The Mediapolis Q&A: Caitlin Bruce’s Painting Publics

Caitlin Bruce is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Painting Publics: Transnational Legal Graffiti Scenes as Spaces for Encounter (Temple University Press, 2019), winner of the Jane Jacobs Urban Communications Foundation 2019 Book Award. Caitlin is also a contributing editor to Mediapolis. The following Q&A, moderated by Claire Sisco King, is part of an ongoing series of conversations with authors of new books on media and urbanism.

Claire Sisco King: Painting Publics is such an exciting project that brings together rhetorical and visual theory with careful ethnographic work. So, let me begin by thanking you for this important book and asking some process-related questions. Can you describe how you discovered the sites at which you worked and how you cultivated the relationships with the artists and communities with whom you worked? Were there particular ethical and/or political considerations that guided your interactions with them?

Caitlin Bruce: Honestly, a lot of my site discoveries come from the relationships I build with colleagues and interlocutors who teach me about what is out there. Which is to say it’s not the outcome of my omniscient researcher brain but the product of social relationships and listening when people give me leads. I imagine the research process as tendrils growing outwards, building increasingly interconnected scaffolding while not (hopefully!) smothering or blocking the air and light of other things happening in that scene. It gets really tangled and messy but it also is really alive. My brain is focused on plant processes these days as seed starting is my main activity in quarantine.

So, for this project, I came to it in grad school having already written an undergraduate and MA thesis about muralism in Latinx/Chicanx neighborhoods in Chicago and how muralism generates dialogue about gentrification and the right to the city. For those projects I’d created a visual archive of murals in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and Pilsen and interviewed artists who produced murals in those neighborhoods. I’d also learned about the work of the Chicago Public Art Group and Yollocalli, two key institutions for mural production in the city. I learned that some muralists were also graffiti writers: Statik is the first writer I ever met, back in 2006. He’s now created a project called the “Great Wall of Chicago” that is a kind of homage to the Wall of Pride but done with aerosol paint not house paint.

King: Were there particular ethical and/or political considerations that guided your interactions with them?

Bruce: Before I started this project, I had concerns about gaining access and trust to what I thought (pre-2009) were almost exclusively scenes of unsanctioned graffiti production. A lot of theory about graffiti was about rupture, resistance, and in discussions with colleagues I remember being anxious about tracking the illegal scene in ways that might be risky for interlocutors, and inadvertently making a map for the police. I now know that the writers are too smart to have likely let that happen! But that was my worry. At the same time, I was taking courses in Art History and had made friends with an art historian, Angelina Lucento, who was TA-ing for an undergraduate art course and invited me on a class trip where they were taking a mural tour led by Dr. Kymberly Pinder, who then was teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We went through Bronzeville and other parts of the South Side, primarily, learning about the Black Arts Movement.

While on this trip Dr. Pinder told us about the Meeting of Styles (MOS)—a legal, or, permission graffiti event. I was intrigued. After that I went to my first MOS in the La Villita neighborhood on Chicago’s south west side in September 2010. As I write in my book, it was an amazing experience where I got to see a plurality that is not often visible in a space as segregated as Chicago, and it also challenged a lot of my preconceptions (and what I’d read) about what graffiti spaces are like. It was lively, inviting, and felt like a transitional space where the writers were educating strangers about the culture as well as friends, neighbors, and new generations.

At that event I met some key figures in the Chicago scene: Stef Skills, Demon, Zore 64, Werm One, and Flash. They all belong to different crews (except Demon and Zore, who are in SB and were organizers for the festival), live in different parts of the city, and are connected to many other crews nationally and globally. They were friendly and willing to talk, so I interviewed them (at a later date) and they told me about ongoing events in the city and globally and I started to go to gallery shows, mural jams, and the like. Other interlocutors like Melon James, Andy B, Like One, Outlet, Lavie Raven I met later but a lot of method is also spending time with people who know the scene and can explain it to you. This was also really important when I went abroad. Zore helped connect me to a translator and member of his crew in Mexico City, Swer, not just because my Spanish was pretty basic when I started the project in 2010 but if you go into a totally new scene you don’t know the dynamics, history, and relationships. In France, Demon connected me to Kanos and Astro, the organizers of MOS there. We also went to MOS France simultaneously one summer, so part of the “method” there was catching up at his wall, learning about the people around him while I was doing other interviews. In Germany I hung out at the “Chicago” wall with ZorZorZor, Zore, and Statik. I also wrote for a collective called Sixty Inches From Center, which worked to archive and document the work of non-traditional artists—this taught me to write for audiences not just in the academy, and, I think, offered a way to make the research a bit more immediately useful to my interlocutors—essentially it was publicity and an archive of their work that they could then use in portfolios and I would also share my photographs with them. Sixty is great. It also connected me to artists I didn’t already know (that’s how I met Melon, for instance).

