London Riots, Living Walls:
Questions of Resistance in Late Capitalism

Liz Kinnamon

Street Art vs. Capitalism by Escif in Grottaglie, Italy, 2011. (Courtesy the artist)

[1] In his 1976 work Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard defined graffiti as a "scream, an interjection, an anti-discourse" (82). He was writing during the formative years of the modern writing movement, which is said to have begun as early as 1959 in Philadelphia but eventually became fully established in New York City during the late 1960s. Writing culture evolved and proliferated around the subway trains to such proportions in the 1970s that as early as 1972, mass media like the New York Times were announcing an "epidemic" (Austin 82). The Metropolitan Transit Authority, the City Council, the Boards of Education, and other city agencies banded together to form an Anti-Graffiti Task Force, but while these city officials and mass media outlets framed writing as a "problem" signaling the collapse of the city, public opinion on the burgeoning culture remained mixed, and figures from Richard Goldstein to Claes Oldenburg praised the writing on the trains for being everything from a "bouquet" to "kaleidoscopic" (Austin 93).

[2] The illegal writings, "throw-ups", and pieces at the beginning of the writing movement were the impetus for Baudrillard's claim that graffiti, in contrast to state-sanctioned murals, was an "insurrection and eruption in the urban landscape" (Symbolic Exchange 80). The marks spraypainted on the skin of the city are meaningless, he claimed, yet to him this was the reason for their transgressive force: they "respond, there, on the spot, and breach the fundamental role of non-response by all the media" (Political Economy 183). They are transgressive primarily for the fact that they attack the sign systems and values of powerful institutions. "The entire system is fluctuating in indeterminacy" (Selected Writings 123), Baudrillard wrote. Modern life is full of terms that no longer refer to anything "real." Thus, in a landscape where signs are free from the obligation to designate anything and meaning is dislocated, these marks hold up a mirror to the meaninglessness of the current order by "turning indeterminacy against the system" (Symbolic Exchange 78). Graffiti, in this sense, is an "incision into the flesh of empty signs" (82).

[3] It is to these attacks on hegemonic institutions such as city governments, media, and dominant culture that Baudrillard attributed the revolutionary potential of graffiti. "Revolutionary" estimations of writing are likewise found in narratives of writers themselves, who in various ways conceptualized their work as "against the system," and such connotations were ironically and unintentionally heightened by their opponents, as the "crisis" rhetoric of elites testified to the degree in which the marks disturbed their sense of order. These are all contributing factors to the cultural perception of graffiti as an act with revolutionary potential. Illegal marks are unwelcome interventions that reconstruct the material and psychological landscape of the city, and as such, they are likened to interruptions in speech. Graffiti and street art, which I will use interchangeably throughout this essay, are speech acts wherein the subject inserts herself in a way that "breaches common linguistic codes of conduct" (Mills 6), without waiting her turn to speak.

[4] Alongside Baudrillard's approximations and the characterization of graffiti as interruption, the revolutionary potency of writing could also be viewed in terms of subjective experience, or in other words, for the act of writing itself. People of color and those of working-class backgrounds made up the majority of writers in the early 1970s, and due to demographic changes, economic policies, racism, and the post-industrial shift, those who lived in cities like New York faced increasing marginalization and fewer economic and social possibilities (Austin 53). Writing was an alternative way of gaining prestige; for many who felt that traditional routes of "making something of oneself" were either undesirable or unattainable, the practice of writing allowed for the formation of a self outside normative qualifications of success. This kind of self-negotiation may also be understood as what theorist Jose Muñoz has called a "disidentificatory performance." "Disidentification" is a term used to describe a way of responding to hegemonic structures by those in the minority; or in other words, it is a set of survival tactics that "negotiate, problematize, and explore those alleged hegemonies" (Mills 6). Though it is not the case that today's writers and street artists are solely of an ethnic or economic minority, the subjective experience of writing may be viewed as revolutionary not simply for the countering of powerful institutions; it is also a practice that transforms the subjectivities of its practitioners.

[5] The aforementioned perceptions of graffiti/street art as affront, interruption, and disidentification form the backdrop for my analysis of two incidents that occurred during the same week in 2011. First, in August of that year, I attended and volunteered for a street art conference entitled Living Walls, the City Speaks (LW) held in Atlanta and featuring the work of over 40 artists from around the world. Teams of mostly university-age friends and acquaintances pitched in to organize the conference, as it had not yet sought official non-profit status, and being both grassroots and related to "street art," it was generally known in Atlanta as a counterculture event. [1] The rebellious edge was supplemented by the near unanimous promotional and supportive praise given in Atlanta alternative press; Atlanta magazine, for one, rated Living Walls "Best of Atlanta" in the art category, while the local weekly Creative Loafing offered abundant hype before, during, and after the event. Coverage in media outside of Atlanta was much the same, glowingly reviewed by street art blogs like Vandalog and dubbed by Juxtapoz as a "huge success" ("Additional Living Walls Coverage").

[6] The official schedule of events was set for August 12th-14th, and included a series of film screenings, lectures, and presentations across the city of Atlanta. The event began, however, somewhere around the 6th, when artists began painting walls, and extended past the 14th as artists continued painting. These precise dates are important for the fact that they were shared by the second incident of my analysis; the conference unfolded during the exact moments as "the worst bout of civil unrest in Britain in a generation" (Afshar et al.) ---the riots in the UK. As I sat in the audience during the lecture series and listened to a keynote speaker, who was from Bristol, I was fixated on the contrast between his neutral, apolitical lecture and the riots that had just swept through his hometown. Not only did the speaker give a survey of contemporary street art without mentioning graffiti's subversive significance, but because of the depoliticized nature of his lecture, there was no ground for linking it to the riots still headlining international news. For if writing could historically be recognized as a speech act that, to apply Muñoz, "[made] visible the presence of subaltern energies and urgencies in metropolitan culture" (82), could not riots likewise be recognized as such? Could it not be said that riots are known to reconfigure the landscape in much the same way: through uninvited confrontation, transformation, and architectural interruption? As I sat in the audience that afternoon and attended the weekend's events, the reverent neutrality of the conference seemed to bear resonance to something in the riots overseas. Perhaps I had an inkling that, instead of refusing the dynamics of dominant frameworks, both happenings reproduced them, but it was an affective sense so slippery it almost could not be named.

