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.

Space Invaders at the National Gallery of Australia

This is the first of two posts about the opening of the exhibition, Space Invaders, at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Exhibition entrance, with work by Ghostpatrol

I’ve just returned from two days there, enjoying the opening festivities.

On Friday night there was a preview of the show prior to its October 30th opening, with a party in the museum’s Gandel Hall and forecourt. I’m told that hundreds of people bought tickets to come to the party (hopefully they also went to see the exhibition). Works from the show were projected on to the museum walls; here’s a selection of some of my favourites:

Anthony Lister

The Yok

Ghostpatrol

Meanwhile, upstairs in the Project Gallery, was the exhibition: a number of rooms containing a selection of the National Gallery of Australia’s large collection of street art (it has purchased over 350 works). The works are displayed with imagination and intelligence, organised according to themes such as ‘Neo-Pop’, ‘Connecting Crews’, ‘Politics and the Press’ and ‘The Return of the Hand’. There’s a display of zines (some of which you are able to read, as well as examine others in glass cases), and surfaces for stickering, with many of the visiting artists taking the opportunity to add their stickers to the display.

The works are displayed in a manner which evokes the street, clustering images together and dispersing others more randomly, with some exhibited high up on the wall and others placed at ground level. The evocation of the street isn’t tackily done, thankfully: it would have been easy for the museum to have strained after some embarassing sense of street credibility, but instead it has retained the look and feel of a gallery space at the same time as showing awareness of how the works would originally have been displayed on the streets.

Other events included artist signings for the show catalogue, the Everfresh Blackbook, and Street/ Studio, plus an artists’ talk, with the curator of the exhibition Jaklyn Babington putting questions to Vexta and Neils Oeltjen about their work in the show and their careers on and off the street.

One of Vexta’s best-known works, Welcome to Australia, is featured in the exhibition:

She and the curator talked about how this work was originally a site-specific piece produced for a show several years ago in a warehouse space in Melbourne. The work was destroyed after the show, and has been recreated on paper as a result of the NGA exhibition. This prompted an interesting discussion about how the exhibition functions as a sneak preview of a time capsule: many of the NGA works were made in the heyday of the stencil art boom in Melbourne in 2003-2004, and purchased soon after; since these works have long since been buffed, painted over, gone over, or faded permanently from the streets, the NGA collection represents a significant archive of works that otherwise would exist only in coffee table books and as digital photographs.

The conversation with Niels Oeltjen brought other issues to the fore as well, such as the politics of street art and its role in ‘city-building’. Neils’s work (like that of some others in the show, such as Miso, Meggs, Ghostpatrol and Lister) also points towards some of the more contemporary directions in street art, using drawing, painting, paper cut-outs, and collages to create work for the streets. Neils was invited to create a work specifically for the exhibition, a glorious confection of colour and shape:

Outside, in the museum forecourt, Everfresh spent the day painting a wall, while a happy crowd of friends, fellow artists and interested visitors sat around on the museum grass and watched:

Rone, Reka and Makatron at work on the wall

In order to acknowledge the importance of zine culture to street art, the museum had also given over its huge Gandel Hall to a zine fair for the whole of Saturday; plus, a short film made by artist Anthony Lister was also screening continuously at the entry to the gallery. The result was a nicely dispersed and variegated set of locations staged throughout the museum: the Project Gallery displaying the artworks, the Gandel Hall with its zine fair, the gift shop selling its catalogues, T shirts and books on street art, the Lister film on a continuous loop, and the outdoor live painting by Everfresh, meaning that visitors moved from inside to outside and back again, as if traversing from the outdoor spaces of the street into the more rarefied space of the gallery and back again…

To end this post, I’ll simply say that the show is well worth seeing. It’s on in Canberra until late February 2011, and will tour to other cities after that. And there’s a beautifully produced catalogue too (in the interests of complete disclosure, I should let you know that I wrote an essay for the catalogue – I was thrilled and honoured to be asked to do so). More about Space Invaders in a subsequent post…..

Space Invaders: The National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition of street art

It’s never unproblematic when galleries and museums exhibit the work of street artists – some believe that street art is no longer ‘street art’ when it’s exhibited indoors in a gallery or museum space; others think that whatever constitutes the ‘street’ aspect of street art is more of a free-floating sensibility that pervades certain artworks whether they are installed inside or outside; still others believe that genuine ‘street art’ must be carried out illegally in public space and anything that doesn’t meet these criteria is rather a kind of site-specific artwork or is graphic design work or is even a form of advertising. These issues have been debated and argued over in many different fora (and the book that Miso, Ghostpatrol, Timba and I recently published, Street/Studio, is partly about the tensions – productive as well as constraining – that arise when artworks move between street and gallery).

