Archive for the ‘Art, Street Art’ Category

Pressing buttons

Some years ago, Marc Augé, a French anthropologist, wrote a book called Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. A ‘non-place’ is somewhere that seems to lack the characteristics that define a place (design, décor, architecture, and so on); instead, a non-place may seem to exist for purely functional reasons that don’t acknowledge a need for places to provide a sense of experience, aesthetics, or sensibility for those who inhabit or pass through them. Non-places famously include motel rooms, waiting-rooms, airport departure lounges, motorway service stations and many more.

I’ve been wondering if we could also say that there exists a ‘non-experience’ as well as a non-place. I’ve been thinking about this since receiving a message from two artists from Barcelona, Pauer and Octopus, who are currently based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. They have created a nice art project called Press the Button: the artists have made stickers which are affixed on to the boxes at pedestrian crossings, next to the button that you push when you want to stop traffic so that you can cross the road. (This project, although different in technique and medium, follows in the traditions established by artists such as Roadsworth, and on crosswalk art more generally see this post on Web Urbanist.)

Everyone knows what it feels like: the moment when you push the button at a pedestrian crossing, and then stand there, waiting, waiting, waiting for the lights to change so that you can cross the street. It seems to me that this might be a quintessential non-experience; while waiting for the crossing to activate, the pedestrian really is quite suspended, doing nothing. A similar one might be sitting in your car in gridlocked traffic, unable to move forward or back, suspended within the car. Some of Augé’s non-places are also perfect for having a non-experience: waiting rooms, airport departure lounges, motel rooms… In fact, perhaps waiting really is the main characteristic of a non-experience: in an activity-driven, hyper-substantive world, being compelled, even briefly, to do nothing, can feel excruciating to individuals. Just think of those moments waiting for the crossing to activate: don’t those moments seem to take a long, long time to pass?

So I think it is great that Pauer and Octopus’s intervention has turned a non-experience into something which might involve amusement or puzzlement or pleasure… There is a range of stickers, each offering the pedestrian different outcomes: ‘press the button to end all wars’ reads one, while another says ‘press the button to fall in love’. You can see a short video about the project here:

Perhaps one of the great things about street art is its capacity to turn a non-experience into something else: a boring commute (by foot or in a car or on a train) can be transformed into an opportunity to view art, to be surprised, to smile, to feel frustration, laugh. Press the button to feel something; press the button to think.

Swoon at Metro Gallery

Last night was the official opening of Swoon’s show, Thekla, at Metro Gallery in Melbourne.

It would be an understatement to say that this event drew the crowds.

The gallery was packed. It was actually quite hard to view the artworks properly under those conditions, and so I’ll be returning another day for a better look.

The show uses every inch of the gallery’s available floor space, and in addition re-shapes the gallery rooms (by adding painted and graffiti-ed steps here and there) and transforms its textures, by cladding its white walls with paper and cardboard. The artworks are sometimes affixed to these transformed walls; at other times they stand upright on the floor, angling out from the walls so that the exhibition has a pleasingly multi-dimensional feel. Apparently it took the best part of two weeks to install this show, and the efforts were well worth it – the space looks incredible.

Some of the works I had seen before, on the streets or in other galleries. Even so, they are given a freshness by virtue of their inclusion here in a coherent large-scale show, which allows all of Swoon’s great strengths as an artist to be displayed: the sense of storytelling, the vividness of the characterisation of her subjects, the many different skills used in making the artworks, and the way that a gallery space is taken over by the artworks and converted, temporarily, into something else – some other space.

Photo by Sean Irving, Metro Gallery

The works are so incredibly detailed:

Photo by Sean Irving, Metro Gallery

It’s worth mentioning that Metro Gallery is based in Armadale, an area of Melbourne which is – you could say – not well known for its street art. Certainly, the crowd last night contained a large percentage of the very well-heeled and very well-off. And no doubt many of those present would have been well pleased by the speech given by the guest invited to launch the show, the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu.

Baillieu’s speech seemed to have been written by someone who knew nothing about (a) street art (b) Swoon and (c) Swoon’s art. You would think that at some point yesterday afternoon when the speechwriter sat down with a piece of paper to sketch out a few talking points for Baillieu it might have been noticed that they were woefully under-informed. Apparently not. Baillieu talked at length, managing to embarass himself and much of the audience, who were cringing as he said incoherent things like ‘You’re Swoon, I’m swim, this is swell’. The best you can say about it is that after a time, the speech ended. Shockingly bad.

