|In the fall of 2001 I began painting bicycle symbols around the streets of Montreal, mimicking those
that are used to designate the city‘s bike paths. Being a cyclist myself and having spent a lifetime sharing
the road with people who by virtue of their steel, glass and rubber carapace had the power to do me seriously
bodily harm (and almost did on several occasions) I felt that it was time the cyclist be given his fair share
of the public pie. After all, politicians have been encouraging us for years and presumably at the public‘s behest
to adopt alternative modes of transportation as a palliative to the numerous ills associated with congestion,
smog and green house gasses. I had been hearing this line of "encouragement" since I was young enough to comprehend
"adult-speak" and I‘m sure it was being spouted long before. However, I had to date, found little encouragement in
breathing car exhaust, having to share the road with eighteen wheelers and the prospect of receiving the dreaded
"door prize"(having a car door opened in your face) except maybe the existence of a few recreational bike paths
and ones own state of poverty. Same for a perpetually under-funded public transportation system that, bogged down
by the overall level of traffic congestion seemed to take longer and be more crowded than ever. Maybe this is the
incentive for cycling that was being referred to.
Around 4am on November the 29th 2004, I was taken into custody by Montreal Police after having been caught ‘red handed‘ (or in my case "yellow handed" as I was using yellow paint that night) in the act of painting a Christmas ribbon at the intersection of Rachel and St. Denis, Montreal, Quebec. While in detention, a search warrant had been issued and much to my roommates dismay, my house searched and stripped of various items that would prove my culpability in connection to a number of incidences of "graffiti" that had sprung up in the past couple of years and that all bore the same signature (which is another word for "style" as I did not actually sign the vast majority of my pieces). The numerous stencils, photographs, documents and sketchbooks that were either confiscated as in the case of my computers hard drive or that I later found strewn about my apartment in a manner reminiscent of a Hollywood style CIA search, constituted what is known in legal circles as an ‘orgy of evidence‘. In retrospect, I ask myself how I could have been so careless.
Lucky for me that question doesn‘t have the poignancy that it would have had if the outcome of The City of Montreal vs. Roadsworth had been less favourable. If instead of receiving the nominal fine of $250 and 40 hours of community service of my choosing -what most would consider a "slap on the wrist"- I had been prosecuted with the full weight of the law that some speculated could mean fines of up to $250,000, jail time and a criminal record; potentially life ruining consequences. On the contrary, news of my arrest from both alternative and mainstream media (for e.g. Chris Hand of Zeke‘s Gallery launched the first and perhaps most significant "Save Roadsworth" campaign on his blog) garnered a certain amount of public support and what some might aptly describe as "free publicity". If it werent for the knowledge of the countless hours spent conceiving designs, drawing and cutting stencils, frequenting hardware stores at significant personal expense and the physical demands involved in staying up all night and surreptitiously painting asphalt, I would have no reservations in saying the publicity I received was "free."
While I had long entertained the thought of doing some form of street art as a response to what I believed was an ill-conceived use of public space on one hand and the discovery of the inspiring work of land artist Andy Goldworthy on another it was 9/11, an event that had the strangely liberating effect of making me feel I had nothing to lose, that provided the catalyst. For a long time I had been grumbling about the ill effects of a society dependant on oil and bent on over-consumption in general and our seeming unwillingness and/or inability to confront these issues despite our better intentions. The more the litany of complaints grew over an overstrained health-care system, obese children, bronchial disease, traffic congestion, pollution, global warming, war etcand the human misery these cause, the bigger and more fuel guzzling cars there were, the longer the lines of traffic grew and the hotter and smoggier the summer seemed to get. At best this apparent disconnect between our behavior and its consequences was symptomatic of a society grown complacent and unable to overcome its own inertia. At worst it was evidence of corporate, military and government collusion, abetted by a capitalist system where the bottom line is all that matters. Whatever the reasons, I came to the depressing conclusion that at least as far as Canadians were concerned, nothing short of a cataclysm, be it in the form of a hurricane or more likely the cancellation of the outdoor hockey season due to insufficient ice, would have the power to bring about a change in consciousness.
