At Nikki‘s request, the following post is a deconstruction of a stop sign that I discovered on a September bike ride.
Thanks, Shaff, for challenging me to go way beyond my critical capacity.
First, besides my personal opinions about the politics of art and its definitions, I know nothing about street art beyond what Banksy and his friends told me in Exit Through the Gift Shop. Second, besides a few lectures from the impossibly cool Derek Nystrom and a 2Pac phase I went through in Grade 8, I know even less about hip hop or hip hop theory than I do about street art. And third, if I’m truly going to take Derrida and run with him, “deconstruction” goes well beyond the basic visual analysis and reading of potential metaphors, signs, ironies, etc. that I’d rather do on a lazy Sunday. Rather, it requires that we discover and explore the instabilities of the image, the potentially irreconcilable signifiers that make up the sign.
I don’t know if she meant to put that all on me, but I just ate a hearty dinner and it’s too cold to go for a run, so I’m going to exercise my mind instead. I can’t promise anything brilliant or insightful, but I guarantee you run-on sentences, sweeping generalizations, and at least one more photo.
[A few caveats: for lack of a better word/understanding, I’m going to use the term “hip hop” to denote what is, I’m sure, a wide variety of musical genres that I am misrepresenting. I’m going to do the same of “street art,” and I’m likely going to butcher a lot of history and critical theories in order to prove my point. You’ve been duly warned.]
For those who are unfamiliar with mainstream late-90s rap, the lyrics “stop, drop, shut ‘em down, open up shop” are from the DMX track “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” off the album It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. The music video, embedded below, provides a useful jumping-off point for this post.
You’ll notice that the video’s reoccurring motif is a violation of road rules by the Ruff Ryders. This is a more than significant coincidence, given our subject matter. The massive crew of loiterers, the bikes and ATVs on city streets, the vinyl Ruff Ryders banners draped over school buses, and especially the “DMX Stop Drop” billboard advertisement at 0:34 – all demonstrate an aggressive and defiant appropriation of urban space. The crew is claiming the street as their own, taking signs of the mainstream and the authority (advertising space, school buses) and repurposing them, turning space into turf.
The description I just gave of the Ruff Ryders’ presence in urban space is, I would argue, the very definition of street art. As such, hip hop and street art share a common philosophy: challenge ownership, challenge meaning.
In the early days of hip hop, when the genre wasn’t a genre so much as a craze (or perhaps, a revolution), critics refused to call it art or music. The arguments – that it didn’t require traditional instruments, for example, or that “sampling” is plagiarism – were of course complicated by the politics of race and economy. Hip hop is, after all, a very egalitarian art form. Anyone can scratch a record, or, in today’s technological vernacular, anyone can cut a mash-up on their laptop.
Quality, of course, varies as widely in DIY art forms like hip hop as it does in any style of music or art (Nicklebarf). But hip hop, like garage rock, like early rhythm and blues, challenged the notion that music belonged in concert halls. What makes hip hop unique is the complicated relationship of production, dissemination, and consumption: with sampling, the consumer becomes the producer, and dissemination of one song is also dissemination of the tracks that inspired it. The role of producer, which was Producer with a capital P in the early days of pop music, is suddenly conflated with the artist and the listener. Hip hop threatens the philosophy of the elitist who thinks art belongs in a gallery, or the academic who believes art can only be produced by an inspired Genius.
Hip hop, at its roots, is an art of the street, and for my purposes it does well to understand it as a form of street art. Like graffiti, stencilling, and postering, hip hop is a challenge to what the mainstream understands of its world. I like Wikipedia’s description of street art, defined as that which “question[s] the existing environment with its own language.” I like it because it implies that street art is a deconstruction of urban space. As sampling does to existing songs, as hip hop does to traditional understandings of music, street art changes what a space is saying by finding not only new meanings but meanings that are present but overlooked.
Consider, for instance, a bank building. Not any specific bank, but rather the notion of a bank. The bank can be representative of the elite: the faceless, educated, and wealthy who plot numbers in Excel sheets and, in doing so, cause great shifts in national economies. The bank can be representative of the authority: it is a garrison that protects, distributes, and has the power to manipulate not only sums of money but an individual’s identity.