[7] In an effort to present the connections between riots and graffiti, the foremost similarity is their status as both urban and youth-related events. Almost every major city in the US experienced one riot between the years of 1964 and 1969 (Austin 23), and as mentioned above, the late 1960s were also the beginning years of the modern writing movement (Austin 41-3). Both writing and rioting were brought about through ethnic tensions and developed in some of the most economically depressed neighborhoods, thus both may be interpreted as responses to rising inequalities in the 1960s and beyond. They emerged from the "cracks" in a time when urban "crisis" was at the fore. But during this period, instead of initiating conversations among the elite about the root causes—police brutality, racism, the growing gap between rich and poor-- both riots and graffiti were often presented in official discourse as urban "problems." Such discourse is a primary location of graffiti and riots' similarity. I bring the two together with special attention to rhetorical strategies used in the mass-mediated public sphere to represent them. Their shared lexicon includes words like "calamity," "nightmare," "collapse," "epidemic," "degenerative," "feeble-minded," "apocalypse," and "decay."

[8] To further illustrate their co-habitation, it is worth noting that Baudrillard attributed the emergence of the 1970s New York graffiti movement to repression of the 1960s urban riots. He cited the similarity of riots to graffiti, calling them both "savage offensives" (Symbolic Exchange 76) and even describing modern graffiti as a "riot of signs" (79). Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. famously contended that a riot was the "language of the unheard"--a description often applied to graffiti, and perhaps deployed in an even more literal sense given it is largely text-based and typographic. They have both been known as interruptions that disfigure the city, disturb the moral codes underlying private property, and challenge invisibility. Their overall similarity lies in our a priori knowledge of them as speech acts with subversive, even revolutionary potential. But nearly 45 years later, what forms do these historically understood acts of resistance take in contemporary time? In a neoliberal capitalist climate where terms "float" and are freely interchanged, and where capital is continuously, cannibalistically folding in, what becomes of attempts to find a way out?

[9] In this essay I will use the UK riots and Living Walls as examples of riots and writing today. Having laid the groundwork for the ways in which they are historically understood to share subversive potential, I undertake a close reading of each in order to assert that modern manifestations of graffiti and riots are increasingly indistinguishable from dominant modes of existence under neoliberal governmentality. While the street art conference integrated itself into authoritarian frameworks, discourse on the riots clustered around their display of consumption. But as I mentioned previously, in light of the embedded nature of the present moment, such affective senses are difficult to name while the events themselves are going on. It is for this reason that this essay seeks, as theorist Lauren Berlant has written, to "conceive of a contemporary moment from within that moment" (4). What was the unidentifiable similarity of the UK riots and Living Walls I sensed that afternoon at the conference? Using the late 1960s and 2011 as temporal bookends, I use these recent incidents to ask: through what processes are resistances co-opted, and how might we resist today?

Riots in the UK: "The Shape of a Meaningless Outburst" (Žižek)

[10] When the riots swept through the London borough of Hackney on August 8th, jazz singer and community radio DJ Pauline Pearce was filmed shouting in front of a graffitied wall. The Telegraph reported that her heated street lecture began when she asked a man standing in the wreckage and debris, "What is this about? Why burn these vehicles? These are people who are living here like us who saved their money to buy their car" ("London Riots"). By her personal account, her rage kicked in when a passerby flippantly answered that the owners had insurance. She was doubtlessly incensed by the question of "why," and in asking, she seems to have captured a lingering collective confusion about the disparity between the cause and the form of the riots. The affect of Pearce's scene was so resonant that the video went viral within hours. In her invective she can be found demanding to know what sense it made, if a man was wrongly shot elsewhere in England, for rioters to target what they did.

[11] In the event that sparked it all, police shot and killed 29-year old black man, Mark Duggan, near a rail station in Tottenham. Two days later, a group holding a candlelight vigil marched to the Tottenham police station in order to mourn his death and make authorities answer for killing yet another man of color. The crowd consisted of Duggan's family, friends, and other residents who peacefully chanted, "We want answers" as they camped out for hours waiting for dialogue with an officer about Duggan's death. A chief inspector is said to have promised them someone higher up, but a higher-ranking official never came (Laville et al.).

[12] Eyewitness accounts suggest a variety of beginnings to the initial rioting, but chaos broke loose when members of the crowd set police cars alight. By 11pm that night, which was the 6th of August, mayhem had spread and shop windows were smashed, buildings were set on fire, and looting was in full effect. "Shall I be honest?" 24-year old bystander Reeko Young said to The Guardian, "Fuck the Police" (Lewis). What proceeded from the evening's initial aggression escalated into a full-on looting extravaganza. In addition to setting supermarkets on fire, rioters made their way into Tottenham Hale Retail Park and took products and cash from its numerous corporate shopping outlets. Many other shopping districts were subject to the same, and when police were either scant or nowhere to be found, the Guardian reported, "it was left to residents to intervene." A column on August 7 read:

One man ... remonstrated with a group breaking into a Lidl supermarket after discovering his car had been reduced to a burnt-out shell.
"Don't fight, there's too many of them," his girlfriend shouted as four teenagers ran past boasting about their stolen G-Star jeans.
On the adjacent street, a young man who looked about 14 drove erratically around a back street in an apparently stolen Audi. [...]
"Murderers," shouted one man clutching a stereo as a police van drove past on Lordship Lane at around 3:45am. (Lewis)

The rioting and looting continued to spread through England for days, until August 10th. Police presence was increased to 16,000 officers, 5 people died, and nearly 4,000 people were arrested (Afshar et al.).

