Street Lyrics

LA-based artist Shepard Fairey and Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nicholas Harmer recently collaborated on a music video that places lyrics from the track "Home Is a Fire" on walls throughout the city. The song, from the band's new album Codes and Keys, considers the ways in which home is not the stable, secure or safe place we often imagine it to be, and the video extends the idea of home out into the city, asking how the city, too, shifts, cracks and changes around us.

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Fairey, who is well known for his often controversial street art, writes on his website that the "video is about illustrating these ideas and the multiple dimensions of the city experience by taking the viewer on a journey to encounter the 'Home Is A Fire' lyrics as street art."

As Fairey suggests, encountering the fragments of text on the streets of LA may conjure poetic moments, breaking up the often anonymous experience of wandering through the streets with moments of intrigue. He's also interested in the ephemeral nature of street art, and the ways in which that sense of imminent change - whether through decay, removal or a covering over - echoes the themes of the song.

The street-based lyrics also create a city-based story, inviting "readers" to piece together fragments to find a coherent theme, and they speak specifically to LA residents, with references to freeways and earthquakes.

As elements in a music video, the fragments act as punctuation, adding emphasis to certain phrases of the song. The text is didactic, however, dutifully repeating the lyrics, even in choice of font and illustration without drifting too far from a literal interpretation. "Shake" is cracked through with a line, "fire" is illustrated with flames, and "Bricks make me nervous" is posted on bricks.

Consider this effort in relationship to the text-based artworks at the turn of the last century that united poetry and typography, or concrete poetry, or pop art's use of language. UCLA professor Johanna Drucker has written in detail about this experimental typography in The Visible Word, while Simon Morley looks at text in modern art in Writing on the Wall. These are obviously vastly different projects in vastly different contexts, but I note them simply to say that Fairey's work is best when it uses graphic form to synthesize ideas, rather than merely illustrate them.

Another section of the video shows the production of the materials to be posted, and for Fairey, points viewers toward ways to make their city more familiar and less alien. He writes, "Street art appeals because it makes the landscape a little less dreary for the viewer, and it is a bureaucracy free creative outlet for the participants." And indeed, the work of street art is often precisely dedicated to claiming the city as public space rather than corporate space.

The video is nicely timed to coincide with Art in the Streets, the showcase of street art by 50 artists, including Fairey, at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary open through August 8, 2011.

About the Author

Holly Willis teaches in USC's School of Cinematic Arts and writes about new media art. She is the author of "New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image" and editor of "The New Ecology of Things" on pervasive computing.
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