Whatever your opinion of the street/studio relation and its implication for street art, there is, however, no denying the importance of a major cultural institution putting on a large-scale exhibition of street artwork – and such an exhibition is about to open at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Its exhibition, Space Invaders, opens on 30 October (and runs until 27 February 2011, touring in 2011 to other cities). You can read here about the scope of the exhibition, which covers street art’s links to graffiti, its diversity of forms (including stickers, stencils, paste-ups, and so on), its connections to zine culture, the impact of pop culture upon the look of Australian street art, and its recent expansion into labour-intensive media involving drawn images.

I’m going to Canberra this weekend (along with a stellar bunch of some of Australia’s greatest street artists) for the opening festivities, and will be able to report next week on how the exhibition looks…. But it seems impossible to ignore the significance of this particular moment: Australia’s national gallery is putting on an exhibition dedicated to an art form which is often the product of activities deemed illegal by state governments and local councils in Australia, and many of the artists celebrated in the exhibition routinely risk fines or other punishments in order to make the artworks featured in the exhibition. Do we just chalk this up as being yet another instance when municipal and local governments are out of step with wider culture? Or is it time for local and state governments finally to admit that their persecution and prosecution of street artists and graffiti writers is just plain wrong?

‘Where is Mona? She’s long gone…’

So sings Nick Cave, in the opening line of the track ‘Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow’ on No More Shall We Part.

And this line jumped into my head this morning when I walked down a street in Fitzroy to find the Graffiti Removal guys busily washing a wall that I had photographed and posted about only last night (see the previous entry).

One of my favourite recent works, which seems to be signed ‘Mona’, was being buffed.

So if you are walking through the streets of Fitzroy looking for the artworks of Mona, as far as this partoicular site is concerned, ‘she’s long gone’, and what’s left is this:

I guess this must be one of those issues of personal taste. All the other recently added works nearby seemed to be still there; it’s only the ones on this house that have been buffed. Did the residents ask the council to remove it? Or did the council decide that this house should be buffed and not the others? The latter seems unlikely so I’m assuming it’s been done at the residents’ request.

To my mind, this raises lots of interesting issues. In my view, the residents are completely entitled to remove the work if they wish. If an artist puts work up without permission, then there’s always the risk that the person living or working inside the property may not appreciate the art, and wishes to remove it. It’s like if you give someone what you think is a cool T shirt or interesting book for their birthday, but they then ask if they can exchange it for something else – maybe you wish they wouldn’t, but hey, people are entitled to some autonomy about what they read and wear. Same with street art, I guess. If you don’t like it, I guess you can remove it (although many wish that removal wouldn’t happen quite so often or quite so speedily).

But the problem is that what’s left here really don’t look great, and so this raises the question of the technologies of graffiti removal. It’s like painting out graffiti but leaving a mismatched square of paint that just looks odd, or blasting off bill posters and leaving tattered strands of paper hanging from the wall. All of these techniques seem to be acceptable to many people, so it makes me wonder how aesthetics are being operationalised, such that blurry lines of faded paint, tattered paper or sloppily rollered paint looks ‘OK’ to those making the decisions about removal (whether these are council workers or residents). Perhaps these individuals would say that the ultimate solution is for artists not to put up work in the first place, thus obviating the need for removal, in all its imperfections.

I don’t agree. I think that it would be far more useful to have a debate about the aesthetics of the street, in which the effects of removal can be compared to the process of leaving a piece to weather and fade, or in which people can learn to appreciate that some streets are going to be modified in various ways as part of the culture of an area or a city, and in which artists can learn what types of image will work best on different kinds of surface…. I’d like to take part in such a debate, and I think others would too.

ADDENDUM:

By coincidence, Art of the State has a post about some magical stuff being done in London by the Toasters, in which they adapt those painted-out shapes and make them into new pieces of art…

ADDENDUM 2: Take a look at the link in the comment by Seldom which follows this entry – there’s a really interesting essay by ESPO (Steve Powers) about the pointlessness of painting over graffiti.

New works in Fitzroy….

After a lot of travelling this year, it’s good to be home, and to be here to stay for a while (except for a weekend in Canberra that’s coming up, about which more later).

And it’s wonderful to be back in Fitzroy, where a lot of activity has been taking place on the streets.

Here are some of the things I’ve seen since returning:

Close up of a new work by Miso

Sticker by Miso

Ghostpatrol

There’s an interesting installation piece on Smith Street, involving boxes attached to poles, with text on mirrored surfaces:

As you can see, this one reads ‘thief’; there are others which read ‘liar’ and ‘loser’. Nice stuff. Since first posting about this, Vetti (of Live in Northcote) contacted me to let me know this installation is by Nick Ilton, and Nick himself has sent me a link to a little video which provides a nice summary of the guerilla sculptures he has been placing around Melbourne in recent weeks. Check it out here.

I’ve seen a lot of fresh paste-ups, such as these, outside the Sutton Gallery on Brunswick Street:

You can find these near Alimentari, where there’s been a lot of activity:

And this is pretty striking:

It’s nice to be home.

