The Contested Gallery: street art, ethnography and the search for urban understandings

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Justin Armstrong


This is a paper on street art and its role as a form of artistic insurrection that challenges popular understandings of public space and urban visual culture. I would like to think of it as a field guide to urban seeing, a means of revising the way in which we view the cityscape and its imagery. It is a way of imagining the city as a canvas onto which ideas may be inscribed and reinterpreted, where resistance percolates up to those who look for it. It is here, in what Kathleen Stewart has called a “place by the side of the road” that the work of the street artist exists, slowly gurgling up through the cracks in the sidewalk and briefly illuminated by the yellow-white glow of the street lights.
Street art most often takes the form of adhesive stickers, spray-painted stencils, and wheat-pasted posters, and while it shares many similar aesthetic and cultural characteristics with graffiti, street art embodies a unique ideology. Graffiti represents a territorialization of space (‘tagging’, or reclaiming urban spaces through the use of pseudonyms as territorial markings); street art represents a reterritorialization of space. Rather than taking space, street art attempts to re-purpose the existing urban environment.
This paper seeks to reflect the changing dynamic of urban space through an analysis of the practice of street art. By examining the roles that street artists play in disrupting the flow of visual noise in the city, I will illuminate the cultural value and significance of this form of urban artistic resistance.

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How to Cite
Armstrong, J. (2006). The Contested Gallery: street art, ethnography and the search for urban understandings. AmeriQuests, 2(1).