental degradation, and the

apathetic, consumerist American values, represented by larvae watching TV, eating

McDonalds, tattooed in barcodes and laden with shopping bags, credit cards, and cash.

Entry to Setting

        In order to find participants for my study, and attend relevant events, I began

talking to several other students at my college who I knew were interested in activism or

street art and graffiti. I also looked at the urban environments I have had access to

throughout the course of this research: Asheville, Orlando and Washington DC. I also

searched online for artist websites, subscribed via e-mail to several visual resistance

themed websites or blogs, and e-mailed individuals who are involved in making

resistance art.

        Because of the strong network that activists have created in the everyday world

and on the Internet, I was able to draw upon the ‘snowball effect’ and finding activist

artists was simple. In doing so, and by interacting with individuals in the area, I was able

to learn of several interesting events, such as the NCOR conference, and by discussing

perceptions of radical street art at related events in downtown Asheville. These events

allowed me to connect with individuals, as well as experience and observe the lived

experiences of activist artists.


       Once I had gained access to these groups, however, I used several research

methods in order to gather the stories and information that have grounded this thesis.

Participant observation, interviews and content analysis of primary texts are the

anthropological methods I have used to gather my data and working knowledge of my

subjects. Based on the qualitative nature of my research methodology, these methods

have allowed me to value quality over quantity in my research process. The resulting data

is based not in quantitative percentages and graphs, and allows me to make no claims to

discovering any universalizing, normative truths about my participants. Rather, it is based

on more personal, in-depth accounts that better reflect the experiences of my participants,

as well as the social importance of the art through which they voice their values and

views of society.

       Due to the socially deviant, and often subversive values of my participants, I have

considered my methods very intentionally, so that they would allow me to carry out my

research in ways which would allow my participants to interact with me as naturally as

possible, while also properly informing them of my research. For the privacy of my

participants, I have asked their permission when I used recording devices, or taken notes

about any specific observations I have made—these recordings and notes have been kept

in a secure place throughout the course of the research. Also, the participants have been

given aliases so they may remain anonymous throughout this thesis.

       First-hand accounts and specifically answered questions from participants allow

researchers to understand their subjects in a way that is complimentary to the knowledge

gained by other methods, such as participant observation. Given the values of my

participants, however, and the time restrictions of my research, many aspects of

formalized interview techniques proved distracting or unworkable. The mere mention of

the word ‘interview’ often made my potential interviewees nervous, and several felt they

had nothing to say, beyond basic descriptions of what they where doing. Finally I asked

someone if I could talk to her sometime on her thoughts about activist art, and the

conversation that ensued was very helpful to my research, as she seemed much more

candid than when I tried to interview her.

       I have interviewed eight participants from a variety of backgrounds and locations-

some via face-to-face interviews, and others through e-mail correspondence. However, I

have had many more informal conversations with other participants, which I have taken

field notes on, as well as allowed to develop my overall understanding of activist artists.

The e-mail correspondences have allowed me to contact participants from Chicago, Los

Angeles, New York, Maine and the UK.

       Due to the importance of movement and ‘direct action’ to my participants,

interacting with them through participant observation, and observing the primary texts

they have created has provided me with the richest aspects of my data. While formal

interviews felt unnatural and contrived, (and seemed to take them uncomfortably out of

their element), being at a radical theory conference, a national protest, a graffiti art show,

and other key gatherings for activist artists has allowed me to get a very candid

perspective of their aesthetic and ethical values, the ways they interact with one another,

and of the process that informed and motivated their art, as well as produce it.

       The semiotics of art and the social texts created by activist artists is central to the

focus of this paper, so analyzing images and texts, such as zines, was a crucial aspect of

my research. The internet has been surprisingly helpful, as many artists and collectives

have personal web pages and blogs upon which they display their own artwork as well as

the anonymous or tagged work of other street artists (See Glossary for Listing).

Oftentimes, the online photos are accompanied by commentaries by the groups, such as

the screenshot of the Beehive Collective site (below), as well as blog-style commentary

from others who ‘like’

the pieces, or are

otherwise interested in

them. These overt

displays of discussion

and social interaction

have been helpful sources

of data, and reveal an

interesting layer of

interaction that is taking place in the virtual environment.


       When I was trying to choose a topic for this ethnography, I knew that I wanted to

study the way people interact with art, and the everyday importance of visual

environments. We are constantly bombarded by images and symbols in our current

society. I am fascinated by what repercussions new forms of communication and our

increasingly Globalized interactions have, and will have on society. One way of being

able to notice and see the effects of these repercussions is through art and aesthetics, as

they are key aspects of how humans negotiate their everyday existences. When the

Beehive Collective came to Warren Wilson in Spring 2006, I began to wonder how

activists respond to and negotiate the injustices they perceive in the world through visual


         In order to carry out a valid study of this topic, I have been analyzing the way in

which subjectivities are affecting the way I perceive, organize and interpret information.

While I will never be able to be completely aware of all my subjectivities, I have tried to

be as objective as possible throughout this ethnography to ensure that my perspective on

my participants and their art has not been negatively framed throughout my process. This

allows me to take advantage of the understanding they afford me, while also remaining

open to the many possibilities that rest outside of them. Given my identity as a female

college student with an interest in art and anthropology, I rarely experienced major

cultural divides that prevented communication between my participants and I. However,

there are several personal ‘lenses’ that influence my perceptions based on my experiences

and identity. Throughout the process of my research, as well as the process of analyzing

and reporting on it, I have made an effort to question, and remain wary of the following

subjective lenses.

