War for the City. Debate on vandalism in public space / The debate during the 9th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review in Wrocław (2011) was moderated by Marcin Drabek

Marcin Drabek: The working title of our debate is War for the City. At the moment we do not know if such a war is really going on, who the sides of the conflict are and what they are fighting for. It is a starting point, a metaphor, and the guests may not agree with it. So let’s start with defining the most important terms. What is vandalism? In what categories can it be perceived?

Katarzyna Kajdanek: In order to talk about vandalism, as a sociologist I must first deal with the every-day perception of who a vandal is and what vandalism is. I think it should be easy since, to a certain extent, we share a common point of view. We picture a young man, say 17 years of age, in a group of similar youths whose aim (although we may assume – deliberate action) is to destroy some common good. When we see a new park bench which has just been installed, and on the following day it is broken, or a newly-renovated wall covered with scribbles after some time, our first thought is that a vandal did it. That is how vandalism and the person who personifies it are commonly perceived.

My stance is a bit idealistic. When I try to think more deeply about the phenomenon of vandalism, it seems to me that it is a visible sign that something wrong is going on with the city. The city which is understood in two ways: as physical space and social space. There is something wrong both with the material tissue and the social group which constitutes the city. I hope – and this is this idealistic thread – that if there is ‘something wrong’, it may be first diagnosed and then something can be done about it. I remember a dialogue from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, in which Alfred uses the following words to explain Joker’s actions to Bruce Wayne:  ‘Some men aren’t looking for anything logical (…) Some men just want to watch the world burn’.  Maybe I am imagining that something can be done while there are people who simply want to watch the world burn. And that’s it.

Piotr Jakub Ferenski: I have a problem with this category. When we are talking about vandalism, we are talking about destruction, but when we are dealing with graphics or murals, we refer to it as art, or urban art. Vandalism itself is always ex definitione destructive. It all depends on how we treat a given action. In this context, the studies conducted as part of the Invisible City project seem interesting. The project was launched several years ago by sociologists from Poznań who investigated primarily spontaneous art forms in big Polish cities. On the one hand, it was supposed to present these art forms, on the other – to document them because their character is usually ephemeral. Therefore the photo database includes several thousand objects belonging to the ‘invisible city’ – architectural, communicational or functional improvements and adornments done at one’s own expense. These are amateur forms, unprofessional, easily considered kitsch or old-fashioned. Among this ‘spontaneous artistic activity’ there are realisations considered vandalism by city authorities – or at least constituting an intervention in urban space which is frowned upon. I must add that I would not dare call them so. By the way, there were studies done in the proximity of the park where we are now and none of these artistic activities could easily be classified as vandalism.

MD: Do these realisations have only local character? How are they connected with the image of the modern city?

PJF: Beyond doubt they are outside the global aesthetics, global standardisation which includes modern cities. And this is what makes them different from the authorities’ vision, and not only theirs, but also the vision of various institutions and administrative bodies. We also perceive modern cities differently. In our opinion, there is no place in the modern city for many objects which we come across every day. In this sense, they are ‘invisible’. But the point is that the city is made up from people, its inhabitants, and we tend to forget about it. What constitutes the city is a peculiar combination of practices and beliefs shared by its residents, which are connected with certain symbols and values. It is something that fills up the city, builds its visual character.
Nowadays, when talking about urban spaces, Chantal Mouffe’s conception of democracy is frequently referred to. It says that democracy is not a consensus and solutions but it has agonistic character (‘agonistic’ in the Greek etymology of the word), i.e. we are dealing with a conflict over space. I think that what emerges from the tensions between the modern city  which we want to see and the phenomena we discovered during the Invisible City project is a kind of conflict over public space.

MD: In your opinion, the phenomenon of vandalism is connected with the phenomenon of conflict.

PJF: With a category of conflict. I would place it somewhere at the intersection of conflicts. As Chantal Mouffe claims, the idea of democracy is to involve more and more actors, and that is what we are dealing with in the city. The people who are the authors of objects included in the Invisible City are simply entering public space, becoming a side of this conflict.

MD: Sometimes an uncomfortable, thorny side…

PJF: And that is when a description of such forms emerges: ‘vandalism’.

