Political street art, in the style of Banksy's stencilled paintings or projections of rebellious statements onto the homes of the powerful, is having a heyday. It is usually easy to understand, rebellious and amusing, and admired by non-gallery-goers and cerebral critics alike. Banksy's art tends to present a hyperbolized society of control and surveillance, in which police and corporations are derided as equally oppressive. In this, it is an evolution of text-based political graffiti that have existed ever since there has been paint. ("Romani ite domum," according to Monty Python, was possibly the first.)
Some artists take a more subtle approach and repaint the urban landscape to make points about how we see it in an age of screens. I have been taken recently with the work of Mathieu Tremblin, a Frenchman, who comes from the world of pop-culture graffiti (those swirly tags that cover every urban and suburban surface). He has been active for years; his most interesting works, to me, are those from 2013 and 2014.
One thing he does cleverly is take a wall that is covered with indecipherable tags – these are the cryptic names of taggers and sometimes of gangs, rendered in that uniquely spiky spray-can style – then paints it over, redoing the tags in simple fonts, as if they had been printed by a computer. What he ends up with is walls and concrete underpass stanchions that say things like OPAS and KETS and RAL. They are lifeless words now: Without their calligraphic style, they have no character. They are no longer aesthetic clutter but linguistic clutter – the kind we are more familiar with on websites and in spam messages than in parks and on schools.
Tremblin likes to say (in the typical language of the contemporary artist) that he has robbed the tags of their "alterity" (simply put, their outsiderness). It looks like the graphic-design department's imposition of uniform style on the most muscular and lowbrow of street art.
My favourite piece of Tremblin's is a dull parking-lot wall he painted in a town in Belgium in 2013 with the large letters "getty images." The letters are faint and exactly duplicate the watermark of the all-powerful image bank, Getty Images. If you see a photo of this installation, you will not be able to tell if you are looking at a painted wall or a photo with a Getty watermark on it.
It must be alarming to come in on a train and pass this everyday wall that looks as if it, too – like so many million images on Earth – belongs to a private company. You may not even look at the world, it seems to be saying, unless you pay us the reproduction rights.
And then photos of this artwork are reproduced all over the Web. It becomes a photo of an imitation of a photo.
These new interventions in the urban landscape highlight the fact that we have a screen in front of us most of the time, even when walking or sitting on a train or eating, and that the real landscape around us is inevitably filtered through this tiny window.
Now that Pokemon Go has us looking at what is in front of us through our phone screen – and seeing a moving, full-colour representation of it that happens to contain virtual cartoon characters as well – we are fully habituated to the idea that the screen and the material reality are one. After all, they are both just patterns of light received by our retinas. They have equal importance in our brains and consequence in our lives and are so equally real. The Pokemon Go screen is a new kind of periscope: We extend it up from our dreary meatspace and see the ideal world, the world as it should be, peopled by living imaginary creatures. Screenworld, being more vivid, is indeed more real.
So, then, as we have become used to framing our seen reality with a four-inch-by-six-inch rectangle, an outline so familiar it already makes us see every sight as a shot, as a composition, even as a certain number of megapixels, we will become used to seeing it branded as virtual space. We already know that the space around us is inhabited by invisible corporate messaging – hot spots instantly accessible through your phone, advertising that will appear through Bluetooth, message squares that can be swiped – and the ghostly boundaries of a myriad WiFi signals. The phone is a new way of seeing the invisible.
Artists such as Tremblin are reminding us not just of the invisible ownership of space but of the unconscious framing and reframing and photo-editing that the cyborg human race daily engages.