Schlachthof Memorial, Wiesbaden, Germany, 2014. Photo by Caitlin Bruce

During coursework I took a critical performance ethnography class with Dr. D. Soyini Madison and one of the ways she described ethnography was “deep hanging out.” In other words, you become part of a community. That relates to your question about ethics and politics, I think. The idea of hanging out implies intimacy—and I write about this in the book. Intimacy is complicated—it means you are implicated—how can you ever not be? It also means you are accountable. It also means that you hear stuff and have to sift through what goes in a book and what doesn’t. The “deep” part can be about temporality—really giving time to the work—but I think it’s also about collecting context. So, in terms of guidelines, I avoid material that is not necessary for my argument and do my best to limit risk. I also think about whether the way I write about things is something I would be comfortable with, were I a writer in the graffiti scene. But I also recognize I’m not. I’m a researcher whose livelihood depends on producing writing about a community so my investments are different and I have my own privilege due to institutional location and my identity. No project is perfect and I’m sure there are moments interlocutors might disagree with. But that’s also a question about critical reflexivity: my role isn’t to judge the scene as “good” or “bad” but it is to talk about what is generative and exciting from the position of a critical and political theorist. To talk about what I see happening. And my interpretive lens is going to be different than others’, including practitioners.

It’s also tricky when you are conducting a long-term project and people inevitably change their opinions about issues so what they say in an interview in 2006 is different than what they would say in 2012—and with good reason. But what moment do you pick as the researcher? How do you narrate such a change? In other words, how do you avoid creating unnecessary beef?

I think about method a lot because when one is working with visual practices that are ephemeral and (to some extent) still marginal, there is not a readymade archive, though that is changing. In fact, one of the things I love about graffiti and other forms of public art is that is that they explicitly challenge us to conceive of archive as one thing or place. At the same time, I think it is important to challenge the apparent fixedness of dominant archives and methods and ask about the ethical/political considerations that guide the selection of some spaces and not others. Another rhetorician I know mentioned many years ago that because their work is ethnographic many have taken it up in terms of methods and case study but rarely engage the conceptual arguments. Whereas I think that with work that is less invested in site or context sometimes we don’t always ask about method and “copy-paste” the concepts much more easily. What is happening there?

King: I would like to think through this question of methodology more fully. Can you describe the ways in which your research practices deviated from methods with which you had previous experience or were expecting to use? In what ways, if any, did these changes affect your conceptualization of such concepts as publicity or ephemerality?

Bruce: When I began the project I was a student, so most of the methods I used I had not had much experience employing before. I was philosophically trained, so most of my reading strategies were about developing an argument and applying it to some examples. At the same time, as a human, I grew up working with my family’s theater company so I knew that creating works of art in public spaces was all about making-do and limited control. In the book I think I mention an example we laugh about a lot—the contestation we’d have with joggers who would use the path that was (temporarily) the stage and backstage for the company in Inwood Hill Park. Inevitably someone would run past during really intense scenes, like, Lady Macbeth is saying “out out damn spot!” and someone in neon bursts by. But what I liked about scholarship was that you get to try to create some order. So that’s a constitutive tension that I’m grappling with in my thinking and the work.

With this project, it was about having some concepts in mind but being open to seeing those concepts fall flat or need to morph in a number of ways. Lauren Berlant pointed me to Kris Cohen’s work on the contingency of aesthetic events—that they often feel and look different than they might have intended to be. That was really helpful. It helped me hold an awareness of the aspirational practices of art and concept-building alongside the messy and beautiful ways they play out in the world.

