Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Online Graffiti Art

A fellow art educator and blogger posted an interesting link on his blog (which is a verrry nice blog, I might add) that I responded to earlier today, but I wanted to further explore the topic.
For proper background, first check out his post here:

The Carrot Revolution: A Blog About Art Education... and Vegetables.: online graffiti art

Now, assuming you read his post, investigated the web link he included, and read the beginning of my ramble in response format and decided that you wanted to hear me proceed with my thoughts on the subject, read on!

I clearly enjoy the visual experience that is graffiti, as my photography indicates. I enjoy the process of finding it and photographing it, too. I do not, however, engage in creating graffiti. I did grow up with friends that were taggers. They weren't the artists or writers that decorate the global human landscape that garnish gallery recognition. They were kids with sharpies and spraypaint stolen from the theatre department. We grew up in a poor community where 70% of the residents lived at or below national poverty level. I watched my friends tag their world without judging them as delinquent because I lived in two worlds. My 100 year old home was at the edge of town on 20 acres. We had horses, cows, a few milk goats, rabbits, labrador retrievers, and a variable number of feral cats in the hay barn. My parents were both educators by day and farmers in the evening. My siblings and I never went without. Just across the road that ran in front of our farm was a hill that served as a neighbor's hay field. Behind that was the Northside. It was one of the poorest neighborhoods in town. My tagging friends lived there.
Once those friends climbed the water tower and sprayed over the letters to change the name of the town into something humorous and illegal. Often though the tagging was restricted to bathrooms, lockers, walls on the Northside or desks in school. I knew my friends were angry. They wanted their tag on those things because they had nothing else to claim as their own. Many of my tagging friends went home from school to houses with no electricity or food. I doubt that any of my friends back then though of their actions as a way to claim territory, or have a sense of agency, or to bring attention to their plight. I think most of them just thought of tagging as a way to buck the system, in one of the few ways they could.
I wonder where some of those people are today. None of the handful of friends I had from that neighborhood went to college. I see some of them working around town when I go back to my hometown. I wonder if some of them finally had enough of being stuck in the Northside and found themselves stuck in jail as the alternative.
The point is, there is a certain amount of my personal identity that is wrapped up in photographing the graffiti. The tags are both beautiful and ugly to me, all at once. I see my friends and students reflected in those cryptic created identities. The invented names that the tags depict are mysteries to me. Is that name the one thing you can give yourself? Is it your property, your fame, your hopes, your dreams? Are you still tagging or have you found a way out? Do you tag because you need another identity after you leave your 8-5 job? I even wonder if the tags are a tiny bit of immortality for some of the writers that die in the perilous environments that squatters endure. It doesn't happen often, but the thought that some "anonymous" kid dies in the process of writing their alias sends a shiver down my spine.
I made an effort not to glorify or promote graffiti in my classroom when I taught middle school. We studied the history of graffiti (which is huuuuuge, by the way). We looked at the evolution of styles. I showed them some of my photography and some impressive urban bombing and expertly executed pieces. I contrasted that with simple tag images. We discussed key differences between categories of graffiti. The one point I emphasized in all cases was the legality and safety of writers from all categories. Rather than drag you through the rest of that unit, let me say that the students did create their own tags and they were displayed in our school. My principal and the campus police officer supported the unit wholeheartedly. I think that was due to my emphasis on the safety/legal issues and the fact that we didn't use spraypaint to create the final pieces.

I reflect on that unit often since leaving that school. I have mixed feelings about the results. While I think the students learned quite a bit and were proud of their finished products, I can't help but think something about the unit was askew. The finished works weren't really graffiti, by street definition. It's the same weird feeling I got when I saw that the Brooklyn Museum's Graffiti Exhibit. I can't help but think that many people, including my students and the museum goers, have the same voyeuristic fascination I have with graffiti. For some of those people it becomes an interest in making artistic creations of many forms. For others, viewing is enough. Do these hybrid creative forms and appreciative cultural audiences take the urgent messages out of what some of those street tags are shouting? Does transforming graffiti into an acceptable art form further silence the disempowered? As an educator with a heart for the underdogs, I hope not. Conversely, can this proliferation of sophisticated tagging such as the kinds found at Graffiti Research Lab bring the message of youth in peril to the forefront by presenting in in a flashy new media format? I have a sinking feeling that it's often a mixed message that isn't living up to its socially transformative potential.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Follow the Leader or Tag?

