Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Lapse of Time, Shift in Space: Street Art in Brooklyn

In the last several years, there has been a shift in the location of much of New York’s street art. This is not to say that there is no street art in Manhattan: one of the reasons for writing the previous entry was to emphasise that people are still putting up work in Manhattan and that areas such as the Lower East Side, the East Village, NoLita and SoHo are still easily able to be distinguished from areas such as the upper West Side of Midtown by virtue of the ways in which people interact positively and creatively with the spaces around them.

But a shift has definitely taken place, and it’s a geographical one, driven by economics. Gentrification of the areas which had been prime sites for street art has meant that many artists have been compelled to seek studios and/or accommodation in other places. Those other places seem, in the most part, to be in Brooklyn (as can regularly be seen through posts on the sites Brooklyn Street Art, Wooster Collective, Hyperallergic and Arrested Motion).

I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that gentrification is necessarily the Big Bad. It’s a process, it’s economically driven (which usually means profit for some development corporation) and it can mean that many people get displaced, having to move from an area that has been their home for many years into other parts of town, often ‘further out’: at a greater distance from cultural, educational or other amenities (unless the areas they move to have already been fortunate enough to be enriched with those amenities). But gentrification also can have its benefits: for the traders and shop owners whose businesses may well start to make more money instead of struggling to survive, for the people who get jobs in the service industries that are required by a gentrified area, and for those who live in or pass through an area which had previously been troubled or rundown.

So it’s a complicated issue, one I can’t possibly do justice to here. And it’s an ongoing one: people I spoke to in Brooklyn spoke of how they were being obliged, by virtue of rising rents to move; at the same time, the economic downturn has meant that many development projects have been halted, with construction sites now standing idle (and providing useful canvasses for artists on their walls and hoardings).

Thanks to gentrification, I was also able to discover more of Brooklyn than I’d previously visited. I have been visiting Park Slope for many years because friends live there, but Park Slope is not where the street art is. So on this trip, I was given the opportunity to go to Greenpoint, Kensington, Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick and Williamsburg.

Williamsburg, as is well known to many readers, has been a hub for street artists for some years now. For anyone visiting New York, it would certainly be where I would suggest starting out: you can spend hours walking around its streets, and there’s a rapid turnover of work, which keeps things extremely fresh, at the same time as you can enjoy deciphering faded and tattered wheatpastes that are on their way to disappearing (the remnants of work by Faile, Swoon, Imminent Disaster and more can be seen in fragments on the walls).

But beyond Williamsburg there’s still much to see. there are some excellent galleries such as Mighty Tanaka in DUMBO, the Willoughby Windows in downtown Brooklyn, curated by Ad Hoc Art, Brooklynite gallery in Bedford-Stuy, Pandemic gallery, and the awesome Factory Fresh, run by Ali Ha and Ad DeVille, proprietors of the old Orchard Street Gallery in the Lower East Side.

And here’s a selection of what was on the walls and hoardings around town. I was particularly interested to see the use of objects, fabrics and other media, including (of course) moss:

There’s some great drawing going on: Ohm, as can be seen on the left of this picture, has a nice hand:

This is a section of a permitted work, but it showcases the beautiful art of Gaia:

And QRST’s figures (all different) are excellent. This one is in Bushwick, opposite Factory Fresh:

Here’s an Ellis G shadow figure, just off Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg:

Lots of visiting artists have been here: there are works by C215, os gemeos, and in the third and fourth pictures you can see the work of artists that I’m told are a French duo (she does the oval portraits which are placed high on a doorway; her male collaborator makes the small wheatpastes of female figures which are placed on the lower sections of doorways. If anyone knows anything about these artists, I would love to hear from you – I really enjoyed seeing these works).

