Student Journal

We are all Graffiti Writers

By H.C. Arnold, Cohort '09

-I’m looking for the graffiti artists.

-We are all graffiti writers! (Ahearn)

Part 1: Children pushing a car up a hill

            In the film Wild Style, the scene prior to Lady Pink’s explanation that “nobody really knows him, it’s like his pieces are there, but who’s doing ‘em, we don’t know” (Ahearn) regarding the elusive graffiti writer ‘Zoro,’ involves the reporter befriending a group of very unlikely friends. She (the reporter, played by Patti Astor) has driven into Brooklyn searching out writers to interview when her car stalls out. Ahern does a decent job setting the scene up, following her from the nicer areas of New York into derelict Brooklyn, illustrating the clear poverty lines that divided the greater New York area in the early 1980s. With the car suddenly stopped, the reporter tries the ignition several times as a large group of black youths surround the vehicle. Their dialogue is as follows,

YOUNG BOY. Hey Lady, you need any help?

REPORTER. Alright, now you kids touch this car, I’m calling the cops,
       I’m not kidding…Where are the telephones?

YOUNG BOY. There’re two of them on the corner but they’ve been
       busted over two years.


YOUNG BOY. Yeah, but there’s one up the hill, about eight blocks up in
       Pendy Square.

REPORTER. Eight Blocks?

YOUNG BOY. Yeah. Hey, ain’t you that lady reporter looking for the
       graffiti art by the Dixie?

REPORTER. Yeah! I’m looking for the graffiti artists.


REPORTER. Then let’s go to the Dixie! (Ahearn)

After which, the youths begin to push the car around the corner and up the hill away from camera as a gathered crowd of onlookers watches.

Overtly metaphorical, visualizing that significant and dynamic relationship between the artist and the critic, wherein the latter initially resists the former only to realize his or her dependency on him or her and concluding with the hopeful ascent to a mutually beneficial destination, the scene also portrays the mainstream’s progression from a preliminary rejection to the current embracement of the counterculture.[1] The children have approached the car to offer assistance, but the reporter immediately feels in danger. It is only after their initial interaction that her consternation recedes as she realizes the youth are in fact friendly and harmless, and she subsequently welcomes their assistance. However, visualized societal acceptances aside, this welcoming proves reciprocated as the reporter becomes included in the group of youths. They all “go to the Dixie” (Ahearn). Further, this inclusivity becomes reinforced later in the film when the reporter is shown dancing and fraternizing with various graffiti writers at a party. The mechanism of this incorporation appears in the aforementioned dialogue as follows: first, there is the not-so-subtle correction in terminology transpiring when the reporter confirms that she is looking for “graffiti artists,” and they youth respond: “we are all graffiti writers (Ahearn). Such a rectification simultaneously acknowledges the reporter’s ignorance while ensuring its reversal by facilitating her comprehension of the graffiti writers’ language. Understanding that writers refer to themselves as such brings the reporter across the threshold of being an outsider, and initiates her involvement within the counterculture.[2]  Notable in the contemporary era, this correction has been successful as most critics are explicit in elucidating that “[f]rom the start, writers referred to themselves as ‘writers’” (Snyder 28).

 Second, the inclusion manifests as the spoken we, stated in unison by the youths. We is an inclusive pronoun. It delimits a group that becomes realized in that utterance and subsequently can perpetually alter itself to include a heterogeneous population. True, within the film’s context, this “we” can refer explicitly to the youths. However, as questioned at the conclusion of the preceding chapter, does the statement also encompass the reporter? Comparatively, both her and the youths are writers, but are they both graffiti writers?

This discussion posits that contemporary graffiti demonstrates an anti-establishing ontology. This means that it exists as a self-perpetuated self-negation that rejects a singular ideology or list of attributes translatable from one writer, work, or area of the subculture to another. Instead, it labors at its margins to continually illustrate where and how it cannot be totalized and thus perpetually leaves itself open to the horizon of being. Exemplified by the scene, all participants involved share the commonality of contemporary graffiti, a similarity that involves the outright rejection of similarity and potentially ensuing singularity. This founding denial pervades the scene. The reporter is a white female in a car driving from Manhattan listening to late 1970s soft rock while she softly chirps along with the music under her breath. The youths are black males standing around dilapidated cars and buildings in Brooklyn, who, in all probability, listen to the emergent hip hop music that materialized in that borough during those years. Undoubtedly, they are in-difference to each other, and this is the ontological foundation of Jean-Luc Nancy’s being-in-common.

