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Authors: Planeix-Crocker, Madeleine
Advisors: Rentzou, Efthymia
Contributors: Wampole, Christy N.
Department: French and Italian
Class Year: 2015
Abstract: The human impulse to leave one’s mark can be traced back to prehistoric times. Our ancestors would represent their surrounding environment ritualistically on the walls of gloomy caves. Leaving handprints and imagery pertaining to their daily activities, prominently the hunt, these cavemen would respond to the primordial instinct of etching one’s presence onto the immortal stone. This practice gained in complexity with the emergence of writing during the IVth century BC. As of then, the impulse became to leave not only a trace, but also a signature directly identifiable to its owner. Examples of these first written inscriptions can be found on the Ancient walls of Pompeii. These signatures are a name, or a pseudonym, and carry the author’s identity within it. They are known as “graffiti”, term derived from the Greek graphein, which means, “to write”. The Lasco Project, presented at the Palais de Tokyo, is a homage to Man’s desire to leave a trace of his existence, be it illustrated or signed. The Lasco Project is a long-term exhibit of urban graffiti, signatures left in the cityscape to mark an individual’s presence. At the zeitgeist of this movement in the 1970s, “graffiti writers” sought to draw their name all over the dense city. This obsessive practice began as a desire of recognition, stemming from under-represented, minority, populations in the inner city. New York was the nexus of the urban graffiti art movement, which spread like wild fire across the Atlantic. Similarly under-privileged populations in France began writing, or “tagging”, their names on city walls. This performative gesture was profoundly symbolic: by infiltrating the heart of the city and inscribing their tag onto the public wall, these groups were reclaiming their equal right to inhabit the urban environment. The wall, previously a barrier – separating the PLANEIX-CROCKER 5 “inside” from the “outside” –, was turned into a canvas for the graffiti writers to mark their territory. This movement rapidly expanded, and with it, the scope of its mission. Graffiti writers no longer only sought their rightful position in urban society, but also began a quest for “fame”. The simple tags or name “blazes” became elaborate designs with colorful and amplified lettering. The graffiti was illegible to a non-trained eye, transforming into a language of its own, only used by the writer “sub-culture”. Though starkly at odds with local authorities, these writers did not fail to catch the eye of the gallery owner and the art seller – fascinated by the graffiti, just as much as by the counter-cultural lifestyle led by their authors. Hence, at the beginning of the 1980s, the graffiti movement was introduced into an institutionalized setting, marking the beginning of the “Post-Graffiti” era and its commercialization. The institutionalization of urban graffiti is further accompanied by the construction of a historical narrative of the practice. Graffiti, once an ephemeral and illegal gesture, transforms into a contemporary artistic practice, granted a legacy and a new framework of development within institutional walls. In this paper, we will examine to what extent it is possible to reconcile urban art (graffiti, street art, stencils, and installations) with the cultural institution, and will explore the possibilities of recreating an “experience” of this counter-culture in a post-graffiti era. The case study of the Lasco Project at the Palais Tokyo will allow us to focus on a possible model of the exhibition of urban art in the cultural institution. The Lasco Project is indeed a simulation of the dynamic and dangerous experiences lived by the graffiti writers in the streets; the artists working in the Palais de Tokyo are aware that their work on the legal, institutional walls will have a longer lifespan than PLANEIX-CROCKER 6 the average street tag. What excites them is to explore the inner workings of a cultural institution, to conduct an “infrastructural infiltration”. They establish an immersive environment, interiorizing their outdoor practices, and allow the visitors to “happen” upon the Lasco Project while discovering other exhibits on the upper floors of the Palais. The institutionalization of urban art has been in process since the early 1980s, with numerous examples of large-scale urban art retrospectives in contemporary cultural institutions, all attempting to record and share the history of the movement. We will thus focus on presenting the specific model of institutionalization put forth by the Palais de Tokyo in the Lasco Project since 2012. The Palais de Tokyo / Site de creation contemporaine is a French cultural institution, located in Paris; it does not have the legal status of a “museum”, but rather that of an “art center”, bereft of a permanent collection. Since its renovations in 2002, the Palais attempts to present the cutting-edge creations of young contemporary artists from around the world and presents a versatile architecture with which artists in residence often play as they take over the center. Furthermore, the Palais, similarly to more recent modern art museums such as the Pompidou Center (1977), presents interdisciplinary activities serving as institutional amenities (library, restaurant, night club). However, the Palais de Tokyo has the additional stated mission of constantly attempting reinvent itself as an institution. Current criticism of French contemporary art museums, stemming from within the institutions, claim that this is precisely what most museums do not do: put themselves into question so as to match the endlessly avant-garde productions they house. The tension between contemporary art and the cultural institution is at the heart of the history of these modern creations: such a PLANEIX-CROCKER 7 dynamic can foster mutual growth. The Palais puts itself into question and allows the artists, just as much as the head administrators, to help construct its ever-changing identity. A parallel can thus be drawn between the dynamic, bustling life of graffiti art and that of the Palais de Tokyo. The graffiti writers involved in the Lasco Project willingly work in this specific art institution, as the center presents a vigorous framework in which the writers can share their history. That being said, the Palais remains an institution and also provides bureaucratic pushback to the writers’ institutional infiltration. The conversation between the urban artists and the Palais establishes an interesting system of checks-and-balances within the institution. The urban writers recreate a narrative of their practice in a setting incongruous with the original context of their work, thus also allowing their practice to develop in unexplored territory. Now recorded at the Lasco Project, this history is made eternal, a byproduct which some writers still consider treason to their counter-culture. The graffiti writers thus perpetually seek compelling ways to keep their urban practice alive at the Palais. In turn, the artists attempt to push the Palais’ boundaries through their infiltration, thus questioning certain institutional practices. As such, the Lasco Project artists and the Palais seem to establish a vibrant dynamic, working closely to reconstruct the story of the outside, now told on the inside. This conversation might well indeed present the basis for a harmonious and feasible institutionalization of urban art, without neglecting the origins of the movement that started with a trace, to then reclaim the power of the written word expressed by those whose voice could not/would not be heard in the urban landscape.
Extent: 149 pages
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: fr
Appears in Collections:French and Italian, 2002-2023

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