Vandalism, Re-Interpreted?

Mattias Faldbakken, whose work is at Midway Contemporary Art until October 27, presented his recent art-making at MCAD on September 7. Christina Schmid raises critical questions about Faldbakken’s art.


Last summer, my garage got tagged. I remained oblivious to the fact until the city sent me a notice, kindly providing me with a deadline to remove or cover up the black marks. Eventually I dug up a can of paint that someone must have abandoned in the basement, and painted an ugly rectangle in an even uglier shade of brown over the offending marks. (These were not carefully drafted and speedily executed; they looked like a newly formed gang’s first attempts.) My garage door has now become what Norwegian artist Mattias Faldbakken would call a collaborative act: the traces of my cover-up remain—my brown rectangle—while the presence of the original creative act—the tag—can only be inferred.

Faldbakken’s work explores, documents, and re-stages such unintentional collaborations between vandalizer and vandalized. The casual disregard for public or private property–or, put more benevolently, the creative engagement of the vandalizer with public or private property– puts the vandalized into the position of having to respond: by law—Norway, according to Faldbakken, implements a zero-tolerance policy on graffiti—or by the urge to protect what’s yours. Combined, the vandalizer’s act of creative destruction and the following mark-leaving comprise a collaborative piece that usually isn’t recognized as art.

It is one of the marks of an effective piece of art to provoke thought, critique, or unexpected insight. Some of Faldbakken’s pieces achieve this goal by making us think about minor daily irritations in new ways, allowing us to experience vandalism not only as an act of violation, requiring us to clean up what, for instance, the city considers someone else’s mess, but as an act of collaboration with an unknown person whose creative outlet happens to be the destruction or alteration of what we consider to be ours—a creative outlet that does not respect private property.

Faldbakken documents such acts of unwilling collaboration in a photograph that shows the canvas deck of a convertible that someone has cut into. The owner, presumably, has placed duct tape over the two incisions,seeking to repair the damage and entirely unaware to the artistic value attributed to this act by Faldbakken. The final piece, then, that Faldbakken presents to his audience as a collaboration between vandalizer and vandalized is a photograph of strips of duct tape forming shapes that resemble Roman numerals on the canvas top of the car.

In another piece, Faldbakken installs a white tile wall in a gallery, colors it with graffiti, and then proceeds to erase the marks. Traces of color remain in the grout lines, remnants of collaborative activity between the vandalizer and the vandalized. In another work exploring the same idea, Faldbakken sprays “zero tolerance” on a white gallery wall, taking issue with Norway’s institutional attitude toward graffiti.

What is going on in these pieces? Vandalism, an act of violation and often destruction, is recast as collaboration. It takes an artist to make that connection and to provoke us into either defending the rights of the property owners or to accede to the vandalizer’s disrespect for private property or the legally stated allowable use of public property (e.g. a white tile wall in a subway station). In addition, though, Faldbakken, as the artist, engages in acts of appropriation—that is, taking and using what are not his creations and presenting them to us as his art work. Again, there is a profound denial of ownership at work—whether material, intellectual, or artistic ownership.

Faldbakken cushions this denial in a rhetoric of “total denial” and “absolute rejection.” Unfortunately, in his talk at MCAD he never quite tells his captive audience what he is rejecting, exactly, or why. Thus his rhetoric of absolute denial appears as one more instance of misunderstood anarchism. While Faldbakken is clearly intrigued by those who cross and disrespect the customs and norms of civil society that allow us to live together peacefully and without killing each other, his work does not suggest that he is aware of the immense ethical responsibilities this kind of anarchism places on the individual.

For example, he appropriates video footage of the self-proclaimed Swedish “ghostrider,” who races on the highways around Stockholm at breakneck speeds and, while without doubt endangering his own life in the process, also risks the necks of countless other uninvolved drivers and riders. Here, Faldbakken the artist collaborates with “ghostrider,” the suicidal biker—but, according to the creative connection between vandalizer and vandalized Faldbakken’s work insists on, a third party is involved: the other users of the highways, potential victims, unwilling contributors to the “ghostrider’s” thrill and, by extension, Faldbakken’s compilation of highlights from the footage.

It seems there is a difference here between a cut-and-taped convertible top and, in the first case, the rather reckless endangering of other lives for the sole purpose of personal thrill and, in the second, in Faldbakken’s self-serving appropriation of the footage documenting this endangerment. I doubt Kropotkin and other founding figures of anarchism would find this practice justifiable and congruent with their ideas for a society not ruled by a system of set laws. Similarly, it seems there is a profound misunderstanding of—or perhaps an intentional departure from—such avant-garde tenets as making art part of the praxis of life again. If the ghostrider’s antics can be appropriated and—apparently successfully—sold as art, what keeps us from declaring the shootings at Virginia Tech an act of creative expression? Are the victims simply unwilling collaborators who are not aware of or simply not illuminated enough to understand the part they play in someone else’ masterpiece? Is terrorism art? Can it be if someone like Faldbakken says it is?

These are political questions. Do they make Faldbakken into a political artist?

Some of his pieces suggest that he is indeed interested in creating overtly political work. Consider, for instance, his installation/performance “Black Sabbath”: after researching the history of ass-kissing, beginning in medieval times when witches were accused of kissing the respectively higher-ranking witch’s butt, all the way up to Satan, Faldbakken conceives of a Black Sabbath in the art world, specifically, the opening night of one of his shows, although he refrains from revealing whose metaphorical butt he kissed that night. Clearly, what is on offer here is a critique of the art world and, clearly, a recognition of the inevitable and oh-so-postmodern complicity of the artist in the machinery of the art circus.

