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MEDIA@LSE Electronic MSc Dissertation Series
Compiled by Bart Cammaerts, Nick Anstead and Ruth Garland
Tensions in Urban Street Art: a Visual Analysis
of the Online Media Coverage of Banksy Slave
MSc in Global Media and Communications
Other dissertations of the series are available online here:
Dissertation submitted to the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, August 2013, in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the MSc in Media, Communication and Development. Supervised by Dr Myria Georgiou.
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MSc Dissertation of Elisabetta Crovara Tensions in Urban Street Art A Visual Analysis of the Online Media Coverage of Banksy Slave Labour Elisabetta Crovara ABSTRACT The controversial removal of Banksy’s street arts, “Slave Labour” in February and “No Ball Games” in July 2013, from the walls of North London, was followed by a public outcry attracting the attentions of the major media outlets. By comprehensively exploring notions of culture and creativity in the city, the field of urban studies offers a constructive framework able to shed light on these events. After a theoretical overview of creative cities and city branding, this research will sharpen its focus to “Banksy Slave Labour” case as an example of how the contentious debate surrounding street art can be understood within the notion of urban marketing and creativity. Thus, a research question is posed: “how are tensions underlying practices of street art represented in the British online media coverage of ‘Banksy Slave Labour’ case study?” To answer this question, a visual semiotic and discourse analysis is applied to four videos and one slideshow from British National and local online newspapers. The denotativeand then connotative/discourse investigation of the data collected leads to the following results. First, there is confusion in both terminology and legality of urban street art and graffiti practices. Second, the media representation suggests that the councils and the local residents do not consider street art as a tool for city branding but as a form of art embedded in the every day life and the identity of the artists and communities. I conclude by suggesting that additional paths of investigation on the role of street art in urban environments could shed further light on the tensions underlying this practice and potentially indicate viable solutions. Such research, I argue, is the conditio sine qua non to the delineation of urban policies that could foster a mutually satisfying environment for street art and policy makers.
In recent times, we can observe a lively media debate regarding street art in London.
Particular attention has been given to the removal of two artworks, “Slave Labour” and “No Ball Games,” belonging to the famous Bristol-born street artist, Banksy. The first piece, removed from a wall in Wood Green (London), has been auctioned and subsequently sold;
the second, is still held by the London based auction house Sincura Group. In both cases, the prospect of an auction has triggered large protests and campaigns (for example: “Bring Back our Banksy” by the Haringey Council in Wood Green) organised by local residents. In response, UK as well as London-based media covered this news extensively, giving rise to a debate relating to the legality of the removal and sale of the pieces as well as the legality of the practice of graffiti/street art itself.
Defined by Scachter (2008: 35) as one of the “most ubiquitous sources of visual culture in the contemporary urban metropolis”, street art and graffiti have also been at the centre of a contentious academic debate. Scachter himself, for example, introduced his investigation into the “production, consumption and destruction of street art in London” (2008: 36) by asking whether graffiti and street art are “art or vandalism.” Furthermore, the same question is
suggested in Cronin’s paper on “Resistance and the Vernacular Outdoor Advertising” (2008:
65) and McAuliffe’s (2012), “Graffiti or street art? Negotiating the moral geographies of the creative city”. The latter, in particular, argues that “the rise of creative cities discourses…has afforded the opportunity to rethink how creative practices of graffiti writers and street artists are valued” (ibid: 189).
However, this affirmation suggests questioning if and to what extent the so-called “creative cities” fully permit and promote practices of graffiti and street art.
With the aim of avoiding a categorical “yes”/”no” answer, it is crucial to investigate how street art and graffiti are considered in London. Particularly useful is to explore (a) the definition of these objects of contention (graffiti or street art?) and the resulting legal
problems; (b) are graffiti/street art legal or illegal practices? and (c) is it legal or illegal to remove, and eventually sell, them?
As evidenced above, 2013 British online media coverage offers a fertile soil to investigate this field and potentially clarify these problems. In fact, by analysing the online media coverage on the “Banksy Slave Labour” removal from Wood Green, the main aim of this research will be the investigation of the representation of tensions underlying urban street art and graffiti.
Such a careful description, I argue, is the condition sine qua non to the delineation of urban policies that could foster a mutually satisfying environment for both street art and policy makers.
In order to contextualize this case study, several theories will be introduced Theories and Concepts section. In particular, after a brief overview on the classical approaches to urban theory, as well as the postmodern ones, the notions of culture and creativity in the city will be discussed. After presenting Richard Florida (2002) work “The rise of the creative class” countered by Andy Pratt (2011) in his article “The cultural contradiction of the creative city”, the discussion will focus on the tensions between perspectives on culture which support city branding strategies and others “aimed at supporting, improving or reflecting communities and their shared… understanding” (Cochrane, 2007: 117). Urban graffiti and street art are pragmatic examples of the tensions embedded in the notion of urban culture. Indeed, the specific case of “Banksy Slave Labour,” will be investigated by conducting a visual analysis of the video news published on British (national and local) online media (including Mail Online, The Guardian, The Telegraph, BBC online and The Evening Standard). Finally, the main findings will be discussed in view of the theories and concepts explored in the Theoretical Background section.