King: I’m also wondering about the ethical, political, and theoretical entailments of the ephemeral nature of the visual cultures that Painting Publics discusses. For instance, how does the potential temporariness of this art affect how you imagine your work as a researcher who not only engages an archive but also helps to create one? Further, does the ephemeral quality of this art itself have affordances for helping us theorize human experiences of vulnerability or, even more to the point, precarity—including those of the artists and the communities with which their work is articulated? Have you found such theoretical considerations of ephemerality to be something that the artists and writers were themselves explicitly engaging? 

Bruce: The way I use concepts like ephemerality and publicity are deeply connected to these realities of research with other people and spaces. In the last chapter I explicitly theorize the concept of “ephemerality” and that work came out of a desire to connect what I felt to be a fundamental insight from graffiti practitioners to a tacit potentiality I saw in our field. As I state in the book, ephemerality is something the artists and writers explicitly engage and my concepts come from my interlocutors—they are philosophers of their own experience and part of my work is to share their philosophies with other audiences. Most of my interlocutors explained over and over that graffiti is an ephemeral practice. But my hunch (and what they were saying in other ways) is that ephemerality is not the same as disposability. Just because spring flowers have a short grow period doesn’t mean they are worthless. It’s about cultivating as Vicki Gallagher and Ken Zagacki might say, forms of attention, and what I argue in a more durational way, spaces for encounter—opportunities for collective cultivation.

In response to the precarity question, yes! When I am thinking about ephemerality I am thinking also about precarity. I had written a piece in GeoHumanities in 2016 that was the kernel for the way I conceptualize ephemerality as being about creating platforms for ongoing practices of production, that recognizes the singularity of works but the interrelationality needed for their production.1Caitlin Frances Bruce, “Tour 13: From Precarity to Ephemerality,” GeoHumanities 2, no. 2 (2016): 432-452. The GeoHumanities piece was about a project called Tour 13, a temporary street art installation in an affordable housing project in Paris’ 13eme district that was on display for 30 days only and then set to be spectacularly destroyed. I wanted to think about what that exhibition provoked thematically and also experientially and so I was thinking about the way that it occupies but also challenges rhythms of capitalist creative destruction. That it took place in a neighborhood that has been slower to gentrify and still has high concentrations of migrant and immigrant populations, many of whom lived in the obsolesced building, was no accident. It is a product of but also puts a spotlight on precarity. In writing that piece I learned about the distinction between precariousness (Butler’s conceptualization of our shared condition of vulnerability as human beings); precarity (differentially and often structurally produced and forms of vulnerability, Lorey talks about this) and precarization (the processes by which precariousness becomes precarity, Berlant was discussing this). But writers also taught me about precarity: Flash, I note in the book, talks about the ridiculous penalties for graffiti in Chicago, that it’s like carrying a kilo of cocaine, and all over Facebook there are constant memorials for writers who have died while trying to elude the police. Or who have been assassinated by the police.

5Pointz, Long Island City, New York, 2013. Photo by Caitlin Bruce.

When 5pointz was whitewashed and then destroyed, and the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) injunction hearings happened, I wondered how they would handle the question of temporality in the suit and the plaintiff’s reasoning. How they would handle the collective nature of graffiti production, that 5Pointz was not just a gallery wall for autonomous graffiti works but a dialogic space where people would come together to make and learn. The debates (and mourning) over 5Pointz are not quite as dramatic as other debates about graffiti spaces and practices globally. I’m working on a book chapter now about the movement in Bogotá and how permission spaces came out of the murder of a youth by a police officer and the mobilization of writers and other activists and his family. There, ephemerality, precarity, and violence are more explicitly on display. But the destruction of 5Pointz is related to slower but still violent practices of privatization and gentrification in New York City. In a 2011 interview Meres observed how one can see the Manhattan skyline from Long Island City and so that put the site in the sights of developers. For me, the ephemerality and precarity nexus is a question about value. How do we create shared vocabularies of value that are not just economic, that can apprehend the rich activities, labor, communicative practices that folks engage in to produce spaces that are public. Or, simply acknowledging how writers already knew how to see the “unseen but powerful” community dynamics that imbue a space with value, as Zore noted of La Villita. That so-called peripheral spaces are incredibly central to movements like graffiti. As I’m learning as I work on my second book, also about permission graffiti, these questions about graffiti’s value are questions about what constitutes a life and/or a good life.

