Private, adj: concerning, involving, or affecting a particular person or group of people apart from the general community; individual or personal, rather than communal or shared.
Public, adj: done, perceived, or existing in open view.
For my inaugural post to DON’T PANIC! I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than to write about Toronto’s Nuit Blanche art festival that happened this past weekend. In a way, the festival is the embodiment of making art public. Not only are many of the exhibits set up in public spaces but they also re-purpose and adapt those spaces into their medium. In Nathan Phillips Square alone you could find a video being projected onto the fountain water to create a “holographic” video and a giant balloon playing out the life & death cycle of our sun. Spaces are transformed by this art. I saw people curling up with blankets and pillows at the base of the “Death of the Sun” exhibit to watch it unfold. Just north of the square, “Literature vs. Traffic” invited people to walk down a lit sidewalk covered in books which people were free to claim at the end of the night. Admittedly, this is all a very romanticized viewing of Nuit Blanche. Just as real were the legendary long lines to reach some of the more popular and interactive exhibits, the sometimes pressing crowds of people, and the realization that you simply could not experience everything the night had to offer.
But, setting aside all of these points of tension from the night, I’d like to talk about my personal favourite exhibit from the night: Zahra Saleki’s “Girl Talk”. Presented on the back lit walls of a greenhouse you can pass through, the exhibit depicts an ongoing collection of photos taken of graffiti drawn by women in public washrooms. The exhibit boasts having graffiti collected from over 500 bars in Toronto, New York, and Montreal.
What I found particularly interesting and appealing about this exhibit was the degrees of appropriation and re-presenting that took place in order to create it. Following the life-cycle of the graffiti sparked in me an appreciation for the whole concept of Nuit Blanche. Here one could find images – graffiti – originally drawn or written in a specific public space with varying but specific intentions. In their original public space, the bathroom graffiti – which so often exists in a nexus space stripped of context and authorship – was a scattered assemblage of aggressive and anonymous philosophizing, slapdash artistic renderings, and casual inarticulate confessions. The space in which it existed, a women’s public washroom, is a space of partial isolation in which some people, for better or worse, would not or could not enter. Washroom graffiti, one might say, is art made for a private public. But from there the art has been captured, rearranged, and collected to form “Girl Talk”. Copied from its original forum, the graffiti is now depicted in a far more tightly condensed configuration that presents it as an explosion of voices. It retains the same crucial element of washroom graffiti – namely lack of authorship or context – but discovers something new in representing these far-flung silent voices. Each piece of graffiti is an individual but together, lit upon the walls of the greenhouse, they form a kind of disjointed narrative. These unknown women are linked through their participation in this ritual, this appropriation of a public space to become a place where they can be heard, even if the only ones who might hear them are fellow washroom users. Zahra Saleki brings their voices even further into the tradition of that ritual. Their voices are appropriated and amalgamated here in a new public setting, their anonymity retained, and their words and images recast for an audience that may have otherwise never seen them.
As I looked over these images – people pushing at my back, talking loudly to each other, and stumbling all around me – I realized that the women who wrote and drew and confessed and silently raged on the walls of washrooms across three giant cities would probably never know that their small acts of rebellion against the sterility of their surroundings had been re-purposed to create this exhibit. And if they did know, what would they think? Were these words private, public, or forgotten faster than it took to create them? It’s impossible to know, but I found myself thinking about this more and more as I considered what I would write for this post. After all, so much about blogging and the internet can be seen as a kind of graffiti. It is a huge empty space that we fill with our confessions, our rage, our sadness, our opinions, our musings, and our selves. It’s all public, but entire masses of people might never discover it. Communities form, like the one reading this blog, situating it all somewhere in between private and public. Private, not because its unavailable, but because it is ignored, forgotten, or unknown. Public, because it is always there waiting to be discovered by anyone who takes the time to look.