Archive for the ‘New York’ Tag

Here yesterday, gone today….

One of my favourite artists, JR, was in New York some time ago, and pasted up some images from the ‘Lakota, Dakota Nation’ project that is part of Inside Out, the global, participatory enterprise launched by JR after winning the TED prize last year. I’m a big fan of JR’s work and have recently been writing about it in my academic work, so it’s always a pleasure to see his images on display in a city.

I was staying in SoHo during my recent trip to New York and walked past these two images every day:

Hugely striking, not just for their close-up intimacy, as characterises all of JR’s work, but also, especially in the second of those two pieces, for their placement. For that face to run on its side along the top of the building was a counter-intuitive decision that works really well.

In addition to those two locations, JR’s work was also on the best-known spot in Manhattan: the wall at the corner of East Houston Street and Bowery:

This image works really well in this setting: the black and white photography stands out against the urban background, the shape of the section of face that is featured seems to fit the space of the wall particularly well.

It was lucky that I photographed it when I did, because unbeknownst to me that wall was about to be transformed. Within two days, JR was gone and Faile were putting up a very different image, involving stand-out colouration, images from pop culture, fragments of text, and collaged figures, as has become their signature. The wall at East Houston and Bowery works so well because its size, shape and location next to the plain white wall of a building mean that large-scale portraits such as JR’s work beautifully, but also busy, flattened, pop images like Faile’s also seem to draw energy from the location.

When I went by to see it, Faile were putting the finishing touches to it, and there were many happy passers-by like myself taking photographs, including the legend herself, Martha Cooper.

Occupy Wall Street – an essay in images

I’m in New York for a conference on law and the image, so this afternoon I went to see the Occupy Wall Street protest that has been happening there for a number of weeks now. As most people will know, Occupy Wall Street actually occupies Zuccotti Park, which is close to Wall Street, and is a conglomeration of disparate protests, protesters, issues and aims, loosely united under the banner slogan ‘We are the 99%’. Many of the issues being raised and protested there are to do with corporate greed, fraud, exploitation, and so on, but many are also protesting about issues such as campaign financing, the dispossession of native Americans, the stop and frisk laws that allow police officers to search individuals based on stereotyping rather than on evidence-based grounds, and many more.

Many others have written about Occupy Wall Street, and the various related protests occurring around the globe, including in Melbourne. For a sample, check out an excellent essay by McKenzie Wark; today’s Guardian article about the arrest of Naomi Klein at a related protest; and the We Are The 99% tumblr site.

Instead of adding a lot more words to what has already been written, I thought I would put together some of the photos that I took today, to try to convey a sense of the protest and the place it is taking place in. To situate it, you have to imagine a small city park, no grass, just concrete, with some floral beds and a lot of trees. The park constitutes a small open space in the midst of some of New York’s most corporate and most solid skyscrapers. (To add a further, uncanny, dimension to the protest’s location, the park is diagonally across an intersection from the World Trade Center site, where the 9/11 memorial is, and where new skyscrapers to replace the lost Twin Towers are being busily constructed.)

This little park is filled with people: protesters, journalists, photographers, tourists, visitors. Around the park’s perimeter, police officers lean against barriers, monitoring the protest, and stepping up at frequent intervals to instruct people taking photographs or speaking with protesters to ‘move along’ and ‘clear the sidewalk’ (no doubt this is part of the claimed right to control the sidewalk that Naomi Klein adverts to in her account of her arrest).

Here, then, is a glimpse into Occupy Wall Street, as it took place on the afternoon of 20 October 2001.

What will happen at Zuccotti Park? How long will the protest last? No-one knows the answer to these questions, and they are probably the wrong ones to ask. What’s more important is that the protest is happening now, and that fact, each and every day that it is there, creates a politics in public space and demands a response. The lines of police outside the park, the rows of police vehicles in the streets, and the well-documented behaviour of the ‘white-shirted’ officers in their arrests indicate that the repression of the protest will be brought about some day (perhaps assisted by the weather, as the seasons shift from summer into autumn and winter). But even if that happens, Occupy Wall Street will have shown itself to be a formidable political peformance.

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.

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.

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.

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