Somebody should have seen this coming.
The book is Trespass: a history of uncommissioned urban art, and it's extraordinary: It contains more than 300 pages of magnificent guerrilla art from around the world, along with short commentary threads that connect the artists and their work to one another across time.Open it at random and you'll see a human ice sculpture sitting alone in a parking lot on a sunny day; an Exxon billboard "improved" so that it reads "Shit Happens"; a floating neon arrow pointing to the sky, raised up above the Vatican, saying "Nude Nuns"; and a hillside shantytown in Brazil where the faces of the women who live in the shacks have been painted on the sides of their homes.
It's breathtaking. Every page has something better than much of the weak academic tea that passes for "counterculture" in some galleries.
The common thread that links every piece, according to editor Ethel Seno, is that "nobody asked permission." Art this good doesn't fit in with its surroundings: It re-creates those surroundings in a way that upends the notion of property.
That was the spirit behind the San Francisco release party for Trespass, according to its mastermind Jack Napier, founder of the Billboard Liberation Front.
"(Publisher) Taschen Press was only doing release parties in cities where they have company stores, like Paris and New York and L.A.," Napier said. "They weren't going to do one in San Francisco, which was really too bad because we have a great unauthorized art scene here. So we 'liberated' some books and invited some of the artists to come up and do it anyway."
City Lights (where else, really?) hosted, and a packed house of mostly BLF groupies turned out to hear Napier, Seno, and BLF Chief Information Officer _____ DeCoverly explain the history of the book and the history of art itself. (the _____ in "Officer _____ DeCoverly" is pronounced "Blank," and the name is, uh, also "liberated," we speculate, from a character in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Major ______ DeCoverly.)
Those who fought with the foul weather to attend weren't disappointed. In fact, DeCoverlypresented the first work of guerrilla art theory that fully incorporates the spirit of quality guerrilla art. Pay attention now: It begins in prehistoric times.
"In the beginning," DeCoverly explained, "people were stupid and didn't have anything to look at except the natural world, which is messy."
Art, he speculated, was either developed because people were tired of looking at nature, or because they had products they needed to advertise on cave walls. Early cave paintings, according to slides he presented, were in fact advertisements for fetish bull penises. A close inspection of ancient hieroglyphics likewise reveals that they are classified ads for Egyptian beer, prostitutes, and injury lawyers.
Begun in Mesopotamia, advertising was perfected in Europe. By the 20th century advertising had gotten so thick that you could barely see the natural world at all. Mascots became the totem animals and God figures that we now project back onto our early ancestors. Art schools sided with commerce, actively recruiting students to go into commercial arts.
The means of artistic production were expensive, and being an "artist" required either enormous sacrifice or money.
But what capitalism takes away it always sells back, and the explosion of cheap materialschanged the equation. With the invention of the spray can, any punk with a finger could be an "artist" -- and there was a war on between commerce and its dissenters ... with "art working both sides of the street."
The "art industry" and its rebels claim to be making "real" art, and both are right -- and however dominant corporate power seems, "the genie is out of the bottle." You can't stop people from painting on the cave walls.
The event lasted a mere 45 minutes -- probably because uncommissioned artists know they have to do their work fast. After the presentation Napier passed out fortune cookies, all of which had the message "F**k S**t Up!" A few of the artists whose works were featured in the book were around to sign copies.
Artist Jason Eppink - whose "Pixelator" was placed over New York City MTA video screens to morph their commercial videos into 45 blinking, color-changing, squares - was asked to sign a copy of Trespass by an obviously awe-struck young man.
"Do you do art yourself?" Eppink asked while signing his name.
"Yes, sort of."
"Well," said Eppink. "From now on, never ask permission."