To be in-difference means individuality, each separate entity delimited by his or her difference to the other as declared in, by, and through their separate actions and modalities. An existence confirmed by the realization that the absence of any possible similarity between the reporter and the youths only manifests as the two entities encounter the other. Therefore, “individuality as such can be given only within such a gathering” (Nancy, Finite History 153).[3]  And, echoing the philosophical operation of Derrida’s différance, the reporter exists as not existing as the youths, who exists as not existing as the reporter in their difference and deference to each other. These are the qualities of Nancy’s community wherein they are together but in-difference. As he explains,

Community is the community of others, which does not mean that several individuals possess some common nature in spite of their differences, but rather that they partake only of their otherness. Otherness, at each moment, is the otherness of each “myself,” which is “myself” only as an other. Otherness is not a common substance, but it is on the contrary the nonsubstantiality of each “self” and of its relationship with the others. All the selves are related through their otherness. (Nancy, Finite History 155)

Therefore, to be together requires the inclusionary characteristic of difference, and as the youth proclaims: “we are all graffiti writers,” then subsequently so too is the reporter as she becomes included by those very qualities that set her apart (Ahearn). Fundamental to this inclusion within the youth’s statement is contemporary graffiti’s predication on heterogeneity: each graffiti piece always requiring to be distinct from the other. This demonstrates an instance of that non-common substance inherent in Nancy’s philosophy and contributes to facilitating the ideology put forth by this discussion and in particular, this chapter.

Yet, to be a we demands action on the parts of the various participants. One is simply not in-difference but instead becomes/exists in-difference. Nancy explicates this contention as follows,

What results is that we happen—if to happen is to take place, as other, in time, as otherness  (and what is time, if not the radical otherness of each moment in time?). We are not a “being” but a “happening” (or rather, being is in us exposed to happening). This happening as the “essential” otherness of existence is given to us as we, which is nothing but the otherness of existence (more than the existence of otherness). The “we” is nothing but finitude as a subject, if subjectivity could ever be finite (rather, it is, as such, infinite). And this is the reason that the “we” is a strange subject: who is speaking when I say “we”? We are not—the “we” is not—but we happen, and the “we” happens, and each individual     happening happens only through this community of happening, which is our community.   Community is finite community, that is, the community of otherness, of happening. (Nancy, Finite History 156)

The reporter and the youths are all graffiti writers insofar as they happen-with-each-other in that instance isolated within the film which is equal to as well as juxtaposed against the other moments in film and in addition to other emergences of their differentiated beings both contained with and outside of the context of the scene. But, to be explicit, this claim does not propose that they share a common trait as this discussion progresses its theory that contemporary graffiti manifests as an anti-establishing of any singular and therefore totalizing trait. Instead, through their sequential individualized heterogeneity, both the reporter and the youths exist as divided from themselves as well as each other, thus subsequently being in common by way of those divisions. Gathered as a collected set of varied individualities, they form a community that happens. As defined by Nancy,

Community does not mean a common happening, but happening itself, history (the Geschehen of the Geschichte of the community). Community is the “we” happening as the togetherness of otherness. As a singular being, I have a singular history (I exist) only insofar as I am exposed to and as I am within community, even if I do not have any special or important role to play with respect to community. (Nancy, Finite History 158) 

At this juncture however, it proves significant to address the various criticisms such a community, being methodologically constituted along these conditions, could be subjected to. In particular, Jacques Derrida critiques Nancy’s logic, founding his analysis on the problematic idea of fraternity that appears within several of Nancy’s writings. Through various publications, Derrida and Nancy exchange their assessments and defenses of this concept as it has itself become summarized and analyzed in other publications. One such in particular is Marie-Eve Morin’s article Putting Community Under Erasure: Derrida and Nancy on the Plurality of Singularities. The premise of her article involves correlating the two author’s interpretations of community so as to reveal a series of similarities between their apparent opposing philosophical practices and positions. Claiming that both Derrida and Nancy “recognize the necessity of putting community under erasure,” (Morin) she underscores their divergent methods in the following manner,

In a gesture similar to Heidegger’s, who crossed out Being in an attempt to remove it from its metaphysical interpretation as presence, as essence, it is also necessary, for both thinkers, to put community under erasure, and to think a community that is not an essence, not an identifiable totality which receives its meaning and determination from a transcendental signified, be it race, birth, gender, etc. Putting community under erasure….[o]ne affirms both the need to write and the need to cross out community. While Nancy finds himself more on the side of the first affirmation, Derrida finds himself on the side of the second. (Morin)

Whereas throughout his various works, Derrida has demonstrated the inaccuracy of both the term and the ontological ground of community, negating it if it appears, Nancy continually affirms how the term is unavoidable, reminding one, as quoted by Morin, that “[c]ommunity is given at the same time than Being and as Being, before all our projects, violations or enterprises. It is impossible for us to loose it. … We cannot not co-appear” (Morin).[4] Subsequently, the two appear at an impasse regarding this issue.