         The most basic lens that orders my experiences is one I will call my personal

context lens, and is composed of the opinions I have formulated on activist art based on

my experiences with it in the past. This lens is not inherently bad, as it has helped me

choose the topic, yet I must be careful that I do not formulate subjective assumptions

about my participants, and their work based on the experiences I have had with activist

art in the past. A second prominent lens results from my identity, and overarching

worldview, as a student of anthropology, and burgeoning member of the academic

community at large. My interest in social justice composes a third lens, which is of

relevance because of my personal views and assumptions regarding social issues that I

strongly identify with and choose to advocate through my own lifestyle choices.

       Due to the aesthetic aspects of this project, my ideas about what art is and

signifies to the individuals involved in the ‘life’ of art objects is highly influenced by my

own interest in making art with my own hands, and enjoying things made by others. I

have tried to prevent these personal views to prevent me from reporting on some groups

in equal terms as others, or idealizing the acts of visual resistance I am studying.


     They are the makers of the whimsical Charlie Chaplin stencils one may see

stenciled on the side of a power box on Tunnel Road, in Asheville; they are muralists

who wish to beautify their community by creating edifying graffiti; and they are the

‘subvertisers’ and the ‘adbusters’ who decry the pervasiveness of corporate media. Yet in

order to understand why activist artists create things as they do, we must understand

values and lifestyle choices that fuel their creativity. How do activist artists choose to

interact within the world? What gives activists a feeling of agency within a society that

they are morally opposed to—in which they feel the concept of freedom is heavily

monitored by cohesive social norms and a dangerous obsession with consumerism?

Before my data and analysis may explain the answers to these sort of questions, I will

describe a few typical scenes in the distinctive experiences lived by the sorts of people

who activist art.

   Let’s move to a small college café where a group of quirkily dressed students sit

amidst quiet conversation next to a trash bin. In the center of the table there stands a tall

pile of pale yellow plates, laced in remnants of balsamic vinaigrette and flax seeds. The

stack forms a small skyscraper. It hovers above a small cityscape of tea-filled drinking

jars resting serenely over a landscape of salad and beans. It is dinnertime. Twenty-year

old Alice wears a hat bedecked with propaganda pins, and radically voiced messages

scripted on patches that she has stitched onto her jacket.

   Across the table Terence is wearing earth-toned clothes that are unashamedly ripped,

and marked with grease stains and dirt that reveal his devotion to bicycles and gardens.

They are overtly scavenging—the stack of plates is testament to the number of meals they

have finished for other people who would have otherwise thrown the food out. “Might as

well eat it-- it’s perfectly good food going into the trash when lots of energy went into

making it and getting it here to our school”, one of the students reflected, when I asked

her why he does it.

       Undertaking a lifestyle aesthetic of intentional simplicity, and a ‘waste not, want

not’ mentality allows these students to overcome the normative middle-class American

taboo of eating someone else’s trash. Why do these college students care about eating

that extra portion of leftover beans from someone else’s plate so it does not land in the

trash? What is it that motivates them to wear politically radical messages on their clothes,

while other students around them seem content to wear clothes that say nothing overtly,

aside from brand name logos here and there?

       The search for a fulfilling sense of self and a definable social identity consumes

the thoughts of many people—especially for those who are adjusting to life in their

twenties and thirties. After making the painful escape past the volatile cycle of

adolescence, the idea of entering into the ‘real world’ begins to sink into the mind. Yet

while many young people find themselves in this circumstance, their searches for

meaningful identities and modes of survival in the ‘real world’ vary dramatically. For

some young, middle-class Americans, success in the real world, and a satisfying

existence, means getting a stable job, and using the economic credit earned thereof to

engage and indulge in a variety of consumer choices. As Dick Hebdige writes,

        Each ensemble has its place in an internal system of differences—the
        conventional modes of sartorial discourse— which fit a corresponding
        set of socially prescribed roles and options. These choices contain a
        whole range of messages which are transmitted through the finely
        graded distinctions of a number of interlocking sets—class, status, self
        image, and attractiveness, etc. (Hebdige 1978)

        Activist artists, however, choose not to partake in this socially prescribed set of

roles and options as they construct their identities and the actions that create their

lifestyle. Instead, they create ensembles that are created in socially responsible ways, and

are sewn and reassembled with appropriated symbols. The result is an overt identity that

symbolically reflects their holistic values and their willingness to avoid normalcy in favor

of more radical, and socially responsible existence.

Bricolage Aesthetics: The Style of Activist Subcultures

        Within cultures, objects and meanings combine to create signs. Bricolage is a

method of creating new meanings by altering, reappropriating and subverting signs into

new contexts (Hebdige 1978). This often results in a distinct aesthetic that marks activist

artists as being a part of a radical subculture. It also allows them to relate to others within

their group, and expressively explore their ideals. On the following page is a photograph

that was taken by the gates of Ft. Benning at the 2006 SOA/WHINSEC2 In it, a man has

 SOA/WHINSEC refers to “School of the Americas”, renamed the “West. Hemisphere Inst. for Security
Cooperation”, located in Ft. Benning, GA. Protestors gather annually with the attempt of shutting down this

stenciled an image of a fist and the word

“protest” on the back of a white-collared

shirt. Even the phrase ‘white-collar” has

strong implications in our society, so by

altering this piece of clothing he is

subverting the image of formal, business

attire into a form of sartorial social commentary that reflects his beliefs.

         Other forms of bricolage include the ideas of ‘adbusting’ and ‘subvertising’, both

of which refer to the bricolage appropriation of corporate logos into satirical contexts.

