a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and anti-transphobic (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications
by Ujay Siddarth
There are several things to consider when addressing the issue of graffiti, on this campus or otherwise. Jumping to the immediate conclusion that the use of graffiti is “wrong” or “incorrect” is not constructive and doesn’t lead to any productive discussion. Instead of dismissing it as simply pointless vandalism I think it is of greater importance to evaluate the issues that exist behind and within the greater narrative of protest and resistance which graffiti represents.
First: Graffiti as activism within itself.
Middlebury College is a private institution built upon the wealth of primarily heterosexual white males. This means that the campus, the faculty, the access to certain resources, all come with certain baggage. It isn’t possible to remove the history of privilege from the college or from any of its buildings. The fact that buildings such as Atwater Dining Hall, Ross Commons, and Bicentennial Hall are constructed from the money donated by the white and wealthy means that the establishment of these buildings comes from systematic oppression of the poor, most of whom are minorities. Through the defacement of buildings that represent such oppression, graffiti can be considered in itself a form of concentrated resistance.
Second: Graffiti’s effectiveness in finding a solution.
A common thought I have heard several people put forward is that there are several other less obtrusive methods of making voices heard–like sharing opinions at student forums, attending student council meetings, and directly making requests of the administration. I challenge that assumption and ask, are there really? When considering attempts in the past to rethink the AAL requirement, implement gender neutral bathrooms, divest from fossil fuels, divest from war manufacturing, withdraw support for the pipeline, and several other requests from the collegiate body, the administration has been far from responsive. If our voices are inaudible through these “legitimate” forms of communication then how are we supposed to create impact in our environment? In that way I view the graffiti not only as concentrated resistance against dominant systems of oppression, but also as a protest against a complacent administration unresponsive to the voices of its constituents.
Third: Graffiti as a form of art.
Representations of graffiti all over the world range from elaborate pieces of “artwork” to five minute sketches of spray-paint. Looking at the response to the graffiti from the campus and a recent MiddBeat article, many seem to think that the graffiti appeared lazy and unaesthetic. Using a quote from the MiddBeat article to illustrate this position, the writer concluded that the graffiti was not “thought provoking imagery calling the student body to action” but rather “haphazard rat stencils surrounded by childish drawings and unfocused writing.” I find this a fascinating aspect of the graffiti to focus on. In response I only have to ask, does all graffiti have to be aesthetic pleasing, unobtrusive, and “thought provoking”? Does this mean that graffiti in protest is only for the artistically inclined or those who are artistically “skilled”? When thinking about graffiti in itself as a form of important activism does it matter how aesthetically pleasing the graffiti is? These are all questions we need to ask if the apparently necessary criterion of graffiti is to be a “thought provoking” piece of work.
Fourth: The message behind the graffiti.
NO SURVEILLANCE! The theme of this third wave of graffiti appears to be quite clear. In light of the recent proposal to install security cameras in front of Proctor Dining Hall, this graffiti appears to be a direct response to surveillance and its potential implications on this campus. This is not the place to present opinions on the issue of surveillance on campus so I will not discuss why I think the artist(s)’ oppose security cameras but when discussing the graffiti I encourage people to consider the messages behind the graffiti. When thinking about the first incident of graffiti with the message “too many cops, too little justice” people proceeded to get enraged over the defacement of Middlebury rather than focus on this clear resistance against police brutality. Only days earlier when Africa, a homeless black man in Los Angeles, was killed at the hands of the police state the campus produced hardly a stir. Instead of addressing the issues behind the graffiti, people decided to focus on the defacement of Middlebury rather than think about why the graffiti was up and what it represented. Something is clearly wrong when people get enraged over spray-paint but are hardly even willing to address the systematic murder of black bodies.
It really is unfortunate that many on Middlebury campus refuse to look past the spray-paint to the frustration and resistance that underlay graffiti. Throughout the history of protest, graffiti has been central to representing and championing the revolution. Just because it happens to “our” buildings doesn’t make it any different from the various forms of graffiti present in other parts of the world. But for some reason, once it invades areas considered personal space–or privileged space, really–graffiti suddenly becomes wrong and unconstructive.