Art as a form of vigilantism: A talk with Gwenn Seemel

GWENN seemel interview


Gwenn Seemel has covered the handrails of this New Jersey bridge with rainbow art.

What do you do when you are offended by graffiti? Do you ask an authority to remove it, or do you scrub it off the wall yourself? Or do you pass it by and pretend you never saw it?

The prolific Lambertville-based artist Gwenn Seemel isn’t the type to ignore something bothersome. Much of her work is an attempt to reframe misapprehensions and intervene in injustices. So when she noticed that a vandal had carved Donald Trump’s name into the wooden handrail of the Alexauken Creek Spillway Bridge in the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park in Delaware Township — and when the supervisors of the park were slow to take action — it demanded a response. Seemel made large paint-and-paper Band-Aids and covered over the scrawled name of the former President and his familiar slogans. The message was clear: The vandal had wounded the park. It needed to rest and heal.

But it’s an election year. Nobody is resting, or healing, for long. The Trump-scrawler came back with more graffiti, some of it scribbled on top of the Band-Aids; Seemel upped the ante by covering the railings with rainbows. The press took notice: The artist’s reprisals were profiled on and elsewhere, and finally the authorities took action, scrubbed the vandal’s marks from the park and, in so doing, upended Seemel’s outdoor installation, too. The artist, who does not do social media, has kept meticulous track of the Battle of Alexauken Creek at — including the vandal’s recent return to the Spillway bridges with graffiti that is angrier and more confrontational than the original carvings.

I became fascinated by this story because of the questions it raises about the line between vandalism and outdoor art, its implications for political muralists, the dangers of troll-feeding, and the difference between expressions of support for a candidate for office and an antisocial desire to perturb and offend. Seemel recognized the carvings in the park as hate-motivated and, given the vandal’s recent use of swastikas, was right to do so. On the other hand, nobody asked her to intervene. Her act was one of art vigilantism, and the symbols used — the Band-Aid, the rainbow — were not without their own provocative implications.


A self-portrait of Gwenn Seemel.

Yet at a time when Democrats and Republicans have their own news sources, their own non-intersecting frames of references and, increasingly, their own separate languages, I find myself moved by Seemel’s faith in the power of the communicative gesture. It was an honest attempt at visual conversation at a time when discourse is in short supply, and it was done with the wit, color and personality that characterizes all of her work. And wit, color and personality have got to count for something.

Q: Can you describe your emotional experience when you first saw the Trump graffiti in the park? How did that make you feel?

A: Well, it was ongoing for a year before I got involved, so I don’t remember that first moment so much as an overwhelming sense of disgust at the whole situation. Except for the part when other people in my community would chip away at the hate by sanding down the vandalism. That always made me happy!

Q: If the graffiti had been for something else — say, pro-life graffiti, or a different political candidate — do you think you would have had the same urge to cover it up?

A: First, I’ve never seen any pro-Biden graffiti. Vandalizing with just the name “Biden” is not something that people who love Biden do, because no matter how wonderful a Biden supporter thinks Biden is, they still see him as a human being and a President. Trump supporters, by contrast, seem to see their guy as godlike and they’ve taken his name as a badge of sorts.

Second — I’m not doing the “first” and “second” thing because Biden does it, but now I’m laughing at myself — if it was anti-abortion graffiti, I absolutely would have covered it up.

Q: What if it had been meticulously done Trump graffiti? Say that it was Trump-inspired vandalism, but it was recognizable as street art. Would you still have wanted to do as you did? I ask because I’m trying to figure out the difference between an act of protest done in a public place and the defacement of a public utility like a park.

A: “Protest.” Such an interesting word choice!

Q: I’m assuming that the original vandal was a troll, and I see trolling as a form of protest. Immature and passive-aggressive, yes, but definitely a protest. One of the things we’ve consistently seen from Trump supporters is an attempt to use the icon — Trump’s name — as a tool to upset people.

A: I get what you’re saying, but can “Trump” be a sign of protest when he’s been the President? When he’s held that kind of power already?

Q: I may not think so and you may not think so, but his supporters definitely think so. His entire public ministry, so to speak, has been one long airing of grievances.

