I had a group of girl friends in college who did all sorts of hare-brained and utterly hilarious pranks on our conservative campus: throwing studded, glitzy thongs in the trees, writing messages in the snow with paint to professors they had beef with, taping their breasts together to make cleavage and walking around campus (not) enticing young, vulnerable men, or (my favorite) tossing old televisions off a bridge just to watch “the lights” when they exploded. They called themselves the Brouhahas. They were a quiet and awe-inspiring pack.
In the microcosm that was college, our little city on a hill, the Brouhahas played a powerful role in throwing things just enough off-kilter to make people a little uncomfortable, which in turn made for self-awareness, which made for self-reflection. The campus would have to admit, and deal with, the notion that there were provocateurs in its midst. Trees full of negligee may not be powerful art, necessarily, but it sure is an artful kind of power.
To my mind, unsanctioned art that compels a collective re-analysis, like that made by the Brouhahas, serves a powerful good in cities, a good that all healthy cities must take in regular doses for the sake of its own best growth. This is because art put in the public’s way without warning and without license serves as a kind of pure filter between the surface of a place and its innards – a poetic encounter with hypocrisy, fear, un-imagination, division, and all the other foibles of any given place. Unsanctioned art can force out a kind of confessional from a city, bringing its faults to the fore through art’s wile and wisdom.
The healthiest (and by that I mean best) cities have rosters of renegades who make art for the sake of civic provocation, knowing the benefits a place can reap from the cycle of self-criticism. New York had Gordon Matta-Clark and his entourage of building-mutilating bandits when the city was increasingly derelict, worn-out by crime and negligence. When Matta-Clark bisected a condemned house, or cut light-shafts through walls, he made something new through destruction, and so taught stewardship through its opposite. He did it for the raw lyricism of the act, trusting the power of his vision, without inhibition or fear of consequence.
Would that Dallas had a Gordon Matta-Clark or Brouhaha – some intrepid, humble visionary among us that could quietly slice through our polished skin with thoughtful alteration or action and strike at our center. Because, more than anything¸ unsanctioned art like this makes evident a contingent that cares enough about a place to put themselves at risk in correcting it or enriching it. These artists are never against a place, always for it.
The thought distracts me this week as Creative Time releases the year-long study it completed on the the state of the Dallas art scene as recipients of SMU’s Meadows Prize. There will be much said about this report in the coming days, but in the meantime, suffice it to say that the report says nothing explicitly about the lack of unsanctioned art in Dallas, or the lack of any real covert artist-driven initiatives. Surely the Creative Time team sniffed out the void of such projects here in Dallas, as the group’s main function is to produce and promote public art initiatives. Point #10 on the report’s list of betterment suggestions hints at the need for artists to activate the city through art. From the report:
"Don’t wait for an invitation or open call. Artists should launch their own interventions in public space, working in surprising ways that generate interest around projects and challenge notions of public versus private space."
In other words: be more daring, Dallas artists.
So, in the spirit of insightful rebellion, clever town-tipping tactics, and heroic daring, here’s a roundup of some of my favorite unsanctioned art that challenges four key facets of Dallas culture.
As a crowd of international art collectors filed into the Louvre for a VIP night at Paris Photo in 2009, where they would bid bookoo bucks for vintage photographs, dozens of art pranksters dumped thousands of vintage photos into a giant heap near the VIPers , throwing pictures into the air, offering bystanders to take them for free. Reports say that some of the art collectors really were thrown into quite the monetary conundrum.
Last year, a bunch of people got in trouble here in Dallas for swimming in the fountains at Fair Park on a really hot day. It seemed to most people that fountain-jumping was a pretty good way to keep cool, but not so with the authorities. No swimming in fountains—them’s the rules, folks. Ok, so what if we staged what artist Duke Riley did in the reflecting pool in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in which he coordinated a water battle, ala the Roman Colliseum, between he heads of the New York museums. The event was actually a commissioned work for the Queens Museum of Art, but let’s ignore that because the event went a bit out control, making for unprepared-for madness and folly. My favorite, most instructive bit, from the New York Times write-up:
“It was radical, super radical,” said Catherine Harine Connell of Brooklyn. “The fact that it was in a public park in Queens. … It was free form, but still organized.”
Radical and organized — in public? Come on, Dallas, I think we can wrap our heads around the concept.
In 1975, Gordon Matta-Clark cut a half-moon shape out of the back of an abandoned warehouse on Pier 52, casting a beam of light into the space which was notorious for illicit nocturnal deeds. He had no permission to do this project, called Days End, having no faith in the possibility to secure permission with the city.
Private Space That’s Out in the Open
Tori Pelz is an old college friend of mine — a native Dallasite and an artist prone to rapscallion antics of simple beauty. She told me of this one she pulled off, barely, in Little Rock, Arkansas in which she stenciled a Flannery O’Connor quote on the never-completed façade of a building on her street. She used mud to paint the words, and was nearly finished stenciling when the never-before-seen owner of the half-built structure alighted upon her, calling the cops, outraged at this act of vandalism. Ms. Pelz was made to scrub her "mud words” off the building. Those words were: "Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it….Nothing outside you can give you any place."