Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"Reverse Graffiti"

What, you mean you've never heard of "reverse graffiti"? I don't blame you; it's the kind of urban art form that those of us who rarely frequent major cities never get to see. Luckily, the fine folks at Inhabitat brought it to my attention, and I have to say, it's pretty clever.

On those lovely days in early spring when the conifers of the world decide to pollinate all up in our windpipes and windshields, have you ever had some little punk scrawl some kind of a "Wash me!" message on your rear windshield? (My younger brother, bless his soul, is fond of one that laments, "I wish my wife were this dirty.") This is the same idea, taken to a slightly higher plane of expression. The artists involved go to places like roadway tunnels that accumulate a lot of grime from the emissions of our carbon-fueled existence, and selectively clean them so that what remains is a work of art. As you can imagine, it presents a little bit of a quandary for the authorities. Do they arrest the artist for making graffiti, or do they commend him/her for cleaning up the city? This gray area is well-detailed by the above article as well as one it links to, at the "Podnosh Blog," about what implications this has for the "broken windows" theory of policing.

"That's interesting," you say, "But how is this related to the environment? I see the connection with air quality, but is that all?" I'll get there shortly.

Some, such as "Moose," practice art for what appears to be art's sake. However, a Brazilian artist named Alexandre Orion made his environmental message more graphic when he (is there a better word for this?) "tagged" a tunnel in Sao Paolo with hundreds of skulls -- which I (and others) have taken to represent what the automobiles that deposited his artistic medium are doing to the environment and other human beings.

I think there are pros and cons to Orion's approach.

On the plus side, it shows through metaphor what is a very real process that is going on right now, and that has been going on since the Industrial Revolution and especially since World War II. Emissions from power generation, manufacturing, and (as highlighted by Orion) automobiles make a measurable impact on rates of respiratory diseases such as asthma and deaths from these diseases. They are also the major source of the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet, which will lead to even more deaths. "Reverse graffiti" must also be celebrated for its ingenuity, as presented in the articles.

However, I believe that there are downsides to sensationalization of any news story. (Although a topic for another forum, the following problem and others are why I fundamentally disagree with 24-hour TV news in all its manifestations.) When the media report on global warming, it's often associated with images of gloom and doom -- statistics forecasting major deaths, warnings of climate thresholds, and other horror stories. What's often lacking is an optimistic vision, a plan of action we can take to improve air quality and avoid the worst effects of global warming. I ardently believe that we can turn things around, if we start now. But when the media report only the negative side of the story (because doom sells), it turns people off; people get sick of watching news stories on how they're destroying the planet and so eventually they stop listening. That's just terrible for everything on this planet in the long run, because people need to know about this issue. But they need to be informed about it in a balanced way, which includes something about how they can bring about a better future.

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