I wrote this review a few years ago when the book first came out. For one reason or another, the magazine I was working with never published it.

Graffiti seems to have hit some unofficial anniversary: a graffiti retrospective at Los Angeles’ Museum of Modern Art opened; a slew of glossy volumes of spray-can art hit the shelves; and the largest archive of subway aerosol art is about to be released on DVD. And yet this “anniversary” seems almost as perplexing as it’s beginning, when in 1971 the New York Times reported that a young Greek-American teenager had written his name and street number all over the city, TAKI 168.

But as The History of American Graffiti will teach you, the art form goes back even further than that, to chalk writing on rail cars during the depression, and WWII veterans´ collective comic figure Kilroy that appeared everyone from bus terminals to subway tunnels. In other words, this is not graffiti in the sense in which it is generally discussed today: illegal urban adornment courtesy of disenfranchised youth. Since its reception in downtown galleries in New York in the 1980s, graffiti has remained not far from where it began, a neat novelty, but nothing that would actually change the world that it would – if only, briefly – inhabit. However, its international ubiquity is inarguable. Something like jazz music, graffiti has left its prints nearly everywhere in the world, to the point it’s often hard to say exactly how it has come to be this way.

Robert Gastman and Caleb Neelon, editors of the long-running street art periodical Juxtapoz, have created a book that serves both as an introduction to the aerosol world and as a definitive resource for aficionados and researchers alike. Entries explain the most basic principles of graffiti in its evolution, while uncovering undocumented histories; for example, those who, like this writer, read the graffiti paperback classic Gettin’ Up, will be surprised that its author was teaching high school at Manhattan’s Art and Design High School, a long time breeding ground for graffiti writers.   Others will be surprised to find out that “tagging” actually began in Philadelphia, where African-Americans were writing their names on walls in increasingly unexpected ways. A few Phillie transplants kept up their hobby in New York and inspired copy cats. Of course, this is just one theory. Proving that this actually influenced New York would be difficult, as it could have sprouted in two places at once. (The book provides no bibliography.)

Although there has been plenty of sociological studies of graffiti – like Gregory J. Snyder´s Graffiti Lives – this is the first comprehensive history of graffiti as a nationwide phenomenon – that is to say not just New York and Los Angeles. According to our editors, graffiti in other cities begins with the arrival of a New York or Los Angeles expat, who like a virus, infects peers with aerosol art fever. By the later half of graffiti – between 1980-1987 – media like Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant´s documentary Style Wars and their picture book Subway Art were igniting interest and inspiring copycats cities without subways to paint on. In many cases it took the arrival of actual practitioners like Revolt in Baltimore, or Seen in Providence, or one particularly zealous spirit, like Cool ¨Disco¨ Dan of Washington, D.C., to spark a trend.

Gastman and Neelon make the case that by the time the 1980s were rolling around, this art in its essence, was on the way out of the subway tunnels. Then few suspected that aerosol art on trains would ever end. Now entire collections of “flix” have been published recently by graffiti writers like Alain Maduera, suggesting that there is an expanding market for private collections of Polaroid pictures. From the Platform: Subway Graffiti 1983-1989 is basically Paul Cavalieri’s, – better known as CAVS – collection of pictures from his and his friends ceaseless documenting of the last the six years of subway graffiti. Translucent chinsy white font aside, the candid photos of teenager in 1980´s flashy studs, sideburns and moustaches, smiling in cars of dripping scrawl, or flashing their sneakers at the camera like fancy meals, not to mention the dozens of trains splattered in colorful letters, beneath gray and brown apartment buildings, are mesmerizing.

Jeffrey Deitch, curator of the exhibition at MOCA, might have canonized street art, but a re-birth of gallery graffiti is less than likely. What was once fresh and raw has gone the way of so many vanguards, absorbed into the putty of consumerism, and rendered another ornament in our hyper-baroque lives. If someone had actually ripped one of these trains´walls off, it would surely be selling for top prices; unfortunately, no one then would have guessed subway graffiti would cease to be painted on public transit. As a result, the closest thing to evidence of their ephemeral art, are these pictures. Their rarity has even been further pumped by graffiti task forces recent tendency to confiscate picture collections as evidence in criminal trials. Graffiti photographer legend, Henry Chalfant, has been compiling an online collection of early subway art, soon to be released on a DVD that contains photos of 800 painted trains.

This handsome volume will surely serve either as a reliable reference work – thanks to thorough investigation and photo gathering – or a streetwise coffee-table book; if not, it will could serve as a bible for the ever-growing base of graffiti fanatics.