And enough dwelling on the ignorance of Liberal politics, let’s look at some more images of Swoon’s beautiful works:

Photo by Sean Irving, Metro Gallery

Thekla is on until 5 March. ‘Worth seeing’ is an understatement.

Small acts, amazing effects.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend not to do announcements about upcoming shows, figuring that there are plenty of other blogs and sites that do a sterling job in that respect.

But every now and then shows come along which either seem so unmissable or they involve work by artists whom I really respect or admire.

Coming up at Metro gallery in Melbourne is an exhibition that falls into both these categories. Metro is hosting Swoon’s first solo exhibition in Australia.

I’ve written about Swoon’s work before on this blog: you can read that post here. I’ve long been an admirer of her art: it is diverse but coherent, it moves beyond street and gallery with apparently effortless ease, and it has evolved in fascinating ways so that as well as adding artworks to buildings and other parts of the built environment, Swoon has in recent years been creating new built environments herself.

Sometimes these have been elaborate structures designed to float on rivers and seas, such as the rafts which sailed the Adriatic into Venice, to gatecrash the Biennale. At other times, they are specifically designed buildings, intensely site-specific works which also have all the functionality of a building – they are made for particular purposes, such as the Konbit Shelter in Haiti. In relation to this latter project, Swoon has working with architects and urban designers as part of a group seeking to assist in the reconstruction of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there. (You can read more about that project here.)

To get more of a sense of Swoon’s work, it’s worth doing a couple of things. First of all, have a look at a recent post on the excellent blog Brooklyn Street Art, which describes a studio visit with Swoon and has lots of great photos of her at work. Then, check out YouTube. Have a look at this:

Only three minutes long, but it gives a great sense of both of Swoon’s art and her energy and enthusiasm…

And then, check this one out:

This is a TED talk given by Swoon in Brooklyn recently, in which she talks at greater length about her work. Totally inspiring and, again, such infectious enthusiasm.

I was fortunate enough to meet Swoon last April in New York, and it really was one of the highlights of my time researching in this area. We spoke at length about the transformative potential of art and about the nature of relationships between people (and art) in public space, in neighbourhoods, in derelict spaces, on water, and in buildings.

in November 2010, Swoon created a site-specific installation for the exhibition Small Acts of Resistance at Black Rat Projects in London. The exhibition was designed around the work of several artists whose work combines ‘the artist’s aesthetic vision and the activist’s world changing ambition’. In Swoon’s work we see this combination at its most effective. The acts of a street artist may be relatively small, but their effects – well, their effects go far beyond the limits of any one paste-up or sculpture. Maybe art like this can change the way you see or the way you think.

Go and see the show. It’s on from today until 5th March 2011, Metro Gallery, 1214 High Street, Armadale.

‘Be free’: but not for long….

I recently posted here about a number of artworks around Fitzroy and Clifton Hill featuring a figure throwing playing cards into the air, accompanied by the text ‘be free’.

As part of that post, I included a photograph of a very fresh looking ‘Be free’ artwork, at the entrance to an underpass in Clifton Hill, and on the day that I photographed it, the council graffiti removal van was parked nearby: I commented that I hoped it was not there to paint over this artwork.

Well, it wasn’t, not that day at least.

‘Be free’ stayed at the entrance to the overpass, and attracted some tagging, which then attracted some commentary of its own:

Photo by Lorraine.

I’m indebted to Lorraine, a reader of this blog, who sent me this photograph, commenting to me in the email, ‘Not erased as you feared but tagged. It somehow works.’

Indeed, the placement of the tag somehow connects with the image, even though it covers over many of those gorgeous playing cards. One passerby felt perhaps that the tag did not work well with ‘Be free’, and wrote bluntly ‘this tag is brainless’ next to it – so that the site became a series of layers of significations.

But not for long. Lorraine emailed me this today, having taken it three days ago. Opening the email and viewing the photograph was a strange experience for me, because I had already walked past the underpass this morning, to find this:

Blankness. Fresh paint, no doubt applied by an assiduous graffiti removal van.

Was it the presence of the tag and the subsequent commentary on the tag that attracted the attention of the graffiti removalists? Or were the artwork’s days numbered, as testified by the presence of the graffiti removal van two weeks ago – perhaps it was just working its way around the locality and was always going to paint over ‘Be free’, no matter whether it was tagged or not.

