Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Conversation with Raymond Salvatore Harmon: Bomb

Born in the middle of nowhere Raymond Salvatore Harmon has wandered the earth, building things out of nothing, constructing realities from vague indifference and cultivating a prolonged distaste for both academia and any kind of manual labor.

RSH: "At all levels, ultimately graffiti is an act of cultural insurgency. It is a rebellion; against the norm, against society at large, against corporations, against the city or "government." Graffiti is the act of changing the visual environment in the public space. It doesn't matter if its a quickly scrawled tag or a well developed painting, it shouldn't be there and it is."

James Curcio: To begin with, I'd like to hear what you think the function of graffiti art is. Maybe it has a purpose, maybe it doesn't, but even if you don't intend a purpose, a social action like that has a reaction, it serves a function. They don't necessarily all need to have the same function but I imagine when you really cut down to it there is a fairly small range of possibilities there. What do you think?

Raymond Salvatore Harmon: Modern urban visual environments are controlled by corporations and city governments (which are in fact almost always corporations themselves). They decide where a road goes, how big signs can be, when a billboard can go up, etc. This is all dictated by financial gain. Advertising revenue plays a huge part in city planning.

When someone alters this visual landscape without permission they are fucking with the economic value of that environment. In doing so they are counteracting the attempt that the city government makes to control that environment. While the content and message can vary greatly within graffiti, the act is very clear. Graffiti is doing this act in violation of the law.

Increasingly we are seeing the growth of something that appears to be "graffiti", in that it has co-opted graffiti's common visual aesthetics and techniques, but it is done with permission. "Street art" is graffiti without the teeth. When it's being done with permission it's just the same as the advertising billboards. It's part of the plan, and in being so it's devoid of the same level of depth found in an act of true vandalism.


JC: There is a certain "pay to play" element to what is considered a legal display of imagery and what is illegal. And of course, images are a form of communication. Only some ideas get broadcast, and those ideas have money behind them. Pay $10,000 for a billboard, it's legal. This reminds me a little of the "illegal" guerrilla gardens springing up in the US, where groups are taking unused plots of lands in areas where people have little option but processed awful pseudo-foods, and growing food and using it and giving away the excess for free, in accordance with the basic "rules" of permaculture. And a lot of these operations are being shut down. There's such a point of absurdity here, and none of the arguments leveled against these groups hold much water.

However, and this is a big however, the benefit of healthy food is quite obvious. The benefit provided by some art should also be just as obvious to most people, although it often is not. But much tagging and what I guess I'd have to call crappy graffiti doesn't fall into the same boat. It's not all social activism. I mean, I don't think it is. What do you think? Is there a line to be drawn here?

RSH: The food analogy is good because it underlines the basic situation with both of these concepts, that doing something that avoids the typical capitalist infrastructure is frowned upon by the capitalist government and the corporations that own it.

RSH - Art has a Disease (MBW Attack - London) from Raymond Salvatore Harmon on Vimeo.

The quality of a piece of art doesn't make it "not art." Any form of creative expression is ultimately art. So a "crappy tag" is just as valid an expression as a well painted piece. The irony is that you are seeing cities all over the world start to protect pieces that are by famous artists that have "financial value" all the while still harassing anyone who does graffiti that isn't famous. Its not about the quality, its about the financial value.

In a society where corporations control the visual environment of the public urban space the only form of expression that makes change is one in which we attack that control variable. Are some taggers/painters/writers better than others? Sure. But does it matter who is better or worse? Not really.

JC: Hm. I think there's something interesting going on here. I agree that there is no way to arbitrate what constitutes good art or bad art. Whenever someone creates rules, someone goes and breaks them and in so doing, blows the doors open on our concepts of the nature of art. And eventually that radical approach becomes part of the establishment, and represents a new building that must be destroyed, or painted over. Banksy for instance, now his work is entering a Warhol-esque dimension of fame whereas originally it had been just illegal.

But there are two things I'd like to highlight, and I'd be interested in hearing your take on it.

First, though there's no way of arbitrating this, I think there is "good" art and "bad" art. Just not universally. We won't agree on what it is, and that's exactly the point, I think. By exposing our own aesthetics, we can find the Others that see the world in a vaguely similar way- or we can encounter people that shatter our way of seeing the world, and we can see it a new way. So I think it does matter that some are better than others, but probably not in the way a lot of people would think it does.

And second- as you said, graffiti is not the same as a mural. The difference is not so much that you're getting paid, rather it is what that represents. I believe what you're saying is that it is inherent to the nature of graffiti art that it be illegal. It seems to me that aside from defying the "pay to play" nature of the commons that corporations and politicians assume, it is inherently transgressive. I mean, the moment it becomes condoned across the board it becomes something else. It can hang in the gallery alongside Duchamp's Fountain.