Whatever graffiti is, or where it is, it illegally persists in some form or another in most parts of the world. Cities everywhere allot large sums of money to clean surfaces with even more layers of paint, an endless battle of a thousand micro-Pyrrhic victories. At the same time, this sign of urban decay casually decorates handbags. It still seems to be a symbol of something, but what exactly? Meanwhile, the act of graffiti – be it painting, etching, chemically burning – is very much illegal, and particularly frowned upon by police in the United States. The fact that it can be at once so appreciated and despised is perhaps a reason to say that this art form – if not, aesthetic – continues to be relevant in our society, decades after its start.

Graffiti seems to have hit some unofficial anniversary: a graffiti retrospective at Los Angeles’ Museum of Modern Art opened; a slew of glossy volumes of spray-can art hit the shelves; and the largest archive of subway aerosol art is about to be released on DVD. And yet this “anniversary” seems almost as perplexing as it’s beginning, when in 1971 the New York Times reported that a young Greek-American teenager had written his name and street number all over the city, TAKI 168.

But as The History of American Graffiti will teach you, the art form goes back even further than that, to chalk writing on rail cars during the depression, and WWII veterans´ collective comic figure Kilroy that appeared everyone from bus terminals to subway tunnels. In other words, this is not graffiti in the sense in which it is generally discussed today: illegal urban adornment courtesy of disenfranchised youth. Since its reception in downtown galleries in New York in the 1980s, graffiti has remained not far from where it began, a neat novelty, but nothing that would actually change the world that it would – if only, briefly – inhabit. However, its international ubiquity is inarguable. Something like jazz music, graffiti has left its prints nearly everywhere in the world, to the point it’s often hard to say exactly how it has come to be this way.

Robert Gastman and Caleb Neelon, editors of the long-running street art periodical Juxtapoz, have created a book that serves both as an introduction to the aerosol world and as a definitive resource for aficionados and researchers alike. Entries explain the most basic principles of graffiti in its evolution, while uncovering undocumented histories; for example, those who, like this writer, read the graffiti paperback classic Gettin’ Up, will be surprised that its author was teaching high school at Manhattan’s Art and Design High School, a long time breeding ground for graffiti writers.   Others will be surprised to find out that “tagging” actually began in Philadelphia, where African-Americans were writing their names on walls in increasingly unexpected ways. A few Phillie transplants kept up their hobby in New York and inspired copy cats. Of course, this is just one theory. Proving that this actually influenced New York would be difficult, as it could have sprouted in two places at once. (The book provides no bibliography.)

Although there has been plenty of sociological studies of graffiti – like Gregory J. Snyder´s Graffiti Lives – this is the first comprehensive history of graffiti as a nationwide phenomenon – that is to say not just New York and Los Angeles. According to our editors, graffiti in other cities begins with the arrival of a New York or Los Angeles expat, who like a virus, infects peers with aerosol art fever. By the later half of graffiti – between 1980-1987 – media like Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant´s documentary Style Wars and their picture book Subway Art were igniting interest and inspiring copycats cities without subways to paint on. In many cases it took the arrival of actual practitioners like Revolt in Baltimore, or Seen in Providence, or one particularly zealous spirit, like Cool ¨Disco¨ Dan of Washington, D.C., to spark a trend.

Gastman and Neelon make the case that by the time the 1980s were rolling around, this art in its essence, was on the way out of the subway tunnels. Then few suspected that aerosol art on trains would ever end. Now entire collections of “flix” have been published recently by graffiti writers like Alain Maduera, suggesting that there is an expanding market for private collections of Polaroid pictures. From the Platform: Subway Graffiti 1983-1989 is basically Paul Cavalieri’s, – better known as CAVS – collection of pictures from his and his friends ceaseless documenting of the last the six years of subway graffiti. Translucent chinsy white font aside, the candid photos of teenager in 1980´s flashy studs, sideburns and moustaches, smiling in cars of dripping scrawl, or flashing their sneakers at the camera like fancy meals, not to mention the dozens of trains splattered in colorful letters, beneath gray and brown apartment buildings, are mesmerizing.

Jeffrey Deitch, curator of the exhibition at MOCA, might have canonized street art, but a re-birth of gallery graffiti is less than likely. What was once fresh and raw has gone the way of so many vanguards, absorbed into the putty of consumerism, and rendered another ornament in our hyper-baroque lives. If someone had actually ripped one of these trains´walls off, it would surely be selling for top prices; unfortunately, no one then would have guessed subway graffiti would cease to be painted on public transit. As a result, the closest thing to evidence of their ephemeral art, are these pictures. Their rarity has even been further pumped by graffiti task forces recent tendency to confiscate picture collections as evidence in criminal trials. Graffiti photographer legend, Henry Chalfant, has been compiling an online collection of early subway art, soon to be released on a DVD that contains photos of 800 painted trains.

