Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page
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.