Wheatpasting and public spaces: Who is the right to speech affecting?
Austin is a canvas. Entering the heart of the city, you can see that every available surface is covered with a ubiquitous shellac of stickers, fliers, calls for revolution or free beer, manifestos and ironic post-irony irony. Very quickly this accretion of publicity begins to melt together, blur and lose significance. I’ve often marveled at the inventiveness and tenacity of those who continue to add their efforts to the mix, knowing that their message might not last longer than a few hours, before being ripped up, covered over, torn down or sacrificed to the high gods of good taste and commerce.
Coming from a small, conservative town with little to no discourse on the use and ownership of public space, one of the first things I was intrigued by upon moving to Austin was the idea of wheat pasting. Wheatpaste is made by combining water and starch or flour — a simple Internet search should yield an exact recipe — to create an adhesive used to hang all manner of visual media. As I did more research, I noticed how much time those who advocate for wheat pasting spend reminding their audience that it avoids permanently damaging surfaces or lowering property values. I was a little put off by this, especially in light of the fun, breezy vandalism tips provided by Robbie Conal’s "Guerrilla Etiquette + Postering Techniques" — be nice to the police, bring some music, start the revolution! The polite, inoffensive revolution! I remember thinking “What on Earth is the point of public resistance if your movement is engineered to be as palatable as possible to the people you are trying to ‘shake up?’”
But the real crime has never been the destruction of property. The crime is, and always has been, the idea that private individuals have a right to speech in public areas.
This says a lot more about the way society frames discussions about graffiti and street art than it does about the act of wheat pasting itself. We are taught to think of street art as either an egregious transgression of the public good, an aggressive, hostile action that estranges communities and acts as a barometer of the overall health of an area or, alternatively, as a radical liberation of public space, drawing communities together and allowing the silent and invisible to be seen and heard. I had assumed all street artists were brazen anarchists: smashing the state, not caring if it could be pieced back together. This was only strengthened by reading Banksy’s “Wall and Piece,” in which he attempts to convince his readers to take back their cities from the creep of commercial hegemony and insists that “crime against property is not real crime.”
But the real crime has never been the destruction of property. The crime is, and always has been, the idea that private individuals have a right to speech in public areas. You can see this clearly in the different punishments meted out to those who violate Los Angeles’ laws against illegal advertising. Street taggers are aggressively pursued and treated as criminals, while advertising companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to erect 10 ton illegal billboards with impunity. And while I may be put off by some of the parts of his postering guide, Conal does make a point to urge his readers not to make life more difficult for the people working at posting sites, including the oft-maligned security guard:
"…this goes for ‘Rent a Cops’ as well. They’ll lose their jobs if posters are found on property they’re guarding—jobs are scarce; postering sites are plentiful.”
Which represents something authentically radical — it asks the audience to develop a local as well as a global consciousness, expecting street artists to be careful and deliberate about the people negatively impacted by their art and their activities. It is easy and satisfying to make messes for others to clean up and imagine yourself an agent provacateur. It is is much harder to hold yourself accountable to the communities and individuals you are attempting to liberate from clean brick walls and endless boredom. That is always the hardest part.