Should Street Art Stay where it was Made?

New York and Detroit are both encountering the difficulty which arises when street art achieves recognition.

In Detroit, a group removed a Banksy work from near an abandoned Packard plant. The 555 Non-profit gallery which cut away the wall is now engaged in a legal dispute with the owner of the Packard site over the mural. The dispute brings to mind so many interesting questions. Banksy may have intend his mural to be temporary, and only seen for a limited time in the context of the decaying auto plant. Did the gallery strip the mural of its context by removing it? How is that removal much different than the stripping of pre-Columbian stelae from central and south America? The techniques of sawing are probably similar, and we are left with a decontextualized panel in a different space, left to imagine what the work would have looked like in its original, though perhaps threatened, context.

5 Pointz in Queens

In Queens, a similar difficulty may be emerging. The owner of this warehouse space in Long Island City has announced his intention to develop the warehouse into a residential project, supermarket, and space for artists. As Marlon Bishop reports for WNYC “Since 1993, the former warehouse space in Long Island City has served as an informal training ground and gallery for street artists from around the city. The space is regularly visited by graffiti and hip-hop fans from around the world, earning it a reputation as a street art mecca.”

But now that space is being re-purposed by the owner of the building. The warehouse itself may be in need of serious repair anyway, as an external staircase collapsed in 2009. As the owner of the building, Jerry Wolkoff would ordinarily be free to do what he wishes with his building. Yet the artists are upset that their creative space is disappearing and may seek to have the building declared a historical landmark. Will the re-purposed developoment continue to serve the same function of bringing together artists? Surely not. And part of the excitement of the street art scene was its newness and how it emerged as a new art form breaking free of conventions. Yet wider appreciation for street art, and the commodification of these works, are slowly imposing the conventions anyway.

  1. Matthew Dolan, If You Take Street Art Off the Street, Is It Still Art?, wsj.com, March 9, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704071304576160544164062176.html#articleTabs%3Darticle (last visited Mar 9, 2011).
  2. Marlon Bishop, Queens Graffiti Mecca Faces Redevelopment, WNYC, , http://culture.wnyc.org/articles/features/2011/mar/07/queens-graffiti-mecca-faces-redevelopment/ (last visited Mar 9, 2011).
Video from Detroit after the break:

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Archaeologist Pleads Guilty to Artifact Theft

Daniel Amick, an assistant professor at Loyola Chicago pleaded guilty to violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act after removing 17 prehistoric objects from federal lands in New Mexico. He was sentenced to a year’s probation.

Johna Hutira, vice president of Northland Research and a member of the Society of American Archaeology, said she didn’t feel comfortable commenting on this particular case, but added that these kinds of allegations are troubling for archaeologists. 
“It’s a short jump from a person removing artifacts to wholesale looting,” Hutira said, adding that one of the primary roles of archaeology is the preservation of historically significant artifacts that offer insights into early civilizations. 
In general, “if you want to go collect information, you need to get an archaeological permit,” Hutira said. “If it’s federal lands, you have to play by federal rules.” 
Amick’s attorney asserted that the professor’s decisions were driven by academic pursuit. And had Amick applied for a research permit, he would have been granted one, his attorney said.
Amick is one of two archaeologists on staff at Loyola’s anthropology department. 
According to the Loyola website, he received his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in 1994. Amick teaches introductory anthropology courses, including Anthropology 101, as well as more advanced classes such as Archaeology Lab Methods.
  1. Erin Meyer, Artifacts stolen: Loyola professor pleads guilty to robbing archaeological site, Chicago Tribune, March 1, 2011, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-loyola-guilty-0302-20110301,0,7965373.story (last visited Mar 8, 2011).
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Firsthand Report of Looting in Saqqara

The step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

There are a number of conflicting reports emerging from Egypt, and as evacuated members of foreign archaeological missions arrive home, we are learning more about what took place in the chaos last weekend. Zahi Hawass is reporting on his website that sites are being protected and that reports of rumors of looting at places like Saqqara are not true. Yet Lee Rosenbaum has been forwarded a firsthand account from a French archaeologists that describes looting last weekend:

