Archive for the ‘Vandalog’ 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.

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

Guest post on Vandalog

I’ve been crazy busy teaching an intensive course the last few days, so not much time for posting here.

But I did manage to write a guest post for Vandalog, which is a fantastic blog about street art. RJ, Vandalog’s author, is currently away on holiday and he has asked a range of people to contribute guest posts while he is away.

You can read my contribution here.

And if you’re visiting Vandalog for the first time, it’s definitely worth browsing through it.

Thanks for the invite, RJ! Enjoy your holiday!

And more posts on Images to Live By coming soon, because my intensive teaching finishes in a few days time.

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