Alan Kohl has directed a great documentary called Roadsworth: Crossing the Line about Peter Gibson, the celebrated Montreal artist whose elegant, provocative street art has gotten him into serious legal trouble and spurred a vigorous public discussion about the boundary between artistic expression and vandalism.
His work is notable for its clever, sophisticated integration with existing public infrastructure: climbing vines wrap around a crosswalk; scissors cut along the 'dotted line' of lane markings; dandelion seeds ripen on the tips of parking spot lines and are picked up by the wind.
Roadsworth explains, "My original intention was to simply introduce an element of surprise into an otherwise very uniform and predictable environment."
Marc Meyer, director of the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, says of his work, "At first, because they were so slick, so well done, and so clever, I just presumed that it was a grant that somebody got with the city's permission."
But the art is neither funded nor even approved. It's vandalism. Roadsworth faces 85 charges of public mischief with up to $100,00 in fines and possible jail time. He approaches the trial unsure whether to "treat this as a crusade, a defender of freedom of expression" or to "just try and get off as easily as possible."
"I don't know," he concludes. "I don't know how much integrity I have."
It's unclear to what extent a court would consider either the popularity or the arguable public interest value of his work, given that it is, technically speaking, vandalism on public property.
Yet as Francine Lord, Montreal's Public Art Commissioner, notes, "To my knowledge, this was the first time that pedestrians, the public, ordinary people addressed the municipality in support of an artist's work. It's really quite special."
Much of what makes a community livable is precisely the creativity and engagement of its citizens in leaving a personal, idiosyncratic mark on their environment - an activity Roadsworth undertakes literally.
This entails active citizenship - residents caring enough to work toward making their community safer, more vibrant and more welcoming, and to support the efforts of active citizens.
When engagement through the political process doesn't work or takes too long ("justice delayed..."), citizens sometimes take matters into their own hands. I'm thinking, for example, of the King William Guerilla Gardening project or amateur transportation planners like Toronto's Urban Repair Squad, who have decided to establish or refresh bike lanes where the city is dragging its feet.
The critical issue here is the local government's tolerance for activism and willingness to let residents make the city their own. Places that tend to be more receptive to citizen engagement also tend to be more willing to let citizens take the lead directly on transforming public spaces.
On the other hand, cities must struggle to tease out the line between public art / active citizenship and reckless vigilanteeism / vandalism. Cities thrive on rules, and it's tempting to err on the side of shutting down anything that might fall under the latter category.
Yet it seems fair to apply the famous line of reasoning from US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on an entirely different matter where a fuzzy lines separates expression from harm: we know it when we see it.
The benefit to this approach is that it frees communities to set their own standards of what they're willing to celebrate, support, and/or tolerate.
The question is whether city governments and public courts can live with this provisional, ad hoc approach to the public interest. Will the judge hearing the case against Roadsworth decide that "a reasonable person" would accept his work as a positive contribution rather than vandalism?
(h/t to brodiec for finding this)
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