The French Archaeological Mission at Saqqara has just left Egypt yesterday and arrived safe today. As most of you are in lack of direct information concerning what happened there, I will try to tell you in brief what I saw. 
On Saturday, the taftish [on-site officer from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities] asked us to stop the work, because the police were not in the capacity of protecting us anymore. In the afternoon, we could see that the police at the police station at the entrance of the resthouses was gone and had left us alone. That is when it all began: Robbers from Saqqara and Abusir became aware of this and they began to spread in the gebel [mountainous desert].
The first afternoon and night, they mainly attacked places which were secured with locks. They broke them and went inside. Most of the time, they destroyed what they saw and not robbed anything, trying to find “treasures.” These are not well organised robbers but, mainly, young people from 10 to 20, very probably looking for gold. That is why, when they saw blocks of stone, they most of the time left them, or destroyed them in order to find what was underneath.
I could see them with my eyes the day after, when we made a tour in the gebel with the army. Around 5 p.m., when the sun was still not down, at the muslim cemetery of Abusir, I counted more than 200 young men, excavating in front of us, ready to flee if the army would come down. A tank of the army was there, but they kept on digging. The soldiers were not numerous enough to do anything else than showing they were here. And when we went back, they probably came back in the highs. They were laughing and throwing stones at us. 
. . .

After three days, more and more soldiers arrived in Saqqara and secured more and more of the area. The worse days were Saturday and Sunday. It looks like the army is now securing most of the area, and they made clear that anyone taken would be taken to jail. Hope it works.

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Reports of Looting and Theft throughout Egypt

An Egyptian Soldier guarding the Cairo Museum

Like many of you I am following the reports from Egypt with great interest. There is a flood of information on the revolution generally, and also a lot of specific information about the destruction over the weekend at the Cairo Museum.

The situation at the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo seems to have stabilized, with soldiers arresting fifty men who have attempted to break in to the museum Monday. Yesterday Zahi Hawass faxed a report, which was posted on his blog.

 Now reports are emerging about damage and thefts at sites elsewhere in the country. Much of it, I am sorry to say, is disheartening. These reports are very early, and should be taken with a healthy dash of skepticism. Yet we all know that there are places where many of these objects will be bought and sold. The antiquities trade does not distinguish the licit from the illicit. Vast storehouses and sites are at risk. The United States will soon have to consider emergency import restrictions, and monitor the trade as best we can. Yet one can’t help but feel frustrated at the destruction which may be taking place.

The Egyptian newsblog Bikyamasr is reporting widespread looting of museums and antiquities thefts all over the country:

According to antiquities official Mohamed Megahed, “immense damages to Abusir and Saqqara” were reported. Looters allegedly have gone into tombs that had been sealed and destroyed much of the tombs and took artifacts.

“Only the Imhotep Museum and adjacent central areas were protected by the military. In Abusir, all tombs were opened; large gangs digging day and night,” he said.

According to Megahed, storage facilities in South Saqqara, just south of Cairo has also been looted. He did mention it was hard to ascertain what, and how much, was taken.

He said Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) officials “are only today [Sunday] able to check on the museums storage, but early reports suggest major looting.”

He called on the international archaeology community to issue a “high alert” statement on Old Kingdom remains and Egyptian antiquities in general, “and please spread the word to law enforcement officials worldwide.”

Looters of museums, “who may be encouraged by outside Egypt entities, may try to use general confusion to get things out of the country.”

His statement comes as Al Jazeera and other news networks reported extensively on the small looting at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in the past two days as police guarding the museum left their posts. Others allege that the police themselves are responsible for the looting.

The Egyptian Museum is home to some 120,000 items and thousands more in storage in the basement.

 What a sad development if museum security really were involved in the looting. Already it is worth asking the difficult question: what could be done to prevent this in the future, and also thinking about answers. One answer might lie with how the guards were treated. Hyperallergic has translated an interview with the former director of the Egyptian Museum Wafaa el-Saddik, published in the German publication Zeit Online, reporting that the Museum in Memphis has been robbed. The thieves may have been Egyptian security guards, who earn as little as 35 Euros per month.