What began as a form of activism rooted in a desire for more bike paths and justified by the rationale outlined above eventually grew into an art project that, to a certain extent, continues today. Fuelled by a sense of righteous indignation I also felt empowered by the expressive and creative outlet that street art afforded me. Instead of feeling like a helpless passenger on a train headed for disaster I felt that I had created a voice for myself amid the noise of the city. This may smack of self-righteousness to some and I am aware of how most people bristle (and rightfully so) when confronted with "preachiness." This is one of the reasons I resorted to a form of iconography that I feel is closer in spirit to satire than it is to protest. Not only was I lacking the confidence to issue slogan-like generalizations about issues I did not fully comprehend, I was also aware of a personal degree of complicity. An open-ended quality of expression would lend itself better to interpretation and dialogue than the "FUCK BUSH" or "OIL=WAR" kind of language that is typical of a protester‘s placard and that I felt people had become desensitized to. Furthermore, it‘s obvious to anyone who‘s followed events in the Middle East for instance that the hurling of stones only hardens those at whom the stones are being hurledand invites the hurling of bigger stones in return.
As my personal artistic process evolved, political concerns were eclipsed by artistic ones and I often felt more inspired by the process than I did by the message I was trying to convey. Marshall Mcluhans famous quote "the medium is the message" is significant in this regard. The ubiquitousness of the asphalt road and the utilitarian sterility of the "language" of road markings provided fertile ground for a form of subversion that I found irresistible. I was provoked by a desire to jolt the driver from his impassive and linear gaze and give the more slow-moving pedestrian pause for reflection. The humourlessness of the language of the road not to mention what I consider an absurd reverence for the road and "car culture" in general made for an easy form of satire. In the spirit of Marcel Duchamps, all I had to do was paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa so to speak, to introduce a glitch in the matrix. A matrix made up in part by a worldwide network of roads and an ever-growing fleet of humans encased in steel carapaces, hurrying about like molecules in the body of an insatiable machine.
While it may seem that the dedication with which Ive attacked asphalt since 2001 suggests an anti-car obsession, I am not so intent on car-bashing as in the culture that has grown around the automobile, one of the defining symbols of our age. Its invention has given rise to the phenomenon of sprawling suburbs, super highways and the demographic of the daily commuter. It epitomizes the capitalist ideal with its promise of independence, speed and mobility; an interface through which one can experience the environment in the comfort of a climate-controlled, sound-controlled and tinted glass interior. In one way or another, it has become synonymous with "freedom" (this puts a whole new perspective on what is really meant by "fighting for freedom" in Iraq for e.g.) and to curtail its use in any way is seen by many as almost a form of repression. To wrest the steering wheel away from the average car owner would be like asking Charleton Heston to give up his gun: "Out of my cold dead hand". The comparison is a relevant one as it highlights an underlying paradox of capitalism. As in the case of guns, the more people that drive a car the less freedom each individual car-owner actually enjoys.
Despite the freedom, mobility and increased human contact that car commercials so tantalizingly suggest, the underlying reality is less alluring. While it is possible that some car owners spend their time cruising the rainforest, climbing mountains or speeding through the desert the vast majority are too busy commuting, sitting in traffic and worrying about gas prices and insurance rates. In fact you practically need four-wheel drive to experience nature nowadays as it recedes further and further with the inexorable advance of suburbia and the highways that connect to it. The conditions required to accommodate a more mobile and vehicular population creates a vicious circle that shields people from their environment while simultaneously rendering it more hostile thus confirming their need to further isolate themselves. Given the possibility of moving between work, the gym and home again without ever setting foot outside, it‘s not surprising that many people are out of touch with their surroundings. Under such conditions, space is merely transitional, the passing of scenery between point A and point B and it is therefore treated as such. As for the potential for increased human contact, one need only look at the rows of mostly one person per car traffic and the distances that separate many "modern" families to see that the automobile has isolated as much as it has brought people together.