[13] Speculation about the riots' significance was tossed around in the media for weeks with no overarching conclusions---much less any consensus. In attempts by rioters and observers to explain the phenomenon, which they were sure symbolized some deeper turbulence, they cited an array of reasons. The murder of Mark Duggan was almost unanimously accepted as the spark. Like the events of the Brixton riots in 1981, Duggan's death symbolized the incessant police targeting and brutality toward people of color. The urban riots during the 1960s in US cities most often began with some kind of confrontation between police and an African-American man. But the spark being largely agreed upon, it was as if the answer to the question "But what are they saying?" continued to be sought in the form of the riots, echoing Pauline Pearce's bewilderment at why. The rioters are lashing out because of the austerity measures, some said -- the budget cuts in the public sector. And others, motioning toward the levels of unemployment, suggested that youth felt they had no jobs, no hope, and no future; "[Is there] hope for UK's lost generation" (Dunningham)? Among other explanations, conservative critics pinned fault onto bad parenting, gangs, and failure of education, privatizing the onus not only onto the individual but onto the family.

[14] In the absence of an overall narrative, the reaction seemed simply to be: stumped. The mishmash of reasons projected onto the tabula rasa of the riots had a lingering air of being contrived; the scenes of "thugs" stealing Audis and designer clothes while yelling "Murderers" seemed too absurd and incongruous to interpret. Shortly after the upheaval, to abate such confusion, the Guardian launched an investigation modeled after a study of the Detroit Riots in 1967, fittingly titled "Reading the Riots" in keeping with the riot as speech act. "Why did it happen?" an introductory video asked. "Four months on, no one seems to know exactly why the riots that began here in Tottenham spread across England" (Afshar et al.). The necessity of the study and the repetitive, central question of "why" serve to evidence that sensations of incoherence were widespread.

[15] One "Reading the Riots" article in particular attempted to pinpoint the reason for such incoherence by suggesting that the 2011 UK riots constituted a new kind of riot. They bore resemblance to previous riots, the piece stated,

but with approximately 2,500 shops and businesses looted, and insurance claims in London alone likely to reach £300m, the scale of the looting in August this year, and the fact that some of the disturbances seem primarily to have involved looting rather than other forms of protest or criminality, separates them from previous experiences. (Newburn, Lewis, and Metcalf)

[16] Looting in a riot is not unheard of, but something about the dynamics in August seemed different. Official data showed that of the total 3,927 arrests related to the August disturbances, 2,298 were charges for acquisitive crime (burglary, theft, handling/receiving stolen goods, etc.), the majority targeting retail shops. [2] While many operated with the knowledge of a riot as a fed-up revolutionary motion, local and international onlookers watched the UK riots unfold with remarkable emphasis on consumption---from brand name looting to destroying and burning things for the sake of snapping digital photos. It seems that looting itself was the disjuncture, complicating any coherence between cause and form. For example, Pauline Pearce indignantly told people in the street that night to "Get it real black people. Get real. If we're fighting for a cause let's fight for a fucking cause. [...] 'Cause we're not all gathering together and fighting for a cause, we're running down Footlocker and thieving shoes" ("London Riots"). An awe-inspiring fanaticism on the part of the looters seemed to come through in CCTV videos of them pouring out of corporate shops hoisting armfuls of goods. The phenomenon of the riots was motioning toward something deeply wrong, many agreed, but in the expression the riots took---which looked to many like tactless greed and property destruction---was the unease merely written off? Was it simply rendered unintelligible, blamed on problem individuals, and cast aside?

[17] Of the many reactions to the looting, this was the approach taken by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. More precisely, Cameron was a spokesperson for official discourse at the time that denied the riots' relation to Duggan's death. In his famous "public disorder statement" to Parliament on the 11th, he railed against opportunist thugs for using Duggan's death as an excuse to loot. "It is completely wrong to say that there is any justifiable, causal link," he fumed. "The young people stealing flat screen televisions and burning shops---that was not about politics or protest---it was about theft." He condemned "thuggery" to a unison of "yeaaaahhhs" from disgruntled Parliament, but he ended by hinting that the meaninglessness of the riots reflected the affective state of England:

Responsibility for crime always lies with the criminal...but crime has a context, and we must not shy away from it. I've said before that there is a major problem in our society, with children not knowing the difference between right and wrong. This is not about poverty; it is about culture. [...] We need to show the world which has looked on, frankly appalled ... that we will address our our broken society, we will restore a sense of stronger morality. ("Riots")

Cameron was honing in on an air of purposelessness, as he was unable to locate reasons in anything other than the rioters' desire to consume and destroy.

[18] While it is true that such conclusions might be expected from conservative figures like Cameron, he and others in Parliament were not the only ones. At what many regard as the opposite end of the political spectrum, communist theorist Slavoj Žižek echoed Cameron's sense of purposelessness when he declared that the UK rioters had no message to deliver. "This was a zero-degree protest," he wrote in the London Review of Books, "a violent action demanding nothing. In their desperate attempt to find meaning in the riots, the sociologists and editorial-writers obfuscated the enigma the riots presented." He continued:

The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren't living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organize [sic] themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit . . . (Žižek)

In other words, like Cameron, Žižek suggested that the lack of a message bespoke collective affective conditions. But in contrast to Cameron's focus on criminality, Žižek utilized sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's response to characterize the looting as acts of "defective and disqualified consumers" (Bauman). Being underprivileged as they were, Bauman's logic read, looting is what happens when people cannot fulfill their consumerist desire by shopping---the "natural," acceptable way. Žižek admitted that there is revolt to be found in this twisted consumerism, however; as its ironic posture is, "You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly—so here we are doing it the only way we can" (Žižek)! A strong parallel between rioters and graffiti writers can be found here: in the same way that the looters' response can be read as, "You want us to shop? Watch us do it," writers similarly respond to elite establishments by saying, "So you want us to 'make a name' for ourselves? We will – all over the walls of your city." But this quasi-shopping rebellion also resembles a mentality the internationally renowned street artist Banksy once mocked: "We can't do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves" (Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall). Traces of Žižek and Bauman's description of the rioters' will-to-shop is further echoed in the Guardian's interviews with over 270 rioters. "It felt like Christmas come early," one interviewee remembered. "When you get a chance to put your hands on things like that you feel good" (Afshar et al.). Indeed, these positions maintain that looting was only a sensible response to exclusion from the marketplace.

