The Revolution Begins with a Trash Can

Exhibiting art created for city streets in a museum setting is a difficult undertaking. The interior of an institution can often be one of the farthest environments from an “urban landscape.” As gated experiences with limited hours, museums are tightly controlled in regards to everything from lighting and security to object placement and user experience. In contrast, art designed for the streets, following completion by its creator, is typically left at the mercy of its surroundings, at which point it may be added to, mangled or simply disappear.  The city street also adds a level of cultural context that a white-walled gallery is hard pressed to replicate, particularly when an opening or other event involving a chaotic mass of people is not taking place in the building.  Absence of control adds an element of risk to art, and without the risk, urban art can instantaneously be sucked lifeless.

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego took on the challenge of exhibiting urban art through Viva La Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape, a group show of work by 20 international street artists.  Predictably, the MCASD attempted to mediate the dissonance between the urban environment and the museum enclosure by commissioning a number of works to exist outside of the exhibition in the gallery spaces, on the streets of San Diego. During the three days I visited the city, the only mural of the nine installed I had the opportunity to experience was a colossal, red societal critique pasted across the side of an Urban Outfitters by Shepard Fairey. The wheatpaste mural was comprised of layers of the iconic images (Angela Davis portraits, images of singular eyes) and social commentary (“OBEY CONSUME REPEAT”) typical of the artist’s work.

“Hillcrest Mural” by Shepard Fairey, 2010, image from

In many ways Fairey’s Hillcrest mural is most interesting because of its siting on the exterior wall of an Urban Outfitters: “renegade” art on the side of the commercially mainstream clothing store. It is unlikely that a chain retail store would allow spontaneous street art to remain on the side of its building, were it not sanctioned by a museum exhibition. It is also widely known that this particular store sells mass-produced garments and home wares made to appear as though they are second-hand items and elements of genuine nostalgia, bringing out the somewhat deceptive quality of street art created for a museum exhibition. The commissions may be of the utmost quality but the conditions under which they were created are distinct from actual urban works: budgeted, somewhat protected (Fairey’s Hillcrest mural has been tagged and restored on multiple occasions since the exhibition’s opening) and with sites legally procured.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the MCASD’s inclusion of a city-wide element in this exhibition. It is more expected than innovative in the sense that museums have been noticeably more active about creating installations beyond their buildings as a regular practice, particularly in southern California this year; for instance, this past spring, UCLA’s Fowler museum sent Nick Cave’s sound suits out into the world through semi-unexpected “invasions” on campus and the MAK Center for Art and Architecture disseminated 21 artist-created billboards throughout greater L.A. Should the MCASD have not commissioned the street art projects for Viva La Revolución, there would have almost certainly been a noticeable absence in the exhibition and a missed opportunity to bring art into a community that had so much impact on the development of the medium as “higher” art.

But, the success of Viva La Revolución I found most noteworthy was the effectiveness of the street art exhibition in the gallery spaces. The MCASD downtown location housing the exhibition was previously luggage storage for the adjacent Santa Fe train depot. The building’s details already somewhat urban in their styling due to this prior use, upon entering the space there was a sense that this is the place for a street art show.  Yet the indoor version of Viva La Revolución was something of a quiet revolution, its fate determined by an unassuming trash can in a corner. Titled Busted Plume, artist David Ellis’s piece initially seemed  to be a mere container for brightly colored pieces of garbage that appeared too clean and without weathering, much like Fairey’s pristine mural outside Urban Outfitters. But momentarily, one, then multiple items in the can created a structured rhythm amongst themselves.

The clanking was as clean as the garbage itself. Ultimately a composition by Roberto Carlos Lange, the sharpest sounds had the assuredness of a symphonic staccato; as the garbage can crescendoed into its strongest controlled cacophony, the small work’s presence suddenly was in control of the entire gallery space. This was a significant feat, considering how most other works in the room were gargantuan. Swoon’s tower of abandoned furniture and ethereal figures towered over the gallery, nearly reaching the beams of the space’s lofted ceiling while Akay’s mass of graffiti tools occupied the length of the wall adjacent to Ellis’s trash can. But through its aural domination, Busted Plume maintained the largest presence, even as the sound faded into the periphery around corners or behind glass doors.

"Viva La Revolucion" installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego downtown

The decision to tuck Busted Plume into the most prominent gallery of Viva La Revolución was a bold choice.  Many museum visitors resist what they fear to be disruptions of the traditionally tranquil museum experience. While those attending an exhibition of street art may be expected to have a higher level of tolerance, a curatorial trust in Ellis’s piece as a centralizing force was clearly necessary; in the end this was absolutely the right decision.  The wastebasket brings the absence of control over visual experiences from the urban environment to the otherwise highly controlled museum experience, thus introducing a definitive element of street art into the gallery. Although Shepard Fairey’s mural had the name recognition and star power as a spotlight piece physically on the street, the essence of street art was to be found most successfully in the galleries of Viva La Revolución, where a wastebasket subtly demonstrates how the world works.