Archive for the ‘Urban space’ Tag

The city-as-light

Over the years that I have been writing about street art, I’ve come across the work of many different artists. Out of all of these, the work of Miso is always there among my very favourites. (Full disclosure: along with Ghostpatrol and Timba Smits, Miso and I co-wrote a book about street art in Melbourne.) As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve written about Miso’s work a number of times here, and her recent show, Les Lumières, demonstrates that she continues to be one of the most interesting artists in Melbourne (and indeed on the international scene).

Miso is well known for her beautifully placed, delicately drawn paste-ups on city walls, such as this:

But both Les Lumières and a previous solo show, Tschusse!, are evidence of her increasing interest in engaging with the shape and form of the city itself, by raising questions about how we experience it, about who owns it, and about how cities look and feel and are developed.

Les Lumières transformed the gallery space of No Vacancy at Federation Square into a vision of an urban space inflected by pockets of calm, of a city lit by white neon light, and composed of spaces oscillating between the functional and the beautiful. Gorgeously drawn works were present, of course, but also doorways, pieces of wood, and a range of objects, implements and plants that evoke the city and some of the possible things we do in urban space (such as move through it, make gardens in it, go out drinking in it, live in it…). It was a show that seemed influenced by travel (in that Miso has in the last couple of years been to the Ukraine, Japan, London and New York) but also by a lot of reading and thinking: the result was a show that invited us as spectators to look, think, and perhaps even to read…

The show finished several weeks ago, so apologies in that you are not able to go and have a look. But Miso’s website has some photos of the works, here, and if you are interested in reading about new ways thinking city spaces, have a look at the website of This Is Not A Gateway, which promotes ‘knowledge and agitation from emerging urbanists’.

The League of Resonance

Every city has areas that have acquired the reputation for being a ‘trouble spot’. Sometimes this comes about through an increase in the numbers of crimes occurring, or perhaps it’s the result of bad road design so that an intersection becomes an accident black spot. Sometimes it’s because an area isn’t terribly lovely to look at: perhaps the architecture is uninspiring or dull, or perhaps the area gets filled with unlovely things like litter, debris, waste bins, and the like. Perhaps it’s an area that people tend to walk through without seeming to engage with the space – most cities have area which lead into major transport hubs, with crowds flowing in and out of train stations, around tram or bus stops, down major roads, and so on.

And sometimes you get an area that combines all of the above. When that happens, the site is often seen as a real ‘problem’ area.

One of these problem sites exists in the centre of Melbourne: an area covering a couple of blocks around the intersection of Flinders Street and Elizabeth Street. The City of Melbourne is canvassing opinion about the area, from residents, traders, commuters and so on, and one might expect that a council would simply carry out a letter box survey and then have a few committee meetings with relevant stakeholders to work out what should be done.

Well, all of that may well be going on, but what’s exciting is that the City of Melbourne has also chosen to make one of its Arts and Participation Programs engage with this area. The result is an urban intervention that certainly has the potential to generate interesting information for the council’s deliberations, but which also constitutes urban art in itself.

The City of Melbourne commissioned a group of artists, led by Jason Maling, Sarah Rodigari and Jess Olivieri, in order to find ‘an alternative method for Council to engage with the city night experience and explore diverse experiences and views. The artistic outcomes aim to provide a counterpoint to late night culture, and is designed to activate the space with positivity, romance and humour and to create a softer alternative to an area that is quickly gaining a reputation for the inverse’. The result is an arts project called the League of Resonance.

The League describes its activities as follows:

[We] seek out the intangible and barely perceptible. We detect vibrations that form the backdrop to the mythical narrative of daily life. We situate ourselves in places of intrigue, we listen, we talk, we connect and we hum. In collecting and combining the resonance of individuals: their stories, perceptions and rituals, we unravel the backdrop to this myth. Together we create a new sound. This sound is The League of Resonance.

So what does this all mean? I met two of the League’s founder members, Jason and Jess, and went on a ‘date’ with them to discover the work of the League and to share stories with them about this particular segment of urban space.

We met outside the photo booth at Flinders Street station, on the south side of the intersection of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets. Jason and Less explained how the project aimed to take seriously the idea of an area having a ‘bad vibe’ and their desire to investigate all the components of this area’s vibe, to discover where its current vibrations come from. These investigations have been historical, aesthetic, architectural, sociological and ethnographic: they have uncovered information about the precinct’s origins, the buildings that used to be there and have been demolished. They have walked and walked around the area, in different weathers and at different times of the day, trying to pay attention to everything. They have documented the businesses in the area, and have spoken with commuters, residents, the local council, Victoria Police, employees and employers, punters, and students. They have photographed the area and its buildings, and have created a dossier of information about individuals who meet with them and agree to join the League. (League members also receive membership cards.) They produce an occasional newsletter setting out tiny snippets of information and ideas about the area, and have developed a program of ‘good works’, from suggestions by interviewees as to what actions would help people in the area. These have included holding the hand of very drunk people, and assisting people to cross the road at this traffic accident black spot.

