apexart: SCRAWL - collected & curated by Harley Spiller - 4 Sept 2008 to 11 Oct 2008
collected & curated by Harley Spiller
September 4 - October 11, 2008
Thursday, September 4, 6-8 pm
Thursday, October 2, 6-9 pm
Public discussion with Melissa Rachleff Burtt,
Jem Cohen, Luc Sante and Harley Spiller,
including a screening of Jem Cohen's 1996
film Lost Book Found.
SCRAWL consists of close to 100 different handmade pronouncements collected from the streets and subways of New York City over the past 25 years. The works on exhibition range from the haragious to the habromaniacal (from scary to silly), from terse suggestions to indecipherably complex amalgams of mathematical figuring, philosophical posturing, and political ranting. The entreaties tend to the impassioned and visceral. Whether the ideas are impeccably presented in uniquely beautiful calligraphy, or scribbled, illegible palimpsests, the creators all seek to have their ideas recognized, many silently urging their fellow New Yorkers to right wrongs both personal and universal.
An essay by Harley Spiller, the collector and curator, illuminates the work of the 40 or so people represented in his collection, describing what’s captivating about the material, and telling the tales of actual encounters with the “artists.” His essay situates the material as an integral part of the human cultural tissue that connects us all, regardless of circumstances.. Spiller saves these works to preserve palpably urgent voices that would otherwise vanish like so much ticker tape after a parade. His intention with SCRAWL is to begin a public dialogue about these heady, provocative, and artful human expressions.
This collection began on a cloudy afternoon in 1985, when I strolled up Broadway and a cryptic note flickered in the corner of my eye. A few minutes later, regretting that I had not read it completely, I circled back to the bizarre message. Barely clinging to its Times Square lamppost, the weathered page, related to JFK conspiracy theory, was easy to remove. It has proven infinitely more difficult to decipher.
The statements contained in SCRAWL are often political, biblical, sexual, and/or psychological. They can be impeccably drafted in unique calligraphy or scribbled in unintelligible palimpsests. Ordinarily, the notes are all I have to parse, but once in a while I've bumped into “street authors.” In 1995 I saw my first, a lady dressed in black, the hellish noir of years of unwashed clothing. She was vigorously wiping an entire glue stick on a patch of brick. I continued watching from a distance as she posted her proclamation above busy Church Street. I'd seen the same ornamental writing before, but had only been able to snag a torn fragment. After she finished pasting, the lady wandered off, looking back over her shoulder from time to time. I waited long minutes before crossing the street. The glue was still wet. This time I got the entire text, along with a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.
It was six years before I spotted another scrawler, a hefty middle-aged man standing on the sidewalk in front of Zabar's, meekly distributing elaborate and mysterious hand-cut messages. I could make neither head nor tail of his curious-scramble of English and Hebrew letters, symbols, and more, so I dared ask “What's it all about?” “They're pictures not sounds so I don't talk about ‘em,” he murmured, turning back to leafleting.
What's stronger, the visual, the verbal, or some combination thereof? SCRaWL is rarely plain text or pure image, so what is it exactly? I'm not sure, but reading Rilke helps a little: “…try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers… Live the questions now.” (1)
OK Herr Rilke, I'm trying. Are the jam-packed pages of SCRAwL a result of horror-vacui (the fear of empty space)? Are these outbursts stirred by oppressive feelings that there's not enough room for what needs saying? Why isn't everyone interested in these “visual equivalent(s) of overheard whispers” (2)? What features does ScRAWL share with hieratic texts like Ethiopia's healing scrolls, believed to be powered by the forces at the intersection of medicine, perception and aesthetics? SCRawL can, as one critic described, seem like “the incandescence of true psychosis …a black hole of absolute spiritual density…If most art seeks to express the soul of its maker, here you have the soul itself, scorched onto the very paper with psychotic force.” (3) One thing's certain, sCRAWl haunts.
It's simpler to describe what the collection isn't, than to peg what it is. ScraWL is not:
Begging / Ingratiating
Literature, Music, Painting
Outsider, Naive, Brut, or Fine Art
Graffiti (here the law usually disagrees)
A small-town phenomenon
The first thing I tell strangers about
ScRawL is a collection of palpably urgent and captivating voices, containing close to 100 anonymous or pseudonymous pronouncements, from terse suggestions to indecipherably-complex amalgams of mathematical figuring, philosophical posturing, and political ranting. The notes range from the haragious to the habromaniacal (from scary to silly). Rarely are they supplicating. The creators, reclusive or otherwise, tend to the impassioned and visceral, often urging their un-met public to do something to right wrongs both personal and universal, to better our lots, to stand up and be counted.