A: Well, even if it was very pretty, I still don’t think that this was the place for MAGA messaging. Because even if it was beautifully made it would have felt like violence — like the creator of the Trump artwork would have been putting it in Lambertville specifically because they wanted to “own the libs.” Less of a protest, more of an attack.

Q: Why is it so hard to imagine pretty Trump graffiti? That’s as hard to imagine as Biden graffiti.

A: Maybe it’s a question of taste? I mean, I don’t like any of the pro-Trump art I’ve seen, because it’s mostly hyper-realistic aggrandizing stuff and I’m not into that kind of art, ever. What would a pro-Trump artwork by a more thoughtful or nuanced artist look like? It is hard to imagine.

A piece of graffiti on the bridge, and a “Band-Aid” with which Gwenn Seemel hid another piece of graffiti.

Q: The intersection between art, individual expression and Trumpism has been a funny place to inhabit. Sometimes it’s incredibly gaudy, and other times, it’s purposefully crude and ugly. Do you think gaudiness and ugliness have political signification? Why do you suppose those who wield the Trump icon are drawn to these things?

A: The power in our society is shifting, and that scares the old guard — those who used to have all the power. The idea that someone from the old guard will come out and fight to reclaim that power and that he’ll do so unapologetically is appealing. Trump is the warrior of the old guard.

In other words, I don’t think ugliness or gaudiness is the goal. Power is the point. It always comes down to being able to dominate others, specifically people of color, queer people, women, disabled people, fat people, marginalized people of all kinds.

I think it’s easy to get distracted by the crudeness or the gaudiness, but it’s always about power.

Q: Okay, but so much of what Trump does is derogatory. Besmirching people and things that stand in his way is a huge part of the act. He’s really dragged public discourse through the mud, and whenever he does, his followers love it and repeat it in small ways.

Why do you think uglification — of language, of the public sphere, of pretty places that get crudely vandalized — is such a common thing in the Trump movement? Do you think it’s just territorial? Or do you think there’s more to it than that?

A: In my opinion, Trump’s uglification of public discourse is strategic. He and his followers focus on tearing down conventions — social agreements that aren’t codified into law — as a way of making it easier to tear down all our laws and institutions, including democracy itself.

An early example of attacking conventions was Trump’s refusal to show his tax return in 2016, though presidential candidates had been doing so for decades by a kind of informal agreement that it was just the right thing to do in a democracy. He got away with not doing it and still became president. It was an important early test of his power and it emboldened him.

The stuff he “truthed” on Sunday [in a lengthy all-caps Easter rant on social media] was horrible and any other presidential candidate saying such things would be summarily dismissed by a citizenry who sees a certain amount of self-restraint and civility as necessary to a functioning society. This is still true today. If Biden were to rant in the same way, he’d lose support quickly. But Trump can say horrible things and still be embraced. Every time he does it, he’s testing his power. And every time Trump isn’t rejected for his ugliness, he can be more certain of his power.

Consciously or unconsciously, his followers embrace that uglification as an extension of Trump’s power. They see him as their champion, and his ugliness is part of how he champions them because it’s a manifestation of his power.

Q: There are those who’d never vote for Trump, but who have lately embraced uglification. There are people who go to museums and ruin paintings or deface statues in order to call attention to things they want to change. It may be well-intentioned, but it makes me sad. Do you think that uglification is ever a legitimate form of protest?

A: The protests that you’re referring to are not as organized as everything that I’ve described. They don’t have the top-down RNC-sanctioned — or government-sanctioned when 45 was in office — kind of power behind them. They’re not part of a strategy to dismantle democracy, and I think that makes them very different and therefore completely valid.

Q: You can see the crude graffiti in the park as an attempt to claim space. A Band-Aid implies that there’s a wound that needs to be covered up so that it could heal. What, exactly, do you think the wound was? Was the park itself wounded, or was it bigger than that?

A: So they were claiming space. Others can claim it back, right? The Band-Aids were inspired by the carving the vandals were doing — not the marker or spray paint vandalism. I was covering the carvings because they felt like the truest expression of the vandals’ violence. They bring a knife to this space in order to hack into it. The Band-Aids were subtle. They were the same color as the bridge. They were meant to heal the carvings that were so deep that you couldn’t sand them down anymore.