Burning Candy on film

Anyone living in London or who has visited London in the last few years would have to be aware of Burning Candy, the prolific graffiti crew who have made a speciality out of painting both on London’s walls and shutter doors and on top of its rooftops.

Check out the peg by Gold Peg and the monkey face by Mighty Mo, high above Oxford Street

It’s a large crew, both male and female writers, with a huge range of ages – as one commentator said, there aren’t many crews where some of the members are old enough to be the parents of other members… Each member has developed an idiosyncratic style, so that individual works are immediately recognisable: you can walk around London for hours and spot works by Mighty Mo, Dscreet, Cyclops, Cept, Gold Peg, Rowdy, Sweet Toof, Tek33, LL Brainwashed, . Each member has a particular icon or device that they repeat in their works – for example, crocodiles (Rowdy), teeth (Sweet Toof), owls (Dscreet), pegs (Goldpeg) and so on. The crew members also do works together, marrying their individual styles into huge pieces that have become iconic works in London street art culture.

Members of Burning Candy are being featured in a film called Dots, which is being made by the crew themselves, and as such is an intensely authentic piece of work. The premise behind the film is that each featured member travels to another country to discover links between their own art practices and the art practices in other cultures, often involving an investigation of the meaning of their chosen icon: thus Rowdy travels to Australia to discover the meaning of the crocodile in Australian indigenous culture; Cyclops travels to India to see his inspiration in situ (Indian street signs)…

I’ve been lucky enough to see a trailer for this film, and it’s clearly going to be an amazing piece of work. If you are heading to the Film Night of the Sweet Streets festival in Melbourne on 14 October, you’ll get to see some of Dots then. You can read more about the film on its official website here.

But Dots is still a work-in-progress, and funds are needed to complete it. It is being funded by the sales of a boxset of Burning Candy works – selling art (the prints) to support the making of art (the film). Purchasing a box set doesn’t just gain you an amazing collection of prints: it also gets you a co-producer credit and percentage in the film.

Images to Live By isn’t really intended for the promotion of particular exhibitions or books or artists: the line between promotion and commentary is a fluid and flexible one but I try to stay on the commentary side rather than get into the promotion of particular events or people. But I did want to mention the need for funding assistance for Dots because I think Burning Candy have had such an important impact on London street culture and have been such an inspiration for many other artists all over the world… The film looks like it will be fantastic and I hope that enough funds can be generated to help the guys finish it. Funding strategies such as these have been used by other artists and film-makers (for example Todd Chandler’s Flood Tide, which arose out of Swoon’s Swimming Cities projects, read more about that film here) and it seems like a great way to circumvent the strictures and constraints of conventional funding options. So if you are interested in street art and can consider purchasing a boxset, take a look at the website… If the boxset is out of your price range, there’s a cool T-Shirt too!

And whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to check out Dots at the Sweet Streets Film Night in Melbourne on the 14th.

Sweet Streets

I’m back in Melbourne, arrived a few days ago and still propping my eyelids open to combat the jetlag, but at least the weather this weekend is helping me get used to being in the southern hemisphere again – Melbourne looks its sparkling best, bathed in sunshine and with one of those amazing clear Australian blue skies….

But also helping me keep awake is the knowledge that Sweet Streets is on…. The erstwhile Melbourne Stencil Festival has been re-designed to take account of the huge range of street-based art activities that we find in Melbourne and in other cities, and the result is Sweet Streets. During the Festival, you can find exhibitions of some brilliant artwork, both local and from overseas; workshops on everything from stencil-making to yarn-bombing; and some film-based visual enjoyment too – the DVD of Exit Through the Gift Shop is being launched during the Festival, and there’s even a dedicated Film Night, showcasing some amazing looking documentaries.

Check out the Festival website for further details….

Bella Italia

Not many posts recently, because I’ve been travelling through Europe. Sometimes there hasn’t been internet access; sometimes it’s just been too much of a holiday to do any blogging….

But here I am in Todi, an amazing hill village in Umbria, and there is wifi in the hotel room, so I thought I would dedicate a post to some of the fantastic street art I have seen so far on my trip.

I spent a couple of days in Venice, which is really one of the most fantastic cities in the world. And it was great to see work by C215, beautifully placed as always, against the fading Venetian stucco:

It’s also good to see that some street artists in Venice use boats to move around while getting up – I love the placement of this Swoon piece too, as though the figures are waiting to catch a vaporetto:

I also spent some time in Padova, which is a university town not far from Venice. There’s a huge amount of art on the walls there. I love it that people are still writing their thoughts on walls (something you don’t see so often in Australian cities like Melbourne these days): political comments, declarations of love, cryptic sayings, and a few words in Latin, too:

I also saw a lot of good stencil work, like this:

And many pieces which made use of the Padova’s gorgeous arcades to frame elegantly drawn figures like these:

I don’t know who the artist is – if anyone does, please let me know, I thought these works were excellent.

I’ll be in Rome soon. I’m looking forward to seeing the walls there…..