Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Street/Studio: the Place of Street Art in Melbourne

I’m really proud to announce my involvement in a book which is about to be published by Thames & Hudson Australia.

It’s called Street/Studio: the Place of Street Art in Melbourne.

Here’s what it’s about:

“Through a series of intimate conversations, Street/Studio offers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how street art has entered the mainstream and become one of the most collectable new art forms. It offers an unparalleled insight into the work of ten of Australia’s most influential, dynamic and creative artists living in Melbourne.

Read about the adventures and challenges of the street as well as the demands of the studio and gallery as told by the artists themselves. Stylishly designed with extensive archival photographs, Street/Studio is an exceptional book written by artists about artists.”

Ghostpatrol, Miso, Timba and I have been working on this since last August, and it has been an amazing experience to put the material together. The book features ten different artists (or group of artists, in the case of Everfresh): Ash Keating, Al Stark, Tai Snaith, Miso, Ghostpatrol, Everfresh, Mic Porter, Twoone, Tom Sevil and Niels Oeltjen, and their work is explored through conversations about their work and some really amazing photographs… There’s also a long essay describing the evolution and distinctiveness of the street art scene in Melbourne.

There are a few events coming up to mark the book’s publication:

Friday, 4 June 7:00 pm
Official launch of Street/Studio at No Vacancy Gallery, Atrium, Federation Square

Sunday, 6 June 2:00 pm
ACMI Screening of Exit through the Gift Shop followed by panel discussion including Miso and myself
Book signing at 5pm with the authors

Saturday, 12 June 1:00 pm
Outre Gallery, CBD
Book signing with Miso, Ghostpatrol and me

Tuesday, 15 June 6:30 pm
Readings, Lygon St, Carlton
Signing and discussion with Miso, Ghostpatrol, myself, Niels and Meggs

Details about these events, the artists, and the authors can be found on the Street/Studio website.

The book should be available in all good bookstores, as they say, in Australia, or, soon, from Thames & Hudson’s own website. You can also order direct from Ghostpatrol.

Exit Through the Gift Shop comes to Melbourne

For everyone living in Melbourne, you may well be aware of this already, but just in case, i thought i would mention the fact that Banksy’s movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is coming to town. As well as being a fascinating account of hype and marketing in the world of street art, it also contains some amazing footage of street art (and street artists in action) around the world – including several shots of the work of local artists such as Rone, Ash Keating and Vexta.

ACMI will screen Exit Through the Gift Shop from the 3rd of June for a full two week season. (You can check dates and times here.)

If you are living in Sydney, the movie is screening at the Sydney Film Festival on 2nd and 7th of June, but according to their website, the sessions are already sold out….

I’ve written previously about the movie – I saw it in April in New York and posted a two-part review of the film (here and here). I won’t repeat what I’ve already written about the film; you can check out those posts if you’re interested in my views on the movie.

In the interests of full disclosure, in the wake of the recent online debates about the differences, if any, between blogging and marketing, I should mention that Madman, who are distributing the movie in Australia, invited me to mention it on this blog. I’m not being paid to do so, and I wouldn’t make any mention of it if I thought the film was rubbish. It’s not rubbish, it’s well worth seeing, so I am happy to mention it here.

But in recent weeks there’s been a groundswell of awareness about the potential of blogs to influence consumption and opinion – the most acute version of this occurred in New York last month, and you can read here a thoughtful account of the implications of the way the Banksy film was promoted in the United States.

I don’t imagine that my opinions in this blog will exercise much influence at all over whether or not you go and see Exit Through the Gift Shop, but it’s only fair to mention the fact that I am also appearing on the panel discussing art, advertising and public space after the movie screening at ACMI on Sunday 6th June, and that the Friday 4th June screening of the movie is timed to facilitate your attendance afterwards, should you be interested, at a book launch taking place at Federation Square in the Atrium at 7pm – and that book is Street/Studio; the Place of Street Art in Melbourne (and I am a co-author of that book). More about the book soon!

So that’s the background to this post.

Is the film worth seeing?

Absolutely.

Even if you have no interest in street art per se, it’s still a fascinating documentary, with a great film-within-a-film narrative.

And if you are already interested in street art in general (or Banksy in particular), then it’s essential viewing. Funny, inspiring, provocative – it probably raises more questions than it answers, and it’ll produce endless hours of conversation about Banksy himself, about Shepard Fairey, Invader, and – more than anyone – about Thierry Guetta.

Who? See the film, and find out.

The window cleaner

About 18 months ago, I wrote about being on a train on the London Underground one night when someone stuck a sticker on the carriage wall (it read ‘Peak hours may necessitate that someone sits on your lap’, and looked just like the ‘official’ stickers placed on the carriage for information by the Transport for London corporation (you can read about this sticker here and updated here).