I can’t help but feel sad for its disappearance. It fitted the site so perfectly. It must have made many people smile – those playing cards! Magnificent composition. I hope that more are being affixed to a wall somewhere very soon.

‘Be free’…

Last year, when I wasnot long returned from travelling overseas for 3 months and was taking our cat to the vet to be weighed (yes, she is on a weight reduction diet, the poor, chunky thing), I came across this artwork:

It’s a nicey composed work, a combination of stencil work for the figure and the text (which reads ‘Be Free’), with playing cards glued to the wall as though the little girl is scattering them to the winds.

I really liked its positioning and execution, and thought that it was one of the most interesting works that had appeared around Melbourne while I had been away. But I also assumed it was a single work.

Yesterday, on an evening when it was too hot to cook, we headed out to eat at a local cafe. On the way, I was delighted to discover another ‘Be Free’, freshly applied to a wall at the corner of Victoria Street and Brunswick Street:

Again, nicely positioned; again, the combination of stencil work with the playing cards to add texture and dimension.

And then this morning, in another suburb, I saw this work:

A different positioned figure this time (and an adult rather than a child), and the composition seems altered to fit the different dimensions of this space, which is at the entrance to a rather drab underpass leading away from a MacDonalds and a brothel – exactly the sort of location that to me needs an exhortation to ‘be free’.

As I came out of the underpass on the other side, I saw the local council ‘Graffiti Clean-Up’ van approaching. I hope that this beautiful work is still there tomorrow…

New discoveries…

I’ve seen a paste-up of a delicate and evocative drawing several times around Fitzroy recently:

I didn’t know who the artist was, although it seemed from the drawing that it might be signed ‘Kaff-eine’ (inscribed on the little fox).

Last week, I received one of those emails from WordPress telling me that someone had subscribed to this blog (always nice to hear). The subscriber had a URL, which I clicked on. It turns out that the susbcriber is none other than Kaff-eine, and the link took me to this site, on which you can see lots of examples of Kaff-eine’s work.

So, thanks, Kaff-eine, for subscribing, and thanks also for making such fantastic drawings and paste-ups, which bring the atmosphere of a fairytale or fable into the spaces of the city….

Textile textures….

I was out walking with friends the other evening, and on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy I came across two beautiful interventions in public space – really two of the most delightful and pleasurable pieces of work I have seen in a long time.

I’ve found it hard to put a name to what kind of work they are: I suppose the name that would most obviously be given to them would be ‘yarn-bombing’, but seeing these works made me realise how little I like that term and how inadequate I think it is for the grace and delicacy involved in these works, in which knitted woollen shapes are fastened around a grey metal pole, and white lace is fitted closely to the narrow trunks of nearby trees. As you can see, part of the visual pleasure in the works is how they make the man-made pole and the natural tree trunks somehow akin to each other, linked by their verticality and their new roles as part of the street sculpture.

‘Yarn-bombing’ draws an analogy with tagging, whereby a writer puts up their tag so often that a city or a suburb is ‘bombed’ by the tag. Somehow that just doesn’t seem right with these sorts of works, and I think a new name needs to be found: textile sculptures? fabric sculptures? The works use a textile, such as wool or cotton, to make shapes in public space, but they also work with the shapes already present: in these images they are wrapped around the trees and around the pole supporting a street sign. To that extent the work is dependent on transforming something into part of the sculpture, so that a pole is no longer just a pole, and a group of trees becomes part of a delicate network of lace.

Encountering these works really was a delight: we all exclaimed out loud and stood and admired them for several minutes. It is an incomparable example of the potential for street art to intercede in public space in a manner that brings sheer joy to the spectator. Maybe others might walk past feeling simply puzzled as to their presence or thinking dismissive thoughts about the purpose of the activity. For me, it demonstrates the care and effort that can be involved in street art. How long did it take to make these works? How did the artist(s) select the site? And it demonstrates that street art still has the capacity to create moments of delight in the midst of the city.

Ho ho ho….

Headed into the centre of Melbourne today to try to do the minimal amount of xmas shopping that I am involved in. Since I was on Bourke Street, I came across the massive queue of people that was waiting to see the Myer windows.

For those readers who are not from Melbourne, let me explain that Myer is a large department store (a bit like Macys in New York City, or Selfridges in London). Every year, its windows are the location for a display of elaborate mechanised puppetry and kitschery, with some kind of seasonal theme (this year it’s The Nutcracker; in previous years it has been things like a staging of Mem Fox’s novel Wombat Divine, or one of the Olivia stories).