These contexts change the meaning of the logos, because they no longer serve to

advertise and support the brand name. Instead, these corporate logos become visually

associated with the corruption that activists see in their practices, such as perpetuating

substandard labor conditions for their outsourced workers, degrading the environment,

                                                                 and encouraging a culture of

                                                                 consumerism. Pictured at right is

                                                                 the work of a design team called

                                                                 1pointsize that has subverted the

                                                                 logo of a globally recognized

                                                                 corporate brand name by placing it

                                                                 on a wall in India: one of the

largest sources of sweatshop labor in the world ( This piece is part of a

series called “Brand Irony”, and emphasizes the disparities that exist between the

institution which trains Latin American militias that enforce various ‘security cooperation’ agendas in Latin
America, many of which have resulted in a large number of civilian deaths.

companies that advertise luxury items such as Nike Tennis Shoes or Visa Credit Cards

and the people who suffer low wages and poor living conditions in order to create these


         “Adbusting” is a compelling form of bricolage activist art because unlike more

quirky, exclusive forms of ironic street art (that sometimes appeal only to inside members

of the group) the symbols that are ‘subvertised’ are widely-recognized and can be easily

understood by the wider society. Also, bricoleur style allows members of the activist art

subculture to display their values in a distinctive manner of dress that challenges pre-

established notions of sartorial identity (Hebdige 1978).

         One of the ways that activists find the materials that they use to make bricolage

forms of dress and street art is the practice of dumpstering3 to. Dumpstering, which is

also a method for finding food, is consistent with the values of activists, as it is a way of

gathering necessary materials without engaging in unnecessary economic transactions. In

other words, the beauty of trash is that it is free. Because it is free, the idea of selecting

materials is often left up to chance. However, this brings the idea of bricolage into play

again, as the ability to spontaneously create with the materials at hand allows radical

street art to be made with little expense.

         One of my participants, a NY based street artist named Bettina, described how a

project her group was creating involved making sturdy signs that would pose as city

landmarks, but instead present alternative histories, such as stories of the Underground

Railroad. After browsing the dumpsters of several hardware stores, her group found more

than enough scrap steel to carry out their project. A blacksmith in the group welded the

 This term refers to the act of searching through dumpsters to search for food, or other re-usable materials.
Often done at night, it is considered illegal trespassing of private property by most police.

steel using tools they already had, and created landmark stands that they were able to

paint and install. They looked so similar to the official landmarks of the city that they

were not discovered and removed by officials for six months.

       Because of the sort of inventive, creative tactics activist art groups like Bettina’s

have been using, the street art movement has been steadily building momentum and

evolving to new levels. Having the mindset and values of a bricoleur allows activists to

have an aesthetically cohesive way of dressing and identifying themselves as part of the

subculture and to be able to subvert symbols of corporate media. Also, it allows them to

create these things in a way that is consistent with their values and keeps consumerism

and participation in the economic system at a minimum.

The Collective: an Organic, Homological Structure of Support

       While bricolage describes a method of visual subversion that activist artists use to

create radical images and displayed identities, homology is a way of understanding how

all aspects of their identity—lifestyle, art, identity, activities and values—systemically

reflect are reflected in the subcultural whole. While traditional artists often draw

inspiration from the world around them, artists, and society at large, ultimately attribute

their work to themselves as individuals. This is apparent by the signature that

authenticates and identifies the image as having been created by an individual. Artists

such as Salvador Dalí and Picasso have gone to great lengths to furnish their names with

the artistic implications they have today. Yet activist artists have different intentions for

their work, and thus often make ‘tags’ or creative pseudonyms for themselves, that allow

them to keep their legal name, and their identity outside of street art, anonymous and


       Another way activist artists undermine their individual contributions to the

movement is by being a part of collective efforts Collectives can carry out the sort of

ambitious projects that take many hands to accomplish (and in the case of watching for

police, many eyes). Joining collective groups helps individuals to creatively collaborate

with others to imagine new ways of creating, as well as finding new ways of

understanding and interacting within the world. These collectives often draw upon

horizontal organizations of power, which may seem to be “lawless” to the outer society

as they often have no particular leader (Willis 1978). However, by looking at collectives

as being homological structures of support, it becomes apparent that a unified system of

aesthetic resonance pervades and connects all aspects of their lives.

       The Beehive Collective exemplifies this notion of homology, as the members of

the beehive, (who aptly refer to themselves as ‘bees’), draw upon organic metaphors to

inspire all aspects of their work and the structure of their group. Their artwork draws very

heavily on visual representations of organic images juxtaposed with the man-made

symbols or practices they are raising awareness about. On the following page is an image

that features a series of scenes that portray common phenomena taking place across the

U.S. as a result of biotechnology, including suburbia, monoculture crops, car culture,

chain stores, manufactured desire, clear-cut forests, and nature as a museum, among

others. Beneath these are five contrasting scenes that depict ‘healthy’ things, such as

healthy ecosystems, communities, food, families and sustainable technology. It

encourages people to “resist the commodification of human life”, and boldly asks the

viewer, “does the homogenization of culture disturb you?”

       Yet, the organic metaphors the Beehive Collective uses to express their social

views is not confined to the borders of the page. Instead it pervades all aspects of their

lives: they eat organic food, live simply, and organize their collective based around the

concepts of a hive, and the idea of leaf-cutter ants that work together to create something

much larger than any of the individuals could be by themselves. But this does not mean

they are homogenous; each “bee” has a unique role and identity within the collective, and

an individual understanding of what their work means to the collective ‘hive’.