Regarding Derrida’s critique of Nancy, Morin states that: “Derrida claims that it is necessary to deconstruct the concept of community to sever it from its genealogical ties” (Morin). According to her, it is this thought and gesture that remains absent from Nancy’s approach. Lacking this, Derrida warns of Nancy’s reasoning on community might perhaps come to rely on fraternity. However, Nancy concurs with Derrida’s criticism, adding that his ideology already reasons community beyond fraternity, and reproaches Derrida for not considering “a deconstructed concept of community which can be used to think our being-with anew” (Morin). Ultimately, Morin consolidates their differences, at the risk of over simplification, summarizing that

[W]hile Derrida claims that Nancy skips the first phase of deconstruction, that he attempts a radical break-through without doing the careful inside-work (i.e. that he uses an old concept to name something new without analyzing where this concept comes from and within which conceptual field it operates), Nancy claims that Derrida remains stuck in the first phase of deconstruction, that he never reaches the point of breaking through the old conceptual field (i.e. that he does not sketch  a new, displaced ‘concept’ as he did, for example, with ‘writing’). (Morin)

The problematic ideology of fraternity manifests throughout Derrida and Nancy’s dialogue, appearing as the nexus point of their exchange. According to Morin, Derrida’s deconstruction of community necessitates the questioning of fraternity, a term defined as “the mechanism of identification that determines who belongs to the community and who does not” (Morin). This process entails the simultaneous action of identifying a shared attribute by the various beings involved and rejecting the others who do not possess the attribute. Yet, in so doing, the act neutralizes differences via regarding all participants as similar and homogeneous group. Here, Morin explains that Derrida’s dispute with this operation involves the twofold logic that in the act of inclusion, one loses those attributes that delimit one from the other (a being becomes recognized as one of and not just one) as well as realizing that no matter how inclusive a group attempts at becoming, it will always exclude something or someone. Applied to the modern political landscape, Derrida warns that such an operation could result in dire circumstances. Therefore, in order to break from this system of determination, Derrida argues that one must “cut the bond that binds me to, or excludes me from, a group. Only then will there be an experience of the other, or a relation to the other, which will respect and do justice to its otherness, its difference” (Morin).

            Nancy maintains an alternate view of the contemporary however by assessing it as a time of disjuncture and defining existence as a fundamental being together regardless of disjuncture. Without re-describing the overarching themes this discussion has employed throughout its argument, except only to remind one that the singularity of being exists only insofar as it is exposed outward to another singularity doing the same, it is clear that Nancy’s ideological framework does not juxtapose Derrida’s but instead entails a different rationale. Nancy does not consider singularity as singular but instead as always plural. Nor does one exist first as an enclosed individual who then comes to be in a group but instead is already within a gathering. Operating from this ontological position, it becomes an issue of establishing identity through encountering the other. According to Morin, this encountering occurs as follows,

Nancy's singular plural does not only mean that there is always a plurality of singularities; it means first and foremost that a singularity is itself always plural or multiple. There are singular differences in that which we call 'identity,' but those differences, or this plurality within singularity, does not prevent identification from taking place. It is those 'identifications' that Nancy will name 'ipseity'. Because no identity is pure, Nancy will prefer to speak of a mêlée instead of a mélange. The idea of mixture presupposes the isolation of pure substances and the operation of a mixture. There are no bloods, no races, no subjects to be mixed, but there are still identifiable elements that entangle and disentangle themselves. Thanks to the concept of ipseity, it is possible to think of a style, a language, a culture, a city, not as unity, but as a certain identifiable tone that is never contained in any fixed set of features and that, consequently, always remains at the same time unidentifiable, inimitable. To posit, to fix an identity once and for all, to use the proper name as the sign of pure, punctual, identical unity ' be it to adopt it or to reject it ' would be to dismiss both the mêlée and the démêlé. It would be to kill the mêlée, the entanglement, within each ipseity, and therefore to do without the necessity of a démêlé, of a disentangling, with other ipseities. It would be to kill both the singular and the plural.[5] (Morin)

As a project of defining an ontology as being-with, wherein the various identifiable elements entangle and disentangle themselves, and the bonds of community are always being bound and yet never completely bonded, Nancy seeks to designate a continual happening of togetherness constituted by the otherness that manifests in the entanglement of being.

