A Parks District permit phone call today immediately illuminated some of the (less visible) limits on the kinds of public practices in place in canonical public places, like parks.
At noon today:
Parks official: "We do not allow acrobatics, and we do not allow graffiti. We spend a lot of time and money keeping graffiti out of the park"
Caitlin: "Well, it will of course not be on park property, it will be on boards, and fabric, and we could use washable paint."
Parks official: "We do not allow graffiti."
Caitlin: "Don't people paint in the park?"
Parks official: "On canvas."
Caitlin: "OK, but what about if it was on canvas, or cardboard, or paper?"
Parks official: "It cannot be on the grass, and that area is full of barbeque-ing anyway."
Caitlin: "What about juggling instead of acrobatics."
Parks official: "We do not allow acrobatics."
Caitlin: "This is just a little strange to me. In Chicago there is live painting all the time. What is the reason why it cannot happen here?"
Parks official: "Yes, in Barcelona, in other places, but not here. There are rules on the website. There is no painting in any city parks, and no acrobatics."
What is interesting here is first, the demonization of particular mediums. That an individual painting on canvas is less threatening than, say, a group of artists demonstrating the mural process on board or, cardboard, suggests an intense anxiety about collective expression and practice, as well as the persistent fear of the aerosol can as a tool in New York City, a hang-over from Mayor Lindsay (and later Rudy Guiliani's) War on Graffiti. Resistance to graffiti admits also a specifically classed and raced model of public space where a form of art that is still discursively linked to impoverished zones and "broken windows theory" serves as a nightmare for urban planners.
Second, is the fear of acrobatics-- a body doing gravity defying and spectacular movements. The worry I'd conjecture is about liability, a fear of bodily injury or vulnerability. What kinds of bodies (and movements) then ought to take place in the park? Baseball has high injury rates, as well as soccer, running, basketball, tennis. Here, I think, we see some of the uncertainty surrounding purely expressive and non competitive (teleological) physical activity that is about story telling rather than clear utilitarian goals like fitness, weight loss, or competition. Notably yoga, tai chi, and capoeira take place on the lawn in the park, all intensely acrobatic activities.
In both instances, the aesthetic figures as a site of anxiety, a space of confusion, and a zone that must be rigorously contained from polluting supposedly pristine natural sites. It also, however, serves as a way to erase the histories of park use that were intensely public, namely, the use of parks as meeting sites for young writers, parks as spaces for skaters, bboys and bgirls, intense scenes for constructing hip hop publics.
A later call was more illuminating and helpful: the Parks Department is concerned about circus rigs and art pieces because installation digs into the ground, and nothing is allowed on trees for fear that it will injure them. Here it seems to be more a question of competing understandings of the public good, one where maintaining the botanical integrity of a space is elevated above other kinds of use. We discussed potentially using pre-painted displays on a concrete surface, and "dance" instead of "acrobatics." The rhetorical gymnastics involved here are astounding. Instead of a direct conflict I was engaged in a process of discursive maneuvering and compromise, an affective scene that was decidedly less hostile, and might lead to us being able to stage a public performance.
But what is fascinating here is that already the attempt to experiment creatively with graffiti aesthetics in a site as historically charged as New York City is unfolding, illuminating the fickle and often empty character of what is understood to be "public" in an ever-privatized city. Moreover, the politics of park permitting helps us ask broader questions about what is prioritized in different cities, and what is devalorized. The pastoral identity of public parks in New York has a long and storied history, and the short exchange I had with the Parks Department points to residues of environmental uplift ideology that animated Fredrick Law Olmstead's Central Park design and subsequent debates over modernist urbanism. In a brutally pragmatic phone conversation environmental philosophy, public space ideology, fear of a litigation society, and urban sociology emerge as continuous components in the practice of trying to claim a right to the city.