Krzysztof Dobrowolski: Speaking of artistic actions in the context of vandalism is very bold because vandalism means destruction of common good, which is punishable. For me, the aspect of punishment or consequences is very important because artistic interventions in public space or the city – defined as a very elaborate, diversified, but somehow coherent complex – are always connected with some form of manifestation, a reaction to this manifestation. And often it is an illegal action, liable to punishment. Consequently, it is something against the law or the imposed order. Institutions provide a very important context, but equally important is who takes the decision to carry out a certain action, take up a certain activity or assemble a given object, to interfere with space, and who decides whether it should be described as an act of hooliganism, vandalism and whether somebody should be persecuted or punished for it.
We can refer here to very specific examples from the history of very recent art because this war has been going on for a very long time, since Rome was burnt, and manifests itself in increasingly more subversive tendencies, for example from the beginning of the century or the interwar period. It is worth mentioning very recent examples though. For me, a context for discussion can be provided by the Supergrupa Azorro, whose members have always asked very basic questions. One of such questions is, should an artist be allowed to do everything? The idea of Azorro’s film Should an Artist be Allowed to Do Everything? is based on the artists walking around Warsaw and doing illegal things for which they could be fined, to say the least. They commit acts of hooliganism when they spit on cars from a bridge, piss in the park, wolf-whistle at girls, scare animals or scribble on posters advertising Andy Warhol’s exhibition. That is where a question emerges, should artists be allowed to do everything and why? Because any intervention which stimulates discussion, provokes a reaction is valuable. As Banksy says: we are attacked by various messages from billboards or buses and generally they are legal forms of attack. We have walls, we can take revenge. That would be reactionary act.
In what you say, there is a quite justified association with social conflict. Katarzyna, I’ve been thinking about what you said at the beginning of the discussion, that vandalism is a symptom of a certain problem. What is this problem?

KK: Before I answer your question, I would like to refer to what Krzysztof and Piotr said. I think that our difficulty in defining where vandalism starts and why this boundary is hard to identify stems from the fact that we do not deal with one city which would be perceived and experienced in an identical way by everybody. Even Wrocław is not such ‘one city’. Each of us has, in a sense, their own city, and when we find people similar to us, we have our city as a group. If we look at space from this perspective it suddenly turns out that there are many involved people, interest groups, social groups (whatever we call them) and thus there are numerous versions of what seems to be the same city. And for those groups, e.g. the city authorities, different things will be art, blessing, different – vandalism.

MD: Could you give an example?

KK: I know one such example from ul. Ptasia in Nadodrze, where as part of an art initiative – in cooperation with Infopunkt Nadodrze and various art institutions which operate there – a stage was built from EURO pallets. There was a play put up on the stage, kids had fun, everybody was happy because normally there is nothing going on there. However, just after the weekend, when the event was over,  some men came from the city and dismantled the stage. It turned out that the stage posed a threat to children’s safety, was unhealthy and generally against all regulations. We could leave the story here, but let’s follow it. What was vandalism in this situation? Whose behaviour was vandalism? On whose side was the law? Was it really necessary to dismantle that stage? Who committed an act of vandalism and why? We may say that somebody could get a splinter in their knee and there could be an infection. Yes, of course, but how is it possible to measure the value of the kids meeting and doing something together against this kind of threat to their health? Actually, acts of vandalism can be connected with different things; they can be against the esthetics of the city, when a beautifully renovated façade is painted over, when comfortable park benches, useful litter bins or street lamps are destroyed. There are railway stations which we like using often and ones we are afraid to enter. But they can also be against order, which needs not space but people. So we have a liking for people who are around us, we have a bond which is in a way immaterial, but which can take on the form of such kids’ play on those EURO pallets. If those pallets are taken away, even though they do not really matter, they are meaningless, in a sense it is an attack on what has been done, what has been achieved in the social sense, that a meeting was possible, cooperation, spending time together etc. People who may not like each other so much suddenly do something together and somebody deems it illegal, inappropriate. For me, this is vandalism of social fabric, of social activity.

MD: Thus it is a kind of institutional vandalism, where the city officials destroy something which has been achieved without them. But are you really sure that this object was safe?

