I’ve taken a big interest in public/street art recently, but most of the instances that I’ve happened upon and enjoyed to any degree are various modifications of the landscape that serve to provoke and confuse. As I still see it, street art generally tries to do the following three things: present art where it’s least expected, comment on the use of public space, and tries to be extremely clever.
But one thing that I haven’t seen this discipline do so often is actually make positive use of that public space in a way that, say, a city planner could appreciate. No problem–that’s not the artist’s job by any means, but surely there are a few street art projects out there that don’t just try and screw with the perception of the urban landscape but instead actually improve it, even in ways that conservative, committee-constrained planners could approve of and maybe even embrace?
I don’t mean big, cool paintings on the side of old buildings–go to any city with a modicum of artistic spirit about it (Montreal, for example) and you’ll find tons of that, all generally city-approved or at least tacitly endorsed by the fact that the best of them stay up for years. No, this is smaller scale, along the lines of the street art we’ve seen over the last few years, those exhibitions of “urban play” that trip up expectations and tweak common elements to new effect.
Enter Joshua Callaghan, who has done just this, and remarkably, he’s done it within the confines of a city-approved project. We all know about those power & utility boxes present on our streets, usually painted in an unremarkable, military-green. They’re ubiquitous and hardly appealing, but thankfully ignorable enough. After seeing Callaghan’s work, though, I’m starting to notice their stark uselessness in the landscape more and more, these big green boxes of electricity that occasionally contain some posters and flyers but more often than not do absolutely nothing besides what’s required of them to keep our telephones and traffic lights running.
The LA neighbourhood of Culver City decided to do something about them, and comissioned Callaghan to cover several of their boxes with large vinyl prints containing photographs of the landscape, or carefully chosen shots designed to somehow “blend” with the surrounding colours in a pleasing way. And they work as more than that, since the illusion is broken when you come up close and realize that hey, it’s just a normal old utility box with a big sticker all around it.
There’s a ton of possibility here: find an historical photograph from 50 years ago of the exact same spot, and put it on the utility box, creating a fleeting look back in time where one might least expect it. It’s also one excellent way of getting some commissions for your work: if you’re a young street artist, out filling the city with your highly original designs, you might just get a call from a city authority that isn’t about fining you or trying to foot you the bill for however much it cost to clean up your art project. Here’s hoping more planning departments see the light.
If you’ve stumbled across any other examples of urban/public art being used in an official context, condoned and approved by the authorities, fill us in!