After hearing Dr. Deborah Reeve speak recently, I began to play around with a new connection to the tagging concept: tagging as leadership.
If you will indulge me in imagining the game follow-the-leader as a metaphor for earlier models for hierarchical leadership, then the connections to my previous tag(ing) will become apparent.
Dr. Reeve spoke to students, faculty, alumni, and local community members about the need for reinventing arts leaders. She challenged the audience to think about the importance of becoming a leader in a practitioner's role. She stressed the importance of flat leadership-leaders in the field of art education that don't fit the confines of top-down structure. As I understood these lateral leaders would shift between professional duties, peer/colleague mentorship, community activism, and building relationships with people involved with the arts at many experience and responsibility levels. Dr. Reeve's flat leadership was meant to parallel The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century the national bestseller book by Thomas L. Friedman. (For a quick summary of the book check out The World is Flat WikiSummaries)
Essentially, I have been struggling to find a way to link the game "tag" to my analysis of art education. I found Dr. Reeve's speech the necessary link to my metaphorical processes. In our understanding of "typical" institutional leadership, we follow the person in the front of the line. That person, in turn charts a path that they believe will lead all involved persons to a necessary destination. One problem with this model is the lack of visibility the leader has in the led parties' reactions. How is the leader receiving feedback when communication is merely a matter of following/mimetic response? I am, of course exaggerating and confusing the children's game, follow-the-leader, and the everyday experiences we have as practitioners. In a hierarchical model, communication with administration and other mid and upper level management can become difficult, if nonexistent, due to the designated tasks each involved party performs. While some hierarchical communication is formally facilitated, specific roles and certain types of communication are unlikely in this model. Players that self-designate as leaders or deviate from the leader's path may be kicked out of the game.
What about flat leadership? I can't speak for Dr. Reeve's intended practical application of the ideas she shared, but my own vision of flat leadership that her speech inspired goes back to the game of tag. In the flat leadership world, leadership is passed along in a series of interconnected exchanges of ideas, aptitudes or interests in tasks, and re/forming relationships. In this game, the "leader" isn't seen as a leader, yet all involved parties are aware of each other's positions and interactions. Communication is paramount for the person that is "it" and the people that aren't "it". Each player in this game takes turns being a "leader" and a follower, based on luck and circumstance. The main problem I see with this overlay of the game of tag and flat leadership is the idea of people running away from leadership roles. I'd love to imagine a flat leadership that was a large relay race. I just worry that in a society that struggles for standardization while promoting capitalist consumer individuality, running from lateral leadership might actually be the case. The positive overlay in looking at the game of tag and flat leadership's similarities are the gains in communication. In both instances the functions are dependent on every person involved being aware of all the other people and communication is constantly needed.
I leave you with a final game to consider relating to leadership in art education. What about a game of freeze tag? In this game the person that is "it" tags players, thus freezing them. They can only become unfrozen by being tagged by any active player that is not "it". Thinking about the person that is "it" as represented by the impediments to art educators working together (budgets, bureaucracy and naysayers) and the collaboration and communication needed by the participants to "unfreeze" our friends, perhaps this is the game we should play in our professional lives. When our colleagues are "frozen" by the current impediment to art education, aka "it", we should take notice and run to their aid. In turn, when we become frozen, our colleagues, community, and management will return the courtesy and unfreeze us.
(I hope Dr. Reeve doesn't mind me "playing" with her ideas. I was inspired by the possibilities she presented.)
So which game will we play as art educators?
Follow the leader?
Freeze Tag?
or perhaps something else?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Tagging as Teaching?

I have spent a week trying to wrap my head around several conversations. On leap day I met with my fellow blogger/artist/teacher/researcher and our professor to discuss our progress. I have been writing in a meandering fashion trying to reflect on many things that I encounter and relate to my learning and teaching. I felt that the tangential posts I was developing were logical until I had the blog opened up on a projector screen. Suddenly I had this sinking feeling that what may to me seem a cohesive process of connecting the dots (or aiding a growing rhizome) may just be a big mess to everyone else. So, I don't think that's how arts based research is supposed to go (?).
I am currently trying to contemplate how I can explain the photography I have been doing for a few years. I know how it is integral to my thinking and my teaching... but how can I tell you?
I have this funny vertical gallery that I add a few pictures from each photo shoot on the right hand side of this page. What questions do these images raise, if any? I think about how this blog could be speaking to people I'll never meet in person. I wonder if they wonder what kind of artist/teacher/researcher I am. I do.
The tags meet me, but I've never seen a writer in the process of tagging.
I wonder who they are.
I recognize some writers' pieces and tags as familiar. I know their unique style.
I have no way to reply to their pieces, so I photograph them.
I wonder where my students will go when they leave my classroom. Will their unique style reflect their experiences with me?
I keep thinking of those six degrees.