Towering above the sidewalk of Champa Street in the downtown Denver are three black-and-white, multi-story billboards that read: “WHO ARE YOU,” “YOU ARE YOU,” and “ARE YOU YOU” respectively. The signs are promotional material for the Shantell Martin mural across the street. The Denver Theater District, in partnership with Nine dot Arts, commissioned the mural as part of their Terra Firma project. Terra Firma’s stated vision is to develop “unique urban art installations” in order to create “interactive, immersive and experimental art and culture events and experiences.”
Martin’s mural, which she created in mid-October, covers a 2,050-square-foot area on the sidewalk of south side of 14th Street between Arapahoe and Champa Streets. Her work consists of chaotic, black-and-white lines made with spray paint and markers; Martin intersperses her line work with textual elements and rudimentary representations. The overarching aesthetic bears an indebtedness to 80s-NYC Pop Art darlings Keith Haring and Jean Michel-Basquiat.
According to Martin’s website, her artwork is a “meditation of lines; a language of characters, creatures and messages that invites viewers to share a role in the creative process”; moreover, it explores “objects, places and conversations of the everyday experience.” With regard to her Denver mural, Martin noted in a recent interview with Westword that “she’s enthusiastic and happy to see people watching and asking questions: ‘It’s important that it’s accessible [and] people come see me working’.” To the extent that her art encourages audience members to participate in the creative process, engages everyday conversations and experiences, and is accessible to a wide range of viewers, Martin’s project champions an egalitarian, collaborative, and quotidian rhetoric.
But, as the aforementioned billboards highlight, her work also poses fundamental questions regarding the nature of one’s identity. In a recent article, Cori Anderson of 303 Magazine notes that Martin’s art is a “quest for identity,” in which “fine art, doodles, performance art, technology and everyday conversations collide. Each of these characteristics allows viewers from…different backgrounds to appreciate and come away with their own understanding of one her pieces.” As such, Martin’s work is an exploration of self, community, and the manner in which these two concepts interact with one another. Indeed, it is this interplay between the self and the other that makes her work compelling.
There are many ways in which Martin’s Denver mural challenges static notions of identity, and its material production highlights such affronts to singular conceptions of the self. For example, JDP Art Services assisted in the preparation of the piece by coating the city block in black and white concrete sealant, manufacturing a de facto “canvas” on which Martin worked. Afterward, the installation crew applied a clear top-coat for protective purposes. Likewise, Pink Sparrow fabricated the Martin-designed benches that augment the mural. And this is to say nothing of the various administrators at the Denver Theater District and Nine dot Arts that guided the project through a myriad of city regulations, developed a promotional apparatus, and managed its general planning and scheduling.
By enlisting a cadre of collaborators to assist in the creation of her mural, Martin tacitly acknowledges the complex questions of authorship. “WHO ARE YOU,” she asks; “ARE YOU YOU,” or are you part of a broader collective effort to usher an aesthetic experience into the world?
Of course, individuals employing a host of people to facilitate their vision is nothing new. Plenty of artists (e.g. Andy Warhol) have leveraged the concept of collaboratively manufactured art so that questions of identity and authenticity become paramount to the conversations surrounding them. More recently, artists such as Ai Weiwei have employed helpers to create large-scale, public works in order to echo their social and political beliefs regarding globalism, humanitarianism, and social justice. To this extent, Martin’s team of invisible hands is nothing new. In fact, it exists within a long and vibrant history of artistic production.
But Martin’s mural also engages a less evident (and perhaps more interesting) manner of collaboration that’s worth addressing: urban augmentations. Urban augmentations, for the sake of this article, are non-aesthetic and unintentional additions to a public work of art located in a cityscape.
While essentially unartistic in-and-of-themself, such additions integrate into the artwork so as to become part of the piece and, thus, transform into unexpected aesthetic elements. Moreover, urban augmentations bear within themselves the mark the city itself: its residents, visitors, creatures, plants, machines, detritus, etc.
Some of the urban augmentations, such as dead leaves, bits of paper, garbage, pigeons, and pedestrians are temporary additions; while tire marks and footfalls present themselves as more permanent marks.
If we can agree, for the sake of argument, that Martin’s work is part of her identity (whether directly or by extension) and urban augmentations are literal embodiments of the city, then what does it mean for both parties to commune at the site of an aesthetic surface? Do the artist and the city lose something of themselves to each other, or do they synthesize to form a greater whole? Do they join in symbiotic reverie? Or do they chafe at one another in antagonistic discord? Or was the artist always part of the cityscape, a theretofore inactivate potentiality lying in wait until she actualized her presence in mid-October of 2017?
