Arts writer, Oliver Staton, discusses the binary of technology and graffiti around Leeds.
You would be hard pressed to find a technologically adept young person who isn’t aware of the startling mental dangers of being an active user of social media and smartphones. Claims like this already smack of cliché, once confined to the platitudes of our grandmothers but now commonly accepted in our generation. The evidence found in studies on the topic is acutely worrying: a study of UK universities linked excessive Twitter use with a negative effect on real life social interaction. Another survey of psychological literature that researched smartphones concluded that symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress were all closely linked to their use.
This article isn’t going to be a pearl-clutching, ‘won’t somebody think of the children!’ lament of the loss of childhood innocence and the dangers of digital addiction. I have been a confirmed internet and social media user some time, so it would be hypocritical of me to position myself as in some way “holier than thou”. That argument was bound to lose from the start, incomparably small was its power against the force of boundless entertainment and distraction that smartphones hold. In an post-religion UK we now worship at the altars of our own online identities and those of distant celebrities who dictate the tastes that run through these platforms. Again, I intend to make no categorical value judgment here. Religion is a complex topic which offers a level of social integrity in equal measure to its limiting dogmatism and intellectually questionable claims. Smartphones allow us a level of contact with our family members that could never have been dreamed of. If something bad happens to you, it’s never been easier to let your loved ones and the authorities know about it. We can navigate cities in counties all around the globe, as well as ordering takeaway food or arrange a casual sex meet up, through widely used smartphone apps.
Anonymous and largely context free, it’s up to the viewer what to make of this art.
It’s of more interest to see the ways in which a society reacts to the transformations the UK has been subjected to through the coming of the digital era. Graffiti represents the antithesis of what social media culture means for most people: what could be more contrary to the behaviours that dictate the formula for achieving the greatest possible number of likes on your Instagram holiday upload, than a medium which forces its message upon you with little regard for your tastes and preferences? There’s no Facebook algorithm to suggest other content you might like for spray paint murals. Its disregard for both individual or social tastes has always distinguished graffiti from other areas of art, even gallery artwork that riffs on the merits and consequences of technological progression and its fruits implicitly buys into the digital discourse. There’s a particular irony to be drawn from ‘Sharing’ or ‘Checking Into’, say, the Tate Modern, in order to sing the praises of their series of talks on ‘Art in the Age of Digital Drift’ and the potentially dark consequences outlined by the speakers. Banksy, the person(s) who it is unavoidable to mention in any discussion of graffiti, encapsulated the morbid effect of ubiquitous phone use on us in his so-called ‘Mobile Lovers’ piece. The familiar blue glow of a backlit screen hums between and behind the couple, leaving an eerie aftertaste.
Graffiti represents the antithesis of what social media culture means for most people: what could be more contrary to the behaviours that dictate the formula for achieving the greatest possible number of likes on your Instagram holiday upload, than a medium which forces its message upon you with little regard for your tastes and preferences?
The words ‘Talk More’ are graffitied on a piece of wooden board adjacent to Church, down the road from the Parkinson Building, along with a few other locations in Leeds. The words sit beneath a design which can only be construed as a kind of Rubin Vase image of either a single person’s nose and eyes, or two faces in profile looking towards one another in dialogue, presumably. Anonymous and largely context free, it’s up to the viewer what to make of this art. Its placement at various locations in Leeds suggests the artist desired a persistent message to be conveyed around the area, so that perhaps if enough people take notice the mantra might stay in their minds, and maybe even take it to heart. Perhaps that’s a naive view of things, but it would be a naivety that I would buy into in its entirety – and I imagine the anonymous artist did too. The value of mediums like graffiti in the ultra-connected digital era, where traditional galleries and exhibition spaces either out of choice or out of necessity are forced to implicitly buy into the social media juggernaut cannot be underestimated. It struck me how clearly the simplicity of the message stayed with me, and was probably one of the few moments during my standard day at university and home where I was not viewing something through a screen or hopelessly leafing through some unbearably dense academic prose.
Perhaps I’ve missed the point here, and the content of the ‘Talk More’ symbol would still apply to 1950s Britain as well, rather than only to the modern day where we are becoming increasingly disillusioned with life and isolated from one another – experiences that the maxim of ‘Talk More’ tries to counteract. Ironically, ‘Talk More’ has its own Instagram account, the byline of which encourages viewers to share it when they see it. Surely, though, in an era where smartphones have become a staple feature of both work and leisure time – and an undesirable relief method for any social situation which even hints at silence or awkwardness – the idea that we ought to rediscover the lost art of conversation ought to be lauded. Next time you’re walking along Woodhouse Lane, maybe take a moment out of your day to reflect on that message. Equally, you could get some serious pseudo-profound online credentials from an artfully taken shot.
(Image courtesy of @daisymankee)