[19] While Cameron and Žižek at least partly agreed that the looting undermined potential for a political statement, Cameron only insisted on the rioters' criminality. Žižek and Bauman espoused a more sympathetic stance toward the looting, as if to say, "What do you expect?" while simultaneously, as critics Joshua Clover and Jasper Bernes have noted, animating rioters with a type of false consciousness. But yet a third response to the looting remained, neither overly hostile nor reflexively sympathetic. For even after explanations like unemployment, austerity cuts, and Duggan's death, much of the public seemed insatiable. In attempts to answer a needling why, all many could piece together was "We made international news and set police cars on fire to declare our rights to G-star jeans and Audis?" In the riots that Žižek described as fits of "impotent rage," it was as if the participants demonstrated their full internalization of the logic that their only strength lies in their buying power: an extension of the incitement to "speak" through consumer choices (and reminiscent of George W. Bush's infamous response to the 9/11 attacks: Go Shop [Terkel]). You don't like something a corporation is doing? Don't buy their products, reads the logic of ethical buying and the consumer boycott. Thus now, the only "voice" many think they have is in their purchasing practices, and if one is not purchasing, but rather stealing, is that not the loudest statement of all?

From Communal Riot to Commodity Riot, and Beyond

[20] Toward the end of 2011 a riot broke out at a mall in Michigan. It began while a crowd of hundreds waited in line for the new Nike Air Jordan basketball shoe and members of the crowd made their way in early through shop doors (Komer). A mall worker told The News Herald she had never seen anything like it, but I offer this instance precisely because it and many others at commercial shops around the world bear striking resemblance to the England riots in August. Journalist Andy Beckett reported that on the night of August 7th, while the Foot Locker sign in Brixton continued to glow, looters moved in and out of the broken windows carrying boxes of trainers. And the central point I would like to raise about this is that while companies undoubtedly suffer damage, paradoxically it often arrives for them as a positive sign. "In one sense," Beckett wrote, "mobs of looters at your stores sends the same message as mobs of shoppers: people are desperate for your goods." The executive chairman of another sportswear company and the fourth most popular shop looted in August 2011-- JD Sports--told the BBC that his loss from the UK riots was of course significant, but it was also a favorable prognostic. "As the riots showed, there is a strong demand for our products on the high street" ("Jd Sports").

[21] It is worth mentioning that looting, of course, is not new. What is relatively new, however, is what has come to be known as the "commodity riot," which is a term increasingly used to describe riots since the 1960s (Herman 75). The urban riots during the sixties marked a shift from interpersonal violence (often between black and white civilians) in the early 1900s to attacks on property, wherein the interpersonal violence mostly played out between black and other ethnic minorities versus predominantly white law enforcement. Contextualized by the civil rights movement, black power, and civil disobedience in that decade, the turn to the commodity riot from the 1960s onward can be understood as people of color striking out with renewed confidence against the values of a white, racist culture: primarily the value of private property, and an attack executed through arson, vandalism, and looting.

[22] Responding to this shift in riots, two scholars published an analysis of "What looting in civil disturbances really means" in 1968. They proposed that looting takes place during both natural disasters and civil unrest, with looting in times of natural disaster being more rare and looting during civil unrest being more frequent and "selective, focusing on particular types of goods or possessions, often symbolic of other values" (Dynes and Quarantelli 9-14). They concluded that similarity between the two anomic situations lay in the temporary suspension of the property relation; the anomie in a mass looting can be euphoric because it functions as a window into a time where property is differently defined. Such a "carnival spirit" can certainly be witnessed in the UK riots, and through the above analysis, looting can be read as the anti-establishment message many of the UK rioters meant to convey.

[23] However, the commodity riot has continued to evolve past its 1960s iterations. As capitalism plowed on and neoliberal economic policies rearranged the structure of daily life, the latter half of the 20th and 21st centuries became familiar not only with privatization and the deterritorialized corporation but also with mass looting of private businesses and corporate stores. If the events of August 2011 "seemed different," then, it is in part due to their inclusion in this historical procession. They perhaps represented a heightened escalation of the commodity riot, more visible because the "people"/corporations they are stealing from are also bigger, brighter, and more visible. With occurrences like the Nike stampede on the rise, situations like the UK riots are growing remarkably blurred with events like the Black Friday Wal-Mart riots of 2011 [3], taking the term "commodity riot" to a whole new level. One finding their commonality, as Andy Beckett observed, in a "desperation" for consumer products.

[24] Historical manifestations of riots can be viewed as "market feelings," or at least institution feelings: the Flour Riot of 1837, for example, the Attica Prison Riot in 1971, or the WTO protests in 1999. One scholar has written that such upheavals in the 18th and 19th centuries "effectively communicated the desires of a segment of the urban population to the elite" (Dynes and Quarantelli). But the August riots of 2011, in their resemblance to frenzied shopping stampedes, raised questions about whether they, as a speech act, sent the anti-establishment message on which many of the rioters fell back. "This is our paypack," said one rioter to SkyNews. But if we read the riots as market feelings, what were the rioters' feelings toward the market in the UK – an embrace? What desires were communicated to the elite? Subversive energy abounds in the riots – it is found in the Guardian interviews citing police brutality and poverty, and it can be seen in the disaffection used to kick through corporate windows -- but my concern is for what the riots said about public demand for the contents of these stores, and by extension, for the system they represent. Do the riots translate into, instead of desire for dissolving this system, desire for this system? What does it mean when your revolt turns a profit, and what happens when your resentment is their success?