       To gain a better insight the lived

experiences of the bees, I interviewed

Bubba via e-mail, a bee who visited

Warren Wilson College during an

educational tour. I asked him about how

it was working with fellow bees, and if

there was a variety of opinions within it.

Bubba replied, “you'll find that when

working with a collective

of decentralized bees, from a variety of

backgrounds, the perspectives you

encounter to be as varied and distinct as

the bioregions we are all currently squatting in.” His reply is ripe with organic ways of

conceptualizing his interactions with the other bees, which reveals the homologous

resonance that underlies all aspects of their subculture (Willis 1978). It is in this way that

collectives form an essential source of support and power for the individuals that make up

the subculture of activist artists.


        The Beehive Collective’s work serves as an excellent tool for public education,

but this is only one of several functions of activist art. Some activist art has not been

created to educate the public about a particular issue, but has instead been created to

actively occupy public space. This seemingly simple act has become a burgeoning

movement often referred to as ‘ radical street art. While graffiti is a well-known concept

that refers to text painted on walls, radical street art is a newer, more hybridized form of

occupying urban environments with active forms of visual media.

        While graffiti is limited to text, what street art encompasses is far more open to

discovery and improvisation. It allows artists to combine a variety of bricolage media,

text and symbols to create multimedia images and sculpture that are pushing the

evolution of this form to remarkable levels of artistry and social commentary. Yet in spite

of the artistic expertise, and clever group collaborations that are going into the creation of

this art form however, it is still deemed illegal and is subject to buffing4 or removal by

officials at any moment in time.

Engaging the Passerby: Street Art as an Arbiter of Social Dialogue

        Buffing is just one of many responses activist art evokes from the people who

view it. This is a response that results from what street artist Bettina Escauroza calls the

  The act of covering over graffiti, it is usually an activity that is sponsored by city councils and
neighborhood watch groups for the purpose of ‘cleaning up’ urban/suburban areas from the street art that
they often characterize as being vandalism.

“scripting of public space5” (Escauriza 2007). Police officers and members of town

councils often generalize street art to be a form of vandalism, which may result in a

fearful association with gang graffiti. In a seminar she presented at NCOR titled

“Creative Disruptions of Space, Memory and Power”, Bettina stated,

        Public space is highly scripted. As users of space, we are constantly
        receiving cues on how to behave and make use of space. This scripting
        occurs due to pressures from agents of repression (capitalism, the state,
        sexism and so on), which in turn aid in the construction of identities. We
        are interested in raising questions around how we comply and sometimes
        reinforce the different ways that power emerges in public space, asking
        what public space is anyway, and discussing strategies of how we might
        resist these dominant and pervasive scripts on our behavior. (Escauroza

In order to avoid these “pervasive scripts on [their] behaviour”, activist artists

create work that directly defies these scripts. In the case of street art, the acts of

placing art on the walls of areas such as subways, abandoned buildings, billboards

and street signs is considered to be “deviant” or “radical” behavior, because it is

not a socially accepted or encouraged behavior. Art is often confined to galleries,

and activist artists directly threaten this idea by connecting art to the everyday

environments people occupy, as well as connecting the art to the everyday issues

that people find meaningful. Even the people who remove or buff this activist

street art are unwittingly engaging in a social dialogue by doing so—they are

reacting to the evocative nature of the art. Also, they are acting in a scripted way

by enforcing the perceived social norms that Bettina spoke of in her seminar, and

are thus giving in to “pressures from agents of repression” (Escauriza 2007).

 Scripted actions or connotations are those which are socially accepted or encouraged, and often constitute
“normal” behavior, which contrasts “deviant” or “radical” behavior.

           Yet not everyone who sees the art decides to cover it up—especially now

that the artistic forms street art is taking on are beginning to look very different

than the sorts of graffiti tags6 that community members see as vandalism. Radical

art forms are meant to not only be seen, but to also engage the people who walk

past to take notice of the space they are occupying, consider issues of social

justice and in some cases the art is created to merely bring a smile to one’s face,

and offer feelings of hope, acceptance, love or curiosity amidst the hustle and

bustle of the urban environment.

Defacing to Reveal: Rethinking the Commodification of Public Space

           Activist street artists believe that scripted norms serve to control and dominate

public behavior, which, in turn, makes most people feel alienated from the others around

them. Activist art thus becomes a form of defacement, because it defies these socially

scripted norms (Taussig 1981). When art is unsolicited, and unpaid for, it becomes no

longer recognized as legitimate form of expression within our society. This is a way in

which capitalism reinforces itself, by forcing all aspects of society to be commodified—

even images.

           Most of these images we see on a daily basis are sponsored advertisements. Often

they are located on sturdily built structures that exist only to put a sign that someone has

paid for in a highly visible space where others will see it. Because of how pervasive

advertisements are as we go about our daily lives, we often take these images for granted.

This is why activist artists are asking if the public should be forced to look at so many

    Refers to an alias taken on by artists, examples include Banksy, Swoon, Betamaxxx, BO 130, Ambrio

advertisements in their everyday lives. Should public spaces be commodified and sold to

the wealthy corporations who can afford them?

