Sometime after 9/11, visually arresting street art mysteriously began appearing in Montreal’s Plateau borough.
An anonymous stencil artist turned crosswalk lines into a set of burning birthday candles, sewer grates into sink drains with the stopper hanging off, and broken white lines on a thoroughfare into the blips of an EKG machine. Some found these juxtapositions delightful and applauded their wit in otherwise dark times; others saw them as no better than graffiti, calling for their removal and the artist’s arrest. In 2004, naysayers got their wish; Peter Gibson, known as Roadsworth, was arrested on 53 charges of mischief.
The night before Roadsworth’s sudden arrest, filmmaker Alan Kohl ventured out with the artist in order to document his work. What followed over the next three years was certainly not the film that Kohl had set out to make. The director ended up shooting a film exploring Roadsworth’s unmasking upon his arrest, as well as the legal and ethical debates that ensued. The heart of this documentary, however, is a subtle meditation on the nature of social activism. It’s about one man’s struggle with his identity, the relationship between art and commerce, and the fine line between public and private.
The Concordian recently spoke with Kohl about Roadsworth, commissioning socially conscious art, and “selling out.”
How did this film come about? It has a very distinct beginning, middle and an end. Was this accidental when you started shooting?
The beginning, middle and end were really just an effort to make sense of more than 200 hours of footage. A lot of thought on the part of the production team went into what was there. But it’s the subject that ends up writing the story, and you are there to capture that. But most importantly when you’re out shooting you try to find the story within each moment.
How did you find out who Roadsworth was? At the time, no one had any idea who was putting up these really unusual pieces.
We actually knew each other as acquaintances for many years. We were both musicians. We ended up in a band together for a bit. I didn’t know it was him who was doing this stuff around town. It was a real secret and very few people knew it was him. He was sort of like this superhero with this alter ego (laughs). I incidentally found out about Roadsworth being the guy I was in a band with and I approached him about shooting just before he got arrested. I thought it was over then. A short-lived career of an illegal artist. But it became the beginning of the bigger story. We just kept following it.
The film’s mood and pacing seems to reflect Roadworth’s character. Was this done on purpose?
It was apparent he wasn’t your typical graffiti artist. I wanted to set [the documentary] apart from the bulk of films about urban art, whether it be musically or the pace of the cutting. It’s a rather reflective story about who he is, what he is becoming and what he’s done. Everybody was into what he was producing for the most part, but his conflicts were internal.
Roadsworth has said he’s neither an artist or an intellectual, but his social commentary has to do with some pretty big ideas about urban civilization and being alive. He never really considered himself an artist when we started filming, even though he’d been doing pieces for a few years at the time. I guess this is because he never had any outward training or schooling. So he had difficulty calling himself that, especially in talking to the media and establishment types after the publicity of the arrest.
But then doing the bike path installation was a huge thing for him, in terms of others viewing you as an artist. The social acceptance is a key thing. Then came his own acceptance. And our fates were sort of tied because I was trying to find my voice as well, this being one of my first films. We started to realize we were in this together as the shooting progressed.
How do you think these sanctioned installations affected his work? And what of this looming “sell-out” label that gets brought up a few times in the film once people start commissioning him to do legal work?
You’re completely changing the framework and thus the context and the meaning with legal work. With sanctioned stuff, it’s a different canvas. Using the streets made the average citizen pay attention to our space and look at it in different ways. Surprising ways. But getting commissions creates expectations. There is a loss of the magic of anonymity. I think sometimes he might miss that. But there are now new challenges. I think he’s sticking to the answer he gives in the film about whether or not he feels like a “sell-out” by taking his work to a new professional level.
Roadsworth: Crossing the Line opens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Park Ave.) on Nov. 22 in both its original English version and in French with English and French subtitles. Tickets cost $7.50 for students aged 13-25.