It starts with some guy scrawling on a wall. Not his wall (at least as defined by conventional rules of property ownership). And yet, the tag is a marker: an assertion of culture, of identity, a claim. Is it art? A sign for gang members? A challenge? Vandalism?
That wall has become contested space, a canvas on which to lay out competing claims. But it’s much more than just a tag on a wall. Across our culture, whether it’s on our streets or in our shopping malls, in our courts or at City Hall, on our virtual playgrounds or in legal ones, there’s a battle going on for ownership. Who. Owns. What.
Increasingly, conflict between public versus private has morphed beyond issues of right and wrong to who is allowed to use what space and in what ways. Whose definitions of public and private apply? Is it a political definition or a virtual one? Do we own our own culture or are we merely renting? What are our expectations for privacy and the rules that apply? It might start with a guy decorating a wall but it points to what is now a global conflict over ownership.
Our traditional public gathering spaces have become highly surveilled and tightly controlled. The “Occupy” movement takes over a city park to protest entitlements of the One Percent. City officials in Los Angeles attempt to redefine public space with another modern park. But does this kind of public park make sense in the way it used to? Meanwhile, artists expressing themselves in public in one part of the city get arrested for their art while artists in another part of the city are welcomed into one of our major museums. Unable to afford the time, effort and expense of a traditional gallery, still another group of artists take to popping-up, then melting away again. Graffiti we once considered as distinctly local now has a global cast. And artists increasingly join the debate over who controls the space around them.
Online we’re relentlessly tirelessly tracked through every click. We give away and share our most private details mindless of consequences to career, family or social standing. We rampantly share other people’s work, mix and mash, shake and shimmy as we enthusiastically share in the creation of vast communities, memes and memories. The culture we choose to share is the new creativity: how we define ourselves to others. Our meaningful experiences aren’t complete until we’ve shared them. But there are dark sides. Are we okay with stealing or are we content to label it something else and call it the new art? Is visibility more important than the intricacies of legality? When any one of us is his or her own TV or radio station, or publisher with a potentially massive global audience, we also incur massive liability. Space online is no less contested than in the streets of South Central.
As we attempt to identify the boundaries of who is entitled to do what in public space—both physically and online—we are forced to wrestle with, perhaps, the most challenging aspect of understanding this issue. Public space is dynamic. It is always changing. The moment we define it is the moment our definition becomes obsolete. Public policy, government ordinances, property owners seek to draft answers to these questions that will remain relevant beyond their term in office, beyond their time in the boardroom. For them, it’s a question of legacy. But it is impossible to freeze a city in time and preserve it exactly how it is at one given moment through legislation. Public space is redefined by who shows up, by who stakes claims, by who fights for it, and ultimately by who cares.
Every city has a personality. The various communities of the city and the people who make up those neighborhoods become the expression of the city’s personality. (When exaggerated, this becomes caricature or stereotype.) More than 80% of Americans now live in urban areas. (Among Californians, that figure is 95%.) It’s been decades since we’ve seen urbanization rates that high. Yet, as we pack ourselves together in ever-closer quarters, becoming more homogeneous, there is pushback. We still crave individualism. We crave self-expression. We don’t want to be just another face in the crowd. And so we turn to creativity, culture, craft. Look around any city. You can see this manifest in yarn bombs stitched to a statue at City Hall, the artisanal jam-maker selling his creations at the local farmer’s market, a carefully-curated Instagram or Pinterest feed online, a DJ remix or video mash-up of music by a local indie band.
Who owns culture? Is true self-expression legal? What is the proper balance between privacy and the common good? Conflict resides at all of these intersections. That these spaces are becoming increasingly contested represents a redefinition of what public space is and what it means. A guy scrawling on a wall he doesn’t own is not a new story. How society integrates the conflict his actions illuminate into the fabric of its personality; and how a community’s residents, politicians, law enforcement, and business owners respond becomes the life force behind a vibrant, thriving creative citizenry.