Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Be er. To him, no ma er what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. Uh, no, let me start this over.
Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), opening monologue from Manha an 1979
Two hundred years of American technology had unwi ingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential.
Craig Stecyk III, DogTown: e Legand of the Z-Boys, 2002
I live cement
I hate this street
Francis Black, Caribou 1987
Shaun O’Connor currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. However, his art practice resonates with many metropolitan centres around the world, as it references the visual language of the urban environment. He draws his subject matter from the detritus and tracery marks of city life, such as graffiti, doodled abstractions, buffed tags, stickers, decals, street handbills, as well as the everyday discarded objects that are remnants of human presence. This source material is refined and recreated—often with laborious crafting techniques, such as modelled and lacquered cardboard—and then re-contextualised within the gallery space. Because O’Connor’s practice is concerned more with artistic forms of spatial engagement than with the specifics of place, he is able to travel widely and create work that remains relevant to urban settings rich in signs of human expression.
O’Connor’s choice of subject matter stems from his interest in the culture and practice of skateboarding—a uniquely metropolitan way of navigating the city. Skateboarding, as described by anthropologist and curator Alex Baker, is “… a poetry of urban space, with empty concrete plazas as its blank page. Rolling motion is this subculture's novel medium; the kids who invent its moves are its Old Masters.” (1) An impressive blend of sport and urban exploration, this mode of transport encourages close observation of the nuances of the city, right down to changes in surface texture. Often associated with rebellion, skateboarding is perceived as being synonymous with graffiti culture with which it shares a vested interest in the reinventing and re-purposing of public space.
Graffiti has become one of the most powerful and multivocal forms of cultural expression. (2) As a product of late capitalism and postmodernity, this subversive act has played a role in resistance and political struggle of the disempowered and downtrodden. During the 1950s, graffiti in New York was associated with the youth and their efforts to dominate space. (3) By the 1960s it became increasingly political; boundary graffiti appeared at street junctions where different ethnic and racial backgrounds met, and emerged wherever political activists congregated, in the form of messages that advocated civil and welfare rights and the ending of the Vietnam War. (4) With the rise of hip hop in the 1970s, young city dwellers increasingly claimed disused spaces for creative purposes; for instance, in the South Bronx, African American and Latino youths turned abandoned buildings and neglected public spaces into vibrant, performative spaces and, in so doing, reduced the prevalence of violent turf wars. While imbued with signs of the rebel or outcast, O’Connor’s work is removed from the inherent aggression that can come with graffiti.
O’Connor’s practice, which appropriates and dislocates marks and gestures from their original context, highlights that text interventions in the urban space are connected to their locations and political circumstance. His work reveals the importance of such symbolic practices between and within communities, which are used as a means to express individual and communal identity. The text work Untitled (Freedom or death) 2005, which features large, black, lacquered cardboard words spelling out “freedom or death” in free-flowing script that covers a wall, speaks of communal and individual rights to free expression. During the Salvadoran civil war (1979–92), groups of men and women conducted night-time insurrections—painting, writing and pasting messages on walls, awnings and buses, wherever they could—to communicate with the masses. Threatening more conventional channels of communication, these public messages functioned as a “news-paper” for the largely uneducated and semiliterate population of the Salvadoran working and peasant class. (6) This form of graffiti, made by and for the people, provides a platform for expression and communication that empowers disenfranchised communities and individuals.
O’Connor’s works retain vestiges of the outsider voice that once clamoured for attention within the public realm. When placed within the gallery context and re-transcribed in glossy blacks and blues, these voices become arcane, cryptic messages that beg to be de-coded. This produces an effect reminiscent of Dada poetry, which removed language from its relationship to meaning, using words for the sounds they created or the shapes they formed. For the Dadaists, language without its metaphoric range became more visually originated and emphasised opacity over transparency. Much like urban tagging, the visual appearance of text in Dadaism is equally as important as the words or phrases that are employed. Invested in the visual language of the urbanscape, O’Connor is equally concerned with the style, shape and form of source marks and gestures. This is apparent in works such as Untitled (INA LA) 2011 and Untitled (FlyBoy4ever) 2012; in faithfully rendering the original text, the artist retains the voice of the author through the peculiarities of their mark-making style.
