Being There: Urban Art, Museums and the Sense of Place
This article was originally published on Street Levels Gallery's online editorial section in June, 2023
Street Levels Gallery is an international urban art gallery, the first of its kind in the city of Florence, Italy. This article was originally published on its online editorial section on June 28, 2023, and retrieved November 17, 2023.
When I was a first-year in college, I took a History of Modern Art course and when discussing the context of Italian Futurism, my professor gave an anecdote of her friend in a punk-rock band struggling in 1990s Rome.
She explained that he felt frustrated that any contemporary movement in Italy would always be restricted by its history; the ‘new’ would never be the main attraction when the greatest masterpieces were down the street. She used her friend as an example to contextualize why a movement like Futurism, which sought to catapult life into modernity and erase anything connected to the past, emerged in Italy. The movement embraced technology and vitality and depicted works that emphasized movement, cars, and industrial cities.
Futurism reveals the adversarial relationship between a place’s past and present if it is not successfully integrated both politically and socially. While the rest of the world could experiment artistically with the Avant-Garde, Italy was forever bound by the large shadow cast by its impressive history. Antiquity, the Renaissance, and Baroque periods are cultural jewels, as well as burdens as their prominence in the historical and international imagination, and the financial resources they absorb, frequently dwarf any emerging artistic movements.
The parallels between Florence’s contemporary movements and my professor’s friend are evident as the Renaissance’s shadow often hinders opportunity and institutional support, creating a feeling of frustration.
Other than habitability, safety, and social relations, the link between past and present is vital in cultivating collective belonging, or a sense of place. It is through the passing down of cultural knowledge that collective memory and identity are formed.
Phenomenology says that all of the world’s history culminates to produce our current reality. Historical narratives create cultural norms, politics, and art, which, therefore, always exist in relation to one another. If we know, and can interact with what came before us, we can better ground ourselves in the present moment. Museums are not only a portal between past and present, but also a place to nurture social, informational, and cultural connections. Although previously believed to be outdated institutions housing and collecting artifacts from long ago, museums are working to take on a more prominent role in today’s society as cultural and social mediators. In a lecture in 1999, Emmanuel N. Arinze, the late president of the Commonwealth Association of Museums, said that museums are the “custodians of the cultural soul of a nation.” The potential to be the embodiment of the collective cultural consciousness, makes them breathing, living entities, and a vehicle for cultural affinity and community.
More recently, in August of 2022, the International Council of Museums released an updated definition of what a museum is, after much thought and deliberation. In their words, they say:
“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets, and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally, and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection, and knowledge sharing.”
Museums at large still have a long way to go before fulfilling all aspects listed above, especially when it comes to decolonizing their practice, accessibility, and public engagement. However, this new definition attests to a growing shift in their institutional practice. Museums throughout the globe are expanding their public programming and knowledge-sharing platforms. In addition, through the work of curators, more exhibitions are being showcased that examine critical social issues while highlighting emerging and historic artists.
If we were to adopt what Emmanuel Arinze said, that museums can, and should serve as the ‘custodians of the cultural soul’, what sort of complications might arise for museums in a place like Florence, which boasts an immeasurable amount of cultural heritage, art, and creative people, but due to over-tourism and various other factors, have become increasingly inaccessible to the community. In this regard, the institutions cease to facilitate ways of relating to history, culture, and others as the flow of cultural heritage is thwarted. A study from 2018 by Istat (Istituto Nazionale di Statistica) has shown that 7 out of 10 Italians had not visited a museum within the year, indicating that the vast majority of attendants to Italian museums were tourists. The aftermath of COVID-19 and travel restrictions afforded Italians the opportunity to ‘rediscover’ their museums. The New York Times published an article highlighting this situation as residents of major Italian cities sought to visit their museums without the pressing groups and tours. In the article, many individuals stated that usually, a visit to the Uffizi or Vatican was too packed to enjoy and appreciate the art.
These dynamics compel the question, if Italian museums struggle to fulfill the goal set forth by ICOM, what are the remaining outlets for cultural producers and mediators to form and foster collective cultural identity? I propose that it is the subversive nature of urban art, with its inherently democratic and interactive characteristics, that can fill the void left by cultural institutions. The emerging disconnect between the history, cityscape, art, residents, and cultural institutions in Italy, emphasizes urban art’s importance as it is an avenue for cultural production and connection to place.
Sense of place plays a significant role in artistic intervention within these broader social frameworks. Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy, as well as Ted Relph’s geographical writings on cultivating place, and the National Endowment for the Arts grantmaking initiative on creative placemaking, all point to the intrinsic bond between art and place. Urban art is perhaps the medium that most embodies this connection. Although the current idea of graffiti writing and street art is tied to the genesis of tagging, bombing, and murals that mainly took place in American cities in the 70s-80s, we can see that the origins stretch much further back and are, in fact, embedded deep inside humanity’s unconscious. Urban art has always been a tool in cultivating a place-based identity, as the graffiti writer interviewed in the documentary Bomb It reminds us, “If you put a pen into any child’s hand, naturally, he’ll go to the wall.” Furthermore, prehistoric cave paintings, political messages in Pompei, and present-day murals testify to a visceral need to symbolize, communicate and express collective and individual experiences within one’s environment— a mode that predates both written and spoken language. Urban art is as varied and as subjective to place and artist as any other type of art, even if the general population often limits it to restrictive categories– such as illegal destruction of property or state-sanctioned murals. Although Florentine and New York urban art differ, both can be interpreted as a way to overcome exclusion and disconnect through creative expression with one’s surroundings.
