Archive for the ‘Elbow-Toe’ Tag

The Underbelly Project

As is by now well known to almost everybody with an interest in street art (and to quite a few more besides), a massive art project was organised by two individuals in New York City, and carried out with the involvement of more than 100 different artists from a range of countries – The Underbelly Project.

News of Underbelly recently broke in the New York Times and the London Times , and it’s fair to say that there has been quite the media furore about it.

(For many Australian readers, it may come as both a relief and a surprise to learn that ‘Underbelly’ refers to something other than an initially interesting and then subsequently tacky TV show on Channel 9….)

Underbelly, as an art project, is one of great audacity. It displays the work of the 100-plus artists on walls around a disused subway station in New York City. Painting had to be done in secret, during the night, and at some risk to the participants. It involved months of planning, organisation and execution, including documenting the artwork through photography and film. Artists whose work is displayed include Faile, Anthony Lister, Swoon, Indigo, Logan Hicks, Dan Witz, Rone, Meggs, PAC, Stormie Mills, Remi/Rough, Elbow-toe, Roa, Imminent Disaster, Mark Jenkins, Sheone, Smith/Sane, Revok and many more. You can see some of the works on Vandalog among other sites.

In April this year, I spent a few weeks in New York City, and met up with one of the two people behind Underbelly. I watched as he scrolled through dozens of astonishing photographs on his computer, explaining how lights had to be brought into the pitch blackness of the tunnel both for the artists to work and for the documentation of the process to be possible. Once the final piece had been painted, he told me, the entrance to the platform would be sealed off, and the location would be kept secret, so that the art would remain, and the documentation would attest to its existence, but no-one would be able to sell the images or to destroy it (time and the inhospitably humid environment of the tunnel would do that).

Hearing this account and seeing the images, I was quite awestruck. The project is so huge – partly because of the number of artists involved, with many coming from overseas, so even simply the logistics of coordinating visits to the tunnel, and allocating space within it was a major undertaking. It is also huge in that its execution took place over several months, in which the project, its nature and location must have been one of the best kept secrets in street art.

I was also captivated by the idea of taking street art underground, to a location that intersects with the history of graffiti and subway writing. I listened to the account of how the project would be independent of the art market, with the works existing within the tunnel, unable to be sold off afterwards (something that sounded extremely compelling, given that even works placed on the street for public enjoyment have often been removed in order to be sold).

And I must admit what got me the most was the idea that the tunnel would be sealed and no-one would be able to get in to see the artworks. It did give me a slight pang to think that such amazing works would be hidden from all spectators, but that was far outweighed for me by the romance of the idea that the artists would make the works, underground, in secret, in a space that acknowledges street art’s debt to the cultures of subway writing, and then that space, with all its beautiful artworks, would be sealed….

The very motivation behind Underbelly was a romantic one, I think. The project was born in the shared appreciation of two individuals for the empty and forgotten spaces of the city. It remained true to that shared sensibility; and it did not warp into something commercial.

It was one of the most exciting initiatives that I have come across, in all the years I’ve been thinking and researching in this area.

It felt incredibly exciting to see the media coverage of the project, and to see photographs of the works published so that they could be seen by others.

And my admiration for its creators knows no bounds.

But over the last several days, it would seem that, amongst the admiration and appreciation that has been offered, there are those who see Underbelly differently. Some seem to see it as a challenge, as if the organisers are saying, ‘go on, try and find it, bet you can’t…’ (see here for a forum in which some discuss how to find the tunnel and their experience of being arrested in doing so). Others seem to see it as a provocation, as though its existence needs to be condemned: this includes, interestingly, both the police, who are basically stationed at the location at present and arresting anyone who enters it, and individuals who have reportedly entered the tunnel and trashed some of the works. Still others have criticised the project’s creators, accusing them of cashing in,by making a documentary film about the project (this seems like such a bizarre criticism, given that the organisers felt that a film would allow a wider audience to get access to works that would otherwise be hidden from view. Full disclosure: I was interviewed about the project for the film.).

So: is there no romance left in street art? Maybe cynicism has taken hold of many of these commentators and critics, but in my opinion, the very existence of The Underbelly Project is a testament to the fact that some people in the world of street art (from the organisers through the artists who took part to the bloggers who visited the site and kept its secrets) still believe there is a place for hopeless romance amid the commercial imperatives of the market.

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.

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