This post is the second in a three-part series on street performance. To read the first part, click here.
Public space is a funny thing.
Ideally, it is meant to be shared—we each have the right to use it for whatever we need, provided that we respect it and leave it in a condition so that others can use it as well. As long as humans have been living together, they have worked on finding a satisfactory system of sharing the land. As more and more individuals needed to share the land, it became the responsibility of the local governing body to maintain and manage public property. We’ve now reached a point where any space that is determined public or shared is exclusively managed by the government, and anyone who wishes to use it for special purposes needs to gain their permission.
I mention all of this because the evolution of the idea of public space and the evolution of street performance go hand in hand. Gone are the days where any wandering performers could set up a stage wherever they wished to try and seek their fortune. Many street performers are required to choose a specific location in order to apply for a permit; should they wish to try their luck in a different place, they must go through the entire permit-acquiring process again. Some cities and districts even require performers to audition in order to gain permission to perform there. Additionally, there are noise ordinances and vandalism laws that must be abided by.
Everything that I’ve read about street performance culture as I began working on this column has pointed out that although these new rules and regulations have certainly dealt a heavy blow to the small but persistent network of performers, performers are in turn taking several steps to fight back. There are advocacy groups that exist to help performers navigate the legal processes, and there have even been consistent rumblings of a union. The vitality of public art is tremendous, and it gives me hope when I hear about these artists working as diligently as they can to maintain the integrity of their profession.
There was recently a controversy over public art right down the street from where I live, when a memorial to the victims of the Boston Massacre was tagged with a bright red “Kony 2012.” Almost instantaneously, the internet divulged into debate—what right did the tagger have to leave that message? To whom does the monument belong in the first place? Does this message and the way in which it was displayed count as art, or does it fall into the crass-associated category of vandalism?
While I don’t have any of these answers, the event made it clear to me that there are individuals who still feel limited in their means of self-expression, and as a result are willing to act out in more drastic ways. While our governing body certainly holds tremendous power and responsibility when managing public space, it bears asking who really has the right to determine whether someone is allowed to use such a space for their own purposes. I believe that the relationship between artist, space, and government is much more complicated than we like to pretend it is, and it will take a while for the three entities to reach a peaceful agreement.
I would now like to invite you to enjoy the conversation—should artists have free use of public space without punishment? Or do we need to rely on the government to maintain the cleanliness and integrity of our parks and sidewalks?
by James Kennedy