Much of these activities and ideas are inspired by the conversations generated when League founders meet with individuals on a ‘date’: which means having a cup of tea or coffee in one of the precinct’s cafés, and walking around the streets and laneways of the area, sharing stories. On my ‘date’ with Jason and Jess, I learned about the tram stop that is being used as an informal shoe exchange (people seem to leave unwanted pairs of shoes in the tram stop which are then used by the homeless) and the embankment that overflows with rats at night.

On a walk that involved many moments of delight, there were two highlights for me. The first involved a panorama. Several floors up, we gazed at what initially looked like a spread of unremarkable modern office buildings. But as Jess and Jason pointed out details of the buildings and told stories about each, the buildings revealed themselves in their singularity: a tall narrow building topped by a private swimming pool, an opulent bank, a backpackers’ hostel, a building used as a depository for pornographic magazines and books. Knowing even these small details about the buildings started to attach histories and emotion to these spaces, making me realise that even the most bland and anonymous buildings are always the products of specific desires and functions, some of which conflict with each other, and all of which participate in the resonance of a neighbourhood.

The other moment of great pleasure involved not a panorama, with its necessary sweep and grandeur, but two tiny details, easy to overlook. As we sheltered in a laneway while it rained, I noticed cigarette butts – not that unusual, since office workers regularly use laneways for smoke breaks. But here’s what struck me:

Two butts are inserted into a tiny space in the wall; others are carefully lined up on a narrow shelf. Granted, they are cigarette butts and thus not terribly lovely to look at, and of course they are environmentally problematic in many ways: they are litter, and you could say that they should be in a bin. But something about their placement arrested me: they hadn’t just been dropped and stamped out on the ground. Instead, they had been inserted or balanced in unexpected places, almost in ways that responded aesthetically to their surroundings.

A few minutes after seeing these butts, the League took me to see another unexpected moment of ad hoc art. In another laneway, this one heavily used by smokers from two nearby office buildings, there is a lot of construction work going on, with hoardings tacked on to the laneway walls. Smokers stand, wreathed in a grey cloud, in gloomy silence between these hoardings. Cigarette butts abound here, of course, and many are just dropped on the ground as one would predict. But take a look at this (apologies for the dodgy quality of these images; they were taken in haste in the rain):

It is a line of chewing gum wads, placed along a ledge on one of the wooden hoardings. It is litter too, of course, just as the carefully placed cigarette butts are. But, like them, its placement indicates something in addition to standard littering. The gradually increasing line of variously coloured balls of gum has become a visual punctuation against the bland beige wood of the hoarding. It may not be sanitary, it may not be complicated; maybe the gum wads should indeed be in a bin. But I couldn’t help taking pleasure in the fact that someone (or several people) made the small aesthetic judgment to line them up rather than drop them randomly on the ground. It’s a small instance of aesthetic intervention in urban space, but a valuable one. And I’m grateful to the League of Resonance for sharing it with me on a date that made me pay attention to the intricacies of an area that could easily be dismissed as valueless, and for dedicating their time and energies over these several weeks to the project of understanding what makes a neighbourhood resonate, vibrate and hum.

Inside City Outside (walking in colour)

Today I went to see the first solo exhibition in Berlin, Innen Stadt Aussen (Inside City Outside), by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson (who has been a resident of Berlin for many years).

I can’t recommend this exhibition highly enough – if you are anywhere near Berlin, you should definitely go to see it.

It’s at the Martin Gropius Bau, which is a powerhouse of a museum, showing major blockbuster exhibitions: at the moment, the crowd-puller is a huge Frida Kahlo exhibition. When we arrived, people were queuing to buy tickets, then queuing again to enter one level of the musuem, then queuing again to get into the exhibition. We were always intending to go to the Eliasson exhibition, but the sight of so many people simply existing in a kind of suspended animation, made me doubly glad that we had decided just to go to the one show.

And the show… it’s really quite hard to describe, because it had such an impact on me. It’s the sort of experience that I think I will remember for many, many years to come.

