On First Friday of this month, a day of open galleries here in Philadelphia, I found myself in the hallway outside Copy Gallery with some friends just sitting and minding our own business. We were visiting the openings on that particularly creative floor of 319A N 11th St, when someone pointed out a banner hanging on the outside of a building across the street.
That building is directly behind the RELoad studio and across the street from FH, so we see it pretty much every day. It's one of those urban monuments to decay and abandonment, standing some fifteen empty stories high and surrounded by a high chain link fence. Most of the windows are broken and the glimpses inside reveal nothing but careful debris. Rough ladders leading to the second and third stories, constructed of mostly fabric and barbed wire, dangle down to the narrow alley way beside it. I ride past the building every day and the sheer square footage gives me pause every time.
The banner hangs from the windows of this high rise at the tenth or eleventh story. Quite an impressive height, I thought to myself the first time I saw it. While we all stood reading it through the windows of the 319 stairwell, each surely grasped the irony of our comprehending those four words, so much more poignant than the art in the galleries we'd come to see. It drags up all kinds of questions about galleries and relevance, in its perhaps accidental juxtaposition with Copy and Vox.
Doing just some shallow research, it turns out that this phrase was coined by an activist for migrant labor in the 60's, Bert Corona. More recently, it is the title for an international movement to question borders and the role of the nation state, specifically as to how these designations impact human beings. The political theorist Mike Davis just co-authored a book with Justin Akers Chacon by the same title No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border through Haymarket Books.
In such a passionate city, I wish there were more moments like these. More masterful graffiti and wheat pasting and banners hanging from places that call our attention to the issues all around us. That banner hangs two blocks from our city's Chinatown. Most crucially it hangs to face the marathon of traffic that is 676 West, the major east-west arterial through center city. When first seeing it, I stupidly forgot of its mass audience of motor commuters and thought only of my experience reading it as public art, standing in a gallery space. Truly all three of these represent the movement's multifaceted aims and thorough success as a work.
Proving, all over again, that opportunities for expression are all around us. Not just in commodities and galleries and books. There is empty space all around us, you know? We really can't forget that.