Urban Acrobatics was a project funded by Northwestern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts, and organized by myself and New York City-based circus artist and educator Polly Solomon. It might seem surprising, but the premise was straightforward: to explore historic and aesthetic affinities between contemporary circus and graffiti in New York City and Chicago through a series of panel discussions, workshops, and performances. In 1973, Twyla Tharpe played with this relationship between graffiti and dance in her work Deuce Coup, which involved notable young graffiti artists painting a rolling white wall behind the Joffrey Ballet ensemble. In Urban Acrobatics, we wanted to push this exploration further.
Both circus and graffiti are marginalized in public discourses. Critics exclude graffiti from the realm of true art, and governments view it as vandalism–or even sedition. Circus faces similar difficulties, as an art form that is both inherently ephemeral and classically performed by society’s outsiders. Both forms exist outside a sellable, sponsor-attractive framework.
Urban Acrobatics New York and Chicago enabled discussion and the creation of spaces and opportunities to consider a more durable trajectory of recognition for both art forms. In this article I consider the recent Chicago installation in greater detail.
We began the week at the Evanston Art Center. One of our first speakers was Gabriel “Flash” Carrasquillo, who isn’t just an artist–he’s also an engineer, a photorgrapher, an educator, and a graffiti historian. Flash shared some of his vast archives of Chicago-based graffiti and street art, which go back to the 1970s. Active from about 1983 to 1987, Flash came out of retirement in 2003, noting that his absence coincided with the disappearance of a “whole generation of writers.” Although when graffiti started in Chicago it was met with confusion or indifference, by the 1990s the city declared an all-out war on the art form. Even today such disproportionate treatment in response to graffiti continues. Flash argued that many of Chicago’s uninitiated are blinded by the culture’s strict anti-graffiti laws, preventing artists (and art lovers) from experiencing an art form that flourishes elsewhere in the world. The past mayoral administrations continued this culture of demonization, instituting a “no write” policy that fomented an antagonistic relationship between city officials and writers that is captured in the film I Write on Stuff. Still, Flash is hopeful that the new administration will signal a more positive attitude towards graffiti.
A recurring theme of Flash’s discussion of Chicago graffiti was the general public’s reaction to the art: a mix of fear, misunderstanding, and intrigue. It’s a reaction that mirrors that of the circus scene. My collaborator Polly Solomon noted how an ambivalent, even hostile, governmental attitudes fed into that response—US federal arts funding agencies such as the NEH specifically ban circus projects from consideration due to the fact that they are “not art.”
Other speakers touched on the dangers of circus performance—dangers that extend beyond mere physical risk. Besides the obvious difficulties of contortionist poses and acrobatic derring-do, the bodies of circus performers must traverse psychologically fraught territories such as hierarchical power structures and gender binaries.
But as Polly pointed out, neither graffiti artists nor circus performers need to brave these dangers alone. Both art forms involve an intense reliance on one’s crew, troupe, or team. Such reliance comes out of necessity: one needs a spotter, or a lookout, or a partner for a complex pose or act. But the team mentality also provides a sense of community and identity.
This theme of community building extends beyond those who are currently sharing our spaces, however. “One of the ways that we can inspire [lies] in how we treat the next generation coming up,” said Polly. “How we teach them, and let them teach us.” In Chicago, a city of industrial blocks, sharp class and racial divisions, and sprawling neighborhoods, both circus and graffiti practice offers ways of being in common that rest on respect, risk, vulnerability, and inspiration.
After a day of workshops, and a second day of brainstorming, our culminating performance at Alternatives Inc. combined live graffiti, acrobatics, painting, clowning, and rap. Opening with sound clips from the panel discussion, the room was filled with the voices of circus artists, scholars, and graffiti artists and historians discussing the demonization of the above genres, and the potential inspirational power of these public art forms for the masses. After hearing speech about graffiti and circus the audience was presented with another kind of visual noise: the persistent hiss of paint cans as graffiti artists Werm, Melon, Jae, and Kard began working on their walls. The word “evolve” took shape in turquoise against the black background of the temporary wall, evoking decades of conversations among graffiti communities about the inevitability, but also positive need for evolution.