But the Band-Aids only provoked the vandals. I think they saw it as “getting attention.” It didn’t matter that it was a request for healing. They liked the attention and it spurred them on.

Q: You were also covering up something that was designed to be ugly with something designed to be pretty.

A: The Band-Aids weren’t pretty. The rainbows were, though!

Q: I disagree. I think the Band-Aids were pretty. They were clearly designed by somebody who’d thought about art. The graffiti was designed, so to speak, by somebody who hadn’t. Did you feel like you were escalating a battle? Prompting the vandal, or vandals, to get more extreme?

A: No. I was naive when I started out. I really thought the subtle Band-Aids might get them to pause and reflect.

Q: Pausing and reflecting have been in pretty short supply in America lately.

A: I still want to believe it’s possible.

Q: What can we possibly do to get a civil dialogue going again?

A: I think starting with the Band-Aids was an okay way to try that. I mean, obviously naive in retrospect, but it was an okay thing to try.

In the end, though, the art of my response wasn’t just the Band-Aids or the rainbows. It was being out as the person who was responding to the vandals. They’d been anonymously crapping all over our park for a year and the park authorities weren’t taking it seriously as something that the community was not happy about. Someone had to step out of anonymity and say, “I’m proud of what I’m doing on this bridge. Are you?” And that “are you?” was directed at both the Trumpy vandals and at the park authorities.

Q: Unsolicited art in public spaces can be politically provocative in positive ways, right?

A: Agreed. I may not love every bit of public art, but I love that it exists. Still, I am not sure I’d call the Trump and MAGA carvings art, and that’s weird for me, because I like to see all kinds of human-made things as art.

Q: I agree: It doesn’t strike me as art, either. Because I don’t see it as art, I don’t feel it’s entitled to the respect I’d ordinarily extend to an example of individual expression. It feels unworthy of the setting — a public park. What’s the difference? What makes these particular human-made lines non-art?

A: If I had to pin it on anything, I’d go with thoughtfulness, or lack of it. It’s 100 percent a personal taste thing, and not some kind of statement about what art is, but thoughtfulness is the yummiest thing in this world to me.

Have you ever read “Meme Machine” by Susan Blackmore? It’s a pretty trippy read and definitely dated at this point, but it’s still fascinating. She writes about how primed we are as humans for repeating each other. The Trump-y vandals feel like thoughtless repeaters.

Q: Many of the things that happen in the sphere of American politics are instances of thoughtless repetition. But why would thoughtless repetition appeal to anybody?

A: “Meme Machine”‘s thesis is that memes shaped our evolution as much as genes did. Blackmore is saying that we’re built to repeat and it’s very difficult to avoid doing it.

Q: I suppose that if there was no repetition, there’d be no iconography. Why did you choose a rainbow for your next act of counter-protest?

A: Well, I’ve always loved rainbows. I sometimes think that the beauty of rainbows in nature is the one thing that my conservative dad and I agreed on. It’s certainly one of my favorite memories of him — the announcement that he has spotted a rainbow and we must all go look at it. And my art is, in general, very colorful. But I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t see the political significance of rainbows.

Q: Rainbows are defiant. When you hang up a rainbow flag, part of what you’re saying is “I don’t care what you think; I’m going to live the way I want to live.”

Is there any part of you that identifies with the defiance of the vandal, regardless of the vandal’s political affiliation? Who might see the act of the guy doing the Trump graffiti as engaged in defiance that is not altogether dissimilar to the defiance you’d like to express?

A: I wanted to meet them, so I guess so. I wanted to understand what was really going on for them. What were they getting out of this repeated vandalism?

Q: The painful part is that it’s almost guaranteed that he did not want to meet you. It’s emotionally asymmetrical warfare we’re fighting.

A: Exactly.

Q: What’s the state of the park right now?

A: The shadow rainbows are still in place, which still makes me happy every time I go by. But there has been new graffiti as of last week. “MAGA” was carved on the bridge — lightly and quickly, and in a new and less obvious location. The park superintendent is on it. She responded today. And this is the first vandalism since the park installed a camera so, in a sense, we may yet meet the vandal.

Q: Not the kind of meeting I’d hope for, though. I’d want some kind of meeting on common ground.

A: Me too.


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