Archive for August, 2008|Monthly archive page

The Cans Festival (Mark 1)

In late May this year, artists from a range of different countries (Australia, the US, Holland, France, Portugal and more) were flown to London to take part in creating the Cans Festival, a massive exhibition of stencil art.

The location was a disused tunnel in Leake Street, near Waterloo Station. This tunnel had had its fair share of graffiti applied to it in the past, but the Cans Festival turned it into a unprecedented display of street art.

The location was kept secret while the artists went to work over a period of several days, but once it became known where the Festival was to take place, hundreds of people queued for up to three hours at a time to see the artworks. The tunnel was filled with people, some adding their own stencils or tags to the walls, other photographing what they saw. For a sense of the massive public enthusiasm for the event, do a search on Flickr for ‘Cans Festival’ or watch any of the many videos made at the Festival:

When I visited London in July, things had quietened down at the site. There were still people visiting (around 20 people when I was there), but it was possible to take photographs without other people in the shot, and to stand back and look at the sheer scale of the place and the display (the tunnel is a couple of hundred metres long, and its curved walls around 10 metres high).

The ‘official’ artworks – by artists such as Vexta, Tom Civil and DLux (all from Australia), Vhils (Portugal), C215, Blek Le Rat and Jef Aerosol (France), Lex-Sten (Italy), Kaagman (Holland), Logan Hicks and Faile (the US), Pure Evil, Eine and Banksy (the UK) – were now surrounded by unofficial additions. Sometimes people had stencilled an image, sometimes they had tagged over other people’s work. The tunnel was crammed with images: railings and posts had been sprayed, as had the ground: someone had sprayed a stencil version of a scalectrix racing track, complete with cars, through the tunnel.

Some of the images were simply amazing. I’ve written already about the works by Logan Hicks (see the entry ‘In anticipation…’). Other memorable ones included this work by Vhils, a young Portuguese artist:

For a sense of its scale, try to imagine that I (who stand 1.78m tall) would reach eye level on these faces. And there were dozens of these amazing images: a fantastic work by Eine, a huge and delicate paste-up by Faile, several of C215’s faces, some glittering figures by Pure Evil.

And of course several works by Banksy, an artist derided by some but considered by many to be single=handedly responsible for popularising street art around the world. The tunnel had previously contained some old works by Banksy: in this photograph you can see a faded ‘snorting copper’ kneeling at ground level and surrounded by more recent additions for the Festival:

Of the several Banksys in the Festival, my favourite was a massive image of a hoodie-wearing, knife-holding, bleeding boy. The scale of this work is huge, and yet it is extremely detailed, showing Banksy’s skill as an artist (often forgotten in the brou-ha-ha that always follows his various stunts).

In the neatest of copperplate script to the left of this boy’s sneaker, it reads, ‘I am starving’. Many dismiss Banksy’s penchant for a catchphrase as glib, but I found that this work had a certain resonance, in a city where the homeless and hungry are present on many street corners. Too hard to do justice to Banksy’s work in this post: watch this space for further discussion of his work.

To see all these works in one place – and in the street, not in a gallery – I walked up and down, photographing, photographing, unable to stop smiling. My daughter, who is 6, said: ‘mama, I’ve never seen so much graffiti in one place’, and it was very true.

But I don’t want to overlook the unofficial additions to the Festival, made by the hundreds of people who came and stencilled or tagged their own words and images at the site. Here’s one, out of thousands:

I love this. I like to imagine that the artist perhaps didn’t have any stencils with them when visiting and simply borrowed a spraycan from someone, in order to spray around their hand.

And who, you may ask, made all of this possible? Banksy. Not just through his popularising of street art, but far more directly in that he paid the airfares of the visiting artists and covered the costs of the event, which many estimate to be a cool half a million pounds.

Perhaps reading about the Cans Festival might make you want to go and see it for yourself? Well, yes, you should go and see it, but in fact all of the works I’m writing about no longer exist. That’s right: last weekend a whole new crew of artists were brought in and the tunnel has been entirely repainted. Take a look at the official website here for details of the artists involved. Cans Festival Mark 2 !

How long will the work be there? I don’t know, but I really hope it will still be there when I visit London again in October. But if it’s not – well, contrary to those who seek to preserve street artworks by putting plexiglass over them (as has been done with Banksys in London and in Melbourne), ephemerality is part of the nature of street art.

“I will not draw as I am told…”

I’m typing this in bed, where I’m supposed to be resting up, after being sick with a thoroughly unpleasant combo of sore throat and flu symptoms plus upset stomach. Lovely! I’ve spent a few days feeling too unwell to do anything, and today is supposed to be a day of doing nothing except more lying in bed resting up. But…

…that can get boring, so I’ve been reading other people’s blogs, and eventually the desire to write even a short post got too much for me. And in this little moment of not-doing-what-I-should, I wanted to write about an unknown artist in Amsterdam, whose work I saw all around the city in June. He or she writes: ‘I will not draw as I am told’.