ScRAwl inevitably leads to queries about its makers, especially their states of mind. The form and content of the work suggests psychological and social marginalization, but I'm unwilling to pigeonhole. Some scrawlers are homeless while others might hold good jobs and be surrounded by loving families. Then why the anonymity? Maybe it's related to feelings of shame. Scrawlers may be alone, or simply feel alone. Perhaps they don't dare express their opinions verbally, and the choice to post anonymously is about greater freedom of expression. Studying SCraWl is one way to learn about the human cultural tissue that connects us all, and the desire for such insight is a driving force behind my instinct to “re-post” these heartfelt entreaties.
Most of the 40 creators represented in ScrAwL work with pen or indelible marker, on paper or cardboard. The materials chosen, and the manner of posting, can be revealing. Scrawlers are akin to the people who make artists' books, in that they can afford to publish widely by using inexpensive Scotch-tape, staples and photocopies. Many scrawlers have the entrepreneurial and intellectual wherewithal to travel and install their multiples in provocative locations. Remember the early 1990s when midtown and lower Manhattan were plastered with strips of paper and masking tape marked “Phone Block Escort Service”? It was an all-out, one-man media blitz any Madison Avenue ad exec would envy.
Other scrawlers are surreptitious, gently placing their one-of-a-kind messages in discreet locations, like the Ouija-board-esque planks I found in a Laundromat, partially hidden at eye level. Most of scrAWl was found stuck to walls, but one ultra-political scribe reaches large audiences by pasting a variegated lattice of adhesive labels and highlighted color photocopies onto the clear glass of MTA bus stops. Another scrawler has been posting inside city buses for decades. His neatly-Sharpie©'d statements are presented on the back of cardboard ovals removed from tissue boxes. I saw him on the 6 train once, a presentable, longhaired man, breast pocket chockablock with multi-colored markers. He was writing intently so I didn't disrupt. What's behind the odd satisfaction we feel when opening a perforated box top? Why does he choose this medium for stock and voting tips? Where does he get all those Puffs and Scotties? Is he a hospital patient or frequent visitor? Is he prone to runny noses?
My longest encounter with a scrawler took place curbside on 53rd Street, across from MoMA. “Step right up and play” a big guy called out, carnie singsong style. I forked over a buck and just as I spun the wheel for my chance at a million, he gleefully pointed out the lack of a winning slot on his handmade roulette wheel. Homeless in midtown, “Robbo” showed me his carts, laden with trash-picked office supplies: reams of new copy paper, Fiskars galore, even a Xerox machine plugged into a city lamppost. He offered the lease for The World Trade Center and I snapped it up for four bits. Manhattan Island? Sold, for a mere twenty-fifth of Peter Minuet's asking price. Robbo signed me up for my own Homeless Express card, and we spent a glorious half-hour chatting about art, real estate, politics and more. I never did make it inside MoMA.
Will curators or shrinks or graphologists ever arrive at concrete conclusions about these broadsides which publicly blazon forth what trained psychiatrists admit are the “ancient mysteries of the human mind”? Maybe ordinary citizens know just as much as the experts – survivors of the recent Sichuan earthquakes said things like: “I don't want to be indoors – I've fully mentally prepared to stay outside for a long time…in a disaster time even crazy things become normal.” (4) NYC can be trying at its best, a war zone at its worst. Who's to say who's crazy?
Once, having no blank paper at hand, I stood on a street corner, scribbling in the empty spaces of a newspaper to capture a fleeting idea. I sensed a passerby gawking at me. He thinks I'm nuts, I shriveled, just like the scribes of dubious sanity who post the notes I collect. After two and a half decades I'm still not certain precisely why I collect scRAWl. Is it salve for my “furious discontent,” (5) a way to gain some measure of comfort in the knowledge that others are far more furious, more discontent? Do I do it for voyeuristic or vicarious jolts? I do know I save these materials to prove that I am both sane and unique; because few others seem to care; and because sCrAwL helps me get inside the minds of my fellow bipeds and fathom such modalities as reclusiveness in the big city.
“To be a collector is never to be satisfied, to continue on with the thrumming frustration that there's something else you need, want, crave, even if you have no idea what it is… Engage me, scare me, draw me in. I'm waiting. I want you.” (6) I don't know exactly why I treasure SCRAWL so, but I do agree with Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, “twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing.” (7)
© Harley Spiller
This essay would not have been possible without the smart and empathetic pencil of Dr. Melissa Monroe; the gracious counsel of Dr. Helen T. Hodys, Steven Rand, and Kerri Schlottman; and the love of my gorgeous family.
1. Rainer Marie Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1903, New World Library, Novato, CA, Translated by Joan M. Burnham, 2000, p. 35.
2. Dana Jennings, “Urban Hieroglyphics: Hinting at the Hint of a Story,” The New York Times, Feb. 24, 2002, p. 12.
4. Geoffrey A. Fowler, “China Residents Pitch Their Tents, Fearful of Homes,” The Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2008, p. 1.
5. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, The MacMillan Company, NY, 1918. p. 82.
6. Laura Lippman, “Loving the Ugly Mermaid,” The Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2008, p. W3.
7. Dostoyevsky, op. cit, p. 75.
Selected from apexart's annual Unsolicited Proposal Program.