The transformation of walls
It is famously repeated worldwide that it is better to build bridges, not walls. Letting aside the figure of speech, most walls shape and protect more than they reject, although protection for some people may be rejection for others. There are walls that not only carry a functional purpose, but also a communicational one, and historical at times. As one of its most iconic, the Berlin Wall has divided, fallen and then revived as a ruin of street art expression. This famous transformation that has occurred publicly may let us examine attentively those anonymous walls of our cities that might succumb to similar alterations without anyone noticing it, without previous agreement, executed in the shadows of a still night.
The confusing streets full of graffiti may intrigue the curious eye on the dynamics that might exist beyond the walls. While some of these actions are improvised, there are others planned by their authors, who carefully choose their spots before exposing their work to the city. Walls are thus interviewed by the rebellious mind, the one who will cover them with spray, paint, or glue, and will conceive a physical and ideological change in the street’s genuine everydayness. There may be a quick unwittingly exchange of questions and answers or a much slower process based on deep observation, in which the chosen wall will be repetitively examined in all its details before action should be taken. Such research makes the wall interviewer wondering whether that interviewee may become a street canvas, in which the viability of its emplacement and the time for its appropriation will not pose a problem while spraying, painting, or displaying the so-called artwork.
Questions on its emplacement may be the first to emerge given that the characteristics of a street may encourage or discourage the artist to experiment as imagined. A wall abandoned in the middle of nowhere is not the entrance wall of a building, and the consequences to face will undoubtedly vary. A concrete wall is not a wooden wall, nor a brick wall, old or new, in a rainy or dry city, in which the material’s roughness, textures, holes and fissures are to be analysed before choosing it as a surface. Therefore, one may have to decide whether to work on daylight or moonlight, being the latter preferred to act calmly and not to be seen. At night, a darkened wall by a lack of streetlights indicates lower probabilities to be caught by police officers, street cleaners or local neighbours but does not necessarily mean that the work done will remain untouched. In case there are not primary interferences, the project’s visibility is another aspect to examine when considering the street wall as a viable spot of attention to the human eye. On the search of spotlighted walls, areas that are densely circulated do not necessarily mean larger audiences, as it is common to see some street’s narrowness restraining passers-by to halt and appreciate the artwork by fear of hampering others who may walk hastily. Further, tagged walls in the highway, in train or subway stations, may be appreciated or ignored as much as city centre walls. At first sight, all seems too relative. Although street art may not seem a planned action, it actually needs some aspects to take notice of, which may vary from one person to another, from a spray can to a glue brush. Street walls also differ in material properties and location, changing considerably the decisions taken by the author and the results of the undertaken action.
Besides street conditions, the result may vary whether the message transcending the artwork or the medium used to emphasize the message concur successfully with any kind of reaction from the audience, somehow related to the individual’s psychology, the neighbourhood’s sociology and the region’s cultural identity. Not only, it would be easier to say that only the quality of the artwork determines its appreciation, as tags and murals are not the same. The outnumbered artists and the mass of amateurs simply coexist in this chaotic scenery, and all are senders of messages, whether successfully understood or not by their audience, the people. In this communication process, when the sender wishes to make the artwork visible, receivers’ total indifference towards its presence seem an even more unnerving reaction than progressive deterioration or abrupt destruction caused by reluctance, which are at least the effects of determinant behaviours. As most of passer-by do not look at the modified walls – the message channel – it may worth the effort when capturing even one person’s full attention. The sender, who observes the scene from behind, believes having shared values that are beyond himself with a stranger that may think or feel differently in reaction to the wall’s quest for attendance. Nevertheless, most of message senders are not that thoughtful and may only feel hatred or a tremendous vacuity. There are also people who only seek enjoyment in experimenting with materials and tools, making clear that the encoding process of the message is the most satisfactory phase, and even for some, its reception and understanding becomes of little interest. This process could be defined by hours and hours walking at night, sweating, breathing anxiously, only listening to one’s own footsteps, focused and ready to feel a certain level of adrenalin in transgressing power, in sharing one’s own absurdness, one’s own sense of the world at that unique moment.
Beyond simple tags, if the work in question requires some effort, it could be considered a project. Thus, both process and result are the combined branches of the project’s trunk. One can take pleasure in conceiving the artwork, producing it, aspiring for quality, searching its emplacement, preparing oneself for the action, feeling the action, documenting process and result, seeing the result in daylight, seeing people staring at it, seeing it disappear, feeling the urge to start again; and all these steps that may vary in order, may also vary in terms of intensity felt for each work, with ones more valuable than others, with a story greater to remind. It is how the planned research is structured and contextualised when one has the choice to be creatively confronted to the walls of a city.
Once out there, the artwork ceases to be singular and is associated to a style, a meaning and an intention, to a person’s profile, to a group of people who have different needs but nonetheless something to express. In times where anything is art and anyone is an artist, the city becomes a public workshop in which anonymous creations prevail. Rather than using city columns legally emplaced to hook advertising posters or being contempt with municipal information stuck at the entrance door of some buildings, those called street artists not only compete with official channels in the streets of Barcelona but also with a sea of visual stimulus from various emitters, observable on different supports, from stickers on pipes, job postings on lampposts, tags on road signs, sprayed words and sentences on floors and walls as well as in any urban furniture, graffiti and tags on shops’ corrugated metal doors, on power boxes or any front door. Walls are thus progressively abandoned by all authorities, gathering such number of posters or graffiti that they are respectively transformed into well-known sources of transgressive information to the neighbours. If these walls possess a certain value, whether material or immaterial, posters and graffiti may be considered a deplorable rather than aesthetic result, but their uninterrupted existence could also mean that no one really care about the wall. Some streets are completely submerged by their incessant duplication causing metamorphosis in essence, a sense of insecurity in the worst case or underground creativity in the best. In these places, the aesthetic monotony provoked by the repetition of the same graphical shapes may be broken by street masterpieces that may have the power to affiliate people in taste. In these cases, their authors truly deserve to be called street artists.
The public approval of certain appealing art works, given their technical quality or innovative concept, has allowed the municipality to cede some walls to art collectives or famous artists to work on them legally, assuring some control back over the walls while increasing the attractiveness of the area, as if walls had the power to improve a place’s reflected image. Those areas may suddenly be defined as dynamic, diverse and inclusive, allowing people to express themselves, in opposition to those clean walls possibly considered as conservative and authoritative. Hence, cleanness opposes creativity, or some would say a dirty sort of creativity, and street art all of a sudden means progressiveness, and the claim may amuse the suburbs. Useless to say that there are different expressions, reported bohemian atmospheres for the middle class or conflictive ones for the marginalised. A lonely tag in a wealthy area may surely be a strange sign to be quickly repelled. In the centre of this social discrepancies, there are selfish artists who work for themselves, sometimes for an audience, disregarding the legal walls, the political walls, the interests of ones or others, and they just care of their mark left to attest a presence. That is what made me enter in this world, to shape walls while changing myself.
A paint roller with glue, paper, a bag, a wall, a young fellow and a will to change things.