This togetherness as otherness is pronounced in and by the youth’s proclamation that “we are all graffiti writers” (Ahearn) and further, as demonstrated by other contemporary graffiti communities (a term used here in complete accordance to Nancy’s definition), can be seen as the fundamental provenance of both their ideologies and methodologies. Yet, a salient aspect of both the former and the latter considerations and their executions comprise the recognition and evaluation of the agency of the graffiti writer. It is insufficient to be a graffiti writer while neglecting to recall that such a modality demands writing. One must in fact exist in-action, for he or she cannot be merely an enactor of action. As Nancy elucidates, “[w]e have to decide to—and decide how to—be in common, to allow our existence to exist” (Nancy, Finite History 166). The graffiti writer decides to exist when he or she writes, marking the public surface with his or her presence materialized as absence. As the following examples further demonstrate, it appears through those explicit decisions to write as a graffiti writer (meaning to anti-establish) that their otherness becomes apparent and defined.

Part 2: The New Order

             One approach to demonstrating the otherness present in togetherness would appear to contradict the prevalent heterogeneity that contemporary graffiti employs. However, if the counterculture were defined explicitly by difference, then that very attribute would become a unifying agent. Therefore, as an anti-establishing, contemporary graffiti unworks any singular identity at the moment during which it manifests. Thus, to unwork heterogeneity would necessitate the employment of homogeneity. In order to regard this example, it proves necessary to preliminarily review the ground of diversity attributed to co-existence that appears often utilized by contemporary theorists and graffiti critics. Returning to Michel de Certeau’s critical discourse regarding the urban environment, this difference of being appears necessitated and celebrated.[6] From the outset, there are apparent similarities between Certeau and Nancy, but this correspondence requires a more thorough review on the more elemental levels of thought.

In opposition to “[a]n Icarus flying above” the city who maintains “a solar Eye, looking down like a god,” (Certeau 92), Certeau describes the “ordinary practitioners of the city [as those who] live ‘down below,’ below the thresholds at which visibility begins” (Certeau 93). He continues,

They walk—an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers. Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. It is as though the practices organizing a bustling city were characterized by their blindness. The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of the fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other. (Certeau 93)

While describing a body as being a singular element “signed by many others” (Certeau 93) alludes to the ontology of singularity proposed by Nancy in that both demand the presence of the other, Certeau also notes the agency of the walker. Even in his or her blind performance of authoring an unreadable text due to his or her immediate proximity and engagement to it, the walker nonetheless actively engages the space around him or her so as to establish his or her role among it. Thus, Certeau begins to designate a space for encountering by a collection of spaced entities. He continues, clarifying the role of the walker within this space later in his text. First, regarding the singularity of the walker, he explains that

Their [the walkers] story begins on ground level, with footsteps. They are myriad, but do not compose a series. They cannot be counted because each unity has a qualitative character: a style of tactile apprehension and kinesthetic appropriation. Their swarming mass is an innumerable collection of singularities. (Certeau 97)

Second, pertaining to their agency of the walkers and the subsequent involvement of the other, he continues,

In the framework of enunciation, the walker constitutes, in relation to his position, both a near and a far, a here and a there. To the fact that the adverbs here and there are the indicators of the locutionary seat in verbal communication—a coincidence that reinforces the parallelism between linguistic and pedestrian enunciation—we must add that this location (here—there) (necessarily implied by walking and indicative of a present appropriation of space by an “I”) also has the function of introducing an other in relation to this “I” and of establishing a conjunctive and disjunctive articulation of places. (Certeau 99)

Therefore, and as noted by a variety of other theorists, the walker assumes a role cognate to Walter Benjamin’s flâneur. As Natalie Collie explains in her article Walking in the city: urban space, stories, and gender,

De Certeau’s pedestrian can be understood alongside (and in the tradition of) other urban subjects who walk and read/write the city, the flâneurin particular. The flâneur not only uses but witnesses and responds to the city. Reading the city becomes a kind of writing in its documentation (e.g. the flâneur’s notes and sketches of the crowd). Pedestrian subjects write urban space via their bodies and movements as unconscious stories with neither author or spectator; yet, in the mode of the flâneur, they also observe and read urban space, and re-iterate or re-cite this movement/reading in subsequent representations and narratives that contain at least the trace of those trajectories. (Collie) 

Being both part and a-part of the city, both writing and reading it, the urban subject appears between locations, akin to his or her being here and there. This is an ambiguous space, one that relies on the various contingent moments of being, of introducing the other pedestrian, the other street, or the other building to mark the walker’s being with its own. And in this way, it is an individual modality of being as one walker can never occupy the same space, place, or time as another.