Good sources of information include:

After the jump, a collection of videos of the situation in Cairo (via)

Al Jazeera report of Friday’s looting at the Cairo Museum on Friday:

AP video of the army securing the museum:

Zahi Hawass commenting on Saturday:

(cross-posted)

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Hawass says Egyptian Museum "Raided"

Zahi Hawass claimed that two mummies have been destroyed, and the museum was “raided”, in an appearance on Egyptian state television:

CAIRO Jan 29 (Reuters) – Looters broke into the Egyptian Museum during anti-government protests late on Friday and destroyed two Pharaonic mummies, Egypt’s top archaeologist told state television.

The museum in central Cairo, which has the world’s biggest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, is adjacent to the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party that protesters had earlier set ablaze. Flames were seen still pouring out of the party headquarters early on Saturday.

“I felt deeply sorry today when I came this morning to the Egyptian Museum and found that some had tried to raid the museum by force last night,” Zahi Hawass, chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said on Saturday.

“Egyptian citizens tried to prevent them and were joined by the tourism police, but some (looters) managed to enter from above and they destroyed two of the mummies,” he said.

He added looters had also ransacked the ticket office.

The two-storey museum, built in 1902, houses tens of thousands of objects in its galleries and storerooms, including most of the King Tutankhamen collection. (Reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Writing by Patrick Werr)

Looters destroy mummies in Egyptian Museum-official | News by Country | Reuters

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Superindictments and their Consequences

Yesterday there was a series of over 120 arrests of alleged mafia members. Though it is not quite on the same scale, it bears at least a few similarities to the indictments handed down in the Southwest as a part of  operation ‘cerberus’, or even the searches of California Museums in early 2007. Christopher Beam writes that these large investigations are ‘superindictments’:

Why one huge arrest, rather than a bunch of smaller ones? “It’s a statement,” says Jim Wedick, a former FBI agent. “They wanted to say, ‘You know what? We are back in town.’ ” Since 2001, the FBI has shifted its resources away from traditional crime-fighting toward counterterrorism. Thursday’s bust is a message from the Department of Justice to organized crime: We haven’t forgotten about you.

A message certainly was sent yesterday. By using this large-scale investigation Beam writes that you can encourage individuals to cooperate, informants are almost assured if you arrest a large enough group, and a powerful message is sent. Yet the events in the wake of the Cerberus investigation are sobering. Do law enforcement officials need to weigh the severity of their actions? Or do individuals who break the law earn the hardships which can sometimes emerge.

Cerberus was the frightening three-headed dog that guarded the underworld. The beast prevented souls from crossing into or out of the Hades’ dominion. A sad irony then that three suicides emerged from the investigation. The undercover informant who set much of the investigation into motion, and two of the individuals indicted. Antiquities looters have almost certainly changed their behavior. Whether the investigation drove them further underground or caused them to cease the looting remains to be seen. One hopes they have ceased looting of sites, but until the demand for black market antiquities is erased, there will sadly be people willing to risk arrest. Investigators worked very hard to make this case, and agents work tirelessly to police these sites, yet until the demand is eliminated, will these investigations continue?

  1. Christopher Beam, FBI Mafia Arrests: The rise of the superindictment. Slate (2011), http://www.slate.com/id/2281894/?from=rss (last visited Jan 21, 2011).
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Looted Statute (maybe Caligula) Seized Near Rome

A Bust of Caligula at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Italian police have arrested a tombarolo with an 8-foot ancient statue not far from Rome. The statue may be worth €1 million. They believe the statue may be of Caligula, and may even have been looted from Caligula’s tomb, which has not been discovered. We surely won’t know if this tomb or the site was the actual tomb, but if looting is destroying the archaeological record, we are losing information.

Might the record have given us information on Caligula, who may have received a bad rap from the sources which have survived antiquity? Contemporaries describe the emperor as insane, saying he appointed a horse as consul, slept with his sisters, and killed often. But these might have been claims made by his political enemies in the senate and elsewhere—perhaps not too different from today’s politics. After all, how could the son of Germanicus (my favorite Roman) have been such a bad guy. Caligula only ruled from AD 37-41, before he was assassinated.

I wonder where this statue was going to be sold? The United States, the middle-East, Asia? Excavations will start to reveal the archaeology of the site where the tomb raider unearthed the massive statue.

  1. Tom Kington, Caligula’s tomb found after police arrest man trying to smuggle statue, The Guardian, January 17, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/17/caligula-tomb-found-police-statue (last visited Jan 18, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com