The show performed the various paths that evolution may take. First, the audience was presented with the development of a burner (an elaborate piece that involves characters in addition to complex enlarged lettering). Then, the burner became the background to moving bodies. One of the six youth from Circ Esteem involved in the show took the stage, juggling three paint cans. The youth was a talented juggler, but uncertain about performing in front of a live audience with unfamiliar tools. His performance, which was not a virtuoso display of mastery, offered something different but equally important: an exhibition of the discomfort and hiccups involved in engaging with a new medium. The cans made the act of juggling strange.
Writers like Werm and Melon who learned to work in an illegal context possess amazing speed. They can write their names in a few seconds. However, adding in moving, wriggling, balancing bodies demands yet more dexterity and swiftness. The wall is no longer a given. This experimentation with surface and implement continued further with Polly’s and Melon’s duet. A paint can in hand, she was suspended above the ground by a swath of fabric while he physically moved her to write on the surface. “I realized as he was moving my body what he was trying [to get me] to write,” said Polly, who was perfectly comfortable hanging from the ceiling but acknowleged that it was “difficult to use the can…to have a steady flow of ink.” Can control emerged as a difficult terrain for the young circus artists, with cans misfiring or getting in their hair, but soon became an exhilarating tool for marking up the space. Bodies were also placed in poses in front of the walls to provide surfaces that could “walk away,” playing with the ephemerality of graffiti—the risk it always can disappear (and reappear, ad infinitum).
Werm One then took the stage, doing four songs: “Paint the Pain Away,” “10 Graff Commandments,” “Wrong Side of the Tracks (Remix),” and a new song. Urging the crowd to “Put your paint cans up!” he rapped about the pain and struggle he has faced, his search for redemption, and some of the stereotypes he is subjected to as an artist. “I’m not a vandal, I’m an artist!” he exclaimed at one point, eliciting cheers from the crowd. Evolution, in his work, figures as a personal journey but also a complementary relationship between the spoken and the written (painted) word.
While Werm rapped, Melon continued to paint, and the young circus artists formed a line behind him, mimicking his movements. When he moved to a different section of the wall, they moved, when he raised his right arm and drew a curved line, they did as well. This infinity mirror of bodies helped throw into relief the centrality of movement in the making of graffiti as well as its resulting aesthetic.
During the next sequence, Polly, Melon, and Werm, performed a group piece where Polly, on the silk fabric, assumed a series of poses that manipulated the fabric in different directions, creating an ever-changing canvas for Melon and Werm to paint on, the textural equivalent of an etch-a-sketch board. Melon noted afterwards: “It was kind of frustrating, because I would write something, and then it would disappear.” At the same time, he described the experience as “amazing, beautiful to watch [Polly] perform on the silks, and to try to be part of it.” As the sequence progressed it became more collaborative, Melon passed paint cans up and down to Polly as she painted the fabric above her, also a difficult process for someone who has little experience with regulating pressure of the can to create a steady line of color. Natalie Zombie painted the youth’s faces and Polly’s body in preparation for the sequence.
The show concluded with the youth performing a movement sequence that they had developed in workshop on Thursday. Starting with an airplane pose, followed by a squat, then a calm standing pose, then a kneeling pose, and then a lunge, followed by yet more sequences, their faces and costumes were covered in paint, making them moving, living graffiti pieces. The show, which began with blank surfaces and quiet painting, concluded with an explosion of color, movement, and a shared vocabulary for creation between circus and graffiti artists. It was, and is, an evolution between two marginal genres that we hope to continue.
Caitlin Bruce received her PhD in Communication Studies at Northwestern University. Her research is in the area of visual studies, affect studies, and critical theory and takes her to Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Paris, León Guanajuato, and Mexico City. She is currently working on a manuscript on transnational public art. You can follow some of her research at: http://caitlinbruce.blogspot.com.