This permeating subjective individuality could best be witnessed in a large public space where these marked singularities trace their various trajectories across that space and around each other. Yet, the problem with such a model is in its requirement that the observer of the “swarming mass” (Certeau 97) be beyond it thus returned to that Icarus vantage point high above, and that the overall structure of the scenario “provides a set of rigid either/or binaries: the official versus the everyday, the authorities versus the ordinary people, the symbolic versus the unconscious” (Collie). The question this discussion asks in response to such a critique is: are there ways for the blind mass to be made aware of the reading/writing, here/there position they occupy without relying on the falsehood of an omnipotent spectator position? Returning to contemporary graffiti, in particular the inclusivity of its ontology as argued herein, one manner in which this aforementioned question can be addressed regards the performative practices of flash mobs. Through their direct incursions, acted by the pedestrian within the pedestrian space, they at a minimum reduce the metaphysical separation between reading and writing the urban text. Considering the following example: their use of order contrasts the un-orderly swarm they perform in and around, thus spacing the two groups apart. Yet the flash mob, like the pedestrian, exposes its individual singularities and in so doing, retains the inclusive nature of the youth’s proclamation that “we are all graffiti writers” (Ahearn). In short, the flash mob orders within the un-order, thus manifesting as an anti-establishing against the totality of individuality. However, at that very appearance, it self-perpetuates its self-negation by being both temporal and by employing singularity to accentuate the singularity of the pedestrian.

A flash mob is defined as an ensemble of individuals who assemble suddenly in a public location, perform an unusual and apparently meaningless action for a brief duration of time before dispersing quickly and without announcement. Originated by Bill Wasik (the senior editor of Wired Magazine), they encompass a range of content from musical performances to unanimous costuming and are designed to highlight cultural conformity. According to Wasik, they are organized via modern communication platforms such as email or text messaging and exemplify what those apparatuses are capable of regarding the rapidity of modern communication and networking. He does not see them as political nor being capable of delivering an either supportive or protesting declarative due to their ephemerality (as flash mobs typically do not run any longer than ten minutes). However, he does advocate them for their ability to remind the pedestrian that in the contemporary moment of prevalent digital interactions and relations, the human figure still possesses a body that exists in physical space and maintains its capacity to effect change, no matter how apparently comic or trivial.[7]

Organized by the group Improve Everywhere, the flash mob important to this discussion took place on February the twenty-fourth in two thousand and seven at Grand Central Station in New York. It involved two hundred and seven people and transpired over a five-minute duration during which time the individual members of the group stopped what they where doing and remained totally stationary. Often referred to as “Frozen Grand Central,” the performance was documented both on film and through photographs (see fig. 30).[8]


Fig. 30. Improve Everywhere. Frozen Grand Central. 2007. Final Gear. 31 January 2015.

Fig. 30. Improve Everywhere. Frozen Grand Central. 2007. Final Gear. 31 January 2015.

As depicted in the above image, various pedestrians stand motionless, notable in their apparent photographic resolution that contrasts with the blurred manifestations of the other pedestrians still in transit throughout the space. While some of the still-walkers posed in rather mundane stances, others (not pictured above) assumed more conspicuous postures such as being in the process of kissing their companion, eating ice cream, or having just dropped a stack of papers across the station floor.[9] From the performers’ perspective, certain stances clearly warranted more athleticism than others, realized in the fact that while bending down to tie one’s shoe for only a brief period of time may not begin to cause knee or lower back pain, such a pose held for over three minutes may start to. Already, differences begin to underscore the performance as different still-walkers had to consider what action they could maintain over the time duration.

As an ensemble, the flash mob exhibits an order predicated on stillness in Grand Central Station. By following the instructions presented at the outset of the performance, they collectively declare their presence through their directed act and subsequently juxtapose themselves against the moving crowd. In this presentation, it becomes evident that they are following orders and thus appear as an organized totality in the presence of the un-organized totality of the general public. However, it is within and through that very ordering that their individualities are exposed to each other, as well as to the other non-participating singularities present. In their arrested state, they delimit themselves and this determination occurs along a twofold manner.

