In late 2001, activist Peter Gibson created his own guerilla campaign to try and sway the city of Montreal to rethink their street planning strategies and increase the number of bike lanes. Rather than turning to extremism, he used street art as his weapon of choice, modifying the markings on public pavement, roads, sidewalks, and parking lots, simply using paint, and going by the clever moniker Roadsworth – a “poet of roads” rather than “words”, if you will. In doing so, he’s opened up a huge opportunity for dialogue between both the police force and the politicians of the area about the fine line between the concept of street art versus that of vandalism. What began as a protest for more accessibility to bicyclists in the urban environment has grown into large-scale symbolic displays of both environmental and societal critique.
His work was “very simple, open-ended, ambiguous,” says Gibson. “They were also somewhat integrated with the environment — the street, the road markings — giving them an almost subliminal quality.” Gibson adds, “I think my intention was to create a language that would function as a form of satire, accentuating the absurdity inherent to certain aspects of urban living, urban space, [and] public policy.”
Problem is, the authorities didn’t see it the same way. He was arrested and they charged him with 51 counts of mischief, with fines ranging from $200 to $5000. Luckily the charges were dropped in 2006, and he was merely given a small fine and 40 hours of community service work – which involved creating art for The Plateau area of the city.
Roadsworth’s case really brings some important questions to the forefront of society – and underlines the fact that we are constantly bombarded with competing and contradictory information. How do we draw a line to differentiate the artistic act of openly publicly expressing oneself, and the destructive and single-minded act of vandalism and violation of public space? Public spaces should be designated as “free” spaces, shouldn’t they? Ones in which we are able to express whatever we choose, to an open population who is being suffocated by the very commercialized and stigmatized society in which it is forced to live. Roadsworth said it best,
“We aggressively pursue graffiti writers for scrawling their names on a wall across from a massive backlit billboard advertising Big Macs.”
What kind of a world is this, when art is relegated to being this big horrible threat on the corporate monopolization of spaces that are supposedly for everyone? I’m sure most people could agree. Not many people on the street were very opposed to Roadsworth’s creations – in fact, he had garnered quite a lot of support in his community.
What I think we need more of, is “artivists” – people who aren’t afraid to step across the boundaries and manipulate the commercialized elements of society in order to make us, the passerbys, question all sense of what is “freedom of expression”. People who express what the general populous is feeling, and is afraid to speak out on. People who risk their own freedom, in order to open the door for others.
“Painting images on the street is actually a very innocuous gesture in the face of the problems that exist. We are living in serious denial if we feel that business as usual is going to ensure our continued survival and well-being.”
Visit his website to learn more about his experience.
Check out this video to see him in action. Also, if you can, check out the National Film Board of Canada film that features his story – here’s the trailer.