Artists routinely challenge society's understanding of what is acceptable. These days, as more of our public spaces are placed under the rubric of “security”, ceded to the “war on terror”, some artists are working to reclaim them.
In April, a number of small, generic packages were discovered in prominent places throughout West London; a paranoid public and police force considered them potential nail bombs. The BBC reported that after the bomb squad determined the packages were benign, a woman claiming to be the artist surrendered to police and accepted responsibility for having placed them. She had, it turned out, intentionally tried to arouse suspicion with her sculpture.
As an April Fool's Day joke, five teenage girls in the town of Raveena, Ohio, placed 17 “Mario blocks” outside public buildings like the library and the high school. Town officials responded by calling out the bomb squad and Hazmat teams. Police seriously considered laying charges after one of the girls visited headquarters with her mother and took responsibility for the action.
Police chief Randall McCoy didn't care that it was a teenage prank. “In today's day and age, you just cannot do this kind of stuff,” he told the Raveena Record-Courier. He was amazed that the instructions for constructing the milk crate–sized blocks were discovered by the girls on the Internet.
The painted cardboard blocks installed by the Raveena Five are recognizable as coming from Mario Bros., the iconic Nintendo game in which Mario jumps in the air and punches blocks that are above him. From those blocks come various “power-ups” that enhance Mario's abilities: a mushroom makes him grow bigger, a fire flower gives him the ability to throw fireballs at enemies, a green mushroom gives him an extra life.
The idea of creating the blocks and installing them in shared public spaces came from Poster Child, an artist in Windsor, Ontario.
Mario and his fantasy land were logical refrerences when the Nintendo-generation Poster Child was in art school. “I create public installations that are both playful and political,” he says in an artist statement at www.qwantz.com/posterchild/.
The first blocks that Poster Child created included cardboard cutouts of different power-ups inside. Anyone accessing the box would find the prize. The idea is a curious blend of Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Joseph Beuys, Barbara Kruger, and Pac-Man.
“I feel bad that these girls have landed in trouble,” said Poster Child in an e-mail interview with the Straight, “but I applaud their desire to engage their fellow citizens and to connect to their city.
“Street art is risky. It is alive, direct, engaging, powerful, and yes, even dangerous.”
In Winnipeg, Mark Reimer, Matt Friesen, Kurt Kauenhofen, and Warren Klassen created their own installation of Mario blocks, coins, and enemies in a local park.
Reimer said in an interview with the Straight that the reason for their installation was simply an expression of creativity. “They aren't permanent and let you change the landscape of a public place temporarily.”
Their blocks were installed at night, and by noon the next day, most of them had been removed. “I'd like to think that somewhere, someone has a Mario block hanging in their room and they want to do something similar in a public space,” said Reimer.
As long as people aren't being destructive, Reimer believes that in a liberal democracy “we should have the liberty to use our public spaces how we want to.”
The girls from Ohio were not ultimately charged. “I wonder if the media reaction would have been different if it had been five young men instead of five young women?” Poster Child wondered. “What about five adults? Or five young men of Middle Eastern ancestry?”