Baudrillard in a Layup

Caleb Neelon

[Editor's note: for shots of New York subway graffiti, see the section on that subject in Art Crimes, Susan Farrell's magnificent international graffiti site, which contains thousands of images organized by city and country and also essays and other materials. GPL]

New York City's subways were for two decades a rolling canvas of wonderful filth and wanton destruction interspersed with masterful art. New York City's government and transit authority did not like subway graffiti, however, and took great steps to ensure clean trains. On May 12, 1989, the subways were declared permanantly free of graffiti. A policy was instituted that took cars out of service immediately if graffiti appeared upon them. This did not mean that New York's graffiti writers ceased to paint their favorite target. It simply meant that their work would not be seen. Or would it?

What has happened in the past eight years is a phenomenon which applies well into Baudrillard's vision of the media, only with a much more positive result. Graffiti writers take photographs of their work to document what will inevitably be destroyed. In the past ten years there has sprung up an entire sub-industry of graffiti documentation, including books, magazines, videos, and most widespread of all, the world wide web. These documentations have created a global graffiti culture and have a massive audience.

So what about that painting on the New York subway that nobody will ever see? Typically the graffitist will photograph the painting before he leaves the train yard or layup, even in the dark. The result will be better than nothing. In the morning, the graffitist has two choices: either mail off photos of his train painting, or guard them closely, treating them as a special treasure which the rest of the world has not earned the right to see.

The funny thing is that there are so many issues of what is "real" here. In the early 1990's a group of extremely savvy German and Dutch graffiti writers came to New York for the sole purpose of painting trains, which they did. This in itself was not so extraordinary. People had travelled to New York to paint trains before. What was extraordinary was the way that the Europeans consciously set up their experience so that they could take photographs of the painted trains, not in a darkened underground layup, but in motion, against a background of city buildings. Their level of planning was exquisite: they chose a train yard without cleaning facilities and scouted out photographic vantage points along the rail route that they knew the paintings would have to travel along to get to their eventual doom. All this to get a photo of the thing running - as if it made the paintings any more "real!"

Their photographs were released to the various graffiti media and were met with great response. One magazine accompanied the photos with this statement: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a noise? If someone paints a train in a yard and gets no photo, did it ever exist?"

Baudrillard's fear of the media is obvious, and well-founded. Atrocities such as the Holocaust should not be brought to our knowledge by televison alone, yet how is one to gain "real" knowledge? Speaking with Holocaust survivors is becoming increasingly difficult as they themselves die out naturally. I suppose a better question to ask is: how is one today supposed to learn about slavery? Sometimes a simulacrum is the best we have. One that is digitized and infinately reproducable, well, that's even better.

So what did happen to that train that got painted? Well, in many a case, the photos were published, and instantly became available to the world. No longer prisoner to the rails and tunnels of New York, these supposedly untarnished trains are available for the world to see, in all their defiance. Obviously the product, in these cases, is nowhere near as important as the statement it makes, and its subsequent reproduction. The "real" painting on the train is powerless. The copy and its simulacra are what hold the power.

[To other discussions of Baudrillard by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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