I think there is also a line between transgression and vandalism, which is one of the reasons I think it matters if a graffiti artist is coming at it with an awareness of these things, or they're just tagging because they think it's cool. Do you agree?

What is the point in transgressing in that way?

RSH: Duchamp is a great example of someone whose work was transgressive and attempting to exist outside of the context of the art world but who was appropriated immediately by the art world he was trying to resist. Banksy is just the latest version of that same thing, Banksy's greatest creation is Banksy the artist, and now Banksy the brand.

The concepts of good and bad are directly related to personal experience, they have no validity outside of how an individual may experience the art. You may look at a well painted mural and think "Wow that's amazing!" and someone else is going to say "Meh, its looks like a Nike ad" and then again they may look at a sloppy tag smeared on the front of a retail shop and say "Now that's brilliant!" but to you its just a clumsy splash of paint with no context. What matters is not "good or bad" but reaction or no reaction. If you have a reaction to it then its doing its job. If you don't notice it then its not.

The fact is that real graffiti will never be condoned. That's what is so good about it. The visual aesthetics may be appropriated by the marketing world, millions of prints and t-shirts may be sold, but in no way will spraying paint over someone's building without permission be made legal.

JC: I think you're probably right about that. But that still doesn't answer the question- what is the point in doing it? Is there one, or does there need to be one? Of course I imagine each artist is likely to answer that in a different way- but I'm curious to know your answer.

RSH: Are you asking "What is the point of graffiti?" which I see much the same way I would see the question "What is the point of painting?" and I would give much the same answer to both questions - compulsion. You do it because you don't have any choice but to do it. Between the variables of who you are and how your environment affects you there is an internal drive that compels an artist to create, to express, and graffiti - even the seemingly talentless/pure vandalism type - is no different. Each person may have their own "reasons" for doing it, but in the end its all about not being able to not do it. Its an act of self expression, no different than playing a guitar or painting a painting.

What separates it from these other kinds of creative expression is the aggressive form that it takes. Its not being done quietly at home where no one can see or hear it. Its happening out in the world regardless of if people like it, which gives it an incredible ability, the power to communicate to the public without any intermediary involved.

JC: I think it's interesting that you came to the same general conclusion on this that I have. When I was a little younger I had a lot more I guess you could say idealism about the intention behind my work, but when you reach a certain point- when you've gone well past the bounds of practicality or even sanity to pursue your work - you have to recognize that at bottom it's a compulsion. Habits can be good or bad of course. Yoga is an example of a method of trying to reprogram physical habits of alignment and breathing. It's not all like putting a needle in your arm. But a lot of art might be a bit more like the needle than yoga. It's hard to say.

That said, there can still be an intention behind it. So I was just rooting around there for yours.

What projects are you working on now? Are you looking to go somewhere with it or is it really "chasing the dragon"?

RSH: In my life there have been two currents that have run in parallel for a long time that have just started to converge (unfortunately). On the one had I am an unrealist as an artist. Aesthetics doesn't need to have an explicit message in a semantic sense. Language often simplifies something that can be more complex than any set of verbal descriptions. Burroughs said that language is a virus and I would have to agree with that.

So creatively, as a painter, I have sought out form and colour as a way of expressing myself without the need for some kind of philosophic message. I see all art as simply experience and nothing more. First there is the experience of the artist in creating the work. The process, the interaction with the medium as a form of expression, the dance. Secondly art is the experience of perceiving it. Of looking at at, hearing it, touching, even tasting in the moment of the audience/viewers perceptual awareness. Besides this two sided coin of experience there is nothing.

Alongside of this current of creative expression has always been a very distinct outlook on the world's socio-political stage. Call it an interest in contemporary urban anthropology (which is my education background) I have always had strong opinions on what I call the "disconnect" that most people live in, a kind of strangely exclusive filter bubble that lets people get on with living without acknowledging that totally corrupt and insanely designed socio-cultural box we are told we have to live in. It started in my teens, I was really into social anarchism and the writings of Giovanni Baldelli at age 15, around the time the Tienanmen Square events occurred and it shaped my outlook on the media and the governments of the world.

So now I find these two currents spilling over into each other despite many years of keeping them separate. But in general I see all of my interests starting to converge as we move into the future. The media work, the painting, the writing (which is my least favorite thing to do) are all coming together. There may be another book at some point, but really I guess I am just chasing the dragon.

On November 11th (11.11.11) RSH is launching a new project, NO CTRL, which he describes as "Casting a doubtful eye upon consensual reality. A look at the world from outside the filter bubble." more info at: noctrl.org

[Check out some of the books, albums, and soon movies produced by Mythos Media and our various media partners.]

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