Kwende Kefentse
by Kwende Kefentse
Tue Aug 12th 2008 at 12:36pm UTC

The Semiotics of the Streets

Was anyone in Montréal this weekend? How about New York?

In both places, the code of the streets was the rule of law as autonomous zones were established where people could appreciate their city from the perspective of the pedestrian. Montréal is in fact a recognized world capital of design, participating as a design capital in UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network and so this weekend’s 6th annual Under Pressure International Graffiti Festival probably wasn’t much of a surprise to residents of la belle province. Young artists from all over the continent and beyond converged on MTL from Friday to Sunday, taking aerosol art and hiphop culture to the next level. It actually baffles me as to why the festival is not included in Montréal’s City of Design profile – it’s the arts- and design-related event that my peers look most forward to in that city, and it attracts an incredible amount of talent from outside of the region. It seemed like all of Ottawa was there or trying to get there this weekend.

Getting fully behind an idea like this seems like very simple and obvious ways for municipalities to engage not only young people, but the types of creative people that contribute to that great intangible – the “vibe” of a city. The emergence of the arts as recapitulated by hiphop culture – taking the idea of the G.O.B.S. (Gallery, Opera, Ballet, Symphony) and putting them on the street via Graffiti, Emceeing, B-Boying and DJing – has galvanized whole new ideas about the role of art in the city, and perhaps its ushered new conceptions of beauty itself. It has certainly brought us a new semiotics of the streets. Acknowledging that this change has taken place makes a municipal administration more relevant to its young contingent.

Case and Point: In New York this weekend, Mayor Bloomberg and Jeanette Sadik-Kahn, his transportation commissioner, launched the Summer Streets initiative. Quoting this New York Times article:

On a path that extended from the Brooklyn Bridge north to Park Avenue and the Upper East Side, thousands of people filled the streets, taking part in activities like street-side tai chi or salsa dancing. Others simply enjoyed the chance to stroll in normally car-clogged streets. In a city where walkers, cyclists, and motorists must share limited space, having a major thoroughfare through Manhattan free of cars created a giddy sort of excitement.

An interesting move on the part of the city of New York to be sure. In Toronto, this is a monthly event over in the historical district of Kensington Market, but it’s nice to see New York getting on board. To get the event moving on the right foot, Mayor Bloomberg and Comissioner Sadik-Kahn coordinated with a special guest. Can anyone guess who?

Click here to watch Mayor Bloomberg, Commissioner Sadik-Kahn and Jay-Z launch the Summer Streets Initiative

That’s right. The Jigga-Man.

Now let’s look past the fact that the mayor’s speech sounded like a passage pulled directly out of one of Richard’s books about the Creative Class, or the obvious discomfort that we all felt hearing Bloomberg make those scripted jokes about Jay, or how awkward Jay-Z actually was on the mic (for once in his life). There’s something bigger to be said here: The administration of New York City, in considering how best to communicate that the streets are for the people, looked to hiphop culture’s – and indeed New York’s – brightest star to emblemize that idea. They are making very strong statements about the culture of the street and of the city – in fact, other than the scale and location of the operation, their statement is almost the most innovative thing about the idea.

Now if the city could hire these kids to ride through various neighborhoods of New York from weekend to weekend, puttin’ it down and giving workshops, THAT would be some innovation. Word.

Was anyone in New York to see how this initiative went? How about Montréal – anyone make it out to Under Pressure? How are you being innovative on your streets in your city? What ideas do you have about what street culture means?

I’m really interested in your opinions!

And now, as always, some music.

R.I.P. Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes

5 Responses to “The Semiotics of the Streets”

  1. Ian Lloyd Says:

    Very good read and very appropriate mp3 selection. I watched the youtube coverage and bloomberg even names a song in question off the Kingdom Come album! HAHA


  2. grey coyote Says:

    a better link for the pedestrian sundays is we’ve got some street painting going on too…

  3. grey coyote Says:

    sorry, that’s -with a g in it…

  4. Creative Class » Blog Archive » Culture Under Pressure from the Global Economy - Creative Class Says:

    [...] Kwende KefentseMon Jun 22nd 2009 at 9:21am EDTCulture Under Pressure from the Global Economy Last summer, I blogged about Under Pressure in Montreal, one of Canada’s premier graffiti conventions. [...]

  5. distro Says:

    Type cat vmlinuz > /dev/audio to hear the Voice of God.