Today I was on the Paris Metro. I was sitting on one of the folding seats next to the carriage door. A man entered at the far end of the carriage and sat down. I didn’t pay him much attention at first. he was carrying a roll of paper towels and whatever the French equivalent of Windex is.

I assumed that he had been shopping and was on his way home. It turned out that this was not the case.

He seemed to notice something on the glass of the window in the door next to where I sat, and he got up and came over to look closer at it. Windows on the Paris Metro often have a lot of scratchiti and tags applied with paint or marker pen, and this window was no different. What the man had noticed was a tag, and he ran his finger over it several times, then sprayed Windex all over the glass. When the glass was quite wet, he proceeded to scrub away at it with one of his paper towels.

Because the tag he was rubbing away at was applied with some kind of paint, his efforts had no effect upon the window (except to remove whatever smudges and streaks had resulted from passengers going in and out of the train all day). Nevertheless, as the train neared the next station and people began to cluster around the doorway prior to getting off, he turned and said to another passenger, ‘That’s better, isn’t it?’

It could be that he was indeed someone who had been out shopping and who was simply inspired for some reason to use his Windex to clean the window. But I don’t think so. I think he was one of those people who make a project – one might almost say, sometimes, a crusade – out of removing graffiti from the surfaces of the city. They are not council workers or people doing this as their job; they are ordinary people who set themselves the task of graffiti removal.

For this man it meant cleaning windows on the trains in the Metro. I feel pretty lucky to have seen this guy in action – a case of being there just at the right moment (again) to witness an act of anti-graffiti taking place.

The textures of London

I spent a week in London recently. It’s always interesting to go back to a city after an absence of 18 months and see what’s changed. Usually it’s a matter of noticing which artworks have gone and which new ones are taking their place, but on this occasion I was struck by how much the area of Shoreditch itself had changed. Yes, there was still a lot of interesting art to see scattered through the streets, but whereas in July 2008 there were artworks around every corner, in May 2010 it would seem that the gentrification of Shoreditch has proceeded to the extent where entire streets have been so buffed that there is sometimes not even a sticker to be seen.

Fortunately there’s still a lot of work in areas such as Brick Lane, Hackney, and Bethnal Green, but you have to wonder what’s going to happen over the next 18 month as the Olympics approach. I’m guessing that there will be a huge buffing effort, and this, along with the increased surveillance (in the city that already has more cameras than any other I can think of) will inevitably have a chilling effect on the street art scene in East London. Hopefully it will simply move somewhere else in the city; it would be sad to see London lose the sense of productive possibility for street art that seems so characteristic of it.*

I don’t want to give the impression that things had already become bland – far from it. One of the striking things about this visit was seeing how lots of artists are producing works in which texture is a significant part of the visual experience: objects attached to walls, clever use of shapes and calls, a range of media, and extension of technique with paint. I know this is hardly big news, and I’m not meaning to pretend there has been any sudden shift in contemporary street art so that it’s suddenly all about texture or anything. Maybe it’s simply something that I was alert to, during this visit. Certainly some of the artworks I photographed are not necessarily ‘new’; some, in fact, have been up for a long time. But the overall effect for me was to bring out, in a very active way, the feeling of the city as existing in its textures and sensations – the material ‘things’ which make up everyday, urban life.

I’ve included a selection – see what you think.

Something simple to start with – simple, but I liked these cardboard hearts very much:

And someone is making mushroom sculptures, and placing them in high up, inaccessible spots, where they look down upon the passers-by:

More sculpture: I saw many of these amazing objects, each one different, attached high on walls, often near street corners. Great colours and shapes. Here’s a couple:

And here is one of my favourite street corners in London, and at the moment it contains a great selection of work, all placed high up, so that even the enthusiastic council cleaning crews can’t be bothered to remove them. This piece by Asbestos has been there for a couple of years now, and you can see another of the sculptures I just mentioned. There is also a little row of figures, now broken down to their torsos. You can find these on various London walls – I would love to know whose work this is.

I’m told this chair has been attached to the wall in Brick Lane for a long, long time, but now it has a satisfyingly chunky duck beside it for company:

On Rivington Street, opposite the entrance to Cargo and Black Rat Projects, there is a wall that has previously featured many paste-ups, stickers and so on. It’s pretty buffed at present, but it does have these two excellent additions.

One is a blue plaque, which reads: ‘This plaque was installed 6th May 2010′. The plaque mimics the historical marker plaques that provide information like ‘In 1856, so-and-so lived here for 2 months’, but it does so with a twist: the plaque commemorates the fact of its installation, rather than any particular event. Although it’s possible to read the plaque as having something to do with the election, the artwork is not about that as such (and it’s pleasing that the 6th of May was the day of the British general election which has subsequently acquired historical significance as the first election in Britain to result in a coalition government, but this certainly wasn’t known when the plaque was installed).