         French street artist Urbanblooz has used a minimalist wheat pasting 7 technique to

deface billboards throughout the city (pictured below) that very effectively ‘erases’

billboards, and provokes people to ask this very question, and ponder a society without


         When you first see Urbanblooz’ street art, you do not initially realize you are

looking at a billboard. That is because Urbanblooz transforms billboards from being a

thing that obscures and fills space with a negative message into a border that carefully

frames a small fragment of the cityscape. His intent is relatively simple-- he merely

covers billboards with

pictures that reclaim the view

that the billboard once

obscured. By defacing, and

ultimately erasing these

billboards, Urbanblooz is

cleverly exposing the view

that these advertisements

obscure. He may be

proposing that the people who occupy public space should not be forced to have a

constant backdrop of advertisements, or challenging the viewer to take a fresh look at the

  By heating equal portions of water and flour, one may create a very inexpensive adhesive that works to
adhere paper onto virtually any flat surface—aside from plastic and wood. Activist artists ‘wheat-paste’, or
‘poster-bomb’ their posters or prints in urban settings and often at night, as it is not legal. ‘Affinity groups’
often wheat-paste in teams to avoid arrest.

cityscape they occupy. In the pictures above, a tree and train wires become intentional

compositions that can be enjoyed in their own right, and that minimize the dominating

effects of billboards within public spaces.

        By defining the norms of socially scripted spaces, activist artists use their work as

a way of altering the urban spaces people occupy, and attempt to provoke in them a fresh

experience of what it is to be in a city, as well as challenge the bounds of how we fill our

cities (Escauriza 2007). As the privatization and commodification of property increases,

and laws prevent activist art forms from legally occupying public space, street artists are

up against some pretty remarkable odds. Yet this does not discourage the artists

themselves—instead it seems to be strengthening their efforts, as they realize their work

is needed more than ever. The movement continues to evolve and produce clever new

ways of defacing commodified media, reclaiming city space, educating the public,

advocating social justice, and organizing with one another an attitude of hopeful

collective solidarity.


        As discussed in the last section, occupying and creatively disrupting urban

environments is a key function of activist art. So why is the simple act of using radical

art to occupy public space so important? According to Foucault’s theories on power

relations, “Freedom is not the converse of domination or power. It is merely an effect of

our capacity to challenge the effects of both; it is not ‘the end of domination’, but a revolt

within its practices… If there are relations of power throughout every social field it is

because power is everywhere” (Foucault in O’Leary 1997: 160).

Not only is power everywhere, but just as Antonio Gramsci (1971) believed hegemony

could never become a completed process, Foucault believes power is never fixed to any

one force, and is instead a form of social relation that may be negotiable by individuals

and groups within a society.

Reclaiming Public Space for the Public

       This way of understanding power relations as a negotiable process gives a whole

new light to the effects of radical art in urban spaces. Corporate media may seem to have

the upper hand in dominating public space because they have an exponentially higher

budget, and are employing some of the brightest minds in the design industry to sell their

products. Yet activist street artists overcome their lack of economic agency with their

ability to organize, as well as the sharp-witted aesthetic homology that inspires their

grassroots creations. Activist artists engage in what Foucault called a “strategic game

between liberties” when they create art (which is often illegal without permission) upon

the surfaces of public spaces in, and thus navigate the power relations that surround that

space (1997:160).

       Like a game, some radical street art is very playful in nature and negotiates power

relations in a fresh way that draws upon simple aesthetic forms to create powerful, and

positive images. Abandoned buildings become the large-scale canvases in the eyes of

street artists such as Blu ( He has created hundreds of extremely large-scale

pictures, such as the one on the following page, where whimsically sized creatures and

humans interact in a way that reflects his feelings about power relations, the evolution of

human society towards consumerism and war, and even critiques on corporations such as


         Blu paints these large-scale street images in cities across the world. Sometimes he

is sponsored to paint these murals on bus stops, buildings and people’s homes, yet the

intention of his work is not to be marketed, make him famous, or earn him any more

money than he needs to keep making the art. Activist artists Sara and Marc Shiller, of the

Wooster Collective, gave a talk at the Conflux Festival in Brooklyn, and explained some

of the effects that artists like Blu are trying to achieve. They also remark about how much

of the art ends up being documented and placed on Internet. is the personal

website of Blu, which he has created to look like a journal, and records all of Blu’s works

before they get painted over or washed away by the elements. As Sara and Marc explain,

The works tap into our emotions and we get
that WTF ??? moment. The web cannot
recreate that experience but it's still
important to document the works on the
internet because not everybody gets the
opportunity to see one of Banksy's8 works.
Besides, half of the passersby might walk by
the work and totally ignore it. Creating
surprise and delight doesn't require a
particular skill or training, it's more a matter
of ingenuity and brillance. Once you leave a
piece in the streets, you don't own it any
more and have no control over it, it belongs
to the street. Besides all the pieces change
over time, because of the elements and the
weather. But that's part of the eco-system!
(Debatty 2006)

         This humble perspective of street artists, by which they allow their work to be

enjoyed only for a moment, then faded, painted over, or destroyed by the elements of the

urban “ecosystem” they are created in, is one of the most powerful aspects of their work.

Most traditional artists go to great measures to make their art be of an archival quality. In

 Banksy is the “pseudo-anonymous” identity of a London-based street artist whose reputation is well
known within the world of radical street art for his tromp l’oeil images, stencils, wheatpastes that feature
social, moral and political issues.

my own experience as a book-maker, I have been repeatedly told to use acid-free paper,

and to wash my hands before handling the books so that the oil does not slowly rot the

aesthetic content I am creating.

        This forms a poignant

contrast to the ability of street artists

to surrender their work to the

elements of the street, and imposes

upon the sometimes pretentious, and

elitist notions that artists allow to

permeate their work. This humble

mindset allows activist artists to

negotiate power relations within

space in a way that does not

manipulate others into purchasing a

product, or to admiring their work

for generations to come.

