OCAD Yellow Stairwell Mural

My proposal for the Yellow Stairwell Mural project was very much ingrained with the politics of OCAD’s yellow stairwell. For years, a group of students battled with the administration and institution of OCAD to authorize a mural project for the yellow stairwell. Before each monthly mural project, all art and graffiti would be painted over, courtesy of OCAD who spends thousands of dollars outsourcing the job to “Goodbye Graffiti,” a graffiti removal company. After years of bureaucratic dealings, student debates on online forums and written petitions, OCAD finally OK’d the project with a set of rigid guidelines.

In the vein of my Neighbourhood Watch thesis project, I wanted to address these issues; notions of control and censorship, of community surveillance and power hierarchies. I felt it was important that the student body itself was involved, so I decided to give them a chance to write their opinions about the YELLOW STAIRWELL in the yellow stairwell. Anything they wanted. On the walls.

I spent 6 hours in the yellow stairwell on November 23rd, 2007. I put posters at the entrances of the stairwell, made a facebook invite and asked people who walked by to participate. About 75% of all people who walked by declined. I assumed that since so many art students complained about the yellow stairwell in the past, they would jump at the opportunity to express themselves on the subject. I was wrong. When given a loaded paint brush and the freedom, most students backed away.

Here’s the list of responses that people gave:

-“No.”
-“Don’t have the time.”
-“Don’t know what to write.”
-“Don’t have the time to know what to write.”
-“Not today”
-“Why? What’s the point? I don’t get it.” (Administration employee)
-“I don’t want to get in trouble.” (Faculty member)
-“Need time to think about it, I’ll come back.” (Never did)
-“Need time to think of something really clever, I’ll be right back.” (Didn’t come back)

There were several occasions when people came up to write something, seemed to encounter a change of mind and walked away. Some people looked at me suspiciously, like I was setting them up, and a few people just ignored me. One person even went so far as to make fun of me! Overall, it wasn’t a pleasant experience and I felt very frustrated. I kept asking myself why it was so hard to get OCAD students to get involved and express themselves? Why would my peers refuse the opportunity they’ve criticized the school of withholding from them? I’d like to thank all the students and faculty members who did participate. Your opinions and conversations were appreciated and kept me going.

Here’s a list of speculated reason why this experiment wasn’t more successful:

1. Publicity: I didn’t publicize it enough. I could have done more to make people aware of the project. Also someone pointed out that maybe the people who would have participated happened not to be at school that day.

2. Laziness: I forgot a lot of people don’t even use the stairs at OCAD, as most take the elevator. Being located on the 4th floor could have prevented a lot of people from participating.

3. Identity: Those who usually write graffiti on the yellow stairwell do so in secrecy. The fact that I was there encouraging them probably made it unappealing. I also got the feeling some people were suspicious of me, like I was setting them up to do something illegal, and I often had to convince them that it was a legitimate art project authorized by the school.

4. Interface: The use of an interface makes people feel more secure to say how they truly feel, things they would never admit in person. People have no problem complaining anonymously or on an internet forum, but writing on a wall might have felt a little too risky. There were a few occurrences where people would tell me their opinions but refuse to write it themselves, though they were OK with me writing it for them. Did I become the interface?

5. Accountability: No one has to be accountable for an opinion written anonymously. I could tell a lot of people felt the pressure of being responsible for what they wrote. They would believe their opinion to be stupid, lacking in wit, uncreative, or would second guess themselves and not participate at all. They automatically criticized themselves with what they thought others would think of them. (A form of self-surveillance?)

After the 6 hours, I censored all the profanity written on the wall. Then I painted a light coat of the yellow over top. I was assuming the role of the administration, or perhaps the graffiti removal company. I never buffed graffiti before. A lot of students who walked by and saw me covering it up seemed puzzled. A few got mad at me and I heard some mean remarks underneath their breath. Buffing graffiti is not a fun job and it makes you feel very unpopular.

I returned a week later to finish my project to discover that my censoring had been censored! I guess the graffiti removal company had returned during the week I had been writing my final papers and exams and decided that I didn’t do a good enough job and added another coat of yellow. What an unsuspected surprise! Now, my canvas has been authentically imbued by both the student body and the administrative powers that be. Perfect!

If you would like to see my installation, it’s located in the YELLOW STAIRWELL at OCAD, 100 McCaul st, Toronto Ont. Just above the 4th floor.

After completion the mural was published in an online edition of OCAD’s Canvas Magazine which you can download here. It’s a funny article where they describe the project as a “student initiative launched in September 2007 with full administrative support. Its aim – freeing the yellow staircase of its yellowness.” They also spelled my name wrong. Something tells me they didn’t read my project outline either.

When I returned to my mural a year later, I found a wonderful surprise. It seems that the community of OCAD intervened on the mural once more, marking their footsteps walking down the long road. There are so many ideas that come to my head, the pyramid hierarchy, ideas of competition, the symbol of the footprint, the unique markings, and the idea of community walking together. It made me smile.

I’d like to thank:
Mahban G. (for the inspiration)
Aaron Li-Hill (for the pizza, beer, and extra help)
David Waldman (www.formertransformer.com)
And to everyone who participated.

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