I say this partly because I can still vividly recall my first encounter with Eliasson’s work – back in 2003, in London. Eliasson was one of the artists who was invited to produce a work for the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, the massive entry hall of the former power station. Eliasson’s work – The Weather Project – created a giant sun at one end of the hall, with the effect that the entire space was bathed in an orange glow: the chimerical orb, no matter what time of day it was viewed, seemed to be in the middle of setting or rising, pouring warmth into the cold grey of a London winter:

You can see in these pictures how rugged up against the cold we all are…

And yet, people, while viewing this artwork, acted as though they were at the beach, lying on the ground, in sunbathing mode, prone before the image of a golden sun:

The Weather Project was an unforgettable experience, one that I always felt lucky to have seen. And now, this solo show lines up beside The Weather Project in offering one of the most outrageously immersive artworks I have ever encountered…

The show is designed to explore notions of internal and external space as it relates to the urban setting. It starts in sedate but pleasurable fashion, laying paving stones from one room to another in the museum, and offering the visitor the unexpected delights of walking on an artwork:

Eliasson has a fetish for light and mirrors (The Weather Project, like most magic tricks, was all done with mirrors and really big lights), and some of the subsequent rooms show him playing with these devices, in a way that allows the spectator to have a lot of fun as well. In one room there are some undulating mirrors that distort sections of bodies across an entire wall in patterns that resemble the tiles and paving stones that are routinely used in urban space:

In others, bodies are projected against white screens in shades of pink and blue, or violet and green. Here’s me, taking a photograph of myself in the artwork…

…and he builds sculptures of silver metal which contain cleverly placed lights and mirrors so that when one peeps into the internal cavities it appears that there is no floor, with the sculpture falling away to nothing before one’s feet.

There’s also a fascinating piece of moving-image art, a short film made around various locations (such as Moritzplatz and Kortbusser Tor) in Berlin, using a mirror to generate a sense of liquidity and shiver in the density of urban locations.

But in addition to these, there are two absolutely show-stopping artworks. In one, you enter a space that is constructed entirely of angled glass. It is a narrow space, an inverted triangle, but the mirrors make it appear to open to infinity on all sides, so that one fears to approach its edges, which initially seem to fall away, but then tilt to reveal another floor on which one is reflected, standing firmly and looking back into the main space. Sadly, this room was populated with museum staff whose main aim seemed to be to stop people taking pictures, and so I can’t show you what this amazing room looked like in any way.

It seemed like this might have been the highlight of the exhibition, until we entered another room, which was taped off, and which had a warning notice on the door stating that only children over six years old could enter….

This space inside this room was as hot as a sauna, and initially appeared to be filled with steam. (Although i know I should be fearless in my experience of art, I’m ashamed to report that my first thought was ‘oh no, my hair will go frizzy…’.) But the steam was actually smoke (and so, my hair survived, un-frizzed). The room was filled with smoke, which was coloured by long narrow lights in the ceiling, segmented by barriers, which shone down into the space. The lights in the ceiling were ordered according to the spectrum, so that the smoke in the room was in effect dyed according to the colour of the lights above. The dense smoke in the room meant that you could see only as far ahead as an arm’s length, meaning that all depth of field was lost, and you moved through the spectrum of colour, from one to the next, with no horizon, and no sense of boundary, horizon or limit.

It was utterly disorienting and completely transporting. You were literally walking in colour. At one point, in the red-to-violet section of the spectrum, the colour was so intense that my eyes could hardly make sense of what they were seeing.

And so we stumbled around, joyfully, for quite some time, until we admitted it was time to leave (well, it was as hot as a sauna – maybe it is designed to be hot so that people don’t stay in there for hours). And we emerged from the room and into the body of the museum (where people were still queuing hopelessly for the Kahlo exhibition), blissed out on colour.

I’ll always be grateful to Eliasson for this experience. A thoughtful, thought-provoking exhibition, capped with a mind-blowing artwork which takes on some of the limits of the relationship between artwork and spectator and dissolves them into coloured smoke.

Women and Cities: Swoon

Twitter is emerging as another way of getting information about urban art and street artists (I’m on Twitter as @scotinoz), and it was through Twitter that I learned today that Swoon’s Swimming Cities of Serenissima has arrived in Venice. For those of you who don’t know Swoon’s work, she specializes in large (life-sized) block-printed paper cut-outs, which are then wheat-pasted onto surfaces, which might be the walls in a gallery or in the street. She is based in New York City, but her work appears in cities all over the world. Here’s a great video of Swoon giving a presentation about her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York:

While walking through Haight Ashbury with Russell Howze, veteran archivist of stencil art, I saw this piece by her:

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It’s a quintessential Swoon piece: a woman, rendered in intricate detail, beautifully drawn, and placed with care in a space in which she appears to be glimpsed by the passer-by while she is engaged in some quotidian activity.

While I was in San Francisco, Russell also took me to the