Sometimes these words are written, in looping cursive script, as when I first came across them on a wooden hoarding on Bloemgracht, near where I was staying:

A few days later, I saw another inscription, outside a branch of the ubiquitous Albert Heijn Supermarkets. This time the letters dripped paint, the words running into each other.

Were they painted in greater haste, perhaps? Or was the writer deliberately seeking a particular effect? (There’s a genre of graffiti known as ‘drippies’, made when the writer fills a squeezy plastic ketchup bottle, or some similar container, with paint, and writes drippily on the ground or on a wall…)

Some time later, after my partner and daughter had arrived from Melbourne, we spent a day at Artis, Amsterdam’s wonderful zoo. As we made our way towards Artis’s cafe, hot and longing for an ice-cream, imagine my surprise and delight, when I spotted the same words, written upon a metal container box. The paint was peeling, and the remains of someone else’s paste-up obscured some of the lettering, marking the words as done some considerable time ago.

A few days after that encounter, I was sitting outside the Cafe Belgique in Gravenstraat, carrying out an interview with an Amsterdam artist. The walls outside this tiny bar tend to get covered with paste-ups, stickers, pieces: the bar’s owners are fond of street art and make the walls available to local and visiting artists who in turn use the bar as a kind of unofficial club, meeting there in the evenings for a drink. As I asked my questions and listened to the artist’s answers, my gaze drifted across the alleyway and settled upon a sticker on the wall opposite: “I will not draw as I am told’, it read.

Whoever the author may be, these words seem to encapsulate something about graffiti and street art. Anyone who ‘puts up’ on the street without the property owner’s permission is, by definition, committing a criminal offence, and in doing so, they are refusing to draw as they are told (which would be on canvas, in a studio, for a gallery, with permission, and so on). I’m not trying to claim that graffiti and street art has intrinsic value because of this, but the persistent refusal by its authors and artists to do as they are told seems worthy of remark. In a time when Victoria has just passed some fiercely repressive laws with the potential to criminalise many artists (the Graffiti Prevention Act 2007, about which, there will undoubtedly be more to say in this blog), I find myself to be quietly admiring of the determination to make art on and for the street.

Street memories…

I spent a few weeks in Amsterdam recently. I was there to meet artists and take photographs of art on the city streets (Amsterdam is one of the cities I’m studying as part of my research on street art). One day, I was walking along a street when I suddenly came across this:

In addition to the usual pleasure that I experience when I come across a new piece of art in the streets, I felt an incredible shock of recognition. The calligraphy, the allusive style, the signature…. I realised that I had seen the work of this writer when I had been in Amsterdam two years before. On that trip, walking around the area known as the Jordaan, I had wandered down a little street and seen words on a hoarding which read: ‘As she dances in the widescreen of her existence’.

Something about about those words had really moved me at the time (and still does). The idea of there being a ‘widescreen’ to existence… and the image of a woman dancing. It embodied, for me, a sense of a way of being that bespoke lightness and joy.

I had no idea who the writer was. I felt surprised and delighted that the writer inscribed his or her words in English rather than Dutch, and, over the next few days, I came across a few more of the writer’s words upon other walls: the distinctive black lettering and the short phrases and sentences, the signature of ‘Laser 3.14’.

But I’m used to the idea that street artists and graffiti writers come and go. They move city, they stop writing on the streets – one way or another, the words left by a writer often disappear and don’t get replaced. So to come across another of Laser 3.14’s texts, two years after my first encounter, seemed like an amazing piece of good fortune.

After that, throughout my 3 week stay in Amsterdam, I saw more and more of the writer’s work. I photographed everything I could see. Some of the texts appealed to me more than others, but all were interesting. Almost all were written on temporary surfaces: hoardings, screens, sheeting. I came across one text, faded and almost too faint to read, painted on a wall (it read ‘When the streets are wet/ the colours slip into the sky’). The others had all been granted ephemerality by virtue of their host surface: they would appear, be present in the city for a while, and then be ripped down.

One day my sense of this writer’s gift to the city intensified into an even more personal encounter. During my visit, I was staying in a studio on Prinsengracht, and each day would leave the studio, and turn left down a small street called Runstraat. On this street there was construction work being carried out on a building; a hoarding covered its lower floor. And then one morning, the hoarding looked like this:

I loved the idea that, while I slept, Laser 3.14 had passed by this hoarding, on the street around the corner from where I lived, and inscribed these words. My pleasure at seeing them made me feel as though I was ‘dancing in the widescreen of my existence’, indeed.

In anticipation….

I’m writing this at a moment of great anticipation. Next week, an exhibition will open in Melbourne: Futureshock (Part 1), at the Per Square Metre Gallery in Johnston Street, Collingwood.

Three artists are exhibiting: Ha Ha, who is something of a Melbourne institution these days (a prolific, highly respected, incredibly influential, and extremely ethical street artist); Vex Ta, a Melbourne artist who is on a trajectory of international stardom and is recently returned from the Cans Festival in London, where she painted alongside some of the best known street artist in the world right now; and Logan Hicks. Logan Hicks is an American artist who has lived overseas but is now based in Brooklyn. And – what can I say – I am a fan of his work.

