Earlier this week, an unexpected new message appeared on S Mark Gubb’s ‘Trav’ller in the Dark’. We shared the image across our social media channels, and it stirred up some very strong feelings — and raised questions about the nature of ownership of public art, the point at which engagement with a public piece becomes ‘vandalism’, and much more besides.
We spoke to Mark about the new message on ‘Trav’ller in the Dark’. Here, printed in full and without editing, are his responses to the questions we posed via email:
Aspex: This week has seen an unexpected new message appear on your ‘Trav’ller in the Dark’ piece. What’s your initial reaction to this very active engagement with your work?
SMG: I was first made aware of this when the gallery tweeted me a picture of the sign with its new message. Something that’s really important to highlight right at the start of this, that people may not necessarily beaware of, is that the building and artwork are earmarked for demolition. It was my understanding that this would be happening back in April, so every day the piece is still there is, in my mind, borrowed time. Psychologically, this positions the action differently, I think, to if this had happened whilst the work was still a fully live piece. So, when I saw the picture, I thought, ‘Great. That’s really nice that someone would take the effort, in the work’s death throes, to engage with it in this way.’ As I say, were the work not existing in this strange limbo, I may have felt differently. To be honest, I would have wondered why the person hadn’t approached the gallery about posting this message up, as that’s exactly what it was there for. But my gut response was that this was a nice intervention in the final moments of this work’s life.
Aspex: A few people on our Facebook page strongly disagreed with our decision to publicise the new message, believing it amounted to our condoning an act of ‘vandalism’ and ‘defacement’ of a work of art. How do you feel?
SMG: I’m genuinely pleased that people care but I don’t, personally, see it as an act of vandalism or defacement. That, to me, would have been if someone had climbed up there and stripped the lights, or spray painted a message on to the sign. If they’d done something to fundamentally change its appearance or agency. But what’s happened is that someone has interacted with the work within quite a strict set of parameters, arguably within the parameters that the work has already been working within. As an artist, the thing that has always drawn me to signs of this nature is that they’re very democratic spaces. They’re actually not very British, in so far as you don’t really see them over here, but in the US they’re ubiquitous and are as likely to be outside a church trying to save your soul as they are to be outside a diner offering 99 cent chicken wings. I love that about these kinds of spaces. So the fact that someone would take it upon themselves to change the message, but engage with it intelligently, I think is a positive. Interestingly, in all of the debate I’ve seen, it’s entirely centred around the action and not the message. I think that’s very interesting. If someone had climbed up there and written something profane or obviously offensive, I wonder how the focus of the conversation we’re having now would be different.