Culture  Taking it to the streets

Rogue Montreal street artist reimagines the urban landscape

Montreal street artist Roadsworth, who was prosecuted four years ago for his self-described “attack on the streets,” is the subject of the new Montreal-made documentary Roadsworth: Crossing the Line. Earlier this month, The Daily’s Meghan Wray sat down with the man himself (real name: Peter Gibson) and the film’s director, Alan Kohl, to chat about art, individualism, and the politics of using public space as a canvas.

The McGill Daily: You cite Adbusters as one of your inspirations.

Peter Gibson (a.k.a. Roadsworth): Oh yeah – that was a long time ago.

MD: I know Adbusters really emphasizes direct activism. A lot of your work transforms the way people look at space. But what do you think of making more politically-loaded pieces? Like taking an ad and transforming something that’s already there? I know you work with blank canvases – well not blank canvases, but parts of the street. Have you ever thought about doing something like that?

PG: I’ve thought about it. The way I look at the city, in general, often is with that eye. What I was doing before was taking something that already exists and reading it and altering it…. I would argue that I wasn’t actually working with a blank canvas. I was actually working with a lot of symbols and signs that are already out there.

That’s one of the exciting things about a lot of street artists: using the space that is already there, using the elements that are already there, and incorporating their message or their imagery into that space. For me, that has a lot of implications. It really includes the environment – it enlarges the piece itself. It broadens the boundaries of the canvas.

But more overtly political? There are people like Banksy, for example, someone who does quite overtly political work. His messages often address specific issues.

I think that politics were informing images that I was creating – although they weren’t necessarily very specific.

MD: We’re bombarded with so many images that I feel like some people could walk past your pieces [without noticing them] quite easily. It’s something we’re so used to. Are you happy that not everyone who walks by notices them?

PG: I feel like a lot of people do notice them…. A lot of imagery becomes subliminal and we become oblivious to it. That was one of the reasons I found working on the ground interesting. It’s not a plane that people are used to – looking on the horizontal plane, or looking down. There’s a convention that says that anything that’s important will appear vertically; anything from the art gallery to the billboard is presented to us on the vertical plane. And the street I find is a very subliminal zone in and of itself.

MD: I was really interested in the idea of hyper-individualist culture, which you saw as coming a lot from car culture. Do you equate individual artistic expression with ownership of your pieces? How would you feel about a collaborative piece, or even if somebody took one of your street art pieces and “added” their own little addition?

PG: In the early stages, I almost fantasized about people interacting with what I was doing. And you do see it from time to time in street art or graffiti. I don’t see it often, but I do see artists interacting with another. You’ll see someone scribble a sentence, and someone will come and answer it with a “Fuck you,” or [something] more sophisticated than that…. That’s part of what public expression is about. It’s about responding to what’s out there. I think that’s what most street artists are inspired by in the first place.

There is individualism in the artistic process. So when I say something like “car culture represents hyper-individualism” it’s not like I’m against the individual per se. I think, unfortunately, politics are so polarized – we associate individualism with free markets, and community with control of markets.

But I don’t look at it that way; I think there’s a hybrid of solutions, some of which are individualistic and some of which are communal. And I think that when it comes to driving, and in particular public space, there needs to be a more communal mentality. Because the fact is, we all share this space. If I’m painting a canvas, I can afford to be individualistic, but being on the street, I don’t think individuals should have all the rights…driving in a car by yourself, being in a machine that exerts a certain amount of influence on so many levels of the environment is disproportionate to the individual’s [rights].

MD: You started off in the Plateau. Would you ever work on something like a freeway, or somewhere where space is the more congested? I feel like malls, subways, and freeways are a lot more claustrophobic than the streets of the Plateau.

PG: It’s funny you say that. You notice that when you travel to different cities. I’ve noticed that there seems to be a higher concentration of street art (a lot of people don’t like that term – but to distinguish it from graffiti and tagging which is a more established phenomenon) in the hip and artistic parts of town. It often has this subversive underground message, [but it’s] almost like preaching to the converted. I guess I did the same thing by concentrating a lot of what I was doing in the Plateau and Mile End. But it was the area that I lived in, and those are the areas that I went most of the time, and for me it was a direct relationship to my environment. So when I was riding my bike or whatever, I would look at an intersection and say “Oh I gotta do something with this.” That was the environment that was inspiring, so it was the environment that I was responding to. But I do think it would be interesting.

MD: To subvert suburbia?

PG: Yeah definitely. I think there would be a lot of opportunity to do such interventions in places where you really wouldn’t expect it.

MD: Could you possibly point out where some of your still-existing pieces are, for someone who wants to hunt them down?

PG: Well they’re mostly commissions. There’s nothing illegal left except for faint traces, except here and there. Now, along Ste. Catherine if you walk between Jeanne-Mance and Paramount you’ll notice some little cartoons and various things on the street. [And] there’s Berri square, the chessboard that I did.

Alan Kohl (Director): You might have had bigger fines if it had been in Westmount.

PG: Yeah, I might not have had the sympathy of the community.

– Compiled by Meghan Wray

Roadsworth opens at Cinema du Parc on November 22.