When visiting London, I usually try to make a trip out to Brick Lane — an eclectic road lined with work from some of the city’s most prominent street artists. No more fitting a place could I have stumbled across Paul Stephenson’s painting “Shutterstock” at StolenSpace Gallery.
Naturally the sight of our watermark caught my eye, and I expressed my excitement to the gallery workers present. It turned out that the piece was a “forced collaboration” in the manner that Stephenson had altered an existing still life by 19th Century artist, A. E. Adamson, by placing the Shutterstock watermark on top of the oil painting.
This technique of forced collaboration has appeared sporadically in the art world. Famed surrealist Salvador Dali “converted” August Friedrich Schenck’s flock of sheep into sheep-shaped furniture in 1942.
And more recently in 2012, Chris McMahon and Thyrza Segal made headlines by painting monsters into landscape paintings purchased in thrift stores. This immediately preceded Banksy’s own take on painting a monster into a landscape with “The Banality of the Banality of Evil (2013),” a forced collaboration with K. Sager.
As a prominent street artist, Banksy’s piece speaks to the relationship between forced collaboration and the contemporary street art movement. After all, graffiti is, in essence, a forced collaboration with urban cityscapes. French philosopher Roland Barthes explains,
“What constitutes graffiti is neither the inscription nor its message but the wall, the background, the surface; it is because the background exists fully as an object that has already lived, that such writing always comes as an enigmatic surplus… that is what disturbs the order of things.”
This extends to everything from the more-elaborate works that occasionally grace a gallery wall to the ever familiar “tagging” type of graffiti. Indeed, even the repetitive aspect of graffiti tagging has been explored widely in the Pop Art movement. Andy Warhol, who understood that repetition forms one of the building blocks of branding, cleverly conveyed this in his own art.
What makes Stephenson’s body of work unique is that it explores how graffiti is made in the digital medium and applies this process to traditional media, like paintings or sculpture. Rather than simply making marks on top of a painting, Stephenson uses the technique of erasure, which removes some of the pigment permanently from the piece. This mimics the digital process of “destructive editing” wherein a JPG is permanently altered by removing or changing pixels on the flat image. Erasure is then used to juxtapose antique paintings with modern digital marks, emulating that of watermark branding or even facial recognition software.
In this manner, the artist subverts not only what the meaning of the original piece is, but also how we’ve typically perceived the digital. Traditionally, “original art” refers to the initial work created by the artist’s own hand with physical media, be it spray paint on a wall or oil on canvas. If the initial work was created by the artist’s own hand with digital media, then a physical painting of that work can be considered a reproduction of the digital “original.” Previously viewed only as a means of reproduction, a new generation of digital natives is now internalizing the virtual medium as a means of origination.
As Stephenson concludes, “Shutterstock is part of a creation of a new thing that didn’t exist before.” In this vein, the watermark — a branded repetition that alters an image which has had a previous life — has the same disruptive effect of street art upon the landscape.