The Anarchist Flâneur: Graham Coreil-Allen’s Critical Urbanism

by Michael Anthony Farley on May 11, 2015 · 1 comment Interview

Artist Graham Coreil-Allen leads a SiteLines tour.

Artist Graham Coreil-Allen leads a SiteLines tour.

Graham Coreil-Allen is a multidisciplinary artist, activist, and resolute pedestrian. He’s an anarchist who wears a chipper pastel uniform and knows his way around Adobe CS. His works range in scope from redesigning crosswalks with hopscotch patterns to showing in the US pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. His current project with the Institute of Contemporary Art Baltimore SiteLines features a series of walking tours and an installation that’s transformed Current Gallery into something resembling an alternative tourist information center. We sat down to discuss the perils of cycling, the Situationist International, and the challenges of making work in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

Graham, you’re a trooper. I think it’s worth noting that on the way to this interview you were hit by a car and still came. Which is actually an oddly appropriate entry point into your work, as you deal with public space and bad urban planning.

Actually, I was flipped off my bicycle by a piece of a wood launched across all four lanes of North Avenue by some hopped-up asshole beating a tree in front of the liquor store. Thankfully, a bunch of people came to my rescue, and the pawn shop across the street took me inside as I attempted to figure out what all was destroyed on my bike and body. I’m ok. The bike is not.

Wow. I’m glad you’re okay. That is totally insane… only in Baltimore. On that note, for people unfamiliar with your work and this singular context, could you describe your practice in general and your show with the ICA at Current Gallery?

I am an interventionist public artist who uses architectural installations, graphic design and performance art to activate invisible public spaces. My current solo show, SiteLines, is a collection of online videos, experimental walking tours and a gallery installation featuring banners, sculptures, photography, and cartography derived from nearby overlooked public spaces and experiences in central Baltimore. My walking tours call attention to the shortcomings of poor urban planning while telling the stories of the everyday residents who have fought to improve their neighborhoods. 

You deal with these kind of tragicomic failures of urban planning. There’s an inherently dark connotation when we consider the impact slum clearance, gentrification, etc… have had on the built environment and the people who inhabit it. But you use this cheery, crisp graphic design that wouldn’t look out of place in a sales brochure. Can you discuss the role of irony, or at least an appreciation of “the absurd” in your practice?

The city is friendly, dark, absurd and fucked; and yet advertised as a quirky, fun, pretty place to bring your familybut only around the sweaty balls harbor or central penis corridor, don’t wander into the pubey east or west side [Editor’s note: The “balls and penis” corridor the artist is referring to is what has been described as “The White L”, two intersecting strips of gentrification in Baltimore City that are framed by areas of extreme poverty]. However this sugar-coated marketing of place is exactly what we are up against – corporate controlled images shaping the greater collective consciousness of Baltimore City. (Same applies to Fox’s bullshit coverage of the Baltimore Uprising.) They’ve got an army of lobbyists, developers, designers and marketers rebranding our city beyond the true identities of its diverse residents, such as black people, the working poor, queer people and all blends between. Imagine what we could do if we had the full force of the city’s monied boosters in our control? In response, I am attempting to use the same marketing tools to playfully reach overlapping audiences (artists, neighborhood activists, tourists, etc..)  through graphic design, humor, polished language, web videos and interactive mapping; all in the hopes that through shared access and signs we can better understand our city and shapes its brand in a fair and honest form.

One of my favorite pieces in SiteLines is your photo of the bizarre ruins of a doomed hot air balloon ride. Can you talk about that? 

