At the TEDx Terry Talks conference in 2011, Gary Yarbrough came in first place in an audience contest for an idea he presented about crowd sourcing street art. Two years later, and the recent UBC graduate in Sociology and Urban Studies has developed a popular app called “Curb“, which attempts to make street art more accessible to people everywhere. His TEDx Terry Talk will focus on freedom of art and space and the ability that art has on humanity to spark reflection.
Interview conducted by Marion Benkaiouche and Shadlee Rahman
Q. What made you interested in Urban Studies/Urban Geography?
A. I was really interested in civic engagement and kind of what cities mean for our world and these dense gatherings of people, especially with trends. A couple years ago, we just passed the threshold where half the world is living in an urban environment, so it’s kind of fascinating where we’re going to go and how our cities are going to be able to sustain and fulfill the human population.
Q. So your presentation talks about graffiti or creative expression in urban landscape. So, do you find that that’s one of the most common modes of participation?
A. I think it’s very interesting and unique and very, almost quintessentially, free way of getting and expressing your point. It’s kind of a very unique form of freedom of speech. You can express more than just language and more than just an idea that has emotions behind it and also have, most importantly, it being displayed in a public space where people gather and where you can influence people’s understanding and actually get people thinking. I find it kind of an interesting vehicle of civic engagement as well as a way to unite a city and get people to stop and look up every once in a while and think rather than just hitting the pavement in their day to day routine.
Q. What do you think about reverse graffiti? You probably know what I’m talking about, like there’s that one thing on the Chemistry building. It’s like a landscape and it’s basically all dirt…
A. Yeah, I mean the idea of graffiti and this is something with our app. We really kind of had to look at in the beginning is that it’s street art and graffiti and murals and all that kind of public art. All these buzzwords are really hard to define. Even just going back to ‘what is art?’ it’s really an age old question, but definitely we look at street art and it’s something that can be always evolving and some of the most exciting street art has always been in the pieces of art that are actually are new in a way or is something spontaneous and different, incorporating the environment, piece and so on. Our kind of understanding in what we really enjoy in street art is that it’s in a public space and everyone can see it and that it will inspire some kind of thought, and that the idea is that it’s free for everyone to enjoy.
Q. Moving away, I guess, a little bit from the art, how do you feel about the urban phenomena, for instance, urban exploration which is like a re-envisioning of the city and you just take it and it’s not just a street, it’s stuff underneath stuff. How are you feeling about it?
A. That’s definitely interesting to think about the ways that we re-envision, myself, in any kind of change, political or structure, I’m an idealist and also a realist, so I would love these kind of utopian landscapes where we have huge urban farming platforms in the middle of our lakes.
I don’t know, but I realize that you have to do this change slowly and through influence and that’s how I feel a lot of our cities are moving. the exciting part for me is in the developing world where this change is happening the same way to the developed world in the last 30 to 50 years but it’ll happen in the next 10 years, really quickly, and they have decisions to make and hopefully they’re going to be learning from the mistakes that we’ve made over the last 100 or 200 years of industrialization and make policies to build their cities to be the kind of city of the 21st century that we need to be building.
So hopefully, this kind of re-imagining of the urban landscape happens. As for developing new cities, it’s a lot easier to build a new city or to develop new cities and to be putting your best insight into it rather than taking old cities like New York and trying to rebuild it or restructure it into something that is more modern.
Q. And this is where civic engagement comes in?
A. Exactly, and for me it’s hugely tied in to free speech, so that people can actually get the public discourse out there through independent means, not just through media conglomerates and also through ways that they can express their true kind of feelings about things. I am a huge proponent of media, things like that, independent voices, but also things like street art, which is more than just a voice but also massively influential to anyone who sees it and also kind of emotive.
Q. So, any last remarks? Anything related to the talk in anyway? Any fun facts about you…
A. Yeah, I mean I grew up all over the world so it’s kind of why I can open my eyes a little bit to so many of these opportunities. Not that I see more than other people, but I am just excited by the different opportunities that are posed around the world. Especially in the developing world, because there’s a lot of voices that we haven’t heard from that I think is going to be really exciting to be hearing from and everyone sharing in the next little bit, so it’ll be an exciting time I think.
Be sure to check out Gary’s talk at the TEDx Terry Talks on November 2nd, at the Life Sciences Institute, UBC. For ticket information, please visit: http://www.terry.ubc.ca/tedxterrytalks/tedxterrytalks2013/