Less self-involved and hence more compelling is Faldbakken’s site-specific interactive installation in “junkie-town” in Oslo. When the city decides to build a new opera house by the harbor and invites 20 “young-ish,” as Faldbakken puts it, artists to create art in the parking lot before it turns into a construction site, Faldbakken and his collaborator decide to acknowledge the junkies who populate the site and will be evicted by this gentrification project. When talking about this piece, Faldbakken actually provides his audience with some context: of all European cities, Oslo has the highest number of heroin users per capita—and no clear policy of how to deal with this problem. In “Milk Bar,” Faldbakken and collaborator have a round, low, white piece of furniture designed and placed on the edge of the parking lot. In the middle of the white circular construction, they arrange cartons of flavored milk each day for the two-week run of the project. The inside joke, Faldbakken says, lies in the fact that everyone in Norway jokes that only junkies drink this brand of flavored milk. Catering to the audience that is to be displaced by the new opera house as a beacon of Norwegian high culture, Faldbakken accomplishes a mingling of two different social worlds: the opera-going public who promenade from the old opera house down to the harbor to consume art and the junkies who consume the milk and make—in some cases quite entrepreneurial—use of the milk supply. In “Milk Bar,” then, art functions as a temporary resistance to gentrification and provides a recognition of those who have fallen through the cracks of Norway’s social fabric.

Faldbakken’s art also occasionally makes forays into international politics, when he creates “slayer upon slayer upon slayer” for the ICA in London. Asked to respond to the Iraq war, Faldbakken appropriates the band logo (Slayer) and uses black tape to write it three times, superimposed, on the gallery wall. A pop-cultural production by a dystopian metal band is used to speak to—and presumably critique—a war that has systematically been suppressed from the usual visual venues of the news and culture market. Faldbakken explains his use of repetition as an act of obfuscation, of emptying out meaning rather than adding emphasis, and thus we are left to wonder who the slayers in this war are, and who experiences their acts as emptied of meaning rather than savage, state-sanctioned violence that casually endangers civilian lives every day.

Making art that is overtly political is never an easy endeavor, especially not at a time of war. Construing artistic acts out of the unwitting and unwilling collaboration of vandalizers and vandalized may appear provocative in a peaceful state, such as I assume Norway is. But what happens when an artist begins to appropriate acts of violation that far exceed the harming of property, recreates them, and names them art? This, I think, is the key question that Faldbakken’s artwork asks us to consider.

Repetition, Freud tells us, entails an act of mastery that renders the activity pleasurable. Whether the act of repetition adds emphasis or empties the act of its original meaning does not concern me as much as the issue of who benefits and derives—metaphorically speaking—pleasure from it. Two of Faldbakken’s pieces raise this issue, urgently and poignantly.

The Taliban, as part of their systematic destruction of cultural expression, lined streets outside Kabul with approximately 6-feet high stakes wrapped in videotape torn from cassette. Video, without doubt, is a dying medium, so this act of destruction seems oddly futile to First-World eyes. But my point is that the symbolic act of destruction far exceeds a random act of vandalism. Faldbakken appropriates the videotape-wrapped stake and shows a replica as “Video Sculpture.” Is the appropriator the one who, in this unintended collaboration, seeks to undo the effects of the vandalizers? What would it mean to undo those effects—the social, cultural, psychological, and political effects of destroying cultural artifacts and modes of audio-visual expression? Or does the artist as appropriator merely benefit from an act of large-scale cultural destruction?

Faldbakken’s appropriation of Israeli soldiers’ defacing of walls inside the Palestine ministry of culture raises similar questions. By re-conceiving the splattered paint as an “action painting,” Faldbakken recreates the act of vandalism on a safe gallery wall, far removed from the messiness of actual political conflict. As an appropriator, Faldbakken benefits from the original Israeli soldiers’ act of destruction, aimed at a dispossessed people’s institution to preserve cultural intactness. Is there a collaboration between vandalizers and vanalized here? No. The only collaboration here happens between the vandalizers and the artist who repeats the act by re-creation, re-interpreting an act of cultural warfare as “action painting.” The actual victims, the vandalized, have been erased from Faldbakken’s appropriation; there no longer is any pretense of their voices having any relevance.

Ultimately, then, Faldbakken confronts us with a kind of political appropriation-art that silences the victims, re-casts the perpetrators of cultural destruction as unintentional artists, and turns the artist into an archivist of cultural atrocities who handsomely benefits from his repetitions and shows us, his audience, how he has mastered the contemporary art world. Rather than embodying the artist-as-hapless-accomplice in the machinations of the artworld, filled with postmodern ambivalence and uncertainty, Faldbakken takes us a step further and shows us the artist as ruthless appropriator and happy hypocrite.

Ironically, Faldbakken ended his presentation at MCAD with a discussion of a series of identical paperweights that could well serve as a commentary on his overall work. Remade from gift items that one of Hollywood’s top private investigators bestowed on clients and would-be clients alike, they consist of a baseball on a base inscribed “Sometimes you have to play hardball.” Faldbakken professes to be intrigued by this gift that simultaneously contains a threat—and, in a way, we should be, too: Faldbakken’s art is a dangerous gift, one that provokes us to think, to argue, and to articulate the unease his work unleashes—but, at the same time, one whose success should make us look twice at what it takes to get international attention in the art market today.

Christina Schmid

Christina Schmid is a writer who thinks with art and experiments with prose. She is interested in the materiality of text, haptic criticism, and the ways art generates ideas. Her essays and reviews have been published online and in print, in anthologies, journals, zines, artist books, and exhibition catalogs. She works at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Art in Minneapolis where she teaches contemporary art, critical practice, process, and theory. She is a recipient of a MN …   read more