Next to the plaque, you can see a picture frame. Take a closer look:

Apparent detritus becomes art, in a work which is all about showcasing the feel and texture of things that would normally be overlooked and thrown away.

Finally, one of my main memories of visiting London this time is seeing Roa’s work in the streets. Roa is a Belgian artist whose show at Pure Evil gallery (and subsequently at Factory Fresh in Brooklyn) was a huge success, but in addition to those gallery shows he has also spent a lot of time putting work on the streets. He paints animals, usually oversized, and what’s so striking about these images is how Roa harnesses colour and spraycan technique to give an amazing sense of the texture of feathers or fur. Here’s my favourite of the ones that I saw:

And take a close look at the precision and delicacy of these ‘brushstrokes': wonderful work.

*Thanks to Mark, from Hooked blog, for walking around Brick Lane with me….

O Superman

Sometimes travel provides an occasion to reflect upon the place you’ve left behind… While I was in New York recently, there were two different kinds of ‘home’ that I felt conscious of having left.

One was England (or Britain, I suppose). I left Britain in 1995, when I moved to Melbourne, but New York this April was full of buzz about the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy’s movie, which I have written about here and here already, and I certainly think of Banksy as a quintessentially English (or British) artist…

New York was also full of visual reminders of Melbourne, the city that became my adopted home. As I mentioned before, one of them was Meggs’s stickers, which I saw in many places around New York.

I’ve written about Meggs before (see here), and in that entry I was discussing his work in conjunction with that of Anthony Lister, an Australian artist from Brisbane, living in New York these last several years. There are several different consonances between these two in terms of their artistic preoccupations, but in terms of simple coincidence it was amusing that while I was in New York, Anthony Lister was paying a visit to Melbourne, where he had a show at Metro Gallery.

But it’s not as though Lister was entirely gone from New York. His stickers are still very much present on the streets:

And the front of Faile’s studio was adorned with this wonderful Lister painting:

Lister also had a solo show, How to Catch a Time-Traveller, at Lyons Wier Gallery in April, running simultaneously with the Melbourne show.

Meggs and Lister are linked by more than a common nationality; there’s a strong thematic link in their fascination with the superheroes of popular culture, and comics in particular. Both create painted works as well as their own versions of action figures, miniatures and busts. Both Meggs and Lister show superheroes as figures of crisis, barely holding themselves together in the face of unknown assailants or obligations.

But in representing these highly familiar figures away from the context of comics, their methods with paint are very different, however. Meggs uses a combination of stencils and techniques from graffiti art; Lister is evolving a style that recalls Francis Bacon’s way of blurring the painted figure to create a sense both of movement and of the disintegration of the self.

In Lister’s show at Lyons Wier, its title alludes to the idea that these figures are in motion – the artist is the one with the power to stop time, to freeze the disintegrating superhero for an instant, for our scrutiny. Lister’s had a prolific career on the street for a long time, and it’s fantastic to see his painterly skills evolving. Maybe Lister’s thematic will start to broaden a little so that it is no longer simply the superhero which is subject to examination. Charlie Isoe’s current show at Lazarides in London, while containing a lot of works that seemed to me to be somewhat similar, disappointingly, to Lister’s style, showed at least what can be achieved when a wider range of objects are brought into the paintings.

What next, Mr Lister? Can’t wait to see.

Redirecting the Gaze

My first visit to New York was in 1990, a hectic day-long layover between flights. My second trip (but really the first time I began to explore the city properly) was in 1992 and a lot less frantic: five days spent, as most do, walking the city streets.

During this visit, one of my friends commented that ‘the tourist gaze is up’. What did he mean by this?

Think about moving through the streets on your way to work, or on your way to buy food for dinner. Where does your gaze direct itself? For most people, engaged in these moments of everyday passage from one space to another, the streets are something to move through while gazing either straight ahead or even downwards at the sidewalk.

Tourists, on the other hand, tend to look all around them, keen to glimpse any and all ‘attractions’ that might be nearby. They pause, they move at a slower speed, they hesitate and consult maps, often pointing their arms in the direction they are looking or in which they are about to move.

And in a city like New York, where visitors are surrounded by tall buildings, they seek to look towards the summits of those skyscrapers: hence ‘the tourist gaze is up’. And this identifying characteristic of the tourist has, by implication, a corollary: the everyday gaze is down’.

Street artists have long been aware of the downward gaze of the citizen as she moves through the commonplace activities of everyday urban life – think of Stickman’s little figures in crosswalks:

Or the stencil artists who place images and text on the sidewalk, such as these (both from San Francisco):

During my recent visit to New York, I saw two interventions in public space, neither of which might meet any strict definition of ‘street art’, but both of which manage to confound the separation between the upward tourist gaze and the downward gaze of the everyday.

