After MOMO

Some marks on the street are obviously accidental, others obviously purposeful, and still others keep us guessing. MOMO's paint drip, when it first appeared several years ago, belonged to this third category. Coming upon it on the uptown side of Tompkins Square Park my first thought was of an accident—workers, perhaps, driving a truck with an overturned paint can in the back. But then I came across its unmistakable color and wavering shape on First Avenue and then again on Broadway, suggesting that someone had put substantial effort into its creation, effort which suggests meaning.

I began to learn about what that meaning is only years later when the New York Times ran a story about Nick Divers and his friend who followed the 8-mile tag and then charted its path on a map of Manhattan. Admittedly, the ‘MOMO' pattern that emerged initially suggested a semantic anticlimax, as everything about it seemed commonplace and simple: the industrial paint, its utilitarian color, and the crude method of application. And there was the worry that the whole thing was motivated by a simple desire to create the largest tag ever.

But, like minimal music or sculpture, there's more to MOMO's tag than first appearances suggest. MOMO recalls the stenciled purple footprints that adorned eastside sidewalks in the late '80s, footprints which, if one took the time to follow them, led to the site of a bulldozed community garden created by Adam Purple. MOMO's tag, like Purple's footprints, is an invitation to follow and thereby to discover the pattern that guided their formation. Like a Philip Glass composition or a Sol LeWitt sculpture, what appears at first to be a monotonous aggregation of commonplace and simple objects turns out to have a richer meaning, a meaning contained in the process governing the assemblage of those simple elements, and then again in the process of discovering those patterns.

How, then, to do photographic justice to MOMO's artwork? One option is objective documentation. The line is gradually being erased, and a photographic record of its existence, perhaps created with the aid of a digital-stitching program in the manner of early attempts to document the surface of the moon, would be helpful.

But photography often benefits from the combination of the objective with the subjective, and toward this end I opted to select, on the basis of which work well together, some 230 of the over 1,200 original exposures. Assembling these 230 individual elements into the form of an installation turned out to be an exercise in painting with photographs.

As well, the moon is visible in its entirety, and what NASA wanted to see were the detailed geographic features of its surface. MOMO's tag is the opposite. Its details are visible seemingly everywhere, and yet the whole thing remains visually elusive (the paint drip would be far too thin to be seen from a vantage point above the city). But with the elemental photographs assembled in the ‘MOMO' pattern, united by the orange drip, and viewed from the Judson balcony, MOMO's tag emerges, like a face in a Chuck Close portrait. After MOMO renders MOMO's invisible tag visible.

For the philosopher John Dewey, the good life is one in which comfortable, habitual patterns of behavior are constantly interrupted by change, change that requires us to create new ways of thinking and acting. Perhaps this is part of the explanation for why New York is such a good place for the good life. Neighborhoods improve or decline, neighbors move in and out, styles in art and clothing move on and then cycle back, and even the ground on which we walk is a shifting canvas of holes, cracks, leaves, snow, chewing gum, cigarette butts, vomit, squashed bugs, and paint.

MOMO's tag is, of course, part of such change, appearing as it did suddenly in 2006. But the tag is also being erased—slowly in peripheral areas where there's not much foot traffic, and quickly and often completely in crowded Soho and Greenwich Village—and so has come to be about such change as well. Like a photofinish record at the track, or the rings on a tree stump, the variable erasure has turned the essentially temporal process of change into something that's visible in the present. As you walk the tag's length, you can see that it has existed, mutably, through a span of time.

Documenting change in the medium of still photography has always been a challenge. How do you represent something essentially diachronic using a medium that is essentially synchronic? MOMO's partially erased tag made this easy, the only requirement being to resist the temptation, when photographing, to ignore the sections of pavement where it had been erased. With this in mind I spent much time, especially along Third Street and Seventh Avenue South, simply photographing the pavement where the drip once was.

Overall, then, After MOMO has one foot in appropriation but, like most appropriative works, uses this practice to brew something new. I hope that I've done justice to MOMO's tag in terms of documentation, but I also hope that I've added to its meanings with new meanings that not only resonate with the original ones, but that extend them in interesting ways as well.

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