O’Connor’s sensitivity to the urbanscape has enabled him to effectively appropriate traces of human presence. Sourcing material within the urban environment may be tied to a familiarity of that space, and is often the result of the frequency with which one navigates particular routes. However, it could also be the product of drifting, an approach that remains open and shifting, and wholly contingent on the idiosyncrasies of the urban terrain. Lettrist and Situationist artists of the 1950s used the act of drifting for their psychogeographic experimentations with the affective variants of the urban environment. These artists explored immediate aesthetic experiences by walking around the city. The term dérive describes this strategy of undertaking an unplanned journey that is directed entirely by the feelings evoked in the individual by their surroundings. While a playful exercise, it was governed by an inherent element of failure and confusion, which would lead to new experience and a greater awareness of the surrounding urban terrain. In this sense, the city’s morphology, with its contours, fixed points and vortexes, both directs and shapes the experience of urban space. Furthermore, in drifting through the city, French décollage artists extended this point, using the street as a site for artistic intervention. What resulted was in effect “collaborations with the vandals who had scratched and scarred the brazen propaganda sheets of corporate marketing, subjecting them to anonymous, lacerating defacements and mockingly reassembling them”. (7) A similar collaborative impulse underpins O’Connor’s appropriations and re-contextualisations. When creating Untitled (FlyBoy4ever), O’Connor deliberately blocked in the spaces in the b’s, o's and e's, further abstracting the original text pattern and complicating the interplay between word and image. This approach encompasses both empathy and respect for the original authors of the markings and gestures.
Dérive or the act of drifting also has greater connotations relating to an attitude of doomed aimlessness, which was exemplified by 1990s slacker and grunge culture. Richard Linklater, director of the cult film Slackers (1991), suggests that in his grunge, waster world of Austin, Texas:
…there are affinities with earlier kinds of bohemians; a desire to be individual, to question the grinding down effect society has on its inhabitants, to formulate your own code of decency and spending time. (8)
For Linklater, the local resistant figure was, and maybe still is, the slacker who makes “…self-determined choices not to do something—to refuse or strike with little effort”. (9) The slacker, who is often associated with graffiti and skateboarding culture, is an important figure to the discussion of O’Connor’s work, as their lack of ‘productive action’ critiques those systems that regulate bodies and space. As a marginalised or disempowered figure drifting through the urbanscape, the slacker represents the potential possibilities around or at the edges of these regulated places and logics. However, as Blake Gopnik remarks, “In visual art, there’s a big difference between wanting to rebel and actually making art that’s new and dangerous. More often than not, rebellion just leads to clichés of rebelliousness.” (10) For many British and American artists in the 1990s, the potency of the DIY street culture, grunge music and slackerdom was a key source of aesthetic and conceptual inspiration. While continuing to draw from these sources, O’Connor has shrugged off the associated underproduction, opting instead to employ more refined crafting processes and austere installations within the gallery setting. Here lies the complexity and potential of appropriation itself, which simultaneously adopts and critiques, and enables for new territories of art discourse to be explored. With his strategic appropriations, O’Connor’s work both pays homage to and critiques the marking up of public space and its creative potential.
- Blake Gopnik, “The allure of ‘loser’ culture,” The Washington Post, 10 July 2005, http://www.washingtonpost.
- Themis Chronopoulos, Spatial regulation in New York City: From urban renewal to zero tolerance (New York:
Routledge, 2011), 94.
- Julie Peteet, “The writing on the walls: The graffiti of the Intifada,” Cultural Anthropology 11, no. 2 (2006):
- Dominic Smith, “Signs of resistance, voices of dissent: The political graffiti of El Salvador,” (PhD diss.,
University of Iowa, 1994), 154–156.
- Catherine de Zegher, “A century under the sign of line: Drawing and its extension (1910–2010),” in On line:
Drawing through the twentieth century (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 95.
- Richard Linklater, cited in “Mika Tajima,” Art Forum, 29 September 2011, http://artforum.com/words/id=29072.
- Blake Gopnik, cited in “The allure of ‘loser’ culture” Washington Post, 10 July 2005 http://www.
Commissioned for Ex post triennial
QUT Art Museum
3 November - 23 December 2012
Next project: → Emotional Landscape
Previous project: ← All the Right Moves: The work and work of Kate Mitchell