This handsome volume will surely serve either as a reliable reference work – thanks to thorough investigation and photo gathering – or a streetwise coffee-table book; if not, it will could serve as a bible for the ever-growing base of graffiti fanatics.

Whatever graffiti is, or where it is, it illegally persists in some form or another in most parts of the world. Cities everywhere allot large sums of money to clean surfaces with even more layers of paint, an endless battle of a thousand micro-Pyrrhic victories. At the same time, this sign of urban decay casually decorates handbags. It still seems to be a symbol of something, but what exactly? Meanwhile, the act of graffiti – be it painting, etching, chemically burning – is very much illegal, and particularly frowned upon by police in the United States. The fact that it can be at once so appreciated and despised is perhaps a reason to say that this art form – if not, aesthetic – continues to be relevant in our society, decades after its start.

La carne es la tristeza, y los libros todos

¡asiló mi cabeza!

¡Huyamos allá, huyamos!

¡Huyamos allá, huyamos! Sobre la mar salada

las aves giran ebrias, en pálida bandada.

Sobre la mar salada

las aves giran, ebrias de sacudir el vuelo

entre la espuma ignota y el immutable cielo.

Ni aquel jardín antiguo que reflejaron ojos

amados para siempre, ni los destellos rojos

de mi vetusta lámpara sobre el papel vacío

a quien – bajo la noche – defiende su blancura;

ni un niño que los senos

a su robusta madre de joven hermosura

con avidez atrapa:

nada en el mundo, nadie demorará un espíritu

que en el amargo zumo del piélago se empapa.

¡Yo partiré! Tus mástiles erige con tristeza,

oh Buque, y leva el ancla

¡con rumbo hacia una exótica feliz naturaleza!

Un tedio, desolado por ávidos anhelos,

espera en los adioses que mandan los pañuelos…

Quién sabe si estos mástiles alargarán un día

sus dedos a los náufragos, entre la mar bravía,

a los desnudos náufragos sin mástiles, sin mástiles

ni fértiles islotes de verdes cocoteros…

¡Oh, corazón! escucha las voces de alegría

que dan los marineros!

Muerte chunchurria (2003)

CARTEL1

Punk rock, chuchurria, ñeros, BMX, un cucho que se cree Jesus Cristo quien se cree Jesus Cristo ¿qué más quieren de una película zombi? Grabada en el ápice del conflicto armado en Colombia, en la tradición de película B (o C o D) de zombis, Muerte Chunchurria también se trata de temas serios como la limpieza social. Esto es una joya del cine colombiano. Para mí, pues. Buenísima persecución en bicicleta BMX también.

Juan de los muertos (2010)

juan_de_los_muertos_11057

Invasión de zombis como metafóra para el aislamento de la isla de Cuba. Por un precio, Juan se encarga de matar a los zombies con la ayuda de su hija, recien llegada de España y su apréndice venezolando, Lázaro. Hay rumores de que los gringos provocaran la invasión. Al fin es ambiguo si es sólo un rumor perpetuado por el gobierno cubano, o si de verdad fueron los gringos.

Juan de los muertos ganó el premio iberoamericano Goya. Mi pregunta: si Juan de los muertos gana por qué Muerte chunchurria despareció sin ni siquiera una palamdita en la espalda. Creo que se debe, por lo menos, presentarlo en la Cinemoteca Distrital en Bogotá.

unseenIn 1977 all hell was breaking loose in Italy. A financial crisis that wouldn’t ease led to high rates of unemployment. Leftists were disillusioned when the communist party aligned itself with the centrist Social Democrats, whom they had competed with for so many years. The concession led to a movement that would be known as the Autonomism. Not communist or Leninist, the Autonomists were a group of students, workers and activists that rather than fight the system decided to subvert it. Much that we’ve come to associate with what they used to call “gutter punks” seems to have arisen around then, in the sizzling political vat of Bologna, Palermo and Milan. Things went even more apeshit when a year later the communist guerrilla group, the Red Brigades kidnapped and then killed the acting Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro.

In 1977 all hell was breaking loose in Italy. A financial crisis that wouldn’t ease led to high rates of unemployment. Leftists were disillusioned when the communist party aligned itself with the centrist Social Democrats, whom they had competed with for so many years. The concession led to a movement that would be known as the Autonomism. Not communist or Leninist, the Autonomists were a group of students, workers and activists that rather than fight the system decided to subvert it. Much that we’ve come to associate with what they used to call “gutter punks” seems to have arisen around then, in the sizzling political vat of Bologna, Palermo and Milan. Things went even more apeshit when a year later the communist guerrilla group, the Red Brigades kidnapped and then killed the acting Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro.