What happens when you add some unwelcome paint to the wall of said bank building? What about that stencil of Bill Gates captioned “Post No Bills?” Suddenly, the meaning changes: someone flipped The Man the bird and got away with it. With a clever, well-placed message, a street artist can twist the bank building to signify any number of other things, almost always critical. Subversive paint on a building’s facade reveals that its power is merely that: a facade. Ultimately, the “notion of a bank” we are considering here is an image. What’s more, it can only ever be the image we allow it to be – the bank is defined by how we choose to see it. This, in my opinion, is the power of street art: it allows alternative, often subversive, meanings to take precedence in an act that forces us to move beyond viewer to engaged critic.
All this is to say that: when I roll up to a stop sign on my bike, it’s only a stop sign if I agree to abide by its rules. If I keep going it stops being a stop sign and becomes another incidental feature on a residential side street.
Signs are everywhere. They are an ever-present voice of authority telling us what we can and can’t do. They are the rules of space, the rules of social conduct. But, in and of themselves, the sign cannot force you to action, and therein lies the contradiction, the hidden fact that threatens to unravel the authority of the street sign (my deconstruction, if you will): the viewer chooses to obey. As such, does the sign control the situation or does the viewer? Is the sign an edict or a suggestion?
The following picture was taken at the corner of Rachel and de l’Esplanade in Montreal, winter of 08/09:
As deconstruction, the street artist’s contribution to this stop sign is a much more literal example of what the Leslieville stop sign suggests. The Toronto example adds content to an existing message, not only changing what the sign says but also, through parody, debasing what it represents. The Montreal example, in contrast, erases elements of the sign’s message to reveal the insidious, subversive content that already exists within the original. The ART sign shows that, even within the edict to stop (arrêt) there is a message that demands we ignore that authoritative command – to change, explore, discover; to embrace a life of perpetual motion such is art.
Street signs have a universal quality to them: they employ familiar icons so that, wherever you are in the world, you can generally figure out what a sign is saying. For what it’s worth, I think it bodes well for Canada that “art” is the same in English and in French. I think this example of street art is brilliant.
Such is the extent of my deconstruction of a Leslieville stop sign. However, the street-art-sign is a sign too, and can be influenced by the same critique. Refer back to the original image. Two messages compete here: the street message, and the street sign message – anti-establishment vs. authority. Importantly, both need the other in order to exist. The cops need something to police, just as the rebels need an authority against which to define themselves.
There is power in both messages, and it is power as (my personal hero) Foucault understands it: a constructive power, a “positive” power, a power that says “yes” rather than “no,” a power that earns its primacy by telling you what you are and can be. Thus, the street art/street sign dichotomy is an illusion: it is more accurate to understand the relationship as symbiotic. The question, of course, is whether those with “power” are willing (or capable) of understanding something as nuanced as reciprocation.
To close this off, I’d like to reference a song by Cypress Hill that Nystrom once lectured about.
You’ll notice that Hand on the Pump samples Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl. While my memory of Nystrom’s lecture is spotty, I do remember him arguing that sampling can be understood as an attempt to create a utopic space within music. It takes our favourite elements of a song and repeats it: the looped lyrics could, theoretically, go on forever, so long as you keep listening. We can (nostalgically) select the best bits and pieces of the past, present, and future, and put them all in one place, for a conceivably infinite period of time.
Nystrom pointed out that, by the time Hand on the Pump was released in 1991, Duke of Earl was mainstream, grown-up music. Parents listened to it fondly, ignoring, of course, that when it came out in 1962 it was trashy doo-wop to the adults of the time. As such, I want to take Nystrom’s utopia further (remembering, of course, that I can’t actually remember what he argued). For me, the utopic quality of this song is that it brings two generations of music together. Street art and hip hop are progressive mediums because they allow meanings to coexist: rather than censor or erase the official meaning of a space or piece of art, they choose instead to nuance and complicate. The first message remains, but it is now of equal importance as the second, third, fourth, fiftieth meaning. My utopia celebrates these shades of grey.
But that’s enough of that. Talk is cheap, motherfuckers.
Oh, and here’s a picture of me running with Derrida, as mentioned above: