Urban street life, and specifically street art, intrigues me. What does it represent? Art? Culture? Vandalism? Self-expression? Graffiti arouses an inner debate about what constitutes art in the eyes of people. Is art an elite and skilled interpretation of life and culture or an informal self-made reflection of a unique identity? The exercise in developing two mini ethnographies provided opportunity to reflect on these questions as an anthropologist and ethnographer. I chose to focus on the art mural at the Laurier Bridge underpass, on Queen Elizabeth Drive, because its multi-layered image was situated in a public space alongside the Rideau Canal, an area that receives a lot of foot traffic. I hoped this choice of site would allow me to gain a better understanding of how people interact with such forms of creative work in public space.
The first account offers a sensorial description based on my physical experience of being on site and my field notes. This kind of an approach enabled an honest, albeit partial, account of how different corporeal elements can assemble together to form a rich multi-sensory experience of being in a place. I hoped to capture the reader’s attention with specifically chosen words that would allow my audience to really experience the site as I had while I conducted research. The second mini ethnography is a more reflexive description of the space, which focuses on the perennial art vs. vandalism debate provoked by street art.
Mini Ethnography I
As I approached the Laurier underpass, I realized I’d be obliged to stay here, in this spot, for two hours, while all others were in transit, walking-by and continuing on to other destinations. I prepared my camera and grabbed my pen and book. The gray, cool atmosphere made me shiver as I leaned on the iron suspension brace for support. The place smelled of wet concrete layered with thick soot from the exhaust pipes of passing trucks and cars. At first glance this forlorn and dark place seemed unwelcoming, and began to I wonder who in their right mind would stop to look at a wall today. What did this place have to offer?
The constant repetitive sound of cars rolling over the expansion joints of the bridge above me, and the intermittent starting and stopping of the automobiles approaching and moving through the underpass, reminded me that this was primarily a place of transition. Winter had arrived and the crumbling of ice and soft mounds of snow resonated from beneath the boots of pedestrians as they walked past the mural. Those with walking partners glanced briefly and carried on muffled conversations with their chins buried in scarves. The melting snow rhythmically dripped from above, acting like a metronome for the throaty sounds of the pigeons’ chorus. A dim industrial light shone through the dark mesh netting that trapped environmental debris, but also provided residence for birds and spiders who kept the place clean for those who wandered below. During the weekday, there were civil engineers surveying the bridge from different vantage points while in the distance, construction machines grinded on, building our city for the future. Groups of Canadian military personnel, in camouflage uniform adorned with a shoulder crest of the Canadian flag, tromped through the wet gravel with heavy boots. A fleeting glance at the mural followed by a respectful salute as they passed a higher ranked officer as an army jeep and tank roared past; a moment of monochromatic green. The mural underpass provided direction for everyone who travelled through it, en route to destinations unknown--students heading to university, joggers keeping time with their shoes squishing along the wet sidewalk, walkers, shoppers—all going somewhere but each glancing in the direction of the mural, engaging for a moment and taking in the images of an evolving city.
I took my place directly across from the painted mural in order to fully appreciate the street art and the movement of people through this space. One spot provided a view of the mural with a background featuring the City Hall on one side and parliament hill rising from the other. The mural was creative and artistic, painted with a skilled hand, and featuring complex transparencies and overlapping images. Images of canal labourers of early industrial times, painted in neutral shades, were seamlessly integrated with colourful images of the canal and contemporary urban growth. The art captured the transformation of our city with colour and images that drew me closer, inviting me to appreciate the detail and unique perspective of the drawings. The bottom left identified the artist and the title, ‘Style over Status.’ As I admired the detail, I became aware of an older woman, bundled in winter clothing, looking intensively at the mural. She stepped back, then towards the painting, reaching out to touch the warmly coloured drawings against the cold cracked wall. Smiling she went on her way, head up looking about. Taking her lead, I approached the sunset and placed my frigid hand upon the image of the shining water. Although the concrete was cool, I am sure I experienced a sense of tactile warmth radiating through the image. Stepping back to take a photograph, another woman opened conversation, wondering whether I was the artist. Explaining my assignment, I watched her eyes fill with emotional recollection as she recounted a similar interest in cave drawings. In this instance, my experience had come full circle. I had recognized the art piece for its personal and historical value and had connected with others. I found a sense of commonality by admiring a graffiti alongside another person. And if this is true, how can this ever been seen as vandalism?
Mini Ethnography II
As I travel through an underpass located in the downtown core of the City of Ottawa, Canada's National Capital, I realize that the wall that serves as a foundation for the bridge above has a personality and a set of defining characteristic. Unlike most concrete walls, this one has multiple purposes, as it also showcases a creative image. Unlike more traditional forms of graffiti or street art, this wall reveals a large collage of images that seeks to capture local history. The artwork is presented beneath the Laurier bridge next to City Hall and within close proximity to Parliament Hill's Peace Tower. The placement of this street artwork at an entrance to the city, alongside the historic canal, suggests that it was strategically chosen. This is an authorized and pre-planned street art display, placed in a designated social space, and as such, very different than the typically illegally placed street art. The location of the mural in the public space also invites the capital’s residents to engage with this from for art and form their own interpretations of the artists’ intentions. In other words, this public street art is weaved into a public space where the automobile and pedestrian traffic would provide opportunity for viewing, appreciation, and cultural engagement with this work.
I descended the concrete staircase from Laurier Avenue to the cold, dark underpass below, not knowing what to expect. I immediately felt surprised to see such an extensive work of imagery; suddenly, the shadows of the underpass came to life, abounding with artistic expression and meaning. A typical route of transit for residents, workers, students and recreational athletes had been transformed into an aesthetically pleasing place that promotes historical appreciation and civic curiosity. The sight of the wall encouraged me to take a step back, reflecting on this street art with full attention. I chose to walk along the mural, grouped with other citizens entrenched in their daily routine, stopping along the path by each distinct image to fully appreciate the artistic talent and purpose. To me, the art reflected a sense of peacefulness; I felt at ease and was comfortable standing and admiring while others walked on. The combination of dark neutrals with shots of colourful light felt warm and inviting, drawing me in, helping me develop a connection with the labourers represented in the artwork, and inviting me to reflect on the historical importance of the canal, a symbol of our city. For these initial few moments, I had given this wall my full and undivided attention, without interference from personal, social or academic expectations. I thought to myself, this is art. It has expressive purpose and it communicates to me. The interpretation of art can be different depending on how it is perceived. I began to photograph the mural from near, far and from different angles as if preparing a photo essay. Seeing the detail in my work, a woman walking her dog approached me, and started up a conversation, referring to the mural. She expresses her appreciation for the mural's beauty and its skilled artistic work. I agreed, feeling happy about this common interactive experience and the opportunity to discuss the mural with a stranger. When she asked if I was the creator, I chuckled and explained my position as a student and the assignment. The dog-walker shared with me a story about a paper she once wrote for a class on architecture, which focused on prehistoric cave drawings, wall art, and other art forms. This brief conversation provided me with an insider view on what this mural meant to this person.
What this mural actually gave us was a common foundation for engaging in a conversation and appreciating the street art; the art had brought out a voluntary interaction that was initiated by a stranger. At a minimum, this person perceived this mural as art, even though it was located on a street.
My interest turned to the social space of the mural and I began to notice the people who passed by. Individuals in transit would always glance up at the art wall when entering the underpass and at least once more while walking, and then one last time, before exiting. It might be that the people who walked on this path more regularly than me, had grown accustomed to it, or perhaps the artwork does not hold much interest for them. Few people stopped to admire it, most passed through quickly, held captive by their internal clock with their own deadlines and places to be. I wondered how different times of day, seasons, and people's mood influenced whether or not they would stop to appreciate the artist's work. After all, the day was cool and the art was here to stay, at least for a while. Being it was my first experience observing this street art, I found enough detail that encouraged me to go beyond the appreciation of the art work and perceive it as a meaningful expression for those who participate in it.
I wondered if this street art would be considered art or graffiti. It contained images that could be interpreted by most, compared to graffiti, that at times in incomprehensible. The mural was approved as a city project and designed in a social space, rather than illegally produced. Yet, it was still produced on the street. I began to ask myself fundamental questions of whether this graffiti was, in its simplest form, art or not. I personally would define such an artifact of the urban environment as art because it appeals to my own taste, it makes me think and feel something, and communicates a message, which I believe is a criteria for art. Art is also in the beauty of the eyes of the beholder. From my perspective, the street mural is art, not because of the quality of design, but because it invites others to reflect on it and participate in its interpretation. This was evidenced by the example of the woman who stopped to discuss the mural. Street art has often been given a negative representation under the category of vandalism. Some view the sides of buildings, or underpasses of bridges as places that should be kept clean and proper, while others perceive this as a perfect public place for urban street artists to display their artwork at no expense for others to enjoy. This had made me realize and be conscious that art is subjective; individuals have different opinions on whether or not street images are art or vandalism. I myself, have chosen to be non-judgmental; I feel that street art or graffiti can be considered art as it represents expression and by practicing empathy, one can understand how other forms of graffiti and representative of art, without the intent of damaging property.
The ethnographies explored during the semester have given me a broader perspective on ethnographic writing, introducing me to styles and methods have I have previously not studied in depth. This exposure to the different writing methods has helped me to recognize and appreciate different styles of writing. Those readings that were most interesting for me tended to be sensorial interpretations and dialogues. Readings have sometimes exposed the difficulty of accurate, encompassing and true representations of the many directions of ethnographic fieldwork. The assignment also provided an opportunity to participate in a public space and analyze also how other people choose to participate and interpret their experience. I find this an essential part of anthropology; we must always take into consideration and respect other perspectives even if they may differ from our own. Finally, the assignment has also led me to conclude that writing ethnographically is an extremely difficult process. There were many times that I felt frustrated during this assignment when I felt there was not enough to write about, but as you delve deeper into the topic and begin composing your field notes into actual text, the writing process evolves and your topic begins to have a life of its own.
All photos by Noah Baccin