[25] These questions get at my unidentifiable suspicion of the England riots that afternoon in the Living Walls audience. As I mentioned, a similar enigmatic thread was running through the two concurrent events, and by analyzing the UK riots we are able to locate a similar shift in the evolution of graffiti. I suggest that strong parallels exist between the commodity riot as it manifests today and urban art initiatives sprouting up in the US, but in order to draw upon the similarities, I would first like to characterize Living Walls, The City Speaks.

Living Walls, The (Property Owners) Speak

[26] Across the Atlantic, the same week England rioted, international street artists convened in the city of Atlanta. Living Walls was holding its event "on street art and urbanism" for the second year. When questioned about the conference's origins during its inaugural year in 2010, one of the founders explained to the local arts weekly Creative Loafing that he "couldn't stop thinking about public spaces, art, and urban development. Looking at the city through the lens of graffiti," he continued, "that's really where [the Living Walls] concept came from." In an article previewing the 2010 conference, Creative Loafing reported:

As the conference evolved, the topic of urban development and the open consideration of public spaces became increasingly crucial to explore. Atlanta is a hotspot for this discussion. In May, the CNU 18, a conference on New Urbanism, selected Atlanta for its annual get-together. But many of those who would benefit from the discourse were turned off by the $300-per-day cost. Inspired by the notion that people other than wealthy architects and urban planners should lend a hand in shaping their environment, Living Walls organizers put the conference together as a more accessible answer to the CNU 18. (Blankenship)

The narrative of the conference was that of nurturing a counter-culture---their very own "disidentification," of sorts, with the CNU 18.

[27] In keeping with the anti-state, anti-establishment attitude of many graffiti writers, a couple of lecturers at the 2010 conference showed photos of South American graffiti reading contra la capital guerra (against the war of capital) and emphasized that when doing street art, one should go through unofficial means. Connotations with "culture-jamming," a practice made popular by the anti-globalization movement in the 1990s, remained standing. Jason Eppink, an energized New York City street artist, gave a presentation celebrating transgression and praised tricksters and street artists as "urban interventionists." He showed video footage of his so-called pranks in NYC, one of the most popular projects being "The Pixelator"--a large piece of frosty foam board he installed over video billboards in NYC transit stations. Of this work Eppink says, "Pixelator is an unauthorized on-going video art performance collaboration with the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), CBS Outdoor, and its selected artists." His website description of The Pixelator playfully quips:

In an attempt to broaden the scope of MTA's video art series, Pixelator takes video pieces currently on display [advertisements] and diffuses them into a pleasant array of 45 blinking, color-changing squares. (Eppink)

The end results are outdoor video screens that are completely covered up but whose colors still show through the translucent material. Eppink's number one directive at the lecture series that year was Don't Ask Permission: a direct echo of Banksy's sentiment that "Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head" (Wall and Piece 160).

[28] One year later, on August 11, 2011, David Cameron riled Parliament at the same moment artists painted walls for the second year of the conference. The narrative surrounding LW still maintained that the conference was about "street art" and "public space," but in a seemingly inconsistent move given what Living Walls was reputedly all about, designers of the 2011 conference went about procuring walls on the sides of businesses, bars, shops, and recreation centers. And the undergirding fact in plain view but completely absent from analysis in alternative media, public discourse, and street art blogs was that every single wall was approved by property owners, business owners, or city officials. Living Walls actually obtained approval from governments like the City of Decatur and coordinated with owners of private property about where, what, and under which conditions they could or could not paint.

[29] To further illustrate the relationship between the conference and hegemonic power structures, let us look closely at one particular tangle with a local government. The owner of a building at 302 E. Howard Ave., Bruce Cohen, approved the joint painting of two artists: one from South Africa and the other from Argentina. The end result was a vibrant, expansive piece borne of the two artists' collaboration, but a few (primarily white, affluent) neighborhood residents took issue with the outdoor painting, which depicted large figures of non-white South African and Argentinean origin, and claimed the aesthetic did not "represent" Decatur. They channeled their dissatisfactions through the outlet of it being on an officially designated historic building, and for all the complaints and inquiries of the neighborhood residents, explanation as to the wall's justification was scheduled at the next public meeting held by the city. As an attendee of the meeting, I quickly learned that the person speaking to the committee on behalf of the paintings, ironically, was Assistant City Manager of Community and Economic Development, Lyn Menne. She explained that the painting was not under threat because the property owner gave permission, and she clarified that it was only paint, which the preservation committee had no power to regulate. Menne's purpose was to defend the painting, disperse any confusion held by the public, and to dismiss any wild ideas about the contingency of the painting. The Decatur residents were out of luck: the painting was protected through the private property relation and city government.

[30] But as Menne rested her case---this city manager speaking on behalf of a street art conference, seemingly the conference of "Not Asking Permission"---city officials continued to ask questions about the logistics of the painting. They were surprised to see the work go up as early as it did. "How long will the paintings stay up?" they asked. Will we be informed of plans ahead of time in the future so that we can review them? Menne responded that that was not really their concern, which was instead the property owner's, but that they should be assured of nothing offensive or profane in future murals' content. Offering the naysayers a bright side to the unwelcome paintings, she appealed to the board by saying that what these artworks do, in effect, is deter other unwanted graffiti from appearing on the walls. This seemed to be a positive aspect to all, something beneficial about having enabled the conference. Board members nodded in approval.