The 20th-century philosopher, Heidegger, placed lived experience and interaction with the external environment at the forefront of existence. In Being and Time, Heidegger argued that, in traditional philosophy and psychology, the relationship between person and world was reduced to either an idealist view, which argued that reality is the product of human consciousness acting upon the world, or a realist perspective which theorized that it is through the world’s influence over individuals and their subsequent reaction that creates a sense of being. Heidegger conceptualized that both perspectives were insufficient because they maintained a mind-matter polarity and a one-directional relationship between the individual and the world. Instead, he theorized that the truth of lived reality was that humans were always conjoined, enmeshed, and immersed in their world. He transcended the prevailing Cartesian duality and argued instead that there can be no separation within existence. The physical landscapes influence internal psyches and the internal psyches influence the physical landscapes simultaneously.
Heidegger coined the term Dasein – or humans being-in-the-world, or being-there – to reflect the intersection of undissolvable unity between individual essence, physical space, and social systems. In Dasein, public areas assist in mediation and engagement; where we physically map our participation in communal life. Urban art, due to its democratic disposition and transience, is significant in being-in-the-world as it affects how we relate to our surroundings and how our surroundings relate to us. Public art strengthens the genius loci, or the spirit of place, to foster presence, cultural identity, and a sense of belonging. Art and artists exist in a state described by Heidegger as thrownness which infers that human beings are randomly placed, or thrown into certain meta-structures, such as culture, time, religion, gender, policies, and social dynamics. Therefore, contemporary urban art becomes a way to mitigate and interact with the present moment’s defining forces that we are thrown into, potentially altering the sociocultural character of the environment in the process. Urban art maintains a special connection to place as its nature demands to be site-specific and, therefore, interacts more acutely with the cityscape as well as the site’s subsequent social contexts.
Phenomenological principles were also the starting point for the renowned geographer, Edward Relph to explore the fundamental importance of place and placelessness. In his paper Sense of Place and Emerging Social and Environmental Challenges, he states that place is “…not a bit of space, nor another word for landscape or environment, it is not a figment of individual experience, nor a social construct… It is, instead, the foundation of being both human and non-human; experience, actions, and life itself begin and end with place.” Place acts as the container where all other experiences and engagements can happen. It not only bears our physical survival but also enables and feeds our humanity. To have and to know our place anchors us in time and stitches us into lived experience’s communal fabric. This idea was further exemplified in Relph’s book The Modern Urban Landscape, published in 1987, “Genius loci cannot be designed to order. It has to evolve, to be allowed to happen, to grow and change from the direct efforts of those who live and work in places and care about them…No matter how sophisticated technical knowledge may be, the understanding of others’ lives and problems will always be partial.”
Urban art directly influences the ever-evolving cityscape and is therefore embedded in the genius loci of places more so than other artistic mediums. In other words, urban art comes into existence through the city and is not placed within it. As Relph points out, these types of interventions can not be planned but must occur organically in their own accordance. Urban art manifests itself via social and physical dynamics. It transcends the artist to become a symbolic manifestation of a collective sentiment. Street art and graffiti writing act as a means of reflection, enjoyment, and contemplation for the individual residents. Some may detest the image of street art as a whole and others may find it to be a meaningful addition to the city’s landscape. Either way, it functions as a point of consideration by forcing engagement among the people.
The concept of creative placemaking explores the role of urban art in places’ ability to flourish. The term refers to an initiative launched in 2010 by the National Endowment for the Arts (D.C., U.S.A), which preconceived the importance of funding and supporting projects within cities’ public realms instead of solely awarding grants to arts organizations, institutions, and galleries. The NEA is an independent organization part of the U.S. Federal Government, which gives grants and support to artistic-related projects. They noted the augmentation of social engagement within communities when murals, public sculpture, and interactive installations were created.
The projects help foster community engagement and economic growth for the cities and neighborhoods by bolstering a sense of place and embodied experience. Creative placemaking uses the arts to enrich the socio-cultural landscape and can be deployed to address a variety of community issues. The grants support initiatives within the city, thus becoming the lifeblood of social and financial growth. With the enactment of creative placemaking’s grassroots approach, the power is plugged back into the communities to promote cultural and monetary capital.
