"AGORA: “Painting Publics: Transnational Graffiti Scenes as Spaces of Encounter”"

December 2, 2016 -
3:00pm to 5:00pm

This presentation draws from a book project that tracks contemporary transnational graffiti scenes as spaces for encounter: places where publics are brought into contact with city spaces and each other. This presentation explores the controversy surrounding the destruction of 5Pointz legal graffiti center in New York’s Long Island City. The controversy, which took place between 2013 and 2015, roughly, included the status of a building which, while formally private property, had become a global symbol and essential space for transnational graffiti culture and its publics. 5 Pointz was a global graffiti mecca that also served as a highly concrete space for encounter. A point of reunion for writers and a contact zone for broader publics with graffiti culture, it demonstrates how graffiti practice can take a relatively inert space (an abandoned warehouse) and transform it into a transnational meeting point. The space was doubly powerful due to its location. New York figures prominently in graffiti lore as one of the major points of origin for the modern, spray can version of the art.

In this presentation I discuss how 5Pointz was a space for encounter that, in debates over its preservation from 2011 to 2015, demonstrated a need to revise public art and public spaces such that it recognizes insights from graffiti culture about the nature of space and art being excessively ephemeral. Insofar as graffiti is iterative, socially networked, and evolving, it points to a mode of public expression that the social as plural, agonistic, and constituted through interrelationality. This insight is often absent from discussions of public art (and event some treatments of graffiti) which posit the work as the creation of a heroic and autonomous artist; either in harmony with its site or disruptive; and discrete and enduring. What 5Pointz teaches us is that in opening ourselves up to the ephemeral and its various potentialities, we can image spaces for encounter that are more democratic, process-based, and plural.

Three components—agonism, plurality, and interrelationality—emerge through spaces of encounter and have the effects of reactivating the sense of the contingent, the knowledge that space and society can be otherwise. As a form of invention that expands existing frameworks for what cities can look like, graffiti functions as a rhetorical act. What the 5pointz controversy underscores is that this rhetorical sensibility is crucial to both the power of graffiti and its practice-based nature. Precisely because the expressions at 5pointz are ephemeral: embedded, reliant on other structures for their enunciation, relational, there is the impetus to continue the ongoing work of expanding and growing what our cities can look like. The ephemeral is central to rhetoric, to its contingency and its singularity, yet it has not been fully excavated in rhetorical theory to date. By acknowledging and celebrating the power of the ephemeral we can create models for rhetorical production that move beyond fantasies of heroic individuals, sovereign subjects that individually turn the tide of social belief. Instead, the ephemeral draws attention to the ongoing labor, work of recollection, reconstruction, reinvention that is involved in the life of rhetorical events. Speech is embedded in a particular time, specific contexts. Ephemerality demands recognizing the contextuality of utterances and inventive acts to mitigate against positing new monumental norms that reduce the need to continue making rhetorical repertoires to the needs of the present.

Figure 1.  5Pointz Graffiti Center. Queens, NYC. December, 2011. (Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce)

Figure 1.  5Pointz Graffiti Center. Queens, NYC. December, 2011. (Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce)

Location and Address

208B Cathedral of Learning

Presenter