[31] What Menne gave the committee is legible as a naked admission on part of the government: this partnership is a subtle way of controlling the very things that seek to destroy us. If graffiti is historically known as an affront to state power, private property, and the signs of powerful institutions, the mutual embrace of the conference and those in power is a wholesale integration into the capitalist state. The state accepts and facilitates innocuous public art and thus maintains a collection of "acceptabilities": this hybrid "urban art" is acceptable but the useless scribbles of "hooligans" are not. Additionally, whether it is the city seeking to control it or the property owner, we would be remiss in denying that the content is at issue. From the design to its placement to its implications, approval ultimately lies in the hands of the property owners, even if they remain relatively hands-off. What results is a symbiotic relationship between street art and systems of government; as Baudrillard put it, they "exchange their privileges" (Symbolic Exchange 124). Graffiti artists gain "legitimacy" and a spot in the world of high art, while neoliberal government gains a cultured life, an aesthetic boost for its city and its shop, and a way to control the marks that dismantle it.

[32] Criticisms of Living Walls' partnerships with power structures fall into two increasingly blurred categories. First, as described above, for the art in locales that may indeed be "public," hefty portions of it were authorized by city government, which marks the shift from illegal graffiti/street art to murals. Use of the term "mural" has significantly increased in LW since 2010, but the language of "street art" and anti-establishment tones are still largely present. Second, the remaining walls described as "public" are in not in fact public at all. This is one of the most enduring mysteries of Living Walls. Their mission statement as of March 2012 read: "Living Walls seeks to promote, educate, and change perspectives toward public space in our communities via street art" ("Living Walls Announces"). But plenty of the walls were obtained through deliberation with private owners and therefore "live" on private buildings, negating the validity of claims to street art, graffiti, and public space. This rhetoric of "public space" is not only in regard to the walls, however, and is found throughout the makeup of LW itself.

[33] Discrepancy between Living Walls' insistence on public space and the privatized locales the projects actually inhabit is further evident at the conference's lecture series. During a panel reserved for the discussion of "alternative uses of public spaces," a representative of Atlanta's Flux Projects gave a presentation. Flux describes itself as an organization that "supports artists in creating innovative temporary public art throughout Atlanta" ("Flux Projects"). But one of the most prominently focused-upon projects in their presentation was an installation in the middle of Lenox Square Mall. Somehow a massive private building whose central focus is that of commerce---"the Southeast's premiere shopping destination," to be exact ---was conflated with public space. But more incisively, perhaps it is no wonder at all. The signifier "public space" in the contexts of Flux and LW means nothing except perhaps "within eyesight" or "outside of a domestic living arrangement"---it has nothing to do with the definition of public as something intentionally demarcated outside the profit motive. Nothing to do with a physical space that equally belongs to all. [4]

[34] Through this conference's ingratiation with power structures, what we witness is not only the taming of graffiti/street art but a total dislocation of its mode and significance. Where it is illegal and therefore confrontational, graffiti is a direct rejection of power structures, an effective "Fuck the Police." But where it begs permission, the subversive premise is debased. The UK riots showed the trajectory of the commodity riot from the 1960s, and Living Walls similarly shows us how graffiti has evolved past the 20th century. Writing was a movement that erupted as an affront, an interruption, and a mechanism of disidentifying, in a way that parallels the commodity riot's attack on private property. Because writing was illegal and uncontrollable, sociologists, government officials, and gallery owners have attempted to direct it into acceptable channels as early as 1972. As a result of these efforts, I suggest that manifestations of graffiti have increasingly integrated into dominant frameworks as the 20th century turned into the 21st. But what I am most interested in underlining about this shift is the way these manifestations still utilize the revolutionary connotations of illegal writing even as they arrange commissions with the state. Living Walls belongs to a genre of urban art initiatives that includes the Wynwood Walls project in Miami and Open Walls Baltimore---both of which are large scale, legal mural projects that tout a "commitment to graffiti" ("About Wynwood Walls") and use subversive rhetoric to give an edge to urban revitalizations. In this way, graffiti's revolutionary energy is utilized for the processes of neoliberalization, and many of the world's biggest names in graffiti are complicit. This integration can be seen in a final example, perhaps the most telling since 2011. Three writers accepted a commission for a "graffiti mural" inside the World Financial Center in March 2012 (Liana). The company who offered the commission was none other than Brookfield Office Properties: the same company who owned Zucotti Park -- the first site of the Occupy Wall Street movement – and the same company who forced the protesters out. It so happens that co-optations come in the form of opportunity.

[35] In conclusion, it is important to note that a couple of street artists at Living Walls 2011 did sing praise for the illegality of street art, as well as a few artists "threw up" uncomissioned and illegal pieces around the city on their own time, separate from the conference as a whole. But while many at the lecture series that afternoon momentarily agreed that traditional street art should be illegal, the resounding notion of the majority was that legitimization of street art, via gallery shows and legal commissions, was a good thing. "It felt natural to me," one artist said, "I didn't dwell on it." Transition from the street to the gallery and legal works felt like a seamless extension of the same thing.

[36] A panelist at the conference, in passing, quoted Marshall McLuhan and said, "The medium is the message." If taken in an abstract way his statement is quite profound. If the street art is (per)missioned, this is the medium, this is the message. Street art is de facto depoliticized, or perhaps transpoliticized, as it is integrated into the state and the market. The mission of Living Walls and other hybrid urban art initiatives becomes that of "beautifying the city," which is not to be discarded, but it is worlds apart from the spirit of revolt that gave the conference its halo. In the end, the form of ostensibly subversive movements becomes indistinguishable from that of dominant culture in such integrations, and our culture's "creatives" no longer critique the profit motive, they partner with it.

