Standing over a beautiful heap of colour and chaos at the entrance to Gamlebyen Skatepark — one of Oslo’s three legal graffiti walls — a graffiti artist approaches. I am with Marianne and Trond of Snöball Film, who are making a short film funded by the Norwegian Research Council about my research and innovative methods. We are scouting locations. The artist explains that these are layers of accumulated spray paint, built up progressively in layer upon layer, piece upon piece. The sheer weight of this paint collapsed the underlying structure. He took a piece home, and studying it counted over 2000 layers. What a wonderful thought and a beautiful sight; that successive creative expressions weigh so heavy, that the space is used and valued so much that it collapses, moves, changes. He asked my name, and with quick even motions, spray-painted my name in red upon these layers, adding a small heart; the sickly-sweet xylene smell of the spray paint lingering in the humid air afterwards.
As I think about urban policy these days, I keep returning to concepts from the natural sciences to explain issues and develop my critiques. Words like ‘organic’, ‘breathing’, ‘evolution’, ‘self-organising’, ‘life’ and ‘vitality’, and ‘energy’ keep circling my thoughts. Perhaps these metaphors betray my interest in nature and an academic past in the environmental sciences. But, perhaps such notions have a lot to contribute to how we think about the city, about creativity in urban space, and perhaps also to how research could be done.
I fell in love with street art because of its immediacy and freedom and because of its nature as a self-organising system in which a network and culture arises out of simultaneous, unintentional collaborations happening in the street. It is in this culture of artists and those who work on issues relating to urban art in which I feel most at peace, where the world makes a little more sense; amongst individuals who stroll leisurely through the city, who are so keenly aware of their surroundings, people who touch walls, and interact with the materiality of the city.
A self-organising system is order from disorder, creation from chaos. In a biological sense, think of the origins of life on Earth: some chemicals coming together in the right conditions, molecules are formed, amino-acids, the building-blocks of life, and suddenly a singular cell. Graffiti and street art are spontaneous, and though generally illegal practices, they are democratic. Anyone may write graffiti and street art and have it visible to the world in the most public and open of galleries. There is power in that freedom, and perhaps this is why it has been so rigidly controlled and so frequently misunderstood in policy. Give anyone a marker or some paper, some glue or some stickers, a spray can or two, and the city. And an artist is made, an artist who makes their own gallery out of the spaces of the city.
The internet facilitates this self-organisation and facilitates connectivity between other artists also making their own galleries out of the city. This is something which struck me so much while being in Montréal this past spring. An artist I never met before — though someone I knew of — agreed to meet me at midnight on a dark street corner, by the edge of a small urban park in the Montréal neighbourhood of St-Henri. Though we never met before, we spoke a similar language of art and the streets, navigated aimlessly (much like psychogeographers), talked fluidly about art, and walked for hours leaving behind a wet trail of wheat-paste and changing our city in small actions. That is freedom. Freedom of art. Freedom of expression. Freedom in the city. This was us exercising our ‘right to the city’ because this is our city, our space too. But there is something so organic, something so informal in this, something which just cannot be written into policy. And why should it be`? How do you, from the top down, inject creativity into the city from a policy document? How can you attempt to organise something which is so powerful and moving by the sheer fact that it is not organised?
I don’t have an answer but I know I will be thinking of those 2000 layers for some time to come.