Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page
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.
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.
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.
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.