Conclusion: "A Spirit of Revolt Without Revolution" (Žižek)

[37] What we are witnessing (while being a part of) is a time when the very acts thought to counter hegemonic institutions, serve to reify them. In the displays of wanting for consumer goods, the UK looters reassured "the 1%" of the success of the free market; the riots were interpreted by CEOs like product ratings, like an embodied poll. Or they at least assured them of a certain version of success: that their products are most desirable. In the same way the looters benefit the market by expressing desire for it, graffiti artists benefit the state by becoming its partner. The city official's admission at the municipal meeting can be likened to the remarks made by the executive of JD Sports: the former a case in the public sector and the latter a case in the private. Murals provide a buffer between the state and uncontrollable graffiti marks, preserve the official governmental aesthetic, and strengthen the state. The ostensibly rebellious practice of making street art is used to benefit the private sector as well, as artists accept commissions from property owners hoping to add value to their businesses, boost their real estate, and stop illegal tags upon their walls. We are fully planted in a time when resistance is co-opted, folded into capital, and rendered harmless. Situations like the England riots and Living Walls ride the waves of their predecessors' revolutionary connotations; like the floating signifiers, which hold no meaning, they seem stylistic. But even before someone trademarks and stamps a slogan from the latest peoples movement onto a t-shirt, many so-called rebellions bear an already-resemblance to the systems they allegedly oppose. The actors in the UK riots and Living Walls utilize and exhibit the same characteristics capitalist governmentality has conditioned in them. Gilles Deleuze wrote that capitalist schizzes are often indistinguishable from the revolutionary schizzes (qtd. in Selected Writings 127). This is precisely the difficulty of the present moment.

[38] Such folding in by official programs and capital has often been known as "recuperation," but rather than the term "recuperate," which carries connotations of healing and recovery and therefore presents the situation from power's position, I prefer philosopher Brian Massumi's term "adaptational capture." He writes that forms of existence and resistance are indeed hijacked, but that capitalist power is such that the hijacking is often predetermined. Resistances are contorted, re-determined, and co-opted by capital to feed capital, but there is also an element of them already feeding it. He writes:

Every socialized class is a potential market. Reproductive capitalist power is directly a market expansion tool and conversely, every market expansion tool is directly a form of capitalist power. [...] Social emergence, the irruption of new forces of existence, are precapitalized. In other words, the power to exist has been transformed into an internal variable of the capitalist supersystem. This subsumption of life itself under capital is expressed in different ways on many levels. (Massumi 53)

Our modes of living are already subsumed by biopolitical systems, and the same is true of our desires. We are already-embodiments of adaptational capture inasmuch as our revolt takes the form of the apparatuses and modes we claim to resist.

[39] Nothing illustrates adaptational capture more poignantly than a piece penned by a group calling itself Recreational Data. Three months after the riots, a mysterious document entitled "Currency Zones of the Future" circulated at the Frieze Art Fair in London. The report was authored by a self-described "futures agency" specializing in marketing strategies for the "post-collapse marketplace" (Recreational Data). The report takes as a given widespread disillusionment with consumerism and the brand, so it appeals to companies by assuring them that there are ways, instead of capitulating to the global economic crisis or the downfall of capitalism, to create niche markets out of disillusioned populations. The report is so keen to marketing jargon that it nearly masquerades as a real agency instead of the experiment/art project it actually is. But the underhanded mockery made of marketing and the anti-capitalist wit become increasingly evident as the report goes on. "In this climate, the post-crisis consumer has a changed subjectivity in her relationship with consumer goods," the faux report reads. It then advises how companies might "[dominate] the market [by] dominating the psychological landscape of the ":

Borne upon a wave of social and civil unrest beginning autumn/winter 2010, the emergence of an autonomist-influenced super-class of young radical is quickly becoming a defining figure [...]. Tech-aware, university graduated, frequently underemployed or engaged in precarious labor, this group distinguishes itself by a self-conscious rejection of the culture industry and the mechanisms of desire-building.

The state may be forced to interact with the looter and rioter as 'criminal,' but we may see the looter in terms of potential: as market-modifier and as trend-broadcaster. Brand-security is over-rated; a shifting, precarious brand challenges the impression of hegemony. Linking the (supposed) rejection of the culture and fashion industries of the young cognitarian with the rejection of social norms and desperate wildness of the feral youth produces indispensable credibility.

Proletarian shopping is looting and shoplifting. As an entrypoint to the demographic, this is second to none; shoplifted goods add integrity and veracity to the wearer within the subculture. That integrity passes on to the brand; cultural and social capital operate as a feedback loop. (Recreational Data 45-52)

Through mimesis, the document catches the market in the act of co-opting the "supposed rejections" of anti-establishment youth, but it also seizes on looting and shoplifting as instances which are already captured: we already have them, they are already shopping. The report even appropriates "precarity" for the post-collapse marketer; it suggests companies usurp the sense of instability characterizing life for many in an era of economic crisis and late capitalism. The faux marketing manual "Currency Zones of the Future" is so compelling because in its blurring of a financial report and an art project, it successfully analogizes the convergence of dominant systems and acts of resistance. It encourages actors like writers and rioters to consider their own participation in adaptational capture.

[40] It is not difficult to defend the looters or to imagine oneself in their position (if we are not already). Given the thrill of an anomic moment when social norms no longer apply, combined with the thrill of a new electronic device or pair of shoes, many would be faced with the question of doing the same. (Such a question has strong parallels for the co-optation of graffiti, as well: two writers in the 1980s asked, "What writer, if given the option of painting trains without the fear of getting caught or buffed, could refuse" [Austin 268]?) The market is central to identity formation in late capitalism. Products are a means to sociality, respect, and confidence, and when we are denied them, are unable to attain them, or we are simply nonconforming, the affective result is shame. Lauren Berlant, in paraphrasing Eve Sedgwick, said, "Oppression works through shaming" (Najafi, Serlin, and Berlant). And for this reason, in asking questions about the revolutionary significance of the UK riots and Living Walls, we face delicate and complex questions that are not best served within the binary of hegemonic vs. subversive.