KK: Maybe my defense of this phenomenon is a bit naïve. But what could have happened? The stage was 0.5m high. Somebody could get a bruise or a splinter. But I am sure that the kids would be so happy that they would run to the parents together, or hope the cut would heal itself. Something good happened in this yard, so euphoria and endorphins would do the work and nobody would care.

PJF: Probably you are right, but on the other hand we know that acts of vandalism are something against the code of law. I remember when we conducted interviews with members of the municipal police, an institution which is responsible for law and order and which has instruments to execute it. The officers were interested first of all whether the objects we showed to them were in compliance with the law. Imagine a side street whose surface has been attacked by corrosion and there is a huge hole in it. Somebody put old tires in it because otherwise it would have been impossible to drive it. It was a creative solution, fully safe. However, an officer of the municipal police was particularly interested if the road was a public one and if it might be necessary to inform the authorities about possible land use violation.
Both this example and the story told by Katarzyna are for me perfect illustrations of the problem of disciplining the city and its inhabitants. What is essential, the inhabitants are trying to seize space, adapt it to their needs, if only for a short time, reorganize it. From the authorities’ point of view, however, it is unlawful appropriation of space and the reaction must be immediate. It applies to a huge variety of places. If we look carefully around us, the whole city is a system of visual bans, various signs which tell us what to do and where. Signs which define norms of behavior, e.g. where we can drink beer and where not, where we can park our car, where we can ride a bike… Some forms of our behavior may thus be classified as vandalism and be subject to a fine.

KD: Or not. The discussion is interesting because we have reached the question of permission. Obtaining permission to carry out any event in the city is a difficult process. I am sure that the organizers of Survival have piles of documents which make it possible for what is happening here to happen. But sometimes there is silent agreement to actions which are rooted in tradition. A very good example here is the wall around the horse racing course in Służewiec, Warsaw – well known from hip-hop music videos, for example. The wall, which is 1.5 km long, is sparingly covered with various forms of graffiti. It is a Mecca for Polish street artists. In March this year, the Adidas company, which supports and identifies itself with underground and hip-hop culture, decided, without asking anybody for permission – neither Totalizator Sportowy, which administers the racing course, nor the people who work there – to paint the wall black in order to display its advertisement there. Instantaneously, there was social resistance against it. On Facebook, a group called adisucks was created, which declared a total boycott of Adidas products, so for somebody who feels close to the hip-hop-graffiti-streetart-underground environment, wearing Adidas clothes became extremely untrendy. It turned out that it was a PR failure in which a huge corporation scored an own goal acting against something seemingly illegal, only verbally legalized. After all, nobody gave an official permission to paint graffiti there.

MD: Because it was also considered an act of vandalism at the beginning.

KD: Yes. Let’s say there was silent agreement to such actions, but no agreement whatsoever to destroy something  considered by people a kind of heritage, a legend. It is very interesting for me because momentarily there was a spontaneous action to paint that black wall and people started making new graffiti to protest against what Adidas did. If a given thing is deeply embedded in urban space and everybody agrees with it, then social acceptance or defensive actions can be very strong indeed.

KK: I have an impression that there is a similar situation with the Wrocław railway station right now. A group which is protesting against its colour on Facebook counts more than three thousand people. I think that in their perception this hyper-historical reconstruction done by the Chief Conservator of Monuments and all the historians is an act of vandalism of the social idea of what a railway station should look like. People feel cheated because the first visualizations were different. But when we look at it from the point of view of the official policy of the city, it is something which should make us feel proud, the project is as good as the renovation of the Centennial Hall.
So far we have forgotten about one more important dimension of vandalism. We have been talking about objects which are ‘added’, stand out from how we imagine spatial order in the city, but we are forgetting about those actions which are most often associated with vandalism, that is destruction.

