what might street art be?

I’ve been thinking about the possibility of creating “experimental art” on Shenzhen’s streets. About a year ago, two Dutch artists led a two-day workshop here. They asked us to think about art as something that highlights the nature of everyday life. They suggested that by contrasting “unnatural” or “not normal” activities with quotidian routines, we could explore naturalized (but not natural) social forms and spaces. For example, a group of us sat on the steps of a building, playing with our cell phones. Normal activity for this space. However, every two minutes, we all looked up from our phones, stared straight ahead, and then turned our heads to the right. After a minute, we returned to playing with our cell phones. This kind of collective, planned activity constituted abnormal behavior for this space, highlighting the nature of “hanging out on steps” (among other things.)

At the time, I found this way of thinking quite useful, and have even used a version of it for my Found Objects series. However, the more I think about it, the more I wonder how much this strategy depends on the collective maintenance of social norms in order to be effective. What happens, for example, when the artist’s experiments can’t exceed extant uses of space? For example, walking from my apartment to a friend’s office in downtown Shenzhen the other day, I passed a woman eating out of a garbage can. She scooped handfuls of rice from a styrofoam container into her mouth. A child slept on her lap, his legs dangling near her left hip. Today, as I walked through the park, I noticed a man sitting on a park bench, legs spread, a limp penis in his right hand. Clearly, he intended to be seen because he was sitting next to sidewalk, rather than behind a bush. I’m not sure if he had just finished masturbating or urinating, but hand and organ both glistened in the afternoon sun. What kind of street art could say more about Shenzhen than these two performances? Or perhaps the question is, how might street art respond to these two performances?

Now, I’ve thought about photographing these and similar scenes, but part of me (and thus far the dominant part of me) resists. I don’t want to invade their privacy. This is the sentiment that prevents me from looking more closely and keeps me from snapping that picture. Clearly, they’re not worried about privacy in the way I’m used to thinking of it (behaviors that remain unseen, taking place behind closed doors). But I can’t convince myself that they would therefore welcome a photo shoot opportunity. At this moment, is turning one’s head away correct? Or would a more interesting form of art-response be to sit down and eat with the woman? Offer her food. Is the point to acknowledge the very specific reality at hand (so to speak), making street art a more explicit form of interactive improvisation? I’m as repelled by the idea of sitting down to eat from the garbage can as I am by taking pictures. Certainly, I had no desire to approach that man. What is it in me that turns away? Doesn’t want to look and yet wants to document this world?

It’s not even that these two performances are isolated events. I regularly see “abnormal” use of public spaces in Shenzhen. At construction sites and under park trees, workers take afternoon naps on woven bamboo mats. Beggars arrange themselves on most of the pedestrian overpasses throughout the city, while barbers set up shop underneath, placing a fold-up chair in front of a mirror that they have hung on the cement wall. At mealtime, many bring their rice bowls outside, squatting next to the road and people-watching. And I gaze, but out of the corner of my eyes, unable to bring myself to look directly at all this. It occurs to me that the reason they may have brought their lives to the street is that they can’t afford closed doors. So perhaps I am ashamed to look at poverty? But there may be other reasons they have brought their lives outdoors, just as there are other reasons I keep mine inside. If so, what then pre-empts a conversation? Or the possibility understanding? Is it that by looking away I am offering an exchange—don’t look too closely at me, and I won’t look too closely at you?

In Mandarin one of the words for “shameful” is “not fit to be seen by people (见不得人)”. What does that expression actually refer to? Is it the woman and her child? Is it the conditions that have forced her to eat out of a garbage can? Is it an American woman turning away? Is it how during public events police officers push her and others like her out of sight? Or is the question not what we look at, but how we go about looking? At that moment, is some kind of connection possible?

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