To loop back to the question of methodology, now that I am working on the second book having done significant interview, participant observation, and archival work, I am still learning that the way one imagines method is also more unruly in real time. I still have “aha” moments or regrets or ambivalence as I go through audio and transcripts and field notes and ephemera. And to connect back to the earlier question about ethics and politics, the more established I am produces different opportunities and constraints.

As you and I have this virtual conversation, the very notion of “publicity” itself is being put under pressure by people’s shared—but varied—experiences of social distancing, isolating, and/or quarantining in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve been thinking about how public art practices—including both production and reception—might be changed by these conditions in temporary but also perhaps long-term ways. The current context also draws my attention to the affective work grafitti can do in response to trauma, including both acute and transgenerational forms of trauma. Can you talk about the capacity of public art for creating what you call “spaces for encounter” generally but also in specific relation to trauma and its aftereffects? 

Bruce: Publicity is certainly being transformed in our current moment. Though public space is always already mediated—by our bodies, memories, discursive frameworks, and the use of social media—we are in a situation where such mediation is more manifest. Moreover, the work of building intimacy in public spaces which is always laden with risk is now differently so—it’s coded in terms of epidemiological risk, and also is raising questions about interrelationality and our responsibility to NOT be so public with our bodies. In our discipline of rhetoric public and public space are often framed as what we want more of and now we have to rethink the terms and forms of that “more.” I think that public art in general, and graffiti in particular, are ways of thinking about publicity, intimacy, and publics (collectivity) that illuminate how very aspirational the idea of public life can be. Public art can serve as an affective resource, a bit of energy, a way to reframe questions, a jolt, or a form of comfort. But it can also be a reminder of trauma both acute and transgenerational. Like many I am learning what writers are up to through social media—I see posts by art collectives in Mexico who have painted murals celebrating front line medical workers, stories about mural projects in the U.S. that are meant to provide uplift, and here in Pittsburgh my collaborators painted mask donation boxes for MaskMakers Pittsburgh. In these modes, permission graffiti is pointing to collective sacrifice, the need for endurance, the need for mutual aid. In Painting Publics I quoted Meres One, who was the curator of 5Pointz talking about a wall they painted “of a timeline” of the events of 9/11 and he noted that a woman who had lost her boyfriend in the attacks found it helpful. Perhaps it was offering a space for catharsis. I’m also noticing in our drives to parks to walk in political graffiti in my city, “Rent Strike!” some read, with a hammer and sickle, or “I miss you I love you.”

Tilted Arc by Richard Serra, 1981, New York. Photo Wikipedia, Public Domain.

W.J.T. Mitchell’s “The Violence of Public Art: Do The Right Thing” is important to keep in mind here too.2William J.T. Mitchell, “The Violence of Public Art: ‘Do the Right Thing’,” Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4 (1990): 880-899. In it, he argues that art that “enters the public sphere is liable to be read as a provocation to or an act of violence.” He discusses Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, the controversy around which is a kind of touchstone case in public art studies about how public art can be seen as disruptive to site, an incitement to violence (it was a sculpture that cut across New York’s Federal Plaza and some argued that it could be used to magnify bomb blasts, others complained that it made the walk harder, other said it would attract graffiti…it was eventually removed). Graffiti connects here in another sense: unsanctioned graffiti, tagging, which is often framed as vandalism, is positioned in most city codes in the U.S. as an act of damage to property which is understood in our culture as sacrosanct. Even above the person. When it is doing on symbolic and public sites the vitriol that follows is intense. On Memorial Day someone painted red hammers and sickles and “June 19, 1986, Glory to the day of heroism,” on a century-old Doughboy in my neighborhood and the mayor of the city tweeted: “This is not Pittsburgh. Whoever did this. Please leave. Today.” So I think that public art can be a resource for dialogue or healing, a kind of ballast against anxiety or depression, a reminder of being part of a collective, it can be a tool for inciting disagreement that is sometimes necessary, it can be read as a kind of symbolic violence, it can be, as scholars of conflict-murals in Ireland frame it, an “open wound,” it can perpetuate dominant power structures and thus intergenerational trauma (thinking here about Confederate War memorials). If, as I argue, public art serves as a mediating object that can remind us of our connectedness and interdependency, but also our differences and disagreements, it can do so in ways that might help mediate trauma but also reiterate it if done poorly (without attention to the audiences, contexts, and sites where it is located such that it harms).

