Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shepard Fairey and Tufts University

Appropriating appropriation and its consequences.

Shepard Fairey is an artist who has been pretty in the moment recently. From an early mid-career retrospective at the Boston Institute for Contemporary Art to his omnipresent portrait of Barack Obama that became a rallying symbol for the president’s campaign to his scandal-inducing wheatpastes on Boston-area buildings, Fairey has been in the news for months.

This isn’t about Fairey’s mind-numbingly stupid arrest in front of the ICA before the opening of his show though. It’s not about the court cases he has had to endure for doing some illegitimate wheatpasting in Boston on his own time. This is just about one Fairey piece in particular, a mural put up outside of the Tufts campus center on January 25, 2009.

As an adjunct to his show at the ICA, Fairey was commissioned to put up about a dozen murals around Boston. These were large, wheatpasted pieces consisting of the artist’s iconic black, red and white designs, pre-printed, aligned and then stuck on the wall. One can’t blame the ICA and independent curator Pedro Alonzo for trying to take it to the streets a little, that’s one way to give a museum exhibition of street art some life. Despite the museum’s good intentions, however, it’s sometimes hard to avoid provoking someone in artistically-conservative Beantown.

The important thing to remember is that the owners, or managers, of the places these murals were installed in agreed to have them. In a sense, they agreed to play host to Fairey’s art of appropriation and accept the work’s parasitic relationship with its location. Shepard Fairey’s work depends on its environment, and it has a direct influence on it: namely, Fairey’s work politicizes space, and does it well.

This brings us to the case of Tufts University’s Fairey mural. First, the true and whole story of the mural’s short, sharp existence. Sherman Teichman, the head of Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership, is a personal friend of the director of the Institute for Contemporary Art, Jill Medvedow. This led Teichman to be aware of the ICA’s scouting possible locations for Fairey’s murals. Teichman jumped at the chance, getting the installation of a mural at Tufts approved in a shotgun meeting of university officials. January 25 saw Shepard Fairey brought to campus along with curator Pedro Alonzo and the artist’s crew of assistants.

Hours later, the finished mural was up, a combination of an assertive Asian-looking woman wrapped in a head scarf, a giant black and white peace-sign hand and an assemblage of smaller posters. What the wall also held is a politicized space. Shepard Fairey opened the wall, appropriating the neutral space of Tufts University for his own message, a message that is still a markedly political statement, though it is ostensibly for peace.

Something that has been appropriated once, and so visibly in this case, tends to never quite be pure again after. This is important. It’s an innate aspect of modern and contemporary art. Think of Marilyn Monroe. Is it possible not to see Andy Warhol’s garish screenprints? An imposed meaning tends to overwhelm a neutral base. What was once a blank wall became, after Fairey’s mural, a space for self-expression. And it was used as such.

Milan Kohout is a performance artist from the Czech Republic. He currently teaches a class on performance art through Tufts University’s Experimental College. The class is a mix of discussion and practice, rehearsal and performance. During one class he suggested to his students how interesting it would be if Shepard’s violated space, the wall and the mural, were to be added to. What effect, he asked, would another layer of meaning give to this piece? Another physical layer of posters, combined with another conceptual layer of symbolism? Some of Kohout’s students took that question to heart. They added their own political posters to the politicized space of the wall, politicized space that was directly approved by the highest levels of Tufts University administration.

The new posters caused some controversy. The students’ work confronted some highly charged issues, including Roe v. Wade, the endless optimism of Obama’s followers, and gay marriage rights. Immediately the posters provoked a negative response that Fairey’s work failed to. Tufts Unversity’s anti-bias group BEAT as well as the LGBT center took issue with the posters’ up-front politics and what they deemed as excessive imagery. The posters, along with the remains of Fairey’s mural, were torn down, under the blessing of Tufts’ Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman. The new posters were rejected by the same staff that approved Fairey’s original mural.

My point is that, in terms of art in relation to politics, the two waves of appropriation of this blank wall were equally political and equally valid. And yet Tufts’ administration chooses only to approve of the first. These second posters were nothing if not an expression of free speech, a piece of performed art, where the first mural by Shepard Fairey was a gesture more motivated by personal branding than real communication. Which does Tufts bestow its approval on?
There is an inherent paradox in complaining that a space that has already been appropriated for art is appropriated once again by the students of this university. Tufts’ actions towards the posters betray its fundamentally conservative view towards the visual arts, one that the university has done nothing to correct and everything to reinforce in its treatment of Fairey’s mural and the subsequent posters.

All photos courtesy of myself besides the last two of the posters, courtesy of Meredith Klein and the Tufts Daily

Shepard Fairey is the figure wearing the puffy coat and gloves in the photos.

For further information:
See this Daily article on the added posters: here
See this article describing the original mural: here
See this post on the Boston Globe's Exhibitionist blog: here
-in particular, please note this quote: "Apparently, an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University advised his students to ruin the work Fairey had been asked to create" [emphasis added]

If you are interested in more information about Fairey's mural at Tufts, please stay tuned.