In defense of constructive vandalism and other ways of reclaiming our campus
Our campus is perfect.
Our institution manicures every blade of grass, coordinates every sign on every building, has built or renovated almost every building since the advent of the 21st century (with the glaring exception, ironically, of the architecture and design building), has commissioned every piece of art and keeps them in pristine condition. Our “student union” has the atmosphere of a high-end bar and grill. There is not a piece of trash on the ground. Not a smudge on a wall. Not a spot of chipped paint on a banister or molding.
But I pose the question: Is our campus too perfect?
For example, did anyone else find the “vandalism” on the side of Hillcrest last week really refreshing? It wasn’t vicious or explicit; it simply said, “What’s with all the skunks.” And in painting that, students reclaimed a wall of this institution by making it a little bit imperfect.
If you’ll allow me to digress, I’ve been thinking lately about the countless conversations I’ve had with people at this school who constantly feel pressure to appear well-adjusted and happy all of the time. Many people feel there is no space at Middlebury to be a mess and not okay. At such a high-pressure institution and during such a tumultuous time in our lives, I think we all feel less than 100% multiple times a week. But when someone asks how you are doing, how often is it possible to honestly respond “pretty shitty”? Or at least to not add the qualifier “but it’ll be fine!”. For many of us, to respond honestly feels like whining and putting a burden on the other person– it makes us feel high maintenance. It also reveals a vulnerability that’s often hard to show on a campus full of such talented and successful peers. Hopefully you have some friends who are close enough that you feel comfortable with them in whatever emotional state you are in, but you would be surprised how many people don’t.
To connect this back to my initial point, I pose another question. Do the beautiful buildings we study and eat in every day have something to do with the pressure we feel to carry ourselves in such a way? And do they affect the relationship we have with this campus? I mean, it’s hard to be vulnerable in a place that doesn’t feel like your own, and how can such a preened environment ever be such a space?
So I am curious: would anything change if more student-made murals adorned the walls of buildings (both Community Council Student Co-Chair candidates expressed interest in addressing this during their campaign earlier this year—I hope they do)? If the sidewalks had more chalk on them (thanks to whoever put the chalk board up next to the entrance to Proctor last year btw)? If there was more sharpie the bathroom stall doors? If the café in the library wasn’t so sterile? If the murals in the basement of Forrest weren’t painted over? If our campus had more gritty venues for shows? If lounges in dorms actually felt lived in? If Crossroads Café and the Grille had some natural light and cozy couches and chairs? If a few walls on campus were designated for student graffiti art and stenciling?
Why is the Gamut Room the coziest place to hang out on campus? Because it’s a little pocket that students have taken ownership over. Students painted it, the furniture is not from the institution, and lamps light the room instead of overhead florescent bulbs. It’s truly student-run.
Now, I’m not advocating vandalizing our campus in a harmful way and I don’t mean to disrespect the custodial and grounds staff who do such an amazing job each day. But are there ways that students can reclaim some of the campus from the institution? If that happened, would we have a healthier community? Would we feel more comfortable and carry ourselves in a less forced way? Would we no longer feel the pressure to be as perfect as the buildings we walk around in every day?
The recent Hillcrest paint job was a great example of what I’m talking about. To help answer their question, I heard there is a correlation between the warm winter last year and the amount of skunks running around this fall (they are everywhere, aren’t they?). But regardless, those Hillcrest painters made this campus a little less of an institution and a little more of a community of Middlebury students.