‘Vandals and the City’ is about a group of men, referred to as a ‘crew’, who go around putting graffiti up on different bits of London. The text in the book—essentially a foreword—was written by an urban geographer by the name of Dr. Oliver Zanetti.
The book and therefore the activity of the vandals is immediately conceptualised as an attempt to resist the neoliberal order. Says Zanetti, “By and for whom are cities made? In London, the answer is made visible by an urban horizon clustered with skyscrapers. The city is a servant to neoliberalism, where the financial sector and an exploding residential property market dominate the landscape.”
Lets explore this a bit more. The city is not really a servant to neoliberalism is it?
Admittedly, London has been designed over the last few decades to attract in foreign capital. And in some ways the buildings have been designed in a financial and political context, defined by laws and policies, aimed at attracting financial capital into the cities institutions, from where it has been put out to graze in offshore tax farms.
But the city is a load of buildings, and buildings can’t be servants.
Servants are human, and the humans in London are not servants to neoliberalism. The cities are created by politicians, voted in by the people who live in the cities. In fact the majority of people embrace neoliberalism, and they do this by voting for parties who believe in one form or another of entertaining capital and capitalistic production. The city, to the extent that the city is people, embraces and enables neoliberalism.
Of course within the city there are people who sit at the bottom of the food chain who are rather enslaved through disability, illness or poverty, and resigned to work bloody long hours doing hard physical labour to serve people who are earning a lot more, working less and enjoying a lot more of the fruits of life. But this isn’t a unique feature of neoliberalism is it?
However, having firmly anchored the idea that cities are servants to neoliberalism Zanetti presents claims that the ‘vandals’ in the book by scrawling tags on to walls as engaged in an “an alternative making of urban space.” What? An alternative making of urban space? Really?
But hold on a minute, what do we see on one page but two of the crew standing tall and proud, albeit with faces covered, regaled in ‘The North Face’ jackets. The North Face are an international brand, part of a profit making corporation that benefits from free trade deals. And here we have a crew who supposedly go out there to provide an alternative to neoliberal domination of the city skyline, presenting themselves as two models for said corporation, freely offering their time and services to effectively (in some very small way) boost brand presence and presumably profit margin. So do they present an alternative making of urban space, or do they replicate it by operating as advertising boards for a corporate retailer?
But maybe the content of what they scrawl on the walls is alternative in some way? Basically it appears that the crew spray paint indecipherable looking figures in black outline and then spray the inside with white. This is not a making of an urban space is it? It has almost nothing to do with space, because the presence of the images they make contribute nothing to the actual dimensions of structures of the space defined by the surface on which they are inscribed. Arguably they do alter the surface colours and images that one experiences in the space. However these images are not challenging neoliberalism. They are being spray painted on a wall. A wall is not neoliberal in its essence. Neoliberalism if it ever falls, will not result in the end of walls.
Arguably what these guys are offering is a micro-scale offbeat illegal neoliberalism, it is an alternative form of neoliberalism. They seem to be leaving a scrawled calling card, a signature wherever they go, so they are essentially marketing themselves. Maybe its not linked to the marketing of a product, but they are marketing their identity amongst other taggers, and hold on, what’s this, they’ve now appeared in a book, which is actually for sale, so it would seem that their scrawled calling card is to some extent helping the perpetuation of a product, and perhaps a brand. And in the world of the internet, everyone knows, including this crew, that if their tag gains enough notoriety they will with time be able to cash in on it in some ways.
But none of these thoughts appear in Zanetti’s foreword. Instead Zanetti goes on to suggest that ‘the writers invite us to rethink the nature of the urban order’. Honestly, they don’t. They invite us to wonder about why people spend so much time or any time scrawling stuff on walls which has very little appeal. I, for example, imagine that the crew enjoy having a go at art, and like to see their name on a wall, it gives them an ego boost. But that’s as far as it goes, and I’m probably someone who pays more attention to the urban environment than most, you know, someone who overthinks things.
Finally Zanetti says, “In witnessing their resolve in the practice of their craft, we are invited to consider the various radical ways we might all intervene to create inclusive and genuinely participatory urban public spaces”. Really? Ha! Don’t make me laugh. Seriously, if Zanetti is going to come out with assertions like this, he ought to provide a few examples. Come on Oliver, tell me, what rethinking of the urban order did these photographs induce in you. Have you done a focus group with a randomly selected bunch of people to see what they thought, and tell me, what did they find?
Really there is not alot going on in the book, other than some black and white photos of a couple of guys getting up to a bit of mischief with spray paint cans. There is one in particular that I like with a guy dangling off a pipe which runs underneath a wall he’s tagging. But the rest, well.
There is a kind of post-script to this though, because I’ve bothered to actually spend time reading and thinking about this product. It makes me wonder, I originally saw it on a twitter feed and was quite seduced by the title of the product. I then went to investigate the site belonging to Mark Vallée and it was designed very nicely. Furthermore its clear that he’s well networked. Reviews of the photographs have appeared in The Guardian and in lesser known titles like Huck magazine. Huck, hook? How did I get hooked in to this. Now that’s an article worth writing.
You can listen to an interview with Mark Vallée about his work in the following interview conducted on Resonance FM.