You mention my interest in melodrama in relation to your discussion of the art at 5Pointz and its response to the traumas of 9/11. In Painting Publics, you describe the building as offering “melodramatic encounters.” My impression upon reading this section of the book was that you were using the term “melodrama” to signify intense emotionality, but I became convinced by Painting Publics overall that murals and graffiti have unique affordances for thinking about melodramatic modalities more generally. For example, a number of theorists, including Peter Brooks and Christine Gledhill, frame melodrama as a site for reckoning with the limitations of signification to capture the complexities of human experience and emotion. Their figurations of melodrama’s inclination toward aesthetic excess and bodily expression seem to resonate with your descriptions of murals and graffiti as being “spectacularly visible and stubbornly opaque.” That is, graffiti and murals seem to address language’s limitations while also offering a hopeful gesture toward affect’s capacity to signal and create relations among subjects. Can you say more about this potential interpretation of public art as operating with/as melodramatic affects?

Bruce: Yes, I was mainly using it to ascribe intensity or excess in a colloquial sense. But I really appreciate you teaching me about this more expansive definition of melodrama as indexing the limits of signification. Graffiti has this incredible capacity to be hyper-present but also to hold meaning in reserve—I discussed this in terms of Éduoard Glissant’s concept of opacity—opacity as a strategy used in the Black Diaspora to elide capture and control in colonial and postcolonial regimes. Writers are balancing, as Bel2 expressed in my interview with her, the need to teach about style writing but “not give it all away.” Giving away to mainstream society, to capitalism, to the state—the beneficiaries could be multiple. I also combined this concept with Jacques Rancière’s notion of noise—noise is that which he contrasts to speech and so noise is coded as irrational yawp when it is really the expression of the “part that has no part” those who are excluded from the polity. In the chapter on MOS Mexico I coin the phrase “visual noise” to get at the way that graffiti uses strategies of opacity, camouflage, to communicate visual noise, to point to how the status quo could be otherwise. Affect is important here. Though a passerby might not be able to read what a graffiti piece says it can create a sensation, an impact (Kathleen Stewart discusses this in Ordinary Affects).

More broadly I think that public art is a genre of communication that, due to its frequent status as being in public space, can raise questions about the boundaries and limits to dominant regimes of common sense. Over the past ten days we have seen a number of RIP and Black Lives Matter murals in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and in Pittsburgh Antwon Rose II. These two might be examples of melodrama in the colloquial sense but also in the deeper sense because they are pointing to the limits in western humanism’s capacity to read Blackness as life. Students and colleagues that I work with who do work on Afro Pessimism and Radical Black Studies, like Niq D. Johnson, Amber Kelsie, Rishi Chebrolu, Charles Athanasopoulos-Sugino and Corinne Sugino-Athanasopoulos have taught me so much about this in the past few years and their work builds really brilliant concepts for thinking through questions of legibility, race, archive, technology and humanism in communication and media studies. Such work, though, also makes me wonder about what is at stake in using the term melodrama to describe forms of public art that make manifest or create space to reckon with ongoing legacies of racism. How does that interact with important critiques of the way that Black feelings are criminalized or medicalized?


Notes   [ + ]

1. Caitlin Frances Bruce, “Tour 13: From Precarity to Ephemerality,” GeoHumanities 2, no. 2 (2016): 432-452.
2. William J.T. Mitchell, “The Violence of Public Art: ‘Do the Right Thing’,” Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4 (1990): 880-899.

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