The first of these is Event Horizon, a massive work by the British artist, Antony Gormley. Gormley, probably best known for his sculpture The Angel of the North in Gateshead, makes bronze casts, often of his body, and then places the resulting figures in public spaces – sometimes on a beach (as in Liverpool), sometimes in the centre of cities (as in Birmingham), and, with this work, on the tops of buildings. Instead of forging a single figure, in Event Horizon there are thirty one. Two were placed on the ground, in Madison Square Park, so that people can stand next to them, touch them, photograph them from a place of proximity:

Then, when they raise their gaze upwards to the tops of the nearby buildings, they project the heavy bronze figure from the ground upwards, onto the high perches around the park.

For the visitors, this installation fits easily into the genre of ‘cool things to see in New York’; for the locals, the statues have proved equally fascinating.

The gaze is drawn to the figures through a clever intertwining of dimensions, which gives the work tension and stops it from being yet another set of statues blandly placed in public space.

First, the figures are placed on top of buildings which reach different heights. Sometimes the figure is reasonably easy to study, such as when the building reaches to about six storeys, as in this example:

Others are positioned high above, only just visible in the vertical distance, such as this one:

The eye, then, is encouraged to travel, to meander up and down, as well as around the perimeter of the park, and to take in the variegated horizon of New York.

The second tension at work in the installation relates to the intentionality spectators project on to the figures. Why are they standing there? What are they doing? What do they represent?

The ‘figure on the roof’ is obviously one that is often depicted in film and television as someone who is about to jump – a potential suicide. And apparently the New York Police Department were briefed about the installation so that, if anyone called 911 to report someone on the rooftop, the police would be aware of the statues and their locations and would not needlessly respond to the call.

But it appears that most spectators interpreted the statues differently, as benevolent figures watching over the city and its inhabitants: guardian angels, perhaps (think of Wim Wenders’s beautiful film Wings of Desire, unforgivably remade as City of Angels with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan).

But the tension between disaster and safety is nonetheless there in Event Horizon, and its certainly part of the phenomenon of looking that the spectator seeks to resolve that tension, one way or another. Perhaps it’s the sheer number of statues that helps the spectator decide they are figures of kindliness rather than despair, but perhaps it’s also part of the sheer optimism of New York City.

The other intervention in public space that redirects the everyday gaze is the High Line, a park that has been built around and on the tracks of a disused workers’ elevated railway, running north from Ganesvoort Street in the Meat Packing District.

You climb stairs from the street up to the park, above 30 feet up. Once there, you can walk its length, sit on the many benches and seats provided, and, above all, you can look at the city around and above and below. What’s amazing is the effect of a relatively small amount of elevation upon the way that one sees the city.

People in New York, as in most cities, are able to alter their perspective on the city by ascending to a higher level in order to look down – but this often involves ascending to considerable heights. Think of going up the Empire State Building (or in Melbourne, you might take the elevator to the top of the Eureka Tower; in San Francisco, tourists climb Coit Tower to see the undulating city spread before them).

It’s always interesting to do this – to look at a city from the ‘bird’s eye view’ that results. But looking down at the city from these heights comes at a price – loss of contact with the level of the street. Looking downwards from 80 floors up (or anything more than about 3 storeys, probably) detaches the spectator from any sense of connection with the ground: people look like ants, houses like boxes and so on. And these spaces also tend to provide fairly static viewing positions: one can walk around a viewing platform but it’s difficult to find ways whereby you can be raised up and move through the city at the same time.

One means would be an elevated railway, such as the one that was the High Line before it became a park. These certainly raise the individual up and move them around the city. But individuals are moved passively by the train, and their gaze will oftentimes remain inward within the train carriage rather than travelling out and around.

The High Line manages to transcend these limitations. When you visit the park, you move through it on your own two feet, an active participant in the space. The elevation of about 30 or so feet makes a surprisingly dramatic difference to one’s perspective, as you can see here:

Glass-fronted viewing platforms over the street allow the spectator the contemplate traffic (more interesting in fact than it sounds!) while suspended over the street:

Although some have been critical of the High Line’s redevelopment as a park (see, as an example, the discussion on Jeremiah\’s Vanishing New York), its impact on the citizen’s experience of the city is undeniable: lifting people up while allowing them to move or rest at will reconfigures them in public space and, as with Gormley’s Event Horizon, it promotes a new kind of relation, albeit temporarily, with the city that lies above, around and below.

Art, Value and Banksy’s Rats in Melbourne – visit Hyperallergic

If you have been following the recent street art debacle in which Melbourne City Council ‘accidentally’ buffed one of Banksy’s rats in Hosier Lane in Melbourne, you might be interested in reading my account of this event, over on the excellent site Hyperallergic.

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