Sure, you are referring to that weird concrete platform at the busy corner of Baltimore and President Streets in downtown; surrounded by a black security fence and framed by entrances to our lonely subway line. I always wondered why there was this large, flat space in an otherwise densely developed part of the city, and what it meant. Clearly the cement platform suggested the presence of something prior, but what? I learned that the mysterious site is the former launch pad of the High Flyer balloona tourist trap hot air balloon that lifted gawkers 200’ aloft in a cable tethered spectacle basket. It started in the early 2000s and only lasted a couple of years before a surprise wind storm kept a clutch of tourists trapped in the sky for two hours as the balloon was battered around, coming dangerously to almost slamming into the Baltimore Police headquarters across the street. Thankfully, workers were able to get the pseudo steampunk craft back to the ground without any deaths. Suffice to say, that was the High Flyer’s last flight. Later, the Cordish Companies, who own the adjacent Power Plant Live! entertainment complex, bought the site and secured permissions to develop a 30 story condo over the subway station. This was all before the recession, so nothing has happened, and now the mysterious zone of pregnant no-entry lays as a “Monument to Elevated Terror” marking the high-flying speculation above.

Installation view: SiteLines at Current Gallery

Installation view: SiteLines at Current Gallery

 Speaking of “spectacle” and weird developments, your work often reminds me of the Situationists and the book Mutations that the Harvard Project on the City and Rem Koolhaas published in the early 2000s. Were either of these influences to your practice or worldview?

Absolutely, as an anarchist and artist, discovering the work of the Situationists was like an epiphany. The analysis of psychological contours within the city through drifting, coupled with revolution through “detournement”, aka rearranging existing stuff to reveal a latent truth, perfectly synthesized my drive to simultaneously make art and affect urban change. To a lesser extent, Koolhaas’s writing on city junkspace has also been an influence, as well as the ideas and sculptures of another prolific writer and artist – Robert Smithson (RIP).

You are totally to Baltimore what Robert Smithson was to Passaic, NJ. But I think of Koolhaas’s quote “the city has twice been humiliated by the suburbs: once upon the loss of its constituency to the suburbs and again upon that constituency’s return. These prodigal citizens brought back with them their mutated suburban values of predictability and control.” One of the most relevant ideas from that text is that of the “control space” and “residual space”; the idea that rapid, poorly planned development inherent to late capitalism creates sites of consumption or production—the control spaceand also the leftover scraps, like the weird median or drainage ditch between a mall parking lot and a highway. You seem to inhabit the residual space. What attracts you to the kind of leftover margins of the built environment?

That is a brilliant quote, and too true. The city’s embarrassment gets at the platzgeist I’ve identified as “Sub/Urban Ambiguity,”cities and suburbs posing as enigmas of one another. This mixing of bland suburban culture and design, along with car-oriented infrastructure (concrete class war), is absolutely filthy and disgusting; and warrants a pedestrian rebellion. That is what I am hoping to instigate by exploring the invisible sites and overlooked experiences within our everyday environmentswalking revolution. For as much as these non-spaces are seen as boring junkspace, they are in fact places used by people. If we don’t see the implicit life and latent control of public space, be it within a simple parking lot, median strip or supermarket lobby, it’s most likely because we are blinded by socialized privilege and/or optimized oppression.

Coreil Allen Terrain Violence

Totally, urban planning in Baltimore is somewhere between “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and having to grimace through an episode of “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant”. It often feels like the city’s ills are viewed as tumors to be excised rather than wounds to be sutured. We end up with this sort-of pockmarked cityscape, characterized by voids. Your practice seems to inhabit those voids, name them. What value do you place on the act of naming? What is the value of the void?

Enter, THE VOID: a framed open space imbued with the psychic presence of a former mass and/or the profound immersion of seductively infinite nothingness. I’m quoting myself, as that is an example of a poetic definition I exercise along my tours. Naming New Public Sites is important as it gives us a starting point for talking about these unseen places and uncanny experiences. Some of the terms I’ve made up or heard from others, while others I’ve appropriated from the discourses of architecture and planning; only to then adapt them to better capture a particular sublime moment. For me, this is practice of linguistic anarchy – showing that language is only what we make of it; and that all of us are entitled to rupturing meaning in pursuit of an ever changing truth.

