By Catherine Midwood
An encounter with chalk art in the urban everyday environment is a temporary flash of colour underfoot; an unexpected encounter with a creation that emerged in the interaction between a variety of collaborating bodies (the pavement, the chalk dust, the hands that guided it, the shoes that smudged it, the rain or bucketed water that eventually blurs it and washes it away). Here I will argue that the practice of chalk art is an apt example for exploring ideas aligned within more-than-human, urban, and experimental geographies. Largely, this is due to chalk’s inherent material properties and chalk art-ing’s accessibility as a practice. This blog post will firstly situate chalk art within temporary urbanism before exploring materiality, ‘becoming-art’, de-subjectified creativity, and accessibility, all with some reference to the start of my own ongoing fieldwork project Chalk This Way.
Chalk art-ing can be considered a part of a wider set of practices known as temporary urbanism. This is itself aligned with other urban interventions by non-professionals that also comprises DIY urbanism, makeshift urbanism, and tactical urbanism. These terms cover a wide range of acts from street art, guerrilla gardening, the creation of parks on sidewalks, yarn bombing, bench installation on pavements, community run pop-up spaces, or, as this blog post will explore, chalk art. What unites this diverse range of interventions is that they are ‘focused on reclaiming and repurposing urban spaces’ through temporary, grass-roots, small-scale interruptions in spaces around the city (LaFrombois, 2015: 1). Interruption here means something that deviates from the familiar ways that we experience and relate to urban spaces or the way its use has been coded by planners or officials. Although aligned with DIY, makeshift, and pop-up urbanism, temporary urbanism is unique in its intentional ephemerality. An act of temporary urbanism briefly alters the relations between bodies in the given space, opening up new opportunities for action and sociality that habituated ways of relating to the city do not encourage (or actively inhibit). Temporary urbanism is sometimes thought of as insignificant because of its impermanence. However, as Dewsbury asserts, ‘it doesn’t matter if it is a chance encounter or a fleeting moment, what matters is that it produces something new’ (2011: 151). The altered relations in and to the city demonstrate fluctuations in intensities which can modify the course of what is to come. Ultimately, these temporary practices are important and valid because ‘like a flash of lightning they illuminate a different world’ (Holloway, 2010: 30).
Chalk art-ing is an exemplification of temporary urbanism because of the inherent material properties of chalk. Its ‘easy pliability and erasibility’ means that chalk art is easily smudged, transferred, and displaced from where it was originally drawn (Yaneva, 2003: 182). Yaneva’s example of this is a chalk reproduction of Brugel’s Beekeepers on a gallery floor. The chalk is picked up by people’s shoes and walked around the gallery and out into the streets, extending the spatiality of the artwork beyond how it was intended originally. Therefore, through its relations with other bodies in the space, the chalk is ‘producing itself as different due to the numerous mediations’ (Yaneva, 2003: 182). This raises two important points, the first of which is the idea is ‘becoming-art’. This relates to Deleuze’s idea of becoming: a concept which emphasises that everything is a process, always becoming rather than being, but without a fixed end point that determines what a body can become. Becoming-art, therefore, refers to the way that pieces produced through malleable methods such as a chalk art are constantly changing through a process of interaction with other bodies in space. Chalk gets smudged onto hands and onto knees. During an event held by Chalk This Way, a toddler sat on a chalk art-ed car: the red and blue chalk dust created a blurry recreation on her leggings, whilst the piece on the floor became blurrier and less vibrant. The process of ‘becoming-art’ is ‘led by the chalk dispersion, associations and stabilization. That is what shapes its complex material trajectory’ (Yaneva, 2003: 183).
The second point I would like to make about the materiality of chalk also relates to the extension of chalk art beyond its original location because of movement on hands, shoes, brooms, and so on. Through this movement, we can see that the creative pieces emerge from relational networks composed of a variety of bodies, thus moving our attention away from the sole intention of a subject, reframing creativity as a collaborative effort between human and non-human bodies. Drawing from Bergson’s concept of the interval and intuition, Williams (2016) argues that we rethink creativity as a relational emergence. This means that any ‘actant never really acts alone’ (Bennett, 2010: 21). Therefore, creativity is no longer seen as a trait belonging to one human being. This opens up new questions about what kind of situations can create the openness that relational creativity needs to flourish. In my fieldwork with Chalk This Way, what was produced in the act of chalk art-ing was sometimes shaped by the materiality of other bodies, such as the individual paving slabs providing a ‘frame’ for people to draw, or the colours available resulting in questions like ‘what can I draw that’s orange?’. Thinking about this from a vital materialist approach, we can see that matter can no longer be conceived of as simply passive or inert ‘stuff’ that populates a passive world for the active human to act upon. Instead, what is highlighted is ‘the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things’ (Bennett, 2010: ix). The material bodies in the space changed the course of what emerged: in this way, they acted. They fostered and cultivated what was depicted in chalk on the pavement, playing an active role in the creative act.
Beyond this, the accessibility of chalk art-ing makes it an important temporary urban intervention. Chalk is a familiar medium for most people as well as being cheap and widely available. Furthermore, it is temporary. It is a mark-making device that does not provoke the same kind of apprehension that picking up a paintbrush, spray can, or other craft with more permanence could have for some people (though it should be noted that early on in the Chalk This Way event there were protests of ‘I don’t want to ruin it’ and ‘I can’t draw’ from some who feared that their contributions would detract from the overall piece’s aesthetic value). The accessibility of chalk makes it a powerful actant because it is inviting to many people. Therefore, chalk art-ing allows more positive relations between multiple bodies to flourish, compounding them in numerous beneficial ways and producing a shared openness to creative chances in the future.
The materiality of chalk makes it a great example of temporary urbanism because its inherent properties mean that it isn’t permanent. It also allows us to acknowledge the idea of ‘becoming-art’ because of its easy dispersal, which decentres creativity away from the subject and instead recognizes creativity as a relational emergence between a variety of human and non-human bodies. Chalk art-ing is an accessible practice which encourages joyful affective relations to flourish in the city.
I am currently working on more participatory chalk art events which is part of my PhD research on temporary urbanism, habit, and subjectivity. All images from Chalk This Way.
Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Dewsbury, JD. 2011. The Deleuze-Guattarian Assemblage: Plastic Habits. Area, 43 (2), 148-153.
LaFrombois, M. 2015. Blind spots and pop-up spots: A feminist exploration into the discourses of do-it-yourself (DIY) urbanism. Urban Studies, 2015.
Holloway, J. 2010. Crack Capitalism. London: Pluto Press.
Williams, N. 2016. Creative Processes: From interventions in art to intervallic experiments through Bergson. Environment and Planning A, 2016.
Yaneva, A. 2003. Chalk Steps on the Museum Floor: The ‘Pulses’ of Object in an Art Installation. Journal of Material Culture, 8 (2), 169-188.