I’m visiting my sister in Madison, Wisconsin, a town with a long tradition of progressive politics, which people wear proudly — and even in excess — on buttons, bumperstickers, yard signs, and posters. An overwhelming number of these political messages are related to peace and justice concerns, and most remain intact.
But I’ve noticed a street art campaign waged on various walls, and nearly all — all of them actually, from what I’ve seen — have been “interacted” with: ripped, written on, painted over, scratched, torn, or damaged. It’s not what I would call “violence,” though many — too many — sloppy activist types use that word for property damage such as this. Yet curiously, there’s a way in which such dialogic engagements with these signs evidence the rage that can, at times, lead to actual violence — harm to people, particularly ones labeled or self-identified as “women.” On the other hand, all the “conversations” with this campaign seem to add extra emphasis to the intended message, perhaps offering even more emphasis than the pristine posters might convey. They also reveal the complexity of violence and who it impacts.
Yes, violence against all peoples needs to stop, period; certainly, “women” aren’t the only ones whose bodies are brutalized or destroyed.
And for sure, too, violence has a profoundly gendered quality, seemingly with a renewed fervor these backlash-against-feminism days. And yes, the “shock” of seeing all the gashes and slashes on these wheat-pasted posters underscores that violence is real, violence hurts, violence is always near at hand, just under the surface, or showing up, horrifyingly, on it, such as in Gaza, say. Showing up, likely as well I suspect, in homes and on bodies in Madison and many purportedly progressive towns.
To all those who made this street art and its message far more noticeable, far more visible, perhaps you are the true artists — although potentially the violent ones. And this is why we need, always, to leave walls, sidewalks, and other exterior spaces freely open to public art: because it allows for community interaction, with all its disquieting meanings.
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(Photos by Cindy Milstein, Madison, WI, August 2, 2014.)