I’m typing this while waiting to go to the airport, to fly back to Melbourne. Fortunately, my flight is heading in the opposite direction to the volcanic ash cloud which is causing chaos for people in Europe. And while I’m looking forward to going home (I’m always happy to go back to Melbourne, the city which I love to live in more than all others), it would also be true to say that I feel sad to leave New York. It has been an utterly inspiring visit here: from the smallest sticker on a mail box to the largest wheatpaste on a hoarding. Thanks to everyone here who made my trip so fantastic: Jared and Tanley from Arrested Motion, Marc and Sara Schiller of Wooster Collective, Ali and Ad from Factory Fresh, Swoon, Jose Parla, Steve and Jaime from Brooklyn Street Art, Garrison from Ad Hoc Art, Elbow-Toe, Logan Hicks, Hrag Vartanian and the folks at Hyperallergic, Nick Riggle, and of course my friends Richard, Gilda, Christine, Tom, Matt, and Jill.

And now it’s true to say that not only do I heart NY, but also that I heart Brooklyn.

Lapse of time II

As mentioned in the previous post, when I visited New York in 2005, I spent a lot of time walking around the Lower East Side, the East Village, and SoHo, and there was, as you can see in the photos, a vibrant street art culture taking place there. Arriving here two weeks ago, I knew that the scene had shifted, that gentrification had caused many artists to move out of Manhattan and into areas like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but on my first day here I took a walk around the areas that had been so filled with artworks five years ago.

My memories of that previous visits are so clear (and the photographs I took are much treasured), so it felt quite disorienting to discover how much those areas of the city have changed. I know that cities don’t stay the same, of course, that they are constantly engaged in a process of transformation and redefinition. This process is often imperceptible when you live in the city, but when you make occasional visits separated by a gap of several years, sometimes the differences are striking.

And so in 2010 I discovered that the Orchard Street Gallery was no more (but I was relieved to find out that Ali Ha and Ad DeVille have opened Factory Fresh in Bushwick instead). I couldn’t see many stencils or paste-ups. There were loads of tags, and a huge amount of sticker action, especially on phone booths, mail boxes and doorways. The desire to exploit the adhesive nature of certain surfaces leads to some pleasing accidental patterns, as you can see below:

I also came across a nice dripped portrait:

New to me also was this massive piece by WK Interact, which you can see up on the rooftop, below the billboard for Marina Abramovic’s show at MoMA:

There were also some works by artists who were not on the scene 5 years ago, such as Elbow-Toe:

And, late on my first day in New York, while I was still feeling as though I was somewhat in between two cities, I came across an image from home.

In the midst of other stickers and tags on this doorway, there’s a sticker which says ‘Damn You Meggs’ – Meggs is a member of the Everfresh collective in Melbourne (and I’ve written here previously about his work in connection with that of D*face and Anthony Lister).

Seeing this sticker reminded me how important travel is in the world of street art – that artists can circulate around different cities, bringing their images from one to another, and that the result is a strong community, so that you can feel at home, even when you are 12,000 miles away.

Lapse of time Part I

While I’ve been walking around New York these last 2 weeks and looking at what’s on the walls right now, I’ve been remembering some of the amazing art I was fortunate enough to see in previous years here. Here are some of the highlights from a visit here back in 2005:

Skewville

Claw

The London Police

'Crime Scene' by Leon Reid

A super-elegant tag...

Some of these pictures were taken on a walking tour organised by Marc and Sara Schiller, of Wooster Collective (these occasional walking tours must have introduced hundreds of people to the pleasures of street art in New York over the years).

My visit to New York in 2005  took place during a time when a great diversity of techniques in street art were being explored. Metal scupltures bolted to the sidewalk, the manipulation of street furniture, the layering of tags and stickers and wheatpastes and tiles in doorways, the development icons as tags – it felt like a really exciting time and place. I think that’s one of the important things about street art: it has the potential to render any streetscape more interesting, and the artists who work in the street are continually adapting their techniques to new places, new constraints, new possibilities. Sometimes the result is disappointing, sometimes it’s a bit meh, sometimes it’s just astounding. But the flux that street art creates, whatever the aesthetic success of the end result, means that the contours of the city (which go unnoticed by so many of its inhabitants) are repeatedly drawn in sharp relief, for those whose eyes are open to them.

Post No Bills

In the above photo you can see posters advertising Banksy’s movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, on a hoarding in SoHo in New York.

A brief post on Vandalog recently sparked an interesting conversation in the thread of comments – around the vexed qurelationship between street art and advertising.

