Streets as Galleries

Alison Romaine- Writer

While zoom has made our virtual interactions hyperglobal, for many people, geographical mobility has reduced; and hence the relationship with our neighbourhood has been quietly reimagined. With creative establishments closed leaving ‘lonely’ artworks unreachable, our streets have become local galleries; pavements scribbled in brief chalky messages and windows doubling as display cases for residents to curate; communicate and feel part of a movement. Such homemade exhibitions have been mirrored on social media with instagram pages coloured with lockdown creations as it evolves into a platform for digital activism to double click into - reshaping the way we make and access art. 

It is not new to question the accessibility of ‘traditional’ art spaces - Keith Haring prolifically plastered his drawings over blank advert space in New York’s subway during the city’s 1980s recession so people could simply ‘stumble upon’ his work without needing to divert into a museum. He thus subverted the rule-ridden and rarefied space of a traditional gallery. It is these very ‘White Cube’ settings - where artworks are abstracted from context and framed by sterile, white walls - that are struggling to reopen with social distancing restrictions. Hence, open air streets have once again become places of critical intervention; offering on-the-go Situationist art experiences. 

Defining what makes ‘art’ deserves more than the following crude attempt but it can be a creation or process that can unite; anger; bring joy; confuse, make you question and rethink. So, locating work in public thoroughfares seems a playful democratic win as we too walk into recession. 

Sixteenth Street in Washington D.C. now reads ‘Black Lives Matter’. These massive yellow letters have been photographed from space yet belong most to those who walk it; human bodies experiencing and energising the work as a collective. The BLM movement have therefore re-exposed the ability to mobilize pavement as protest - a pertinent gesture of appropriating space in a time where cities are becoming increasingly privatized, un-editable and undemocratic space. In fact, the public art mural empowered an eponymous renaming of the plaza. Streets are therefore more than the negative space from A-to-B; they are a public canvas and place for performance - it is an apt time for the arts to bring them into play. 

The inaugural London Mural Festival, due to unfold this September, will see 50 murals painted across the capital in another move to transport open air art to the public. Backwardly, street art can be capitalised upon by developers to accelerate gentrification so LMF organisers are attempting to mitigate this twisted motive by involving existing social housing estates as mural sites. It begs the question, why has an accessible art festival not been realised before 2020? Festival organisers reported a big challenge in finding permitted canvas in the city - claiming it to be due to lack of industrial tower blocks. However, our homes are fertile space for intervention. For example, Buxton, Derbyshire celebrates a continuous trail of painted pebbles - new rocks appear daily sending messages of unity or just random splodges of fun while community library’s windows display children’s artworks depicting reactions to coronavirus and climate change for passers by to do a double take. 

The occupation of public space by the arts, on whichever scale it operates, is therefore more prescient than ever - from the gigantic BLM street letters to the miniature living room window gallery or an instagram page populated with shareable works - these are the feeds we stroll or scroll through everyday, so why can’t they be a common domain for experiencing art? In a world preoccupied with privatisation and exclusivity, the pandemic has positively alerted the industry into rethinking open air accessibility and thus excites future experimental exhibition plans. Yet most galvanising of all, coronavirus, coupled with BLM public protests, have given us the taste of what it is like to reclaim the authorship of our streets - both physical or digital.

Community Pebble Art Trail, Buxton, August 2020

Broomhill Library Windows August 2020

Image credit: Author


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