Initially, the still-walkers distinguish themselves through their transgression of remaining immobile. They are motionless and thus set apart from the moving mass of the crowd. Further, their articulation of their singularity becomes even more overtly pronounced in that very action of being static. Beyond just differentiating themselves in stasis, they allow for the non-participating pedestrians to better observe their individual singularity than if they were transient. One can compare and contrast all variety of proffered differences when the other is not moving, for example if he or she would purchase that flavor of ice cream, or embrace his or her lover in that same way. Yet, in conjunction with recognizing the still-walkers’ otherness, the pedestrian also becomes aware of his or her own singularity through that observance. He or she was moving, was not eating ice cream and not embracing his or her lover. In this way, the different otherness’s face and adjoin each other through their contingent iterations that are reliant on the other in order to be realized. One humorous instance of this occurring happens in the film when a station employ driving a luggage cart through the crowd becomes unable to continue due to being blocked by a collection of the still-walkers. After honking the cart’s horn several times to no avail, he results to radioing a call into someone, who one can assume is his manager, and reporting the scene, explaining that he “can’t move his cart,” and that he “needs some help” (Everywhere). Impeded by the group, the cart driver exposes his singularity constituted in that moment by operating a luggage cart while at work and needing assistance to complete his job. This discussion theorizes this moment as a constitution of his individuality through this exposition, and in so doing, he becomes included within the collective. He is, just as the still-walkers are, revealing their finitudes to each other and thus existing in a togetherness assimilated by otherness.

As an anti-establishing, this togetherness as otherness collective, involving both the flash mob and the pedestrians, rejects any singular and totalizing identity. No individual is alike, and during that five-minute time period, those differences become even more apparent. Further, pertaining to its self-perpetuated self-negation, this becomes actualized in the work’s durational methodology. By limiting the phenomena to only a few minutes, as with any other flash mob, the work terminates itself before it can be completely assimilated into a transcendent ideology. Thus, the flash mob continually unworks (in the Blanchotian sense) itself, acting as a collection of singularities designating themselves to each other.

Fundamental to the entirety of these persons is their individualized agency. Each still-walker chose to participate in the flash mob, and each one also chose what position to assume for the five-minute duration. While they were given the parameter of what their agenda was to be, they nonetheless determined what the individual experience contained. Pertaining to the cart driver or the other pedestrians viewable in the film and photographs, they also chose how to respond to what they encountered, either trying futilely to roust the still-walkers to move or by standing aside and wondering whether it was a “protest” or “an acting class” (Everywhere) while filming and photographing the phenomena themselves. The event offered to the various pedestrians and still-walkers the opportunity to be in that instance, and it was in their decision to respond that they came to exist. In the final pages of his essay Finite History, Nancy describes this moment and these actions as follows, “[w]ith respect to the offer, we have something to do, which is to accept it or not. We have to decide, without knowing what is offered, because it is not given (it is not a concept, it is not a theory)” (Nancy, Finite History 165). This delineation leads Nancy to elucidate that the temporal moment during which this response transpires is a “[t]ime opened up as a world…[a] time opened up and spaced as the “we” of a world, for a world or to a world,” a “now [that] presents the present, or makes it emerge” (Nancy, Finite History 165). He continues, “[a] time full of “now” is a time full of openness and heterogeneity. ‘Now’ says ‘our time’; and ‘our time’ says: ‘We, are filling the space of time with existence.’ This is not an accomplishment; this is happening. Happening accomplishes—happening” (Nancy, Finite History 165). Therefore, the “we” that happens, Nancy defines as a “‘we, now,’” meaning “we are no longer able to understand ourselves as a determined step within a determined process … But we have to partake in a space of time just as we have to partake of a community. To partake of community is to partake of existence, which is not to share any common substance, but to be exposed together to ourselves as to heterogeneity, to the happening of ourselves” (Nancy, Finite History 166).

But, what appears at that instance when the happening ceases to happen? What occurs when those members of the flash mob simply dispersed at the end of the five-minutes and faded into the crowd? Ultimately, the thinking of events, beings, and singularities that happen, exist, and/or be necessitate the delimiting of a boundary, a marking of where one happens and where the next happens as well. Each being, revealed in and through the exposition of its limits in its moments of existence ultimately ends, concluding in the presence of the other who he or she is being with, as the other concludes as well. For the flash mob, at the end of the five-minute duration, that set of singularities (the still-walkers and the pedestrians) ceased, and a new set of singularities manifested. However, this is not a dialectical progression, but merely the termination of one exposition and the initiation of another. Ephemerality is demanded being essential to the flash mob in a manner correspondent to its ontological role in contemporary graffiti. Considering ephemerality in conjunction with the leading topic of this chapter then, what works of anti-establishings inclusively remind and explore it?