Places and residents are, as we have learned, intrinsically connected to one another, therefore, urban art practices should be viewed in the context of where they came from. In Florence and in Italy in general, urban artists interact with their surroundings in playful, intriguing, and critical ways. The artists Stelleconfuse, Clet, and ExitEnter differ in practice and messages but all use smaller-scale highly repeatable iconic images and symbols to alter spaces in a playful manner. For example, in one of Clet’s works, he slyly changes the meaning of a street sign by inserting the symbol of the David. One of the most iconic symbols of Florence which draws thousands of visitors a year, is inverted in an amusing juxtaposition of signs and symbols.
ExitEnter is another prolific artist whose practice uses smaller-scale duplications, this time manifesting itself into a stick figure who is usually depicted interacting with a nearby heart. These works found throughout the city, spark love and joy through their simplicity and endearing attributes. Although these creations carry an essence of charm and enchantment, they also delve into important issues of today.
The artist Stelleconfuse initiated The “Plant a Tree” Project which sought to draw attention to lost natural areas in cities and deforestation in general. The works consist of a stencil-like tree embellished with different symbols reminiscent of emojis like smiley faces and cartoonish animals, usually accompanied by a phrase called to action such as “Plant a Tree and Read Your Future”. Here there is a contrast between the urban environment and tree representation, which further amplifies the message of natural conservancy.
These artists all use their iconized symbols to interact with pre-existing material and structures in endearing and thought-provoking ways as they spread throughout the city. What was once a dull street sign or a small corner of a wall, becomes a point of reflection and joy.
In addition to these artists, who use small-scale replicable signatures that spread their messages and invoke a sense of exuberance, muralists also engage with the cityscapes in nuanced ways. An integral aspect of a sense of place and identity is the connection between past and present. How do we know where we are going if we don’t know where we have come from?
The artist Basik blends different elements from the past, such as Baroque-era imagery and references to religious art within his artistic practice. These elements are inserted through his stylistic choices and chosen subject matter to create pieces that allude to contemporary or modern questions. In 2021, he created the mural “46 – 3m”, which depicts an Etruscan janiform kantharos, an ancient utensil used to hold water, constructed with two faces on opposite sides evoking the God Janus. The ancient vase stands as a metaphor for the “botte”, a water reservoir in the town of Pioppe di Salvaro (Bologna), where the mural is located and where on the 1st of October 1944, forty-six civilians were executed and subsequently dumped in the reservoir by Nazi soldiers. The ancient cup, which can be found in the nearby Museo Nazionale Etrusco Pompeo Aria, becomes a symbol of the local community, both from ancient and contemporary history. The cracks and patches on the vase could be interpreted to represent the brutality of war, while a kingfisher’s thanatosis, a bird also known as ‘death-feigning’, references the three civilians who were the only survivors of the massacre. In this mural, Basik uses compositional components that are reminiscent of Baroque period still lifes, while illustrating devices that are emblematic of the place’s history and that tragic defining event. The mural becomes a testament memorializing the victims of the massacre and reaffirming their own historical narrative.
The Florentine artist Nian gives voice to another important period in Italian history through her dream-like exploration of feminine figures from the mythic age of Ancient Rome and Greece.
In January of 2023, she created a mural on the intersection between Torpignattara and Via Casilina in Rome, the historic birthplace of these myths. She depicts Mater Matuta, an ancient Latin goddess who represented day-break and female maturation, while also being associated with harbors and safe passage. She is conjoined through flowers with the Goddess Fortuna, who was the bearer of luck. The two of them were thought to be protectors of trade routes between Romans, Greeks, Etruscans, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians, and today, by pulling them into the present moment through a contemporary depiction, they now oversee Rome’s citizens moving through the intersection of these two streets.
The depiction of historic mythological figures re-instituted on the street, interacts with the city’s physical environment as well as its cultural and historic identity. Breathing life into stories and symbols that otherwise would be left in the halls of ancient ruins and temples.
The artists discussed here all range in practices and techniques while producing works that differ in styles and symbolic meaning. However, their pieces all composite the spirit and sense of place, adding to the mutating organism that is the city. They act as points of reflection and landmarks that map the resident’s conceptualization of their own community. Through the utilization of popular symbols to the re-interpretation of historic elements, they synthesize various components from the cultural cannon to become a manifestation of contemporary thought. This process links the individual within the ever-expanding constellation of time and place, as culture is not static but is constantly evolving through people’s experiences and influences.
If it is true what Heidegger said, that we exist in a state of “thrownness”, and are at mercy to whatever age and geographical place we are born into, then it could be said that the state we have been “thrown” into is characterized by fragmentation and reconfiguration. From changes in populations, cultural values, and shrinking ecological systems, our sense of connection is strained– to our past, our present, to ourselves, and to each other. Artists, always the visual observers of the world, have helped bridge these ‘fragments’ and give meaning to these “reconfigurations”, as art represents an important tool in cultivating identity and preserving a cultural consciousness. When cultural institutions and museums are unable to perform their idealized roles set forth by the ICOM definition– to be in service to society and stewards of the tangible and intangible heritage– then artists have the obligation and opportunity to utilize alternative means in artistic production.