Opinion

Looking Up: Don’t paint that utility box

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Looking Up: Don’t paint that utility box

Rainey Knudson wants people to stop putting art on utility boxes. “In Houston, the underlying idea for our local box-painting effort  is that it ‘converts blight into art by painting the blank canvases around the city,'” they wrote on Glasstire last week. “What’s not to love? Well for starters, when have you ever looked at a blank electrical box on the street and thought, ‘Gee, I wish someone with moderate artistic skills would paint a toucan on that?'”

Knudson’s critiques are a bit deeper than just complaining about the quality of the art work. First, they argue we should let urban infrastructure blend into the background. (“Consider how, undecorated, these things disappear into the urban landscape. They aren’t “blight” — certainly not in the way that litter or abandoned buildings are. Electrical boxes are something you probably never noticed, until your local municipality started decorating them.”) But their far more compelling argument is that it’s a way of spending public art money that is extremely limiting for artists. (“I think this bizarre trend has less to do with beautification than it does with cities wanting to take control of street art, to make it sanctioned, palatable, institutional, and toothless.”)

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Knudson proposes instead extremely open-ended public art proposals to be judged entirely on merit. I’d be interested to hear local officials’ take on Knudson’s proposal.

However, it was a seemingly small comment Troy-based artist Matthew Sekellick made when he shared the article that has really stuck with me—utility boxes are a common place to post flyers, and the poster suspected this was in part a sneaky way to combat that.

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When an officially sanctioned mural covers over longstanding street art, we instinctively can see the problem (I hope).

But there are important functions in public space that are not always “art” and are not valuable in proportion to their prettiness. I am reminded of the fights in New York City in the late 1990s to save community gardens on city land that were at risk of development. The ones that were saved were more likely to be the ones that looked more like a pretty garden, completely full of greenery and flowers in well-ordered beds. The ones that prominently featured a less spiffy looking gathering spot, perhaps with bare dirt and folding chairs, were harder to rally broad support for—even though they were serving a crucial function as a gathering place, often for elderly residents.

Places where things are posted, whether official bulletin boards or blank spots on the streets, are not always pretty (though individual flyers that are posted often contain ephemeral art), but they can be important communication centers for a community. Whether it is a lost cat, a stoop sale, an apartment for rent, or a political or community meeting, the things that get posted physically in neighborhoods tend to involve the stuff of place.

Even in our high-tech world, there a few more reliable and accessible ways to target a message to the people who live in a particular place. It’s illegal to stick things in mailboxes that haven’t been sent by the post office, and time and resource intensive to go door to door anyway. Turning to social media, or a list of people who have attended community meetings, will reinforce existing networks within a place, without reaching the broadest cross-section of people. So even will posting in many sanctioned places, whether it be a church or a food co-op or a cafe.

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Something on paper posted where people walk each day also won’t actually reach everyone, but it may be one of the most democratic place-focused forms of communication we have left. Removing it may make an area feel neater to some residents, especially those who have access to other sorts of networks, but it also furthers information disparities. (Sure flyering also causes litter and requires active management by someone at places where it happens frequently. But that’s a different challenge.)

Not every utility box is in use in this way, for sure—ones on highway medians or in downtowns or down infrequently traveled alleys probably have less value as a site of communication. But some of them may be. And a broad public art plan to paint them all could easily miss that.  

I haven’t noticed this particular public art craze hit the Capital Region yet, but it’s in full swing in Pittsfield, Mass., at least. Sometimes we’re a little behind the curve, so it’s good to be prepared. And in general, this is a good example of the importance of thinking through who really lives in a place, how they use it, and what they want, before assuming that more art is always better. That applies to far more than utility box painting.

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