The Myer christmas windows are particularly kitsch, like a pantomime staged in the middle of a city street. They exist ostensibly to entertain children and are supposed to be part of the ‘magic of christmas’ and viewing the windows has become part of the run-up to christmas for many people. (The fact that viewing the windows brings people to a department store where, after looking at the windows, they might well wander inside and spend some money, is both taken for granted and also repressed within the acceptance of the Myer windows as part of ‘the magic of christmas’ in Melbourne.)

The Myer windows have hosted some other displays which have been less kitsch and more challenging. Over a decade ago, the Urban Dream Capsule lived in the Myer windows for some weeks: eating, sleeping, dancing, clowning, and passing the time, all the while on display to the passers by. I went down to Bourke Street on several occasions and watched the Dream Capsule’s members, and the whole event was, variously, highly entertaining and humorously staged, while also being quite moving and affecting at times (occasionally, the participants would feel the strain of their lengthy performance, and would attempt to find moments and spaces of privacy within the extreme visibility of the windows: at those times, as an audience member, you would suddenly become aware of the nature of the gaze and the relationship between performer and audience in a completely new way).

So the Urban Dream Capsule was a nice antidote to the commercialism of the christmas windows. But now there’s another way to think critically about window displays, commerce and art, thanks to Nick Ilton and Bados Earthling, who will be putting on their own version of the Myer christmas windows on Saturday 18th December in Union Lane and Hosier lanes.

Bados has done some larger panels which will be temporarily put up in the lanes, and he’ll do his performance graffiti in front of them; Nick has made triptychs depicting Mary and Joseph as outer suburbanites:

Sounds like a great reason to come into the city next Saturday.

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.

New Spaces: Street Art and the National Gallery of Australia

As mentioned in the previous post, I’ve just returned from Canberra, having spent 2 days there for the opening of ‘Space Invaders’, the National Gallery of Australia’s first ever exhibition of street art.

Whatever you think about the exhibition of street art in gallery spaces, it can’t be denied that it’s a hugely significant moment for the National Gallery in Canberra to stage this exhibition.

But what exactly does it signify?

One of the comments that kept running through conversations on Friday evening at the preview party was a kind of half-joke that this exhibition means that ‘it’s all official’ now: that the exhibition legitimates the activity completely. In some ways, that may be true. It certainly makes it harder to sustain any broad-brush arguments about graffiti and street art as activities which lack any value and simply bespeak social problems. And perhaps the fact that this show is running for 3 months in Canberra and then will tour to other cities over the next year or so means that there will be a gradual and sustained legitimation effect… Perhaps – we’ll see.

But what seems sure already is that the exhibition has allowed street art to find its way into some new spaces. First of all, and most obviously, the show puts street-based works on display within a building which houses images by some of the best-known artists in Australia and internationally (Picasso, Chuck Close, Tracey Moffatt, Fred Williams, to name an eclectic group as examples). And now, exhibited in the same museum as these established luminaries, you can find work by Rone, Vexta, Miso, Meek, and many more. No matter which galleries these artists have been showing in before, it is a huge leap to have work displayed in the National Gallery. (It’s also worth emphasising that the NGA is showing the works inside the museum walls, unlike the Tate Modern in London which displayed street art on its outer walls but did not exhibit any of the works inside the museum.)

But in other ways, the exhibition brought street art into other new spaces. During the opening weekend, some of the artists put up work in the streets of the capital:

Twoone

Tibet

Anthony Lister

And here’s my favourite, a clever piece by Lister, taking the iconic ‘Redhead’ brand of matches and turning it into a demand that Julia Gillard, Australia’s red-haired Prime Minister, ‘bring our troops home’:

Apologies for the dim light in the photograph – it was taken on a rainy Canberra night, in which Miso and I got lost trying to find our way home from Canberra’s CBD to the hotel, and discovering that all Canberra streets tend to look the same. And in the midst of all that rain, it was good to see these aesthetic interventions in the bland and clinical spaces of the capital, little moments of disruptions in the smooth space of a city designed without attention to pedestrian culture.

* I don’t mean to imply that there are no street artists in Canberra – there are some very talented ones, such as E.L.K. But the city does not seem hospitable to street art and it would be fantastic if this exhibition altered that in any way.