In January 2014, I willed to let aside a growing feeling of powerlessness towards changes, being inspired by JR’s actions, the French photographer who travels all over the world ‘transforming messages of personal identity into works of art’ by sticking the portraits of people he meets on different walls and structures while bringing these individuals together around the messages aroused by their own representation. But instead of empowering the living, I wished to honour the dead. They were internationally renowned men I never met, charismatic icons in the collective imagery, which were easier to depict with photographs found on the Internet instead of wandering Barcelona in search of real people’s stories. At that time, Mandela, Allende, Jara and Neruda, were references to follow for a young and naïve activist willing to work on universal values of tolerance and freedom, clearly led by an emotional impulse, an unconscious ideological urge without any trace of reason. Without this impulse, nothing would have been done, or at least, not with the same instinctive conviction. Chilean music from Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani would be played to motivate while reflecting on the message to be communicated. Thus, the composition of these four men’s portraits was previously designed at home with Photoshop, the tool of simulacra, then printed in layers and stuck on the chosen walls at night with the wheatpaste technique, a homemade mixture of wheat flour and water famously elaborated worldwide to paste posters, while avoiding police patrols and street cleaners’ trucks in relatively quiet streets. When Mandela was depicted six times on the streets of the Raval neighbourhood in Barcelona, most of the pieces remained visible for a week, as a splash of colour in a lively cosmopolitan area, enabling strangers to interact with them by writing over, taking pictures and removing scraps of paper until they all faded away. Acknowledging the Raval’s multicultural dynamics, these six ephemeral windows to Mandela intended to impulse a conversation with a wider audience, almost ignoring the icon as if his apparently non-invasive presence was only a way for me as the author to finally obtain thoughts and stories from curious people, real-life people this time, who did not ignore the existence of these images overpowering the walls.
In my continual search of higher men as well as my idealised Chilean roots, Allende’s tribute sought to accompany a specific event, the yearly commemoration of his death on September 11th, in which I offered his iconoclastic presence to a Chilean-Catalan audience somehow glad to receive such image in the square bearing Allende’s name, in El Carmel’s neighbourhood. This time, I had the fervent desire to belong to a community who would listen in silence the president’s last speech to the nation before death. Few days later, two other walls were chosen to commemorate two artists killed at those darken times of Chilean history. Jara’s intervention took place in Gracia’s district with the same passion and energy while Neruda’s could not be done because the wall it intended to be on did not really gave its consent to such action; someone perfectly removed the enigmatic poet, offering back its previous state to the hidden wall, naked on stone, but still sticky by the glue anyway. This apparent innocence was necessary to build myself intellectually, emotionally, but above all, technically.
These series of ephemeral exhibitions soon became significant in attesting a working method that was, at my stage, under trial and error experimentation. Days before the intervention night, walls were carefully touched and observed several times a day before their exact locations were written on a notebook, compared and finally approved. Further, each working night, it turned to be a regular activity to walk with an Ikea bag hiding paintbrushes, paper and homemade glue, making sense of the walk as an imperative method to supervise the project, to reduce the nerves, and to feel the ground the closest as possible. Once on place, the streets were never totally deserted but whenever the occasion arose of being alone for a couple of minutes, the chance had to be taken. Often, there were sensations of failure when the glue was not sticky enough, the paper thicker than usual and the old coat of paint falling off the wall, being an obstacle to efficiency in an action that had to be quick. As pasting a large poster takes more than five minutes, there must be one or two reliable friends warning of other people’s presence and helping when necessary to avoid being caught by law enforcement. At night, some districts receive more attention than others at short time intervals by police officers and cleaning staff, recognisable through their vehicles and blue or green dresses. Some streets are diversified centres of use, mingled with one another, while others are self-isolated. Some streets are short while others are long, and it may be easier to see people coming from far away in long streets while short streets of medieval times make any presence unpredictable. Only few seconds are needed to turn the corner and to find a wall being taken for pictorial purposes by a stranger, being myself. Some neighbours do seem to care about their walls and despise discovering what seems to be another artistic action on their areas while others do not even react to the difference. For them, these walls have a primary use, to define the street and to provide shelter, enveloping what is private against the public through a material verticality, but with posters on it they are turned into a support. I was accurately conscious of this change. Even ephemeral, the action was seeking to offer meaning on the public stage by breaking the wall’s conservative use whereas it was also taking hostage what is public, the wall, in favour of a private interest that was my impulse to destroy and create.