        Swoon, a New York based street artist creates complex visual portraits (see

above) of the people she sees everyday on the streets out of paper cut-outs and block

prints that take weeks to make. Contrary to the removed, ‘high’ nature that art often

takes, she uses technically masterful traditional art forms, but she applies them to the

street. She uses fragile newsprint papers, even found newspapers sometimes, and places

them on walls so that the everyday people of the city, who she is bringing attention to in

her portraits, can see them. The fact that her works fade, crinkle and peel is not a negative

thing to her. When interviewed by The Morning News, Swoon remarked "It’s funny the

way these decay, every time I see a photograph, I always expect to see that the

expressions are very different or not present anymore. It’s all part of the process."

(Sudbanthad 2007)

       The paint will fade, and the wheat pastes will peal, but these street artists are

content with that. Instead of knowing their work will be preserved for posterity, bringing

moments of humor and happiness to an otherwise dilapidated urban space fulfills them,

as it is their way of empowering the people who happen to pass by to question the

practices and mindsets of their society.

Negotiating Alternative Histories

       While there are many other ideas and art forms that activist artists are currently

pioneering, the last topic I will discuss in this ethnography is the ways in which artists

have recently started negotiating ideas about how history is created, and should be

remembered. As time passes on, moments that have occurred in the past inevitably

disappear. We are left with only memories and the material records of what has passed.

Red Hook, Brooklyn, is an area that has endured much gentrification lately, and the

people who have lived there longest are being marginalized because of their economic

status. Several street artists decided to collectively produce a “site-specific intervention”,

which is pictured at right. They used many layers of images and texts to create a

complex visual narrative that represents the many layers of historical narratives that the

people of Red Hook have experience throughout their lives there.

       The first part of this project involved wheatpasting a street corner building (see

next page) with around 200 New York Times articles that have headlined the

neighborhood name “Red Hook” since 1851. Then they used the content of the articles to

inspire a layer of line-illustrations that they painted in bold black lines over the articles.

‘Bubbles’ have been created to feature the many lived experiences of the community, and

they vary in size, according to the importance or prevalence of the experiences. Street

artist Iminent Disaster created a blog on to record this project, where

he reflects,

        By looking at the tensions between historical record and individual memory, we
        can reflect upon on the role of our imaginations and come to a deeper awareness
        of our potential to shape the identity of our communities through our lived
        experiences within them. Red Hook has been at the center of many discourses
        about gentrification, but during these expositions, the identity of the community is
        most often quantified through property values and business development. By
        shifting the emphasis of identity to lived experience instead of economic
        productivity; the average person acquires a position capable of challenging the
        dominant power structures, even with limited economic means. (Iminent Disaster

        By taking an active role in commemorating and exploring what Bakhtin referred

to as a “novelized past” (1981: 16), these activist artists are using their radical visual

narratives to actively negotiate power relations in a way that legitimizes and celebrates

the experiences of the people that live in the community of Red Hook. While the news

paper histories serve as a basis for their installation, they fade into the background while

the more important issues—the lived

experiences of the community

members—become highlighted in the

forefront by the black line drawings.

        This way of understanding

power relations as a negotiable process

gives a whole new light to effects of radical art in urban spaces. Corporate media

producers may seem to have the upper hand in dominating public space because they

have an exponentially higher budget, and are employing some of the brightest minds in

the design industry to sell their products, yet activist street artists overcome their lack of

economic agency with their ability to organize, as well as the sharp-witted aesthetic

homology that inspires their grassroots creations. Also, activists effectively negotiate

alternative histories that allow non-elite versions of history to be told. This takes the form

of unique narratives—often expressed through radical street art— that focus on the

histories that are important and relevant to the lived experience of a community, rather

than events based around war, economic exchange and an epic past that is distanced from

the present experiences of society.


        Activist artists have homologically structured aesthetic values that are reflected in

every aspect of their work and lifestyle. These values allow them to inventively

collaborate with one another in collectives, that serve to support and aid them as they

undertake the sometimes risky process of creating radical (and in most cases illegal)

street art. Also, it allows them to have a coherent sense of identity and purpose in a world

that they feel needs to change. In order to do so, activists draw upon techniques such as

wheat pasting, stencils and other forms that incorporate a bricolage sense of style with

which they incorporate into their art new ways of thinking, and enacting change in the

world. By engaging and challenging the viewers of their art, activist street artists seek to

impose upon the lives of those who walk by, and perhaps cause them to think twice about

how they interact with one another in society. In urban spaces, where people have little

control over the environment around them, activist street art allows individuals and

groups to take action and draw upon the power that exists around them to create a more

beautiful, meaningful place for the people who pass through the space to live their

everyday lives.



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Benjamin, Walter
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Burgess, Joel
       2007 Rechanneling Graffiti Artists. Sunday, April 20, 2007. Asheville Citizen
Gramsci, Antonio.
       1971 Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.
Hundertmark, Christian
       2003 The Art of Rebellion. Publikat: Handels.
Hundertmark, Christian
       2007 The Art of Rebellion 2. Publikat: Handels.
Imminent Disaster
       2007 Red Hook: An Exploration of Identities. Posted 29 March, 2007 on Visual
                Resistance News. <
Escauriza, Bettina and Greenwald, Dara
       2007 Creative Disruptions of Space. Transcribed NCOR Conference Seminar.
                Washington DC.
Foucault, Michel

