Earlier this week I attended an informational session on blogging led by The Dusty Rebel moderator Daniel Albanese. He used his blog as an example of how to create on, and since I already knew how to create on I let my mind wander. . Albanese, an archivist of sorts, documents graffiti in New York City through his posts, in the process creating an online museum. Intrigued, I questioned the impact of his actions on an atypical art form that doesn’t traditionally lend itself to being “museum-able.”
Documentation and archiving, affordances of new media technologies have allowed for the creation of online museums. In examining the relationship between documentation, archiving and graffiti art I will consult Manovich’s book The New Media, where he outlines several principles that distinguish new media from old media. I am primarily concerned with numerical representation, and variability. A key concept of numerical representation is digitization, the “converting continuous data into numerical representation” (Manovich 49). This affords variability, and more importantly hyperlinks, which allows for different objects or texts to be linked together (Manovich 57).
In exploring the impact that online documentation and archiving have on graffiti it is important to establish several principles that the graffiti artist, and their subsequent art, must adhere to. First, the canvas on which an artist works is physical and subject to external circumstances. Weather damage, building construction/destruction, and neighborhood curmudgeons all contribute to its limited “shelf life.” Second, the canvas is spatially fixed and cannot be taken from one location to another. Combined, these two principles inform the artistic process and expression of the artist, which I will further analyzed to show how online documentation and archiving are changing this paradigm.
Graffiti includes the physical object on which it was imprinted and the lack of control an artist has on said object informs their image creation. They are fully aware that in a week the colors could fade, it could be replaced or it could remain exactly the same. The importance of this relationship is ignored by documentation and digitization, which allows anyone to “remove “noise” from a photograph, improve its contrast, locate edges of the shapes, or change its proportion” (Manovich 49). It has no obligation to the external circumstances that affect graffiti and it grants online observers that same right. The artists have chosen specific locations and objects on which to express themselves and while the surrounding sights, smells and noises are only secondary, their effect on the experience is still of importance. Digitization limits this experience because “at its heart, graffiti is about documenting presence; it is a way of saying “I was here”” (Misilamani 6). Lost or impaired by reproduction, the observer gets fragmented insight into the both the work and message of the artist.
Whereas documentation allows the message of graffiti to be distorted, archiving allows for the consumption of graffiti to go unmitigated. Graffiti is not natural in the neighborhood landscape and it is this characteristic that gives power to its message. It is to be randomly encountered, causing the observer to be taken back by its intrusiveness and its intricacies. Archiving allows for an observer to plan when and how many times they encounter graffiti. Massive audiences are allowed to massively consume as much they want, saturating themselves until “the distracted mass absorbs the work of art” (Benjamin 239). A culture of mass consumption is created and satiated by hyperlinks, which allow for quick groupings of “similar” artworks simultaneously. Only with precaution and objectivity should graffiti in San Diego be consumed with graffiti in NYC, for their messages may get obfuscated in the process of relating them to one another. Uninhibited online consumption devalues an already distorted art form.
While graffiti should be consumed in the environment it was created in, I wont ignore the benefits of saving those works that deserve permanence in the art world. There is no stopping new media and we should consider how to mediate these issues by finding an in-between. Graffiti documentation and archiving will continue, regardless of the fact that the reproduction falls extremely short of the original. The only thing I can offer besides an argument is perhaps a step in the right direction, adding an additional, often forgotten, element to the online museum.
Play the audio and attempt to enlarge the photo to fit your whole screen
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations, “The Work of Art in Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. 1st. New York: Shocken Books, 1968. 217-264. Print.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. 1st. Massachusetts: MIT, 2002. 43-128, 190-234. PDF
Masilamani, Rachel. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America , Vol. 27, No. 2 (Fall 2008), pp. 4-14