KD: For me, the most interesting acts of destruction are those which serve some purpose, which are some kind of manifestation. Like the actions of the Wojna group, who we invited to the WRO Biennial two years ago. The members of the group have recently been arrested for many months in Saint Petersburg because they performed an action they called Palace Coup, whose aim was to direct attention to the necessity of reforms in the police forces. The artists turned a police car over in such a way that the policemen inside could not get out of it. They did it in front of one of the main buildings of the Russian Federal Security Service. What is more, they used bike locks to trap a group of police officers in this very building. Then for two months before they were arrested they would call  the investigators, record the conversations and upload them to the Internet. That is an act of vandalism which is well known, which has some social sense.
On the first day of the festival, the work Who Are You? A Tool for Reminding about National Identity, which consisted of mirrors, was destroyed. Some people say it was stolen, others – that it was dismantled. Michał Bieniek, the curator of the Survival Art Review, is with us. Michał, could you tell us how this work was destroyed? During the opening ceremony you said that some of the works were destroyed by rain, others by people.

Michał Bieniek: Some works that were exposed to children got destroyed but it can’t be considered intentional action. They simply assumed that those objects were made for them. I am thinking about the blanket in particular, but also about the work entitled Arin One, those strings on a tree that were taken for a ropes course, and the performance of the OKO group, which not all of you could see. It was an object that moved around the park. Three artists were inside it and the object itself was inspired by organic sea forms such as anemones. It was taken for a huge mascot and during the opening children literally tore it apart. The artists worked the whole night to sew it together. On the next day, the children’s ‘destructive’ action was less intensive. Eventually the work fell apart and the performance is not taking place today. As far as intentional actions to destroy works are considered, I think they have not been especially visible this year. Children who sweep through the park like tsunami waves can hardly be classified as intentionally destructive force.
I remember that during the assembly we had one case of intentional vandalism. It concerned the dais for the HYDE/HIDE work, which is situated on the hill. But I think it was more about reusing the materials because the work had not been finished and there were planks and tiles ‘for the taking’. In case of the ‘Tool for Reminding about National Identity’, the mirrors had indeed been torn off and put on the side. After some time they found their way to the festival tent and we considered it a victory of the park bench users in these negotiations. We did not reassemble the work because the people must have felt really strongly about the current function of this place and we decided not to interfere with it.

Voice from the audience 1:  You used the word negotiations. Doesn’t it mean that vandalism on the one hand, and intentional action, intentional interference with our common public space on the other should each time be subject to negotiation?  I think that people detect it instinctively very well. They know that it is their common space, even if they live in those forgotten, abandoned parts of the city. Katarzyna, your example with that stage proves that the community instinctively appreciated that somebody did something for them, for that little yard, and that was the reason for this otherwise justified resistance to an act of vandalism. Those are situations in which we as citizens, as people who are consciously interfering with public space, have a chance to renegotiate what vandalism is, in spite of some legal regulations, some possible sanctions, punishment. We must remember that the so-called ‘city’, which consists of structures we refer to when we use this word (as in ‘the city allows this’ or ‘the city doesn’t allow that’), consists de facto of structures we citizens hire to run the city. These are structures financed from our taxes, even if ordinary citizens are not so fully aware of that, are not able to voice it as clearly as I am doing it now, they feel it instinctively. That explains the need to make a sign on this space which has been abandoned be the authorities, to scribble on the walls, to write ‘I was here’. Because nobody remembers about me.

KK: Thank you for your comment. In fact, this is a fundamental question. You can say: give me a stage from pallets, and I will find an appropriate regulation… The municipal police could do a very simple thing – they could call the parents of those kids and tell them: ‘Listen, the stage is illegal, but we see it triggers some good, positive things. What could we do with it?’ But in practice it doesn’t look so easy. The example of the municipal police officers whose first question was ‘Where is it?’, shows clearly that the logic of acting of different institutions is very simple: it must comply with regulations. And all those institutions are indifferent to social nuances. On the other hand, we may all agree that city officials are hired by us. However, it is worth remembering that despite all the criticisms of the stadium, all the problems with kindergartens, nurseries, roads, forgotten social groups in the city, the Mayor of Wrocław received more than 70% of votes in the last election. Of course, nobody wants the situation to become so bad that it would have to be reflected in the election. It would be better if there was a discussion and the election crowned it. I have a feeling that it will take time. It isn’t a good answer, but these are long-lasting processes, we won’t teach anybody to change their behaviour overnight just because we have decreed so.

Voice from the audience 2: Following the thread of authority which Krzysztof initiated, I have an impression that the discussants identify authority with the city or a corporation like Adidas whereas just now we are in a situation where somebody else is in authority: an artistic initiative and a festival which gives itself the right to define what vandalism is and isn’t in this park.