On Vandalog, RJ wrote:

‘Banksy once said “‘Every time one of my friends borrows my ideas, mounts a huge art show and becomes a millionaire celebrity,’ a little bit of me wants him dead.” I’ll amend that to “Every time a street artist turns their back on their values, mounts a huge flyposting campaign and becomes what is essentially an advertising executive, a little bit of me wants to write over their work.”

But I suppose that’s the natural order of things.’

Comments in response to this were sharply divided between those who basically agreed with the point he made, a second group who interpreted Vandalog’s comments as unfounded criticism of their fave street artist, and a third group who thought that since the main objective was to get people to see a thoroughly worthwhile movie then bill posting was an effective way to inform people (especially people who might not be plugged in to networks and blogs within the street art community) about the movie.

Over the last week in New York, bill posters for the movie have gone up in a lot of places – Williamsburg, SoHo, the East Village, the Lower east Side (there may well be more that I haven’t seen). The question of where to draw the line (and in fact whether there is a line) between art and advertising is a tricky one. Sometimes artists certainly do use advertising – when they have an upcoming show, their gallery might advertise it in a listings magazine, or the artist might post a status update about the show on Facebook or tweet about it on Twitter. (There’s a whole lot of thinking to be done some day about the role of social media sites and their relation to art and to advertising.)

But bill posting – well, that’s often seen as something different, something done by clothing companies and by music promoters. Agencies pay bill posters to wheatpaste flyers around a city – an activity often done late at night because it is usually illegal. A number of years ago, the City of Westminster, one of the London municipal authorities, decided to crack down on fly posting as it’s called in the UK, issuing fines to the companies whose wares were being advertised rather than to the fly posters and the advertising agencies (not much came of this, and there’s as much fly posting in London as ever).

Anyway, Vandalog asked why use bill posting to advertise Exit Through the Gift Shop rather than something more directly related to street art, like stencils (or indeed, why not stickers?). Asking such a question assumes that bill posting is different from street art.

It’s worth thinking this through: what, if anything, makes bill posting different from street art? I think it’s complicated. Bill posting involves putting material into public space, usually without the permission of the owner of the property it’s placed on. It’s usually as illegal as street art. In 2008, when the Tate Modern ran a series of talks on street art, the curator, Cedar Lewisohn prompted discussion around exactly this issue by inviting former fly poster Mustafa Hulusi (who is now an artist who sometimes puts images on billboard spaces – click on the link and then on ‘Posters’ and then on ’2007′ for some examples) to speak along with Brad Downey on art and the politics of public space.

But maybe it really does come down to aesthetics (and the relationship of the image to capital). The posters for Exit Through the Gift Shop are attractive posters, especially when positioned in multiples, and when placed on wooden hoardings (the wood makes an excellent background to the poster’s colours). But I’ve seen them now in several places around NYC and they’re almost always next to the same other posters, especially one claiming to involve a free MacBook giveaway. Here’s one in Williamsburg:

And that confirms that these are not aesthetic interventions in public space, however appealing the poster is. They weren’t put up by Banksy’s assistants or anyone connected with him; they must have been put up  – I’m guessing – by the standard bill posters who work in the illicit economy putting up posters for anything, just pasting up whatever they are given.

And in another fascinating development, Vandalog published news today that some of these posters have in fact been gone over by Jordan Seiler of Public Ad Campaign (click the link for photos and for Jordan’s essay on this issue), replacing ads with street art….

I’m not trying here to provide any kind of definitive word about art and advertising. Far from it. In fact, I think it deserves more discussion. After the furore about Fauxreel recently (see the discussion of this by Hrag Vartanian on Hyperallergic), now Banksy (as ever) ups the ante and makes the need for such a debate even more compelling

Banksy at the movies: Part II (Banksy’s hands)

Since the previous post, about expectations of what Exit Through the Gift Shop is about, turned out to be a long one, I thought I’d write a separate one dealing with what it’s not about.

So let’s go back to the second response that a lot of people seemed to have after seeing the movie – a feeling of surprise that it’s not ‘about’ Banksy, or at least not as much as they had expected.

It’s worth looking at this closely. Is the film ‘about’ Banksy? Well, the film is made by him, and thus it provides us with a text which tells us something about the artists and his concerns, just as his artworks, books and exhibitions do.

