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Subversion in the City

tflurry's picture

Subversion is when the princess rescues the prince, or perhaps even tells the prince off and runs away with the dragon. Subversion is when a graffiti artist paints the likeness of a royal guard urinating on the side of a building. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as “seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution, or a person with such aims” (New Oxford American Dictionary). In her book Critical Play, Mary Flanagan notes that various theorists consider subversion to be “a powerful means for marginalized groups to have a voice” (Flannigan, 11). Over all, to me subversion is both the means and result when one takes established idea, person or thing, turns it on its head. This is what made my trips into the city so interesting; of the various artists and events we saw, not one was content to let the norm be the rule; they all took care to be subversive in someway. Ant Hampton, the artist behind the Quiet Volume, refused the notion that theater art could only take place in the theater, just as he played with the concepts of where the line between actor and audience falls, and how the senses, sight and hearing, merge. Isaiah Zagar similarly explored what it meant to make mosaics, where the line between mosaics and other art forms crossed, and just where the edge of the canvas actually was. Even the coffee shop I visited in Bryn Mawr was a little subversive, simply by nature of being an independent coffee shop instead of a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.

Hampton explored subversion in several clear ways: he rejected the traditional venue, the traditional medium, and the traditional mode of interaction commonly used in the theater. His piece took place in a library, which is nearly as far from a traditional stage as one can get, yet he directed a fine show on its shifting set. He neglected to cast actors in his show, choosing instead to cast the audience members themselves; in so doing, he threw out convention, and bound the audience all the closer to his work for it. With actors, the most an audience member can do is watch and empathize; it is something entirely different to experience the scene for yourself, to hear a monologue about hands as if you were seeing your own for the first time. Finally, he chose not to talk at the listener, but to whisper to them, alternating between spoken and written word without break, and seemingly blurring the line between the inside and outside of one’s mind. It in no way felt like a monologue delivered at an audience; in fact, any passerby not paying attention would never have noticed the project at all.

Zagar’s works were far less subtle than Hampton’s, yet his methods of subversion were perhaps more so. Zagar created exactly what his pieces looked like: mosaics, of various shapes, forms and compositions. But it was in those shapes, forms and compositions that Zagar was subversive, for he chose to buck the rules of what could or could not be put into a mosaic, how it was displayed, and where the canvas ended. Zagar did not bother sticking to a medium, let alone the ‘right’ one; he used pottery and glass, yes, but also wood, metal, and rubbish. Bicycle wheels were placed next to old rum bottles and clay figures that look prehistoric. The pieces were broken freely, and arranged afterward as best suited their shape, and were painted around or over; as often as not the mosaic served as much or more as canvas than paint in the images Zagar created. Nor did Zagar constrain himself to eye-level murals or fantastic floors; no, he often mosaicked entire rooms, floor to ceiling in fantastical colors and designs; the sides of the buildings he attacked were often mosaicked completely as well, and his Magic Gardens looked like the intersection between mosaic and architecture. Sometimes, however, he did not mosaic the entire wall; on these occasions it was clear that the blank space was deliberate, its own component within the mural.

            Finally, consider the coffee shop in Bryn Mawr; Hothouse, it is called, and it is a small independent coffee shop just down the street from the train station. The same size or smaller than a dorm room from one of the Bryn Mawr dorms, it was full of people, college age or old-time members of the community, who each clustered quietly around their table and went about their private lives. Conversations were restrained to the table, and many people buried their noses in their interfaces, whether paper or electronic. Yet this coffee shop was in its own way subversive, because of its very nature: a quiet little nook, independent of the major coffee chains. It was subversive because it dared to exist in a world were many coffee shops are going the way of the bookstore.

            Is this definition of subversion perfect? Not by any means; there are certainly more ways one could argue subversion, different view points that might highlight or even erase the examples above from the discussion. The definition presented does not account for places where the norm is flouted accidentally or incidentally: if a picture of an actress accepting an award is seen in a community where women are expected to cover their heads, or in a place where the arts or female power is frowned upon, is it still subversive? The picture was taken to commemorate the moment, not to upend a culture, but it might have the same affect.  Even still, I find this definition of subversion is affective for most purposes; subversion is when one takes a norm, and turns it on its head.


Works Cited

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.