KD: I am glad that you mentioned this topic. Recently, one of the most well-known examples of such institutional or curatorial deciding about what is nice and what isn’t has been represented by Blu, who painted many murals in Wrocław, many more in Poland and even more all around the world. Jeffrey Deitch, the director of one of the biggest contemporary art museums in the USA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, while organising a huge exhibition Art in the Streets, which is taking place just now and which is supposed to be a tribute to American street art since the 1970s (by West Coast, East Coast, San Francisco, L.A.), invited Blu to create a work on one of the walls of the museum. Blu painted huge coffins covered by one-dollar banknotes instead of the American flag. One-dollar banknotes as flags on coffins. On the next day, Jeffrey Deitch ordered to paint it out. A scandal broke out. He lost his face as a curator in the art environment. A work which might have been the greatest hit of the exhibition had been created and he decided to destroy it. Naturally, there were many protests and happenings. Deitch did it because the museum is located between a memorial of American-Japanese soldiers and a veterans’ hospital. As the director of the museum Deitch decided that it would have been wrong and inappropriate.

MD: I guess it was this location that inspired Blu.

KD: Of course. I don’t know, maybe I have followed this thread you mentioned too far but it is another example of who decides what art is. If curators who invite artists to create something let them create it and then censor it, destroy, that is another dimension of power in public space.

PJF: I’d like us to be clearly understood. I am not saying that the bad Mayor who takes away the pallets belongs to the apparatus of control. This is not the type of authority I mean. This authority is dispersed, as Foucault described it – it is not easy to locate, it is not somebody who can be caught red-handed. It is a conglomerate of interwoven discourses, ideas. They are not coherent but what they have in common is their purpose – to build this space, control it, say what is allowed and what isn’t. There isn’t one common vision of the city so the authorities cannot have it. But I don’t believe everything is all right, I don’t believe they cooperate with each other. We have many such paradoxes. And maybe because of these paradoxes there are gaps, refuges, spaces which are not subject to tight control.

Barbara Banaś (voice from the audience): On the one hand, we are touching upon the issue of public space as a common sphere and all the examples you have described say that this space is both ours and nobody’s. You put a mirror in the park, you appropriated this space with good intentions, somebody didn’t like, their space had been taken, deconstructed, and as a result a reaction followed: it was destroyed, an act of vandalism occurred. There will always be situations like this in public space. On the other hand, it turns out that vandalism is an absolutely necessary, positive phenomenon which can generate something new. Perceiving it only as destruction of public order is probably too narrow, forcing it into a narrow formula. We live between a need for anarchy and a need for norms.

PJF: What is described as vandalism is often a driving force of change.

KD: I have a question to Michał: by deciding to hold the festival in this place you emphasised that you may be exposed to different acts of vandalism. How does it look from the perspective of an organiser and curator? Are you trying to defend against it?

Michał Bieniek: As we assumed at the very beginning and described it in the curatorial text and subsequent ones, processualism and deterioration of works is among the assumptions of this year’s Survival – as long as it is not dangerous to the people who are here. At the very beginning of this festival we decided to investigate the connection between contemporary art and public utility places in the city. We have been investigating the strength and usefulness of art in the city, how necessary it is and how it exposes its weakness. At this moment we are testing the weakness of art in terms of exhibiting it as well as its meaningfulness – what it may ‘do’ to this place and in what ways it brings something here. I think it brings a lot, despite the fact that in terms of exhibiting, it is the most difficult place I have worked with.

Krzysztof Dobrowolski – PhD student in the Institute of Cultural Studies at the University of Wrocław, connected with the WRO Foundation, interested in new media art, performance and the city.
Piotr Jakub Fereński – assistant professor at the Institute of Cultural Studies in Wrocław, investigates the philosophy of culture, art and photography, participates in the Invisible City project.
Katarzyna Kajdanek – Doctor of Social Sciences, assistant professor at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Wrocław in the Department of Urban and Rural Sociology, interested in issues connected with urbanization, social changes and the functions of the city centre and the suburbs, the subjectivity of local communities.

The debate was moderated by Marcin Drabek