This is not fiction. This is history. And yet this re-printing of a gutsy novel by Verso hardly made a sound last year when The Unseen. Was the highly acclaimed publisher of nearly every important book of social theory off the mark? Highly unlikely. Nanni Balestrini is the author of several books, including Sandokan and Tristano; he was a member of the Gruppo 63, often referred to Neovanguardia, whose most famous member is probably Umberto Eco. His works in the 60’s and 70’s, which include the novel here in review, subvert literary norms often using writing as a kind of technology for liberation.

The Unseen is a damning work of protest in the form of experimental fiction – that is if no punctuation, no capitalization still qualify as experimental. Like the moment in history it depicts, the novel quickly moves from organizing resistance to improve factory conditions they are under to bettering conditions in jail they inhabit. In the pulpy sense it’s riots, mob fights and jail.  While it´s difficult to lose sight of the novel´s political ends, they don´t make the book’s most raucous moments any less fun. In the same way genre fiction might tickle the senses, so this novel had me mentally pushing prison guards and tending to my would-be wounded ¨comrades¨.

Our hero, a young drifter in a neighborhood in Northern Italy filled with southern migrants, narrates the moment his life became politicized. It begins in high school. Students have teachers locking themselves away in classrooms, while they march as “comrades” out of the school together. In the end even the janitors run. The school is taken. Reading this description however today in English – teachers hiding, principals dashing out – recalls the independent, isolated school shootings common in the United States recently. The difference of course is that these comrades aren’t working alone nor are they armed. Their power derives from another kind of source, their solidarity. Balestrini further demonstrates this by narrating the book primarily in the plural first person. It is only later in the novel that the protagonist and narrator emerge from the camouflaging “we” of the multitudes. The sentences too seem to express solidarity with each other, while the reader looks for the next break in time for an eye-rest.

About a quarter way through the novel, the protagonist and his crew are arrested and spend the remainder of the novel working out ways to escape. They get out and start a pirate radio station. This might have been based on the real Radio Onda Rossa in Rome, set up in a squat. At this point I thought, Oh right I remember those. These were illegal radio stations or unofficial radio stations. Back before the internet this ability to constantly communicate wasn’t so simple. Maybe the pirate radio station is comparable to websites that offer open free downloading, like the former Megaupload.

Next thing you know, they’re back in prison. To get some respite from the misery of the dank prison, inmates do things like “numbing the finger with the gas from a lighter and then sticking it in the neck of a Coca Cola bottle you take the bottle in your hand and you twist it back in one clean movement that way the finger breaks and it doesn’t hurt then you go to the doctor and you get time off.” Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

The Unseen can be read many ways: a besot condemnation of institutions; the primal shout (or howl) of a forgotten movement; the beginning of a rift between the labor movements and labor dynamics. Either way, Ballestrini makes it clear the end is not good.

italia autonomistasSemiotext(e)’s Autonomia: Post-Political Politics functions as a great companion to the novel. Half art book, half anthology of political essays and half history, I’ve owned nothing like it. While reading it I was afraid I’d wrinkle a glossy page, or smudge the matte black cover (which I ended up doing anyway). Sylvère Lotringer decided to re-publish this magazine from 1980 in book form recently. The writers anthologized include Gilles Deleuze, Dario Fo, Paul Virilio, Toni Negri, and Paolo Virno. In his essay ¨The Anatomy of Autonomy¨, “Bifo” seems to write in exposition what Ballestrini tries to narrate in The Unseen: “The rejection of family and of individualism had found a form of organization in the experience of the proletarian youth associations”. As in The Unseen, subjectivities like the individual and the family are replaced with youth groups. And they live as a “we” until they are broken.

Autonomia_460

As a FIAT worker says in one essay from collection, the strength of the Autonomists derived from their ability to organize under banners that often masked or reconfigured class differences. Their opposition created new subjectivities. Students were united with factory workers. Feminists with anarchists. (It should be mentioned that within the  Like Enrique Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s model of political change subjects of different political interests unite at one particular moment to a create a new constellation. This sketch of dissidence and unrest from The Unseen demonstrates exactly that:

¨the evenings are high-spirited lively noisy with our sounds shout songs music they’re made colourful by our jackets scarves skirts hats the walls are one long stretch of graffiti drawings writing all muddled together all with slogans on top of the other against the bosses against sweated labor against all work against the ghettos against the clergy against the mayor against the trade unions against the parties against the city council against the men against heroin against fascists against cops against judges against the state against poverty against repression against prison against the family against school against sacrifices against boredom”

Maybe some of the novels power derives from its authenticity; this is Nanni Balestrini’s own life we’re discussing. It helps that it happens to be a moment that would reflect political struggles for years to come. This novel manages to at once surprise with an almost utopian flavor and never part from what we know was once reality, and is now history. Its resonance with today’s complex and heterogeneous social uprisings make it relevant.

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