Learning from vandalism in art: could you allow your audience to mess up your masterpiece?

I pass Fiona Banner’s Full Stops in More London often and am irritated by the people who interfere with this public sculpture group. Why do parents and adults encourage their children and friends to clamber over these pieces of art and then photograph their efforts? The most popular attempts I’ve seen are: trying to roll the giant black ball down the slope; attempting to tip over the pointy one; or managing to climb atop the sculptures. But I’ve also noticed people carving their names into the pieces too. Why on earth would someone want to carve their name into a piece of art?


The surface of these sculptures have to be grounded down and revarnished to try remove the little ‘personalisations’ added by people. But is this just a simple act of vandalism committed by those with no appreciation of the social value of art or the privilege of having art in public places?

Is this another example of Stendhal Syndrome, the psychosomatic disorder that causes an intense physical and emotional response in person presented with a masterpiece? Famous examples include the Russian woman who hurled a mug at the Mona Lisa; the woman who kissed the Cy Twombly painting or the man who attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta with a hammer.

Perhaps after all, it is the greatest compliment for someone to want to scrawl their name into something you’ve created? Are people so absorbed by creative expression that they want to use it as a shorthand for their own experiences? Does this explain why the reproduction posters of Banksy’s political activist graffiti have been so popular: “I don’t have to articulate what I feel on this issue, I can simply let the artist sum up what I’m feeling”?

An example of a public art piece which was transformed by the interference of the general public, is Stefan Sageister’s ‘obsessions make my life worse and my work better’. Sageister’s installation was designed as part of Urban Play, amonth long festival in 2008, and involved 300,000 euro cent coins laid out on a 20 x 42m square area.


Volunteers were asked to help create this enormous artwork by each creating a smaller section according to a pattern they were given by the artist. The photos of the finished piece are really beautiful.


You can imagine the horror when Sagmeister returned the next morning to find the whole installation had be swept away… It transpired that the police, seeing the collective value of the individual coins, had removed the coins in order to protect them. (You can see all photos in a Flickr set created by Anjens who lived in a flat overlooking the site.) Oddly enough, the total value of the installation wasn’t comparable to the value of the coins. As the artist wandered the city wondering what to do next, he kept coming across mini projects that individuals had created by taking some of the coins and arranging them into their own designs. Somehow, despite the installation having been destroyed, it was reincarnated by the people who had been inspired by it.


As Sagemeister said, “The finished product is almost never the finished product. The end result is only the beginning of the next step”. A conversation had been established between the artwork and the general public who had seen it. “The things we create will always go away, it’s the story of what we do that endures.”

So what can we learn from this? When creating something for use online it can be easy to get het up and in all the planning and carefully choreographed execution. But because invariably the main purpose is get people to engage with or interact our widget or campaign, we need to be less prescriptive about exactly how they choose to do so. Unplanned or unexpected interaction from an audience can provide a useful window into how others want to interact with your brand. What would it look like if you gave your audience the opportunity to re invent, re imagine, repurpose something of your brand? Are your brand guidelines too prescriptive? Do you profess to encourage creativity in your values, but find that your brand guidelines would be too restrictive? Could you manage to let go without feeling they were breaking your hard work?

Maybe I should celebrate people’s enthusiasm for interacting with the public art in my local area. Maybe they are teaching me a valuable lesson to be less uptight about keeping things pristine and perfect. But despite trying, I can’t forgive them. I still think it’s unforgivable. But I do think we could factor in a ways for our audiences to play with our projects which we haven’t imagined. We could all learn to allow for unplanned interaction. Perhaps More London could think about how they might channel this interest from the many tourists that visit the area, and allow them to make their mark or take a home a momento. Just don’t carve your name into the public art, please.