       1966 The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York:
                Random House
Hebdige, Dick
       1979 The Style of Culture. In The Subcultures Reader. Sarah Thornton and Ken
                Gelder, eds. London and New York: Routledge.
       2002 Foucault and the Art of Ethics. London: Continuum
Taussig, Michael
       1999 Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford:
                Stanford Press.
Sim, Stuart
       1992 Beyond Aesthetics: Confrontations with Post-structuralism and
                Postmodernism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Sudbanthad, Pitchaya
      2007 Paper Faces, Paper Cities: an Interview with Swoon. 15 May 2007. The
              Morning News. <

Thornton, Sarah and Gelder, Ken, Ed.
       1997 The Subcultures Reader. London and New York: Routledge.
Debatty, Régine

       2006 Wooster Collective’s Talk at Conflux. 25 September 2006. <http://www.we-



Title Page— Stencil:“Society Gets the Kind of Vandalism it Deserves”, Anonymous
Page 12—Highway Underpass, by Blu []
Page 14—Pipeline Polar Bear Detail, by the Beehive Collective
Page 17—Screenshot from the Beehive Collective Website
Page 22—SOA/WHINSEC Protestor, Photography by Author
Page 22—Brand Irony Series: Just Do It, By
Page 26—Resist Biotechnology, By The Beehive Collective
Page 30—Erased Billboards, by Urbanblooz
Page 33—Image of Bull-headed Man, By Blu


Activist Art: This is the predominant term I have used to describe street art made by
activists throughout this paper, and includes (but is scarcely limited to): wheat pasting,
stenciling, graffiti, post-graffiti, stickers, murals, etc. An extended form of this includes
more sartorial forms of advocacy, which include patches, pins, and other forms of activist
texts that mark the hats, jackets and other articles of clothing that some activists wear.
Adbusting: Defacing advertisements is a form of ‘direct action’, which often involves
tagging billboards or other ads, or replacing them with satirical reappropriations of text
and images. For example, one artist uses red spray paint on billboards that feature
scantily-clad models to make their eyes bleed, or other spray paint to give them clothes,
or masks.
Affinity Groups: Small groups of activists (often 3-10 people) who gather to carry out
‘direct actions’, including wheat-pasting and graffiti projects. The groups work together
to watch for police, as well as support one another in various ways in the collective
manner activist artists have grown to value as a direct opposition to the individualizing,
alienating nature of what they call ‘mainstream narratives’.
Alternative Histories: This term refers to the reclamation of history from what one
woman called the ‘mainstream narratives’ that have been predominantly taught in
American classrooms for the past fifty years. By reclaiming history, individuals and
groups may honor and remember the history that is relevant and meaningful to them.
Bad Guys: This is a somewhat playful way of labeling political individuals, advertisers,
and corporations who have committed socially unjust and/or environmentally
unsustainable acts for economic or political gain. Often the ersatz protagonists of activist
art, these organizations and figures motivate activists to take ‘direct action’ and to put up
a ‘resistance’ against them.
Bees, The: Reflecting upon the organic, collective qualities of the tiny insects, the
Beehive Collective members call themselves ‘bees’, even taking on aliases such as
“Bubba Bee” and “Emma Bee” (my participants). The members of this collective are
spread, like bees, throughout the Americas, and the members I interviewed used the
beehive metaphor constantly when explaining the organization of the group.
Bricolage: Based on the French word bricoleur, roughly translating to the concept of
‘do-it-yourself’, it refers to the resourceful, creativity that one may draw upon to create or
design new things out of the objects and images one is surrounded by. Derrida, Levi-
Strauss and eventually Dick Hebdige each incorporated the idea this word conveys into
their theories. Derrida applied the term to the concept of academic discourse “If one calls
bricolage the necessity of borrowing one's concept from the text of a heritage which is
more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur."
(Derrida 1978)
Built Environment, The: While those trained in the Fine Arts often choose to create
their art on stretched canvas and artist paper, this term refers to the planes and forms of
urban/suburban terrain that street artists choose to stencil, tag, and paste upon.
Buffing: The act of covering over graffiti, it is usually an activity that is sponsored by
city councils and neighborhood watch groups for the purpose of ‘cleaning up’
urban/suburban areas from the street art that they often characterize as being vandalism.
Culture Jamming: altering media produced by corporations in such a way as to cause
observers of this media to question it. Example: ‘Artresting’ female models portrayed in