As the American sociologist Richard Sennett has observed, before the Industrial Revolution, academics considered cities to be a mere mirror of the society itself and not as a field of study worthy of its own. However, due to the industrial development during the 19th century, the phenomenon of urbanization changed the approach to urban life. Human migration from rural to urban areas made cities larger centers, more populated and more heterogeneous.
Hence, become a composite and intricate space, cities were considered “something to be explored as a problem of itself, that could not be understood by the use of a few easy labels or categories” (Sennett, 1969: 4).
Urban theory was born to try to explore this new dimension of city life and spaces. However, as Hubbard (2006: 9) warns us, “the notion of theory is a complex one, and much misunderstood”. In fact, it is difficult to identify one single approach to the study of the city.
Urban theory is more as a set of ideas, deriving from different fields and backgrounds, such as physics, cultural studies, literary studies, psychology, politics, economics, sociology, criminology and history (ibid: 10). Indeed, the first classical schools of urban theory reveal different perspectives in the understanding of the city.
First, thinkers belonging to the so-called German School, including Max Weber and George Simmel (and later Oswald Spengler) (see Sennett, 1969) were respectively concerned with the ambivalent consequences of the “lack of identity” of the city dwellers (Hubbard, 2006: 20) and about the psychological adaptation necessary for urban life. Second, one of Simmel’s pupil, Robert Park, together with Ernest Burgess, funded the first established sociology department in the world, the University of Chicago Deparment of Anthropology and Sociology, which soon became synonymous with “urban sociology” (Hubbard, 2006: 25).
Their main contributions, still extremely influential today, are the employment of research methods such as participant observation and ethnographic technique aimed to investigate the life of “different social groups- or subcultures- existing on the margins of society” (ibid).
During the second half of the 20th century, the so-called “Marxist Urbanism” was introduced.
Including famous thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre (see for example, 1996), Manuel Castells
and David Harvey (see for example 1989b), the Marxist approach to urban studies was mainly based on the idea that “organization of space is fundamental in the reproduction of labor power (hence capitalism)” (Hubbard, 2006: 35). In other words, by considering “the built environment of the city [as] a social construct subjected to dominant power relations,
exploitation, and conflict always in play in capitalist social formations” (Eade & Mele, 2002:
5), Marxist urban theorists emphasize the power of the (capitalist) structure over the (city dwellers) agency. Therefore, they mainly adopted a political economic perspective, defining political economy as the “study of the social relations, particularly the power relations, that mutually constitute the production, distribution and consumption of resources” (Mosco, 2009: 62).
The Postmodern City
Years later, in the 1980s, during the so-called “Post-fordist” or “Postmodern” era (Lyotard, 1984; Harvey, 1989a) the Marxist human geographer David Harvey argued that the
pervading relativism of the world had a “disorienting and disruptive impact upon politicaleconomic practice [and on] the balance of class power, cultural and social life” (Harvey, 1989:
284). Therefore, the city, as the world, became a “liquid” reality (Bauman, 2000), and could not be studied anymore by solely drawing upon materialistic and economic dynamics.
Instead, the city started to be considered in its immaterial forms. For example, according to Miles et al. (2003: 3), the city is an “event” or a “performance,” while for Eade and Mele it is both a space of meaning and identity making and a text continually “re-interpreted and renegotiated by the citizens” (2002: 6). For Kevin Lynch, probably one of the most influential American urban planners and author, the main layer of analysis of the city was its “image” (1960). Indeed, as Donald (quoted in King, 1996: 1) puts it “the city is above all representation”.
David Harvey (1989a), in his analysis of the “condition of post-modernity”, understood the cruciality of the immaterial forms of the city. He merged the urban political economy perspective – which focus on the capitalistic structure of urban government and economyand the post-structural one – which focus on the “commodified signs, styles, metaphor and images” (Hubbard, 2006: 85) of the urban environment. In particular, post-structuralist approaches, such those as Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard, put emphasis on questions of language and representation to find a new way of understanding processes of place-making and space-making which intertwined both material and symbolic dynamics (ibid), such as cultural production and consumption. Indeed, according to Hill (2000: 54) “the postmodern
-6MSc Dissertation of Elisabetta Crovaracity is not [only] defined by its industrial base but by its consumerist environment of malls and museums, characterized by revivalist architecture and ‘heritage’ refurbishment”. This shift in urban theories has become known as the “cultural turn” (Eade & Mele, 2002;
Culture and The City
As Scott argued (2000), culture and place have always been tightly linked to each other.
However, if before culture was “narrowly place-bound” (ibid: 3), today, in a world where cultural flows are becoming more and more intense (Appadurai, 1990), culture reveals itself in the forms of globalized “events and experiences”. Moreover, “in the world of the globalized marketplace, cities have been discursively positioned in a wider competitive market” (Cochrane, 2007: 112). Aware of this global competitiveness, urban governments have understood the crucial role played by the image, namely the “brand” convey by the city environment. Hence, as David Harvey (1989b: 50) put it, urban governments have experienced a “shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism”. For example, they have started to be much more “innovative, exciting and creative” (ibid, emphasis added).