Josh MacPhee has been studying -- and practicing -- street art for more than a decade. He runs a radical-art distribution project through justseeds.org and is the author of Stencil Pirates. On Nov. 10, he traveled from his home in Troy, N.Y., to speak about "Street Art and Counter Power" at Carnegie Mellon University. Afterward, he talked to City Paper.
Did street art affect the recent U.S. election?
Largely, political street art [in America] acts as a safety valve -- where we as individuals can let out a certain level of frustration. I was talking [at CMU] about moments when street art gains a certain level of power: when it operates in concert with social movements that are actually contesting the status quo on a large scale. I don't think that ... that's the dominant way street art works [in the U.S.]. I've seen lots of things that are attempts to educate people in things they've never seen on TV. It might be clunky or sloppy or most people may not read it ... but it generally seems to be about a truth that is hidden.
Are there issues on which street art is particularly effective?
One of the things street art has been normally good at is making people question the environment they are in. It's not so much the message ... as the way [the art] exists in space. When you walk down the street, a majority of things you see are state directives -- stop, go, don't park here -- or corporate advertising. One of the things street art can do is to break up that landscape. Go to this movie go to this movie go to this movie ... and suddenly you stumble on this marking that is not easily discernible for some reason. There's a pink elephant outside your work for no apparent reason. Then you walk down the street and there's a pink elephant there. Then, outside your house, there's a pink elephant. It's just an open sign, with no signifier. It can encourage people to think about their environment critically. Why does it exist? How does it compare to all the other things in the environment? Why is it following me around?
I'd much rather see the expression of someone who thinks they have something to say, even if they don't, than the expression of a corporate entity who puts something on the street only to turn a profit.
You say you don't do street theater, but rather "artistic protests." How are such things effective?
Effective street theater is not necessarily making a big puppet. It is turning on its head what most people think a protest should look like. It's a particularly awful thing in our culture that protest is a [traffic] hindrance rather than an integral part of our social fabric. The goal is to put on something ... that people can't put their finger on or that actually engages them.
What form has your own art taken lately?
I've been interested lately [in] how to put art into the streets where graffiti isn't common, and that doesn't look so immediately out of place. I did a series of signs modeled on an upstate New York [town where] there are small pieces of wood with religious slogans that people nail to trees: "Put Christ back in Christmas," et cetera. So I made hand-painted signs on wood that had other types of slogans around labor, and put them up on trees and telephone poles in the same way.
If someone can lionize believing in God, I can put up a sign next to theirs that lionizes collective struggle and empowerment.