Part 3: After the aurochs and before the angels

This question that employs both the inclusive reminder of time’s duration, while also initialing an individual exposition of singular being (thus denouncing a singularizing totality), appears foremost to the Before I Die projects. Originated by the Taiwanese-American artist Candy Chang after the passing of someone close to her, Before I Die manufactures interactive situations between often anonymous persons (see fig. 31). Cited from her website, the description of the work reads:

Interactive public art project that invites people to share their personal aspirations in public space. After losing someone she loved and falling into depression, Change created this experiment on an abandoned house in her neighborhood to create an anonymous place to help restore perspective and share intimately with her neighbors while remaining an introvert. Meant as a singular experiment, the project gained global attention and thanks to passionate people around the world, over 500 Before I Die walls have been created in over 70 countries, including Kazakhstan, Iraq, Haiti, China, Ukraine, Portugal, Japan, Denmark, Argentina, and South Africa. (Chang)    

Fig. 31. Candy Chang. Before I Die. 2011. New Orleans. Candy Chang. Web 2 Feb 2015.

Fig. 31. Candy Chang. Before I Die. 2011. New Orleans. Candy Chang. Web 2 Feb 2015.

As depicted, the work involves covering a public surface with a black ground and then stenciling the phrase “Before I die I want to _____________” with the implied instruction for the viewer to fill in the blank space with his or her desires. Chalk is often supplied, and the surface is cleaned periodically to allow for others to participate.

            Visually comparable to a wall marked extensively by words and images publically assessed as contemporary graffiti, the work also incorporates the same ideology of presence in and through absence. Expressing one’s being through a form distinguished by a property of reflexivity, meaning that it functions as a signifier of a signified, dismisses the need for the one who enacts the work to be present. He or she becomes manifest through a manner of relativity and not an actuality. The work’s ontology would be entirely different if it required the participant to stand present and verbally state his or her wants. And, this is also a salient fact. In the contemporary, it appears that intimacy has been more and more mitigated through primary and secondary apparatuses such as this, as well as the variety of technologically based ones, wherein the speaker is allowed to speak from behind a metaphorical curtain. While from one perspective, this could appear to distance beings from each other, yet from another, it seems to draw them into a closer proximity as various limits and insecurities can be dismissed via the pseudo-anonymity of such practices. This is not to place to expand a lengthy examination into this territory, other than to note its presence and relevance to contemporary community. Nonetheless, technology’s role in Before I Die cannot be ignored or dismissed outright when considering the extent to which the work has grown globally. As with the flash mob, only through the various social media that the Internet provides could the work reach its global audience within four years time. Ephemerality appears concurrently as well. Whereas the flash mob limits its presence by way of a time limit, Before I Die employs the non-durable medium of chalk. This inclusion allows for the wall’s periodic cleaning and re-use and metaphorically signals the continual advancing and retreating of life. Thus, correlative practices and ideologies exist between the works under review.

However, the potential to wrongly assess Before I Die as a meditation on the act of dying and the unknowable horizon of death itself requires careful refutation. To be explicit, this is not a work dedicated to death, dying, or finality in any sense. Though, this is not to assert that the “motif of the revelation, through death, of being-together or being-with, and of the crystallization of the community around the death of its members, that is to say around the “loss” (the impossibility) of their immanence and not around their fusional assumption in some collective hypostasis” (Nancy, The Inoperative Community 14) is not present. In fact, “[d]eath is indissociable from community, for it is through death that the community reveals itself” (Nancy, The Inoperative Community 14). Considering the various statements along the wall as singularities being-together, they exist in such a manifestation of community.[10] But,

Community no more makes a work out of death that it is itself a work. The death upon which community is calibrated does not operate the dead being’s passage into some communal intimacy, nor does community, for its part, operate the transfiguration of its dead into some substance or subject—be these homeland, native soil or blood, nation, a delivered or fulfilled humanity, absolute phalanstery, family, or mystical body. Community is calibrated on death as on that of which it is precisely impossible to make a work (other than a work of death, as soon as one tries to make a work of it). Community occurs in order to acknowledge the impossibility, of more exactly—for there is neither function nor finality here—the impossibility of making a work out of death is inscribed and acknowledged as “community.” (Nancy, The Inoperative Community 14-15)