billboards by spray painting red marks on their bodies, until it drips red giving the
appearance of blood.
Direct Action: True to the ‘dynamic’ nature of activists, that contrasts the ‘passive’
qualities of the government, carrying out direct actions often occupies the weekends and
free time of devoted activists. The term refers to the idea of creating immediate change to
counter the social/environmental problems they encounter in the world, forms include
strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations/protests, guerilla warfare, establishing radical collectives
and centers, and the creation of dynamic forms of activist art. This contrasts the term
‘indirect action’, which pursues a longer-term process of change via elections, ‘letter
writing’ to political or corporate figures, boycotting certain brands, etc.
Dumpstering: This term refers to the act of searching through dumpsters to search for
food, or other re-usable materials. Often done at night, it is considered illegal trespassing
of private property by most police.
Emo: Based on the music genre of the same name, this term is often used emically to
refer to a style of accoutrement that is characterized by dark colors, tight-fitting pants,
sweatshirts, dark-rimmed glasses, and haircuts that feature side-swept bangs, sometimes
dyed black or with stripes of bleaching, reds, or other dark colors.
Graffiti: Aesthetically stylized script written on urban surfaces, such as brick walls,
lamp-posts, bathroom stalls, bridges, vehicles, etc. One of my participants who is a
Graffiti artist was very concerned that I made note that graffiti refers only to writing, and
when it is merely images, it is called ‘post-graffiti’. However, variations on this definition
likely exist, as the normalization of terms for a long period of time often meets resistance
and redefinition.
Guerilla Art: One of the many ways of referring to what I call ‘activist art’ throughout
my paper, it emphasizes the underground, collective nature of these aesthetic forms.
Homeland Security Blanket: One of the many new media sculptures of Amy
Franceschini, this piece exemplifies the witty political commentaries that are often woven
into the creations of activist artists.
Indirect Action: A more passive form of political movement than ‘direct action’,
indirect often consists of seeking political reform or change through voting new elected
officials, supporting bills, boycotting products, and other forms of change that do not
produce short term effects.
Mural: A large-scale image that is usually painted on walls or ceilings, murals are a
generally accepted form of public art. Famous muralists include Diego Rivera, and
oftentimes urban fences or edifices are painted thusly due to city empowerment
programs. Oftentimes, political or social justice issues may be woven into this form of
urban art, varying from AIDS awareness to decrying the overpowering voice of the
New Media Art: This refers to art that has been created with the help of multimedia,
technological devises, such as the Internet, or programming. The ability for creating
interactive, and collectively collaborated forms of art and presentations makes this an
popular new form of design for the technologically savvy breed of activist artist—
especially those who are increasingly moving their activism into the online sphere.
Poster Art: Poster art has been a pervasive form of propaganda media in virtually every
society that has had some form of paper. Everyone from Marx, to advertisers for the
Barnum & Bailey circus has relied on mass-produced posters to convey messages of all

sorts. In spite of the increasing technologies of the current day, posters are still a reliable,
and simple form of spreading ideas, and for activists, ‘educating, agitating, and
Post-Graffiti: While the nature of this word seems to resist concrete definition, post-
graffiti refers to guerilla street art that has pushed the concept of graffiti beyond the
concept of being a merely vandalizing word, and instead presenting a more politically
loaded message and purpose. Post-graffiti is not ‘trapped’ on a canvas, rather, it is created
to become a mass-produced simulacra, that may be wheat-pasted on the built terrain.
Stencil: Easily made by cutting an image out of cardboard, plastic, or any flat, sliceable
surface, stencils are held up to walls, spray painted over, and are an easy way to quickly
render a visually complex and striking image onto the urban terrain. Some contain words
and images—often somewhat cryptic messages—while others are merely images that
either speak for themselves, or present an ironic image that may look meaningless to
Street Installation: This refers to pieces of art that are installed in the urban
environment. Usually they are sculptural, and dimensional in form. For example, Bettina
and Dara installed landmarks in their city that honored black historical figures and
alternative histories that mimicked the style of landmarks endorsed by the City of Troy,
Subvertising: Similar to the term ‘adbusting’, this term refers to subverting the messages
of advertisements to point out the socially unjust or economically selfish practices of
various corporations. Brand logos are often altered, or satirical advertisements may be
made and worn as clothing, made into clipart, stickers, stencils, and any form the artist
can imagine.
Tag: alias taken on by artists, examples include Banksy, Swoon, Shepard Fairey,
Betamaxxx, BO 130, Ambrio, Scout, OXO OVO, HNT, Ekosystem, Space Invador and
The Flower Guy.
Tagging: emic term for ‘leaving your mark”, or writing your tag in a place you go.
Wheat-pasting: By heating equal portions of water and flour, one may create a very
inexpensive adhesive that resembles wallpaper paste, and is sometimes called ‘Marxist
glue’. It has been used for ages to adhere paper onto virtually any flat surface—aside
from plastic and wood. Activist artists ‘wheat-paste’, or ‘poster-bomb’ their posters or
prints in urban settings and often at night, as it is not legal. ‘Affinity groups’ often wheat-
paste in teams to avoid arrest.
Wooster Collective: is an street art website that is updated on a regular basis. It is
dedicated to showcasing and celebrating ephemeral art placed on streets in cities around
the world. Updated by Marc and Sara Schiller, the site also offers podcasting with music
and interviews featuring street artists.
Zine: A small-scale, privately-created publication, zines have no typical page length and
can feature a variety of appropriated or original texts and images. In the activist art world,
zines are very popular ways to present manifestos, theories, or do-it-yourself guides.
Doris is a popular zine based out of Asheville that discusses issues of feminism and
sexual violence, while other examples of activist zines include Do-It-Yourself
Gynecology, Towards a Less Fucked Up World: Anarchism and Sobriety, and the “T”
word: pass the mission about being transgendered.


ATLASMAGAZINE.COM | A collective venture of participant Amy Franceschini
BEAUTIFULDECAY.COM | Beautiful/Decay: An Anthology of Radical Art Galleries
BEEHIVECOLLECTIVE.ORG | A Virtual Hive of the Beehive Collective
FUTUREFARMERS.ORG | A collective venture of participant Amy Franceschini
JUSTSEEDS.ORG | Just Seeds Art Collective (created by participant Josh MacPhee)
ORGANIZEDRESISTANCE.ORG | Informational Website for NCOR Conference
SOAW.ORG | School of the Americas Watch
STENCILARCHIVE.ORG | A Comprehensive Archive for Stencil Art
STREETARTWORKERS.ORG | Network of Street Art Workers
STREETSY.COM | Street Art Uploaded Daily
URBAN-ART.INFO | A Virtual Gathering of Street Arts
VISUALRESISTANCE.ORG | A gathering of activist art blogs, photos, artist bios, etc.
WOOSTERCOLLECTIVE.ORG | The Wooster Collective


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