And then again, Banksy is in the movie: we see him in his studio; we see him stencilling; we see him with his crew of helpers creating the famous ‘vandalized telephone box’ in London (which goes on to sell for an extraordinary sum at auction); we see him installing a blow-up doll, hooded, shackled, and wearing an orange jumpsuit, at Disneyland, in a direct juxtaposition of American mass entertainment culture with the torture of detainees at Guantanamo.  (All of these occurrences are filmed by Guetta.)

But of course, while all of these events are taking place, Banksy still withholds himself from any kind of identifying gaze – he wears the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, his face is blanked by pixillation, his voice distorted (and his assistants’ identities are similarly masked).

So Banksy’s certainly in the movie, but he’s simultaneously on display and hidden from our view. But what we do see in plain sight are his stencils and his hands: as Banksy himself states in the film, ‘I told Thierry he could film my hands but only from behind’.

As he says these words in voice-over, the film shows us Banksy at work, cutting stencils (for one of his signature rats, to be put up on a wall in LA). And for me, that was one of the highlights of the film – watching those hands, whether at work on the stencil or gesturing along with the words spoken by Banksy’s distorted voice.

They’re slender hands, with long fingers. They’re the hands of an artist. What does the face matter, or the voice? Watch the film – and watch out for the scene of Banksy cutting stencils, with speed, and with great skill. That moment might not be central to the film, but it’s certainly what street art is all about.

Banksy at the Movies: Part I

I’m in New York City right now, and last night I attended a preview screening of Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The film is being released in a number of US cities from April 16th and if you click here you can find a list of release dates, cities and theaters. (If you’re reading this in Britain, the film’s been out for a few weeks; if you’re reading this in Australia, be patient a little longer because the film will be released there in early June.)

Given the intense interest in Banksy as an artist and in the mystery of his identity, it’s inevitable that this film will attract a lot of attention. What’s as interesting as the movie itself is the range of responses that people are having to the film. Among those who’ve seen it so far, people speak positively of the film (as they should, since it’s a highly enjoyable documentary), but they also seem, first of all, surprised that it is more about Mr Brainwash (aka MBW aka Thierry Guetta) than it is about Banksy; and, second, disappointed that, because the film is more about Mr Brainwash, Banksy doesn’t reveal much of himself in the movie.

Let’s start with the first of those reactions, that the film’s not ‘about’ Banksy, which certainly raises the question of what the film is about. Well, the film operates on many different levels, and one of its main ones is the story of how street art took off, from being something with an intense local significance which was shared through the networks of the global street art community for the enjoyment of those who practice or appreciate street art, to became an entrenched part of the mainstream art world, whereby paintings (and artists) are commodified for profit.

To tell that story, the film focuses on Thierry Guetta’s transformation from amateur film-maker into artworld succes du jour, as a means of demonstrating both the possibilities open to anyone with the will to put up art and the (slightly frightening) logical consequences of those possibilities (for example, having people queueing for hours to get into your art show, simply because they’ve been told by the media that your art is important).

The film treads a clever and careful line between condoning and critiquing the commercialization of street art, as its embodied in Guetta’s transformation: it really is left up to the viewer to work out where you stand on the issue. In some ways, the film seems to be criticizing the people who have bought Mr Brainwash’s work for vast sums of money and who have contributed to his art world stardom, but, then again, isn’t this the same art world that has made stars of Shepard Fairey and Banksy and Blek le Rat? If we want to critique the art world, it must be a critique that can specify why Mr Brainwash’s stardom is problematic when that of the others is not.

So: how do we think through that problem? Is it because Mr Brainwash doesn’t make all of his art himself? Neither does Shepard Fairey nowadays, nor Banksy (both of whom have assistants – and we see some of Banksy’s assistants at work in the film), and neither does Jeff Koons, for that matter. Is it because Mr Brainwash’s work is derivative (his work repeats many of the devices used by Andy Warhol, Banksy, Fairey, Nick Walker, Blek…)? Well, that might be a better founded criticism, but it still requires us to think through its implications: each of those artists borrow from other artists and art movements, re-presenting certain tropes in order to create a new art idiom. Perhaps Mr Brainwash’s endless borrowing (what some would even call plagiarism) from the borrowers lacks aesthetic merit because it does nothing new – no new idiom emerges from his pillaging of pop culture and street art.