Before I Die demonstrates this impossibility to make a work of death in its very structure. Instead of a being’s passing, and the faulty attempt to utilize and incorporate that passing into a collective singularity compelling the work’s agenda, Before I Die confirms one’s presence and being before he or she dies. These are individual and singular statements of desires not uttered post-mortem but are yet to be filled, still to come at the agency of the participants. Subsequently, the project realizes and projects being into the future along with being with the others who do the same via their own individual claims marked next to the former’s proclamations and stated wants for himself or herself. For the viewer/participant, the work serves to provoke a singularization of existence in its incomplete claim stenciled across its surface, thus relying on his or her action to become manifest. Hence, it becomes simultaneously dictated and directed by time, not-death, and being with the other. In short, Before I Die reminds one of his or her being along the horizon both as and while being with the other.

To be with, and to be before, death necessitates that one witnesses the multi-various and divergent existences of existing with each other and their individual self’s (as being plural). It, as community, is not a collective identity shared as a communal substance and totality but always necessarily is by virtue of beings’ shared finitude. Therefore, the work confirms community. The choice or instance of decision that manifests itself for the participant, within this context, relates to whether that shared finitude becomes recognized and affirmed as such. As a method to realize, participate, and examine the sharing of finitude, Before I Die is at its most significance inclusive. Through requiring others to participate, it offers moments of examination and being in the continual otherness of being. Subsequently, if “community is the presentation to its members of their mortal truth,” (Nancy, The Inoperative Community 15), the wall displaying each singular hand, tracing a marking of desire, serves to remind one that to be mortal is to never be alone.


Wild Style. Dir. Charlie Ahearn. 1983.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Chang, Candy. Before I Die. 2 February 2015 <>.

Collie, Natalie. "Gender and Urban Space." 2013. Gender Forum, An Internet Journal for Gender Studies. 29 Janurary 2015 <>.

Frozen Grand Central. Dir. Agent Carbone. Perf. Improv Everywhere. 2007.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. "Finite History." The Birth to Presence. Ed. Werner Hamacher and David E Wellbery. Stanford: Stanford Univesity Press, n.d.

—. The Inoperative Community. Ed. Peter Connor. Trans. Lisa Garbus Peter Connor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Morin, Marie-Eve. "Putting Community Under Erasure: Derrida and Nancy on the Plurality of Singularities." Culture Machine 8 (2006).

Snyder, Gregory J. Graffiti Lives, Beyond the Tag in New York's Urban Underground. New York: New York University Press, 2009.



[1] This progression constitutes Chapter 2 of this discussion.

[2] The logic posited with this follows the same idea as learning the local language and customs when visiting a foreign country. It is pertinent to note however that in doing this not all differences are completely eradicated, and the tourist, while adopting several native traits, still retains, if only in a small part, his or her status as an outsider.   

[3] Nancy’s logic has been carefully, and extensively considered and analyzed as it pertains to this discussion in the preceding chapters 1 and 3. Therefore, it is only briefly explained here so as to remind the reader of its mechanisms for the purpose of this chapter. 

[4] Originally quoted from Nancy’s The Inoperative Community.

[5] The ‘ipseity’ is originally quoted from Nancy’s text Être singulier pluriel.

[6] Michel de Certeau first appears in Chapter 1 of this discussion, though only briefly. His ideas are returned to here in a more thorough manner.

[7] In the contemporary, flash mobs are not directed by Bill Wasik exclusively. They routinely appear throughout the global community organized and performed by various groups.    

[8] The film of this flash mob can be seen on Youtube at the following link as of January 30, 2015:

[9] These scenes are witnessed in the film cited in the prior footnote.

[10] In a radical implication of Heidegger’s account of Dasein’s being-towards-death (participating in Dasein’s ontology as always being-in-the-world) as elucidated in Being and Time, Nancy designates the singular existence of Dasein beyond the grounding of any metaphysics of the subject. In its state of always casting itself outward and towards something or someone other, Dasein lacks a self-posing foundation proper to subjectivity. Although, according to Nancy, Heidegger’s statement that “I is not—am not—a subject” (Nancy, The Inoperative Community 14) leaves unresolved its fullest implications in Being in Time and subsequently requires its maturation in conjunction with Dasein’s existing. Insofar as Dasein is being-toward death and being is Dasein’s being, death becomes that limit which is distinct to each Dasein and that which it is individually projected. Only a being becomes singularized in this way does is also become being-with other, further solidified by the actuality that the relation it maintains with its own death is not comparable to the one it retains with the death of others. Thus, Being and Time lacks to address the issue of a community collectively exposed to finitude, and it is this question that Nancy investigates here.