A number of problems arise when attempting to write an article on London-born, LA-based street artist, Plastic Jesus. Articles tend to either fall to idolatry, worshipping his message as the final word and desiring to build some kind of cult around his fame. Or they reduce his work to something quirky and critical, but ultimately disposable. In both readings, we become exactly what he critiques: witless consumers. And that is what we are. We consume public space without really seeing it. We consume news media without questioning it or consulting our own views. We consume the messages in his work, their truth, power and his subversive vision — and then we move on. The problem with writing about Plastic Jesus is that he shouldn’t be the subject, we should.
In an interview with Plastic Jesus, I found a brilliant and creative individual as dedicated to his work as troubled by it. In our conversation, we discussed a number of topics, including the spontaneity, illegality and freedom of street art, the differences between European and American audiences, and his refusal to take his privileges for granted. However, it was our discussion on the tensions of responsibility that ultimately says something about us, the consumers.
“If I can take us back to the day of the election, 2016. I was contacted by a few news organizations, because I’d been quite vocal in the election campaign and quite obviously anti-Trump. Their question was: ‘Now that Trump is President, what do you feel your responsibility is?’ And I turned around like, ‘Who the fuck gave me this responsibility? Who invested this responsibility in me?’ Because I am not generating opinions — I am merely reacting to them. I have only a fundamental requirement to be acceptable as a communication form. You can write, ‘Fuck the Banks!’ in six-foot letters on a wall in paint, but to me, that is not acceptable; but creating something like a four-by-eight foot mouse trap held up with credit cards where the cheese should be, effectively says the same message… but in a much more acceptable way. And I think that’s really where my focus comes from, to create messages which convey an opinion that are acceptable to the viewer.
I think in the nature of any communication that is temporary — be it news media or street art — there is this tendency to creep, this gradual transition from where we are now to where we are going. And I think, although a lot of communication is temporary, it does form this transition where things become normalized over a period of time.
I think that any piece of street art that is placed on the street has an impact on passers-by or social media — it has an effect for what follows, just as a news story would.
Now, in terms of my responsibility, what I do is from a very personal point of view. I put out messages I want to see out there. If one person sees it, great. If a hundred people see it, great. If a million people see it, great. It doesn’t really matter. I just feel that, as a creative, I have a need to put these messages out. And for me, street art is proving to be a successful medium. I don’t see that I have a responsibility other than to convey messages that I feel are missing in society, ones society needs to take a deeper look at.
I still consider myself a photojournalist, but my medium has changed. My work is interactive. On issues that are very current and have a very quick turnaround in terms of news response and news cycle, I’m very responsive. I can usually get a piece on the streets in a day or two. But for subjects and matters that are more ongoing, then I’ve got time to perhaps refine them a bit more and think about how I will execute this piece of art.
I can’t just ignore what’s going on within society, the country or the world for a number of reasons. First, because I’ve generated this persona where people are expecting some kind of commentary from me. Going back to that question I was asked after election day about my responsibility — it kind of concerned me and disturbed me when I realized that, in fact, I do have a responsibility now. It’s not something I said I wanted. I just wanted to run some kind of commentary. I’d love to go back to creating frivolous pieces of street art with some cultural commentary rather than heavy politics, but I spent 20 years as a photojournalist, and I’m still a complete news addict. So some things are part of me that I can’t switch off. I will read news media right across the board from left-wing sites like the Guardian to right-wing sites like FOX, just to try and get some kind of perspective on media: how it’s being conveyed; how it’s being relayed. It is difficult to rise up and maintain that edge and rise up to that responsibility. I find it extremely depressing and I mean that on a medical, emotional context, not just as a kind of sadness. In the past year, I’ve considered retiring because of the effect it’s having on me. And part of that is, I guess, due to the responsibility I now feel is invested in me. It’s difficult.
Nobody is forcing me to do it, but people have gotten a lot of support and validity from the messages I’m putting out there.
Since Trump announced his six-month review of the whole DACA procedure, I’ve had a number of calls from friends here in the U.S. under the DACA program. They’ve looked to me and asked, ‘What are you doing on it? What is your commentary on this?’ So I have to maintain that, I suppose, because a lot of people do feel that I am a voice to what they cannot say, or do not have the means to convey.”
How are we to read Plastic Jesus’s statements on his own work without confusing who exactly is the subject in all of this? First, we must recognize that he is quite serious when he claims he remains a photojournalist communicating in a different medium. His work functions as the photo does, calling attention to happenings in the world with little opinion or commentary included. As we pass his work on the street or let it pass across our social-media feeds, we are forced to experience all the world’s unsightly happenings in a flash. Certainly, most of us can immediately read a critique into his pieces, but only because we already know that what’s being indexed is problematic, absurd and unacceptable.
Second, we have to admit that while his installations are temporary, the problems they point to are not. Idolatry, drug-abuse, capitalist exploitation, racism, Trump — they all exist absolutely and terribly, but we don’t question them until they sit in front of our face. That in itself is problematic, absurd and just plain unacceptable. So if we want to do more than idolize a famous and entertaining artist, consuming his work rather than throwing it away, we have to actually internalize his sense of responsibility. When, through his art, Plastic Jesus points to something we find reprehensible in society, we are going to have to recognize the critique is actually our own. The interpretation is ours. The responsibility is ours. Even if it results in depression, we must ask ourselves, What are we actually doing about it? What kind of future do we imagine beyond the spontaneous and temporary installations? How do we refuse to become witless consumers, and instead, dedicate ourselves to being active producers for a better world?
*Author’s note: with permission of the artist, I have edited and rearranged the interview transcript for the sake of readability and to create a continuity of theme.