The answer, of course, isn’t clear cut. One could argue, no doubt, for any of these positions; and the stance one takes on these matters reflects more directly on the interpreter than on the work of art itself. The language Martin employs when discussing her work would suggest that she envisions her mural as a collaborative effort with the city: a collision of the self and the other in service of a greater unity. To this extent, one might assume that she champions these additions to her artwork as the full realization of the rhetoric underpinning her physical creation. Others, it would seem, do not share in these utopic sentiments.
Recently, the Denver Theater District contracted JDP Art Services to clean Martin’s mural, removing the urban augmentations from the surface of the work. Benches once scuffed by bike tires and stained by cigarette butts returned (somewhat) to their former white sheen.
The black-on-white mural painted on the ground of the passageway between the light rail stop and 14th Street was scrubbed and pressure washed clean of coffee spills, footprints, and debris.
Such a concerted effort to remove these elements from the surface of the mural would suggest that those tasked with attending to it view these urban augmentations as intrusive, aesthetically disruptive, or otherwise disagreeable.
One might imagine that those who commissioned the clean-up believe these non-aesthetic elements are just that: dirt, grime, and garbage that needs to be cleared from the ground in order to preserve the aesthetic integrity of a work of art. And while, yes, these efforts do assist in maintaining the visual sheen of the mural, they seem to undercut the spirit of Martin’s piece. In effect, the care-takers will not allow the city to reassert itself within its own environment. Rather, the city must subordinate itself to an aesthetic overlay. The city disappears within the mural; or, stated differently, the city succumbs to its erasure.
Sadly, the removal of these marks bears resemblance to other city-endorsed “clean-up” efforts. For instance, during January of this year, the Denver Police Department conducted “sweeps” of the Ballpark neighborhood, systematically and forcibly removing homeless populations living outside of shelters. Tents were dismantled, belongings were disposed of (including blankets and clothing), and people displaced. City officials deemed these sweeps “a matter of public health and safety”; but others noted that such actions were “reminiscent of a scene from a dystopian science fiction novel.”
And it’s not just the city’s most vulnerable populations that are being removed or erased; entire blocks worth of buildings are being razed in order for developers to construct luxury condominiums and apartments. In their rush to accommodate the influx of young, white wealth relocating to Denver for the tech industry, recreational weed, or outdoor activities, city officials have fast-tracked the removal of all that it sees unfit for their redeveloped urbanscape: a White Land suffused with financial prosperity, “safety,” “cleanliness,” and “beauty.”
In the spirit of both transparency and attending to Martin’s rhetorical inquiry of “WHO ARE YOU,” I feel it is incumbent upon me to mention that I am a 1099, part-time employee for JDP Art Services. In addition to prepping the sidewalks for Shantell Martin’s mural, I was also the primary personnel for the mural’s clean-up. The irony of this task is not lost on me.
As an aging artist and writer living in financial poverty, I am one of the populations of which the city of Denver is looking to rid itself. I know this. Yet I help clean the city of myself; it is a desperate act of a person trying to support themselves while maintaining a daily art practice. Soon, this will no longer be tenable. I am complicit in my own erasure. I do so willingly, but nonetheless regrettably.
Part of me wants to believe that there is hope in all of this; that the city (and myself) can redeem itself. But this aspiration, in many ways, is foolish. To think that somehow struggling artists, the homeless, the racially and culturally marginalized, and those who are socioeconomically aggrieved will be safeguarded against the city’s machinations for a more prosperous future seems ludicrous. The urban landscape of Denver has altered so drastically over the past 5 to 10 years that certain segments of the city feel emboldened enough to openly flaunt the process of gentrification as both an imperative and a punch line.
But I want to believe I am not just participating in my own self-annihilation. I want to believe that during the early-morning Sunday hours, while I scrubbed and washed the sidewalks as the rest of the city slept, there was something to affirm in my manual labor. I wanted something, anything really, in which to believe.
I suppose, then, I comfort myself in the thought that, at very least, I am caring for the work of another artist. That I am collaborating, in some menial way, to the preservation of her work. That even with all the implications of erasure and removal tied to my actions, I honor something else. Something altruistic. Perhaps this is true; perhaps this is a lie I tell myself to cope with my complicity. Perhaps it is both. Perhaps it is dependent upon how I interpret my own actions.