Graffiti archaeography : the poetics of engagement in Sydney's inner suburbs
This dissertation intervenes in the material traces of illicit graffiti writing and urban art production in Sydney’s inner suburbs to reveal how graffiti reshapes and transforms place. Graffiti’s engagements with time, space and place are understood as a poetic process of revealing and concealing inscriptive marks to construct new or hidden narratives. This research has four overlapping goals and aims. Firstly, to map the unfolding and unfinished meshwork of graffiti traces in three territories of production – the exterior, interior and subterranean habituses of Sydney. Secondly, to photograph graffiti’s fragmented and differentiated displays in situ to provide formal texts for analysis and archivisation. Thirdly, to analyse the tensions and dialogues embedded in graffiti’s multimodal formations to understand how place is constructed through the graffiti in the three territories. Fourthly, to design a dynamic and agile virtual interface to reimagine graffiti’s place as digital heritage. As a practice-based research project, it comprises a thesis and a digital image archive titled Sydney Graffiti Archive (www.sydneygraffitiarchive.com.au). Sydney’s graffiti subculture has largely been ignored in the scholarly literature to date. Council crackdowns, heavy fines and anti graffiti strategies, coupled with the increasing regulation, monetisation and institutionalisation of graffiti writing and urban art have contributed to the marginalisation of its illicit counterparts and the relentless sanitisation of public space. Moreover, there has been a resistance to engage with graffiti’s complex visual codes and the significance of its varied material expressions or attend to the less visible contexts of production. The spatio-temporal and material specificity of street, interior and subterranean fields of practice are critical to this research case, which implies that meanings and identities are not only situated in the socio-historical context of the sign, but embedded in the multi-layered fabric of the cityscape, the graffiti modes and their temporally elastic relations. I have developed a reflexive and interpretative framework to respond to the complexity of material and temporal disclosure associated with the photographic re-framing of graffiti’s traces. The research method combines and weaves connections between photography and archaeology, what Michael Shanks refers to as archaeography. I consider the photographic analysis of graffiti to be an archaeological concern because as artefacts of an archaeological method of disclosure, photographs capture temporal and material fragments, which through re-framing make further interventions possible. To trace the shifting and continuous landscape of graffiti production, I have drawn from Tim Ingold’s (2008) meshwork of place and Guy Debord’s (1958) theory of the dérive. For the interpretative work I have turned to the concepts of multimodality and intertextuality to afford an effective reading of the differentiated material and semiotic assemblages of graffiti writing and urban art modes framed in situ. Together, these components make up a transdisciplinary framework that constitutes a methodological and discursive space in which the graffiti’s hybrid assemblages can be meaningfully interpreted. The photographs frame complex tensions, discourses and power relations that succeed in building an ineffable, phenomenological, material, discursive, semiotic and contextually responsive picture of place constructed through the graffiti. From the contested and politicised terrain of inner Sydney’s laneways, to the playscapes of its dormant interiors and liminal realm of its subterranean cavities, I maintain that the value and legacy of graffiti lies in its poetisation of the urban experience. The creation of the Sydney Graffiti Archive as a living repository for the photographs further re-emphasises the value of the recontextualisation of graffiti, as monuments to the past and sites of knowledge in their own right. The significance of this counter archive lies in its powerful reflexive mnemonic that encourages new ways of seeing illicit graffiti texts as it reshapes present relations to the past and subverts conventional notions of what constitutes cultural heritage and place. This thesis demonstrates that graffiti archaeography, as both a method and mode of engagement with graffiti’s traces, provides a working model to construct alternative narratives about differentiated forms of material culture and place-making that have largely gone unrecorded in the past.