This weekend saw the final unveiling of the the See No Evil project in Bristol; Europe’s largest street art exhibition. It is, to say the very least, an extraordinary, breathtaking achievement. Graffiti artists not just from Bristol but around the globe descended on Nelson Street, transforming the whole area from drab, urban decay into what feels like a new – almost virtual – space. It is truly something that needs to be experienced, but hopefully some of the photos I grabbed (along with the many on the official Flickr page) will give you some idea of its scale and raw beauty.
My own interest in graffiti art dates back to my first introduction to hip-hop culture in the mid 1980s, when the first images of New York subway art started to make their way over the pond. Apart from their raw visceral energy, both art-forms struck me as intensely science-fictional. Both are about the appropriation of technology to create something new – hip-hop taking samplers and turntables to generate new sounds they weren’t designed to make, and graf taking car repair paint and the very architecture of cities to create new visual spaces and canvases. They are, perhaps, the most literal expression of William Gibson’s famous cyberpunk-defining phrase ‘the street finds it own use for things’.
Even before cyberpunk, the city has long been one of the defining settings of science fiction for those that dare to look beyond the standard tropes of spaceships and alien worlds. Science fiction frequently views the city as a machine, with those of us that live within it variably as components, parasites or even unwilling prisoners. Graffiti becomes one of the most visceral, immediate statements of rebellion for us urban inmates; a bold, organic riot of colour against our drab, sterile prison.
The science fictional aspect of See No Evil becomes even more heightened when you consider the history of Nelson Street. It is yet another example, amongst the hundreds that dot the urban landscape of Britain, of 1950/60s post war planning and architecture that aimed to herald a new, futuristic, technology-driven utopia. But of course the future’s greatest strength is that it can never be predicted and tamed, let alone designed or planned. The town planners and architects failed, and as the decades passed they watched their dreams descend into decay, shunned by popular taste and left to become associated with poverty, depravation and failure. And to add the ultimate insult to their injuries, they saw their utopian designs become the defining science fiction image of a dystopian future.
“The group of architects who put (the plan) forward combined super highways with dreaming notions of pedestrian decks to create squares of Venetian splendour where Bristolians would gather in their thousands on election nights six metres above the smoothly uninterrupted flow of traffic.
“The dream seemed so achievable. Perhaps part of it, at least, should have been done. The centre deck might have worked; noise and fumes might not have made it unusable. Often the wrong parts were carried out.
“The major central area civic contribution of the sixties was the complex of pedestrian decks that survive in truncated form above the street at Lewins Mead and beyond and which virtually nobody uses. This was to be the essential link between the Centre – or even Forum’s great piazza above it – and the Broadmead shopping centre and beyond.”
The Fight for Bristol (ed. by Gordon Priest and Pamela Cobb; Redcliffe Press, 1980)
It’s this idea that was the driving force behind the story that leads my collection Paintwork; the use of graffiti to reclaim the space in which we live from corporate control. The technology that is subverted in Paintwork may be far more exotic – augmented reality, nanotechnology and QR Codes – but walking around Nelson Street made me feel that somehow I had actually managed to catch a little taste of Bristol’s zeitgeist with that story. That part of town usually feels dead and deserted, but on Saturday it was rammed with bodies – Bristol residents that had come out to be enthralled and entertained; to reclaim this urban decay for their own expression and enjoyment. And the fact that this was an officially organised event, done with the guidance and support of the same city that once made the mistake of trying to guess and plan the future is not only exciting in itself, but perhaps shows us a fleeting glimpse of a real, achievable urban utopia.