Despite an obvious antagonism towards "car culture" I am aware that advocating a complete renunciation of the automobile would not only be unrealistic but undesirable given the lack of viable, alternative forms of transportation that exist for much of the population, mainly those living outside of cities. My quarrel is not so much with the car itself as it is with the attitude that it engenders. It is a metaphor for a culture bent on speed, convenience, consumption and hyper-individualism. Where having a job and owning a car are the determining characteristics of the productive member of society whose economy is based on the ability of its citizens to consume. The fact of being able to cover large distances at a rapid pace with the flex of one‘s foot while surrounded by steel and in the comfort of ones own personalized environment has created a disembodied culture with a false sense of invisibility, self-sufficiency and a general sense of impatience. This is a dangerous psychological precedent in a world where community and sustainability is needed more than ever. If there is anywhere that mitigating our dependence on the automobile is not only feasible but increasingly and urgently needed, it is in cities where more than two thirds (and growing) of the worlds population now lives.
After being arrested the nagging question on my mind "how could I have been so careless?" was soon replaced by the more basic "why did you do this?", the primary question asked by journalists and anyone else for whom my identity had been a secret. While I always had an answer at the ready and a script that was fine tuned with every interview, to this day I wonder about my motivations. My first attempts at street art manifest a cynicism bred by a sleazy corporate attitude that seemed to permeate everything, especially public space where corporate expression (i.e. advertising) seemed to not just represent the status quo but the only legitimate form of expression. I was frustrated by what seemed like a society that was subservient to this attitude ("car culture" was the epitome of this) whether through denial, fear, laziness, cynicism or ignorance. This was seemingly fostered by an impotent government and an aggressive corporate structure that was not just insensitive but antagonistic towards social and environmental concerns. This was perhaps an overly simplistic assessment of reality but not one that was wholly unjustified.
The ability that street art gave me to respond, to express these perceptions in some way not only gave me a sense of empowerment but also helped relieve a certain amount of frustration that I attribute as much to personal factors as I do to societal ones. But there were other aspects that motivated me. There was the creative, artistic pleasure I derived from it. A desire to inject a sense of playfulness into my own life and surroundings not to mention the feeling of adventure and the undeniable rush associated with breaking the law. There was the egotistical thrill of getting up and the vicarious pleasure associated with the thought of an anonymous spectator discovering something I had left on the street. More importantly, it provided a direct means of expression unmediated by the gallery, museum or the advertising agency for example and the inevitable "hoop jumping" required to gain access to these.
I refer to these thoughts and situations in the past tense in order to convey the atmosphere and headspace in which I justified breaking the law when I first started doing art on the street. Inherent to these laws is the suggestion that any form of public expression not intended to sell something is suspect and therefore imbued with a hidden agenda. Ive sometimes mused that had I attached a dollar value to my work I wouldnt have been arrested. "Nothing unusual going on here". Despite our trumpeting the notion of "free expression" one wonders what this really means in the context of public space. Although we thankfully dont live in a totalitarian society (some would argue this point) there is nevertheless an underlying assumption that to have a voice in the public realm requires money, property or political influence. Some would say that relinquishing barriers to public expression is to invite anarchy but I would argue that a certain form of anarchy already exists: corporate anarchy. Not that I think that marketing or advertising is wrong. The exchange of goods and services is obviously an essential facet of the human experience but not the only one and I feel the common space should reflect a greater diversity of expression.
To express oneself outside of the "accepted" context however is to risk a certain amount of criticism. After all, who am I to impose my opinions on others? I don‘t pretend to have answers for anything and the complexity of the world is beyond the scope of my understanding but I still believe that I have the right to ask "Who are you to push hamburgers on me?" or "Who are you to pollute my air?" or Who are you to tell me to go to war?" etcDespite my cynicism, I feel that whether motivated through a sense of self-preservation or that of future generations, there is nevertheless a growing recognition that an industrial-age mentality is no longer adequate to the challenges that humanity is faced with. Though maybe not purely altruistic, there is an awareness that the interest of others could also be in ones own interest. Big words for a vandal.