At any rate, I think these issues form the heart of what the film is about – and I’d back this up by referring you to the movie’s title. By calling his film ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop‘, Banksy is both having a sly dig at museum culture, which often cynically seeks to extract more money from visitors after they have viewed an exhibit, but he is also pointing out to us the direction that street art may be heading in, now that its commercialization is so advanced – the only ‘exit’ is to find a way through the endless consumption offered to us as a poor substitute for the art itself.

The walls of Fitzroy: a love letter

When I first moved from England to Melbourne, in 1995, I lived in Carlton North but I spent a lot of time in Fitzroy, and I was struck by what I could see on the walls there. Not stencils (they would come later), not tags or pieces (they were on the trains, and the walls adjoining the train lines), but a kind of conversation taking place on the walls. Sometimes the conversation was between the authors of the comments, but oftentimes the addressee was me – or at least any individual who was walking, or taking the train, or driving, or sitting on the tram – any individual who happened to be looking. I saw graffiti that said: ‘subjugate thyself to the screen’; ‘this is the wrong site for the museum’; and ‘corporate whore’.

I became fascinated by the ways that these comments addressed the passer-by. Some seemed to simply express a view (for example, ‘this is the wrong site for the museum’); others seemed to be seeking an object of denunciation (for instance, ‘corporate whore’). And one day I passed by a wall, on which weeks before I had seen a piece of writing that said ‘Real Men Don’t Rape’. It had been edited, either by the original author or by another writer, and it now read ‘Dead Men Don’t Rape’. Something in that moment, which caused me to pause and think about the difference in the politics of each of the two statements, made me realise that the activity of writing on walls generated an encounter with the spectator (me, or anyone else), which can be educational, emotive, perhaps even transformative.

Over the years, the walls of Fitzroy hosted a huge range and number of statements, the majority being intensely political: ‘Refugees ain’t got fleas’; ‘Save Goolengook’ (an old-growth forest in Gippsland that was being intensely logged for woodchipping), and the myriad comments made by members of grrr, an all-women collective whose aim was to comment on and critique the narrow range of acceptable body types and identities depicted in television: ‘more fat women on tv’, ‘more dykes on tv’ and so on. (I was living in Northcote by this time, and I was delighted that one of grr’s comments, ‘more hairy women on tv’, was painted on the pavement in my street.)

After the explosion of stencilling in Melbourne from 200o onwards, the walls of Fitzroy became more known for its stencils than its political slogans – although many stencil artists used their medium for political ends, exploiting the stencil’s ability to catch the eye of a passerby, and using its combination of word and icon to provoke critical thought, as you can see in these examples:

And nowadays? Well, Fitzroy is still synonymous with the communicative and creative use of wallspace but now it’s the diversity of styles and media that is most remarkable. There are entire painted walls, such as the ‘Welcome to sunny Fitzroy’ wall by Everfresh (the subject of an earlier post on this blog). There are amazing paste-ups like these:

It’s worth taking a closer look at the details here. Rone has made each image slightly different, and has placed them under a ‘BILL POSTERS PROSECUTED’ sign:

There are plenty of tags, of course, and some of Fitzroy’s laneways have some very old tags, such as this 70k one:

And stencils: there are certainly still stencils around, and, once again, some have been there a long time:

The history of the appropriation of the walls in this area by artists has been on my mind a lot recently, because I’m now living in Fitzroy, so these walls provide the backdrop to my everyday life, and when I walk past them I get a strong sense of the layers of street art, visible and invisible (through the effects of time, weather, buffing, and other artists), that have become part of the very geography of this suburb.

And it was while I was walking home the other day that I came across this piece: a stunning work by Al Stark, wrapped around the corner of a house, intricately painted, simultaneously evocative and elusive:

It’s almost fifteen years since I came to Melbourne, and I wanted to write a love letter to the walls of Fitzroy (and the artists who have transformed them), providing me (and many others) with so much pleasure. Long may it continue.

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