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Urban hacking, when art reveals the city

Contemporary Art | From counter-power to counter-culture; when the notion of “hacking” is transposed to the city’s public space, the streets become a field of experimentation and potentialities. From an artistic perspective, urban hacking interventions consist of diverting the public space’s usual components and reclaiming its daily vitalizing elements.

Mark Jenkins © Courtesy Mark Jenkins
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Mark Jenkins
© Courtesy Mark Jenkins

Although the expression « urban hacking » is relatively recent, it is regarded as transgenerational. The concept exposes realities that are linked to the urban space; this tendency is perceivable in young artists’ pieces but also in the work of some of the greatest figures in contemporary art. Since the 1960’s, Ernest Pignon-Ernest questions the public space by installing large-format representations of master pieces, which are usually safeguarded behind museums’ walls, on the streets. The artist relocates the museum’s visual language, he chooses a new setting for the piece’s exhibition and, as a result, the artwork’s essence starts depending on its relation with the public space and the passersby. Between 1975 and 1980, the French collective UNTEL led a series of disrupting interventions, digging into the psychology of daily urban life. The group questions the place of art and artists in society; organizing unforeseen interventions in a constant back and forth with reality (e.g. “Tourist” Fashion Show).

Through the hacker’s actions, the city’s space is approached as a vulnerable, and thus accessible, system. The artist-hacker infiltrates it, inserting disconcerting situations into a state-ruled field of action. Regardless of the motivations behind these actions, they lead to a reconsideration of the public space as a center of exchange and debate.

In 2005, the graffiti prankster Banksy surreptitiously hung a work in the Brooklyn Museum © Credit Courtesy of the Wooster Collective
In 2005, the graffiti prankster Banksy surreptitiously hung a work in the Brooklyn Museum
© Credit Courtesy of the Wooster Collective

The renowned artist Banksy is familiar with the logic of urban hacking; from his intrusion into museums to hang his own pieces, to his wild exhibit Better Out Than In, including the mystery surrounding his persona. Taking a similar line, Mark Jenkins introduces mannequins that simulate human figures in the public area, turning the city into a theater. The staging of his installations perturbs the passersby, who start questioning their perception of others and themselves.

Through their interventions, certain artists approach the public space as a fertile ground to express and spread their activism. Some examples include : Martin Parker, who alters the functions of urban components; creating an uncommon experience around them and disorientating the public. Similarly, the British movement named Brandalism, which is known for its “artivism”, reutilizes advertisement campaigns from powerful groups such as Air France or Volkswagen. Likewise, artist Kidult’s interventions involve vandalizing luxury brands, capitalism’s representation, by writing his name with graffiti on their store fronts.

Framed by a postmodern society built on the accumulation and continuous flow of visual information, urban hacking alters the public space with the purpose of generating an impact on, otherwise numb, passersby. The hacker’s anti-establishment approach can be associated with avant-garde movements from the 1950’s and the 1960’s, such as DADA or Situationism’s revolutionary initiatives. At the heart of this transgenerational approach we find the will of altering the public environment to reclaim it as our own. Nowadays, a fragment of urban contemporary art has become institutionalized and is well-established in the art market; in contrast with that, urban hacking grows as a subversive counterpoint.

Vincent Kozsilovics
Publié le 26/11/2016
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Version française

Mark Jenkins © Courtesy Mark Jenkins Collage du gisant sur les marches du métro Charonne, Ernest Pignon-Ernest, 1971 © Ernest Pignon-Ernest In 2005, the graffiti prankster Banksy surreptitiously hung a work in the Brooklyn Museum © Credit Courtesy of the Wooster Collective Mark Jenkins, Dublin © Mark Jenkins Martin Parker - Banksters Project - Détournement Détournement de boîte de dépôt bancaire, Paris, France - 2013 © Martin Parker Paris, artwork by Barnbrook, Klink & Friends, 2015 © Brandalism Kidult © DR

Mark Jenkins
© Courtesy Mark Jenkins

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