To Mike Townsend, the purpose for which and artwork is created is more important than the finished product itself. As one is inspired by causes, the murals he constructs with people are more about the community the art serves in relation to that shared cause than any exhibition. I am drawn to the idea that art does not have to be permanent or perfect to be “good” art—the nature of Townsend’s collaborative work is not to create “high” art or even necessarily “beautiful" art, but rather to draw attention to community issues through simple, understandable images and symbols.
I thought Townsend’s work in Hong Kong was especially powerful. Townsend’s work with tape was collaborative by nature, reinforcing the solidarity of local community. His work after the Oklahoma City bombing suggested a similar community outreach, both in its cooperative construction and it is substance (people helping each other to fly).
Townsend bases much of his work around the idea of, as he put it, “stewardship” of spaces. The Hong Kong project, his mall project, and his tunnel project all suggest to me that the “right” to a space is not something that laws or arbitrary marks on a map alone can designate. His tape flowers in Hong Kong seem to convey that the property is more fertile in the hands of its current native owners and their community than a faceless urban development. Townsend suggests in his work that ownership, rather, is in one’s contribution to space, and how much of one’s life and work is devoted to the cultivation of a chunk of real estate. Townsend irrefutably put the secret space in the mall to more constructive use than its legal tenants, and no one can lay a more powerful claim to the Providence drainage ditch than he. The tunnel project was especially powerful in that he actually left fragments of his life in it.
As someone who claims to have nothing in his name, no bank accounts, and no real job, Townsend seems far less concerned with the legal, material, or monetary aspects of ownership than he is with the emotional and symbiotic connections people make with places and things, and how art can foster a sense of community around such a place.