I had seen images of his work online. Many, many street artists like his work, and his name tends to come up in conversation. He has his own website here. On YouTube, you can watch time-lapse footage of Logan Hicks spraying a stencil:

I had looked at the online images of his work, and had admired what I had seen, but recently I had the chance to stand in the same room as 16 of his works, and that was a stunning experience.

When I was in London in July, a gallery called Black Rat Press was showing his work. The gallery space at Black Rat Press is located in a converted tunnel, so that instead of the standard ‘white cube’ there is a curved arc of exposed brick. The works were hung around this curved, vaguely subterranean room, and the mottled red brick provided a fitting backdrop to them.

Logan Hicks’s images tend to be of urban scenes: tired commuters on the New York subway, gazing into the near distance; a deserted stoop in front of a decaying building; the escalator that descends into a train station; the facade of a building. These images are rendered by means of extremely detailed stencil-making. Hicks appears to cut his intricate shapes with ease: the images appear directly painted rather than transferred through the indirection of a stencil.

His colour palette is sombre – greys, black, more grey. But these monochromal repetitions are counterposed in some of his works to a sudden, astonishingly bright, primary colour. In one image, the sky is red; in another, a window appears golden yellow. The effect, for me, is enormously pleasing: even now, several weeks after seeing them, the works hover in my memory.

I visited the gallery with my partner and our daughter. After a while they went outside, to sit in the sunny courtyard that belongs to Cargo, a tremendously hip Shoreditch bar. (One wall of Cargo’s courtyard is adorned with works by various famed street artists: Logan Hicks has a work on that wall, and so does Shepard Fairey, while two Banksys look demurely out from behind their plexiglass protective cover.)

While Peter and Sophie were outside, I chatted to the gallery staff member who was present. He said the opening night had gone well, and pointed to several red dots next to various works. ‘Wait a minute’, he said, ‘You should see the works like this…’, and he switched off the main gallery lights. In their place a number of small track lights pointed at the images. The metallic lustre of the paint emerged; the images seemed even more to fade into the brickwork. For a moment, gallery became street: image on brick, artificial light turned almost into the gloom of a tunnel.

Logan Hicks’s works seem poised at that delicate moment between appearing and disappearing. I felt this acutely when I saw his contribution to the Cans Festival, Banksy’s paintfest in a disused tunnel called Leake Street, near Waterloo Station in London. Hicks was one of the artists invited to participate, and he painted two large works on the brickwork of the walls, in one of the dimmest corners of the tunnel. One is an image of Union Square subway station; another shows a solitary man on a subway train. Both works evoke the city as almost uncannily unpopulated, yet crowded with the machinery of modernity. Both are peaceful yet disquieting images. Both sink into the walls, yet insinuate their images outwards toward the spectator.

Where so much of street art is about getting noticed, Hicks’s work seems almost to be receding away from the viewer. Is it this that captivates me so much?


Welcome to this blog. I hope to use this site as a place in which to think and write about the place and significance of the image in everyday life. Sometimes that will mean writing about an actual image – such as an artwork, or a piece of graffiti, or a movie – and sometimes it will mean simply reflecting on how images work on us, on the purchase that images have in contemporary life.

I’m a university academic, and I teach and write about images. I teach one subject which deals primarily with film, particularly films that focus upon violence, crime, law and justice. At the moment, I’m writing a book about that, and much of the ideas for that book have come from the experience of teaching this topic over the last 12 years. The book is called Visions of Violence: Cinema, Crime, Affect, and it is two thirds completed. No doubt there are going to be some posts arising out of the process of finishing the book over the next 6 months.

I also teach a course, also focusing on violence, which engages with images as well as textual representations: post-Holocaust art, for example, or photo-documentation, or comic books. And for years I’ve been fascinated by the intersections and interconnections of law and the image. I wrote a book a few years ago called Judging the Image: Art, Value, Law – it looked at the encounter between law and image and tried to imagine it as a relation of co-implication, rather than the collision or struggle it is so often conceived as.

When I was writing that book, I became very interested in trying to write about the experience of spectatorship: that is, trying to say what it is like to look at an artwork. That’s definitely something that I would like to pursue here: to think about spectatorship of images, to call attention to the looking that gets done in the quotidien spaces of the everyday. Part of that is going to be about the phenomenon of subjectivity in the city. I’m also writing about street art – artworks that appear in the urban spaces of cities such as London, Melbourne, New York, Sao Paulo. Looking at such artworks often occurs in the most mundane and yet exciting ways: walking past a wall on the way to work, or turning a corner to take a shortcut and suddenly coming across a painting on a peeling concrete wall.

So this blog is intended as a space for the recounting of sites of spectatorship. It was my partner Peter who had the idea of blogging about this: I owe him thanks! It feels like a new relationship – a new way of thinking and writing, and I’m excited to see where it will go.

And to mark this inaugural post, I’m including what I consider to be one of the most beautiful street artworks I’ve seen in a long time. This is by the French artist C215, and I took this photograph in Shoreditch, London, in July 2008.