The mixture of glue and paper may have also caused visible damages to the wall depending on its resistance to alterations, but once the whole project was gone and no traces left, there were only memories and photographic shots as reminders of the past. It is in some way tragic to know in advance that the work will disappear and that it was designed for being ephemeral when it first arose from passion. Even the strangers with whom conversations were engaged will certainly never be seen again and those that the author did not see, meet or taken in picture seem to have never existed but yet were present, interacting circumstantially with the wall’s continuous permanence. The wall still stays in place today while the pasted images took ownership for only few days until their dispossession. At first sight, one may say that the wall attained more people’s attention than at regular times that is when it is empty of figurative or textual messages, but this perception of interest was unnecessarily measurable at that time. Observation was essential, enough to satisfy the impulse but insufficient to formulate hypotheses. The author was only a facilitator, a passive actor who did not collect data, but who established speech through action, a specific dialogue from afar between people and the wall.
Some passers-by saw the wall for the first time and may have seen it unusual in comparison to other walls of the district while other people see it every single day and may have compared the effect of the action on that specific space to its appearance the day before. The author projected his thoughts and feelings into the wall, which in turn projected them back to other people. Those onlookers may have internalised or externalised their reaction, thinking or taking a picture, relating the image to other thoughts in an inner reflection apparently silent to the outside world or taking action by using the hand to interpose a camera between body and wall. But it may also be approached to satisfy someone’s intense desire to touch it or, through the opposite instinct, off contemplation, in someone else’s impetuous lust to destroy such filthy image. Although, as the author, I have experimented my own actions from inside, all that I observed from people’s reactions were suppositions, only reflections on the physical representations of their own will. In terms of measures, what is truly known is that people’s attention faded after few seconds or, in few cases, after few minutes; the artwork disappeared after few days; the author may die after few years but the wall will stay, unless it is decided otherwise before the author’s death that the wall shall be destroyed and rebuilt from new basements, which might not happen to most of them. An intimate relation is thus built between the author and those spaces, endowed with a new sense. The hand caresses the wall when walking from time to time the ‘wheatpaste route’ to commemorate the past, the images that once were stuck on walls depicting those change makers whose iconic figure made me believe I could also be one myself. All these nervous kilometres on foot, these doubts, these remains of paper and glue, all that is invisible today and, however, impressively visible in a built environment that remains equal to what the mind reminds.
Other interventions occurred on Barcelonan street walls, using different weight of papers, video projectors, canvasses, among other resources, proving that these projects are the result of careful planning and of skill, learnt over a year. This ephemerality hereby described, these unimportant and invaluable fragments of creativity were at the core of these projects, possibly a construction of modernity. Today, how absurd might seem some of these projects, when the traces of any action only count when shown in pictures or videos, if there is indeed any viewer at all. That work was introspective rather than transformative; value was given by individual perception: walking day and night admiring walls, looking at people looking at the walls, treasuring the experience of a night and being alive to see that the walls still are walls. For someone who is not completely settled in a place due to his cross-cultural identity, unrooted at times, rooted at others, using mundane walls to tell one’s story is a way to settle down, to establish a lasting relation with the immediate environment of the city. Now, beyond the self-centred use of the wall, what the experience of the project could also show is that the walls we know and cherish today may be the historical ruins of tomorrow, the decay of an expression, of a time, of a civilization, and that is why emotion in concrete blocks, stones, bricks, must be built to protect the experience people may have with their city’s exterior walls in the future. Building a small wall in one’s yard could be similar to the feeling of planting a tree, to then admire a result that is going to be greater than the self, literally and symbolically, in our ceaseless search for transcendence. Awarding consciousness on the established ties people have with existing walls – the ones of childhood, of the first kiss or in front of someone’s home – could be similar to hugging trees. There is, I believe, a change to be made in how we see walls within cities, in the essential keys they may become in a dynamic visual order. There isn’t a need to use them as supports for art to get them the attention they deserve; most cities won’t allow it; some countries would imprison the author for doing such act. It is in a sense paradoxical to write that I had to take over some walls to realise that they do not necessarily need to be taken over. Walls already create atmospheres with textures and colours, as well as meaning when carrying historical past or, as I said, personal experiences.
This text explains the projects made in the streets of Barcelona in 2014: See more.