Fuk U Yankie (2009)
Tuesday, January 20, 2009, was a bittersweet day for me. At the time, I was living abroad as a student at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. As an American immigrant to Canada, I felt extremely elated to be witnessing the inauguration of Barack Obama (and, I must admit, equally elated to witness the departure of the Bush Administration). In the midst of my jubilation, however, there was an occurrence which quickly and violently dragged my high spirits back down to earth. As I approached my car on Wednesday morning to drive to class, I found that I had been the victim of a vandal; the day earlier, as my Subaru Forester sat dormant in its designated stall in the parking lot behind my apartment building, someone had scratched a message into the right side.
The first thing I noticed was the message FUK U, etched into the back door. My initial reaction was dismay and disbelief that anyone would do something so immature, and puzzlement over why it had to be my car. Moments later, though, I realized that this was not the entire message. Altogether, across both doors, the damage read FUK U YANKIE. It was then that I understood that it was no random accident that the vandal had chosen my car; it had been deliberately picked because of my Florida license plate. Suddenly, I went from being the target of a juvenile prank to the victim of a hate crime.
After recovering from the initial wave of shock and filing a report with the police, I began to come to the rather obvious conclusion that, as an artist, I had to say something about this. Like it or not, I'd been handed a perfect opportunity to make a statement on some rather heavy subject matter. It was out of this situation that I developed my reactionary conceptual drawing, which I also titled Fuk U Yankie.
At around 10 AM on the morning of January 29, more than a week after discovering the message, I arrived at the Emily Carr parkade equipped with a set of nonpermanent water-based markers and some towels, and spent the next hour drawing on the side of my car and integrating the damage into my finished work. The final result consisted of an ornate picture frame, decorated with Canadian maple leaf and American star motifs, around the vandal's message, as well as a plaque bearing the title, artist (crediting “Anonymous Vandal”), date, and medium. Off to the side, I also wrote my own critique, which read:
"The text would be stronger if it was more easily legible. When I first saw it, I did not discern the entire message, so it's not reading. Maybe it would have been more visible if you had etched the words deeper. In addition to the obvious technical deficiencies, the piece is also lacking in content. The whole concept of anti-American sentiment is trite and unoriginal. If you’re going to use such an obvious cliché as your subject matter, you should at least try to offer a fresh perspective. I get the sense that you gave no forethought whatsoever to the composition. It's too centered.
Strictly speaking—overall, this is the work of an amateur. I think you need to go back and rework this, and make it more interesting."
Finally, after a few select exhibitions, the last phase of the project was undertaken at 7 PM, when I drove out of the parkade, down 4th Avenue, and into a car wash to erase the frame and critique.
Several readings were offered by those who viewed it in person, all of which were pieces of one larger whole. Of particular note was the tension between the presentation and content. The work, while presented with a wry sense of humour, also touched on the much more serious topic of discrimination, which, in Canada, seems to exist in a much more insidious but nevertheless toxic form than that in its southern neighbor. Another peculiarity about it was that it was at once a gallery piece—or, at least, a piece heavily referencing the gallery—and a work of site-based art; nothing could contrast more than the sterile white modernist cube evoked by the gallery aesthetic and the industrial grime of the parkade. Another interpretation raised the question of whether vandalism was art, and still another paid special attention to the deliberate use of temporary materials to create a piece designed to be impermanent. Some said it was a conceptually driven work, while others argued it could be seen as representational, and a few noted that it blurred the line between the two.
Personally, the reading that I hold with the highest esteem—and perhaps this is precisely because of my position as the victim of the vandalism—is a reading about the relationship of control. This is the message which is closest to my actual intent in first conceiving the piece. I was most interested in exploring the idea of vandalism as an aggressive assertion of control over others through the conduit of property. By creating a frame and critique, I was not only using my own contextual vocabulary as an artist to draw attention to the underlying issue of intolerance and raise questions about the institution of art, I was exploring the control ceded back to me by vandalizing the original vandalism. I was defusing the effect of the damage from the position of critic, and in so doing, reasserting my dominance rather than yielding to the vandal’s forcible usurpation of control. Anyone who has experienced this kind of discrimination firsthand is aware of the dreadful sense of violation that accompanies it; it was my primary goal to symbolically un-violate myself.