Urban Interventions: To Fix or To Break

Street art has traditionally been associated with murals or with actions like filling the streets with stickers, posters and stencils en masse. But over the last few years there has been a shift towards urban interventions, a concept introduced by Robert Klanten and Matthias Hübnerauthors of the book Urban Interventions.

The main goal of most of these interventions is to communicate with audiences, in an attempt to make them reconsider their urban environment. In this post, I will distinguish between two polarities of this trend by reflecting on work by artists who have chosen the street not just as a space to represent their work, but as a mechanism within a system, which can either be broken or repaired.


Spy, Madrid

Chaos and excessive systematic violation.

Bent signs, scattered bits of road marking, benches on the roof of a house, fences made out of cards—these are all examples of spontaneous sculptures a concept introduced by Brad Downey in his book,  Spontaneous Sculptures. Now living in Berlin, Brad is one of the most active contemporary urban interventionists. In his book, he writes about how he considers creation and destruction as one in the same thing. This idea is something which he tries to incorporate in most of his works.

Brad's ingenius sculptures resemble creative acts of vandalism, but generally occur only in clean and well-groomed Europe In Moscow, for instance, you find plenty of samples of found art created by workers, who do not consider themselves artists. See here.

Spanish street artist Spy falls into the realm of street surrealism. Objects created by him are generally non-functional and useless, but offer new perspectives about urban space and the everyday objects around. Often involving the viewer in the process of permanent search, Spy's work seems to manifest the ideas of Rene Magritte.

East Eric is another artist who uses a similar strategy, but focuses on colors, allocating and accentuating existing aspects of the city. Occasionally, these creations are accompanied by performative actions: repainting a car, monument or creating a spontaneous spray from a fire extinguisher. In this case, the artist's hooliganism serves to highlight different urban infrastructure.


Swedish activist Akay's work is more performative, and is situated on the verge of two polarities. Some of his actions, such as the Traffic Island, point to urban problems. While others, such as The Box, or Rainbow, are examples of more absurd and irrational actions.

Works by Vladimír Turner from the Czech Republic illustrate the phenomenon of urban interventions. Intentionally violating conventions and moral standards, the artist emphasizes the basic character of these interventions as acts of protest against excessive and systematic order. These acts can again, only be considered in the context of Europe. In Russia, these same rules are broken, but are more radical, ending with tougher actions like arrest, prosecutions and other consequences.


In general, the category of urban intervention initiates a discussion field about the existence of a very law-abiding, systematic and orderly society in Western Europe. And at the same time, it is a cornerstone to understanding how and why such order is necessary, in principle.


Functionality and use as an artistic gesture.

Degrees of functionality and use are highly conditional and uncertain. On the one hand, there is a growing trend of objects and interventions created in architectural and artistic festivals, allowing the artist to be in a position that is sanctioned, and comfortable in the city. But, their number is so small that they can only be regarded as statements and ephemeral changes in urban space. Which is basically too bad.

My favorite examples of this phenomenon are The Fun Theory and Playing the City. The first — a competition project from Volkswagen, and the second — a festival in Germany. Both events invite people to interact, involving them in a game, and turning the city into a large theater. This inadvertently promotes the idea that urban space is not only a space to commute between work and home, but that it is primarily a public space, and an interesting environment to live in. This interactivity forms an important aspect of urban life, and creates the feeling of being included in addressing existing problems.

Urban repair, re-use of urban elements (modernization of dumpsters, car parking areas, etc.)., unauthorized urban re-planning (road marking, placement of signs) are acts that are not as playful as the above two examples, but their ephemerality is useful to city residents. This benefit of course is difficult to notice and appreciate, because it may last a few minutes; such activity is often reserved to point out how the a space or situation can be used, and what is lacking, which is also important. For instance, Jason Eppink's project of puttin chairs in the New York subway is a great example of reuse in order to resume its beneficial qualities and initiating changes.

Aram Bartholl works at the junction of two free spaces: internet and streets. Integrating the virtual into the real, he uses methods of media art, choosing the exposure of the outside, and connecting the existence of commonality in these two spaces.


Aram Bartholl, Map, 2010.

Yarn bombing, a movement spontaneously initiated Magda Sayegh. Its bright, decorative aspect seems less important to me than the inherent sense of recreating the sense of comfort from ones home on the street, the feeling of a grandmother's attention and love.

In these kinds of projects projects, the quality of the functionality is still a bit of a stretch; more realistic are the works by Prague artists Václav Magid, Vasil Artamonov and Alexey Klyuykova who illegally painted fences, dug up gardens and covered them with lime trees (their project appeared as a video installation at the Kaliningrad NCCA).


Didier Courbet's  Needs

The series by Frenchman Didier Courbet "Needs", in which the artist engaged in all sorts of modification of the city over a long period of time: putting "his works in the everyday urban environment, seamlessly complementing with familiar surroundings: planting a tree, laying colored tiles in  a cracked pavement, all partially overcome the persistent gap between art and reality" (quote from the summary of the exhibition "Impossible Community").

This activity is similar to partizaning actions, and these examples are inspiring to us. But, in my opinion, an artist's dedication to the art community reduces the degree of sincerity and honesty of their intentions. There is more attention placed on the search for an artistic gesture in these actions instead of on the problems of the urban environment which these works highlight or comment upon. Roland Roos with his hundred restored objects perhaps elicits more respect.

Many people now work in the field of urban interventions, often for environmental and social purposes. To list all of them here makes no sense, all I wanted to do is highlight the fact that this socially useful activity seems the most promising for outdoor artistic activity, though the word "art" here seems superfluous.