“Sous les pavés, la plage” indeed. I can’t help but draw the parallel to the context the Situationists were working in; a city facing sweeping urban renewal programs, the destruction of place in the name of economic progress, and the consequent civil unrest. Here, more so though, the presence or illusion of “security” seems to be an intrinsic component of that process. How has the death of Freddie Gray and the ongoing issues with the police force here informed your practice? What have been the challenges of adapting an exhibition half-way through to address the changing political context?

A lot of my work is in direct response to “Fortress Baltimore”, as Mike Davis might call it, be it pointing at the absurdity of being creeped on by surveillance cameras, or the disparities in how police respond to public celebration depending on your race and neighborhood. [Editors note: Mike Davis is a theorist who wrote the seminal text “Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space.] The tragic death of Freddie Gray is just one of countless murders by police of working class residents and/or people of color that have been taking place since a bunch of foreign white dudes built Old Town, Fell Point and Locust Point around the muddy swamp now called the Inner Harbor.

Fast forward to now: I had three tours planned for my SiteLines show presented by ICA Baltimore at Current Space. The first tour was amazing: Crossing the Highway to Nowhere, explored a defunct freeway that when built in the 60s and 70s displaced thousands as it cut through West Baltimore. Over forty participants drifted around Route 40 and MLK, and eventually crossed the now derelict highway while three police helicopters followed us and the nearby Freddie Gray march. After safely making it across the freeway, we started walking back to the gallery only to actually run directly into the bigger march at Greene Street and Mulberry. At that point my little moment of situationist performance merged with a much bigger movement of righteous public space ritual.

Two days later the riots started at Mondawmin Mall in northwest Baltimore, just three blocks from my house. I raced home and was briefly chased by a throng of kids tossing rocks on my street, but managed to get inside in time. We all watched in sobering shock as the high school uprising inflamed by police in riot gear soon turned into a citywide riot. In response I canceled my second tour to focus on helping with cleanup and documenting my neighbors occupation of North and Pennsylvania Avenues in both protest and eventual celebration. Our neighbors are expressing the pain of economic inequality and seeking justice for victims of state violence by exercising their human rights in public space. I’m still not entirely sure how I, as a white / educated / male-bodied individual, can ethically respond to all this with what I call “art”; but nevertheless I’m trying. This is what its all about – taking risks in the hopes that we can reclaim our public spaces for true democracy.

I’ve adapted my final tour “Wandering Shards” from an improvised walk  into a more planned route focusing on the effects of capitalist speculation on the West Side of downtown Baltimore; and how everyday people are resisting through small-scale entrepreneurialism, art and direct action.

That’s another thing I really respect about your work—it very carefully treads the line between art and activism without seeming either frivolous or overly didactic. There’s a noticeable clash in contemporary American citiesBaltimore in particularbetween the control spectacle (the amusement-park-like attractions, the stadiums, convention centers, etc), the grass-roots movements and colloquial eccentricities, and the violence of late capitalist society that mediate them all. You seem to borrow aesthetically and content-wise from it all to create something that’s critical but optimistic and allows the viewer a subjective experience. How do you strike that balance? 

Obviously theres a lot of terrible capitalist, tourist and car-oriented bullshit to respond to, but at the same time, this city totally rules! When I moved here from NYC in 2008 I had to re-train myself to say hi to everyone on the street. Actually, I learned to say, “how ya doin,” which is a salutation here that most strangers / human beings regularly exchange on the street. Baltimore residents are genuinely friendly and caring; and this underpins the hope I have for Charm City. Not to sound crazy, but I actually believe in Infinite Freedom for a New Baltimore. [Coreil-Allen’s response to Guggenheim curator David van der Leer’s request for what our “wildest dreams are for American city of the future”: a manifesto for the sustainable redevelopment of Baltimore through direct action and creative participation] No doubt, my work responds to the dark reality of capitalist and racist exploitation enacted block by shittly-planned block level. However, I attempt to strike a balance between art, activism, rupture and glee through non-ironic, performative interpretations of an alternative, dare I say truer, vision of our Monumental City.

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