[41] In order to loosen up such binary conceptions, I would like to bring in theorist and University of California professor Rei Terada's work on free speech and protest in the UC university system. Her analysis of free speech in "Out of Place: Free Speech, Disruption, and Student Protest" is applicable to both the riots and graffiti through their classifications as speech acts. When she utilizes Foucault's work on parrhesia (fearless speech), Terada writes that Foucault differentiated "fearless speech" from instances of "merely taking up space or 'ignorant outspokenness'" (263-5). The former must say "something dangerous—something different than what the majority believes," while "ignorant outspokenness" can be likened to the form of riots (what Žižek deemed "irrational outbursts"). But fearless speech, she writes, "does and should have difficulty discounting the free quality of, indeed, merely claiming space by 'ignorant outspokenness.' If we try to [discount it], we risk excluding those whose political content is 'incompetent' (à la Rancière) simply because it is as yet unintelligible" (Terada 263-5). With this I wish to leave open the possibility of regarding the form of the riots as something not-yet-intelligible. Is shoplifting en masse considered fearless speech in the contemporary context? Can the looting in England still be described as attacks on property? To what degree is anti-consumerism even still relevant, and what would it look like for "the generation of Coca-Cola and Marx"?

[42] Bearing this in mind, my concern ultimately remains with the way both the riots and the conference keep dominant institutions at the center. We experience ourselves as legitimized from commercial products and official programs, and this holds true even for our alleged acts of resistance. Contrary to Bernes and Clover's assertion that the riots were a time-space "free from the discipline of the market, the wage and commodity" (Bernes and Clover), the rioters sought legitimization through participation in the marketplace just as writers sought legitimization from the state. But to evoke Berlant once more, if oppression works through shaming, "shamelessness as a political tactic might also perform freedom ... the freedom to give up getting legitimacy in normal terms" (Najafi, Serlin, and Berlant). What would it mean to de-center powerful institutions as the granters of legitimization? How might we perform shamelessness in our everyday lives? What would it look like, in Terada's words, to "turn away from recognizing the institutions that maintain the present unfreedom and instead to explore thought, speech, and acts addressed, not to them, but to protesters, workers, and other communities" (263-5)?

[43] If upheavals are thought to communicate desire, then asking which desires are sent in our speech acts is asking the question about the upshot of the ways we resist. Baudrillard suggests that a location of capture has been through signs and terms. Indeed, "community" is the same descriptor used in the rhetoric of the conference as well as a new set of condominiums going up over a shopping village. Likewise, Barnes & Noble markets itself as "a center for cultural events and gatherings" (Klein 183), which could just as well be an event description for aforementioned Flux Projects. Words like "community," "creativity," "culture," and "public" have been pulverized to a soggy waste. They are catchall terms used to sell us fantasies of things that have grown increasingly difficult to find in a capitalist landscape. And when the language that describes values is superfluous, co-opted, and used as descriptors for everything in sight, we increasingly find values themselves dislocated. Language, inasmuch as it shapes reality, is a primary site of resistance.

[44] In conclusion, perhaps the question of resistance is, "In what direction is it heading?" To be effective in our interruptions entails following our resistances and being poised so that the folding in of capital might not be so subtle we miss our own participation. It entails, perhaps, a certain way of being present. If a site of adaptational capture is language, might we search for the exact terms we want to use, be willing to retire those we find co-opted or non-resonant, and perpetually find new ways to describe? A rupture requires intervention at the subjective level in the ways we are managed -- affectively and internally – at the same time that it must operate within the collective. Finally, as Gilles Deleuze said, "What is it that moves over the body of a society? It is always flows, and a person is always a cutting off (coupure) of a flow. A person is always a point of departure for the production of a flow, a point of destination for the reception of a flow, a flow of any kind; or, better yet, an interception of many flows" (Deleuze 1971). And for the redirection of a flow, there must be an ongoing series of interruptions. Not ones that reiterate, but ones that obstruct the patterns of being owned.


[1] Living Walls announced its official nonprofit status with the State of Georgia on February 29, 2012.

[2] See the UK Home Office report, "An Overview of Recorded Crimes and Arrests Resulting from Disorder Events in August 2011." 24 Oct. 2011. «»

[3] Stampedes at Wal-Marts across the U.S. made national news in 2011. A Black Friday shopper at a megastore in San Fernando Valley, California, used pepper spray to fend off nearby shoppers, while viral videos of other violent and chaotic Black Friday instances circulated online. The most infamous story of Black Friday at Wal-Mart is perhaps that of an employee who was trampled at a Long Island store in 2008, an incident ultimately resulting in his death. See: Hubbard, Amy. "Wal-Mart's Unhappy Holiday Tradition: Black Friday Violence." Los Angeles Times 25 Nov. 2011.

[4] For clarity's sake, this conflation is not limited to Flux or Living Walls, as it is well documented that the public sector and its services have been losing ground. The decision to feature art projects in the dead center of Lenox Square Mall is reminiscent of the common modern sentiment that the mall has substituted for the town square. A drastic difference being, as journalist Naomi Klein has said, that "unlike the old town squares, which were and still are sites for community discussion, protests, and political rallies, the only type of speech that is welcome here is marketing and other consumer patter." (For discussions on public and private space, see Naomi Klein, No Logo. New York: Picador, 2002.) Indeed, Lenox Mall allows no protests, flyer distribution, congregation in storefronts, and no video or film. Furthermore, the mall's official rhetoric makes no attempt to shroud the reality of its non-free speech zone. Private property laws always take priority over free speech. So while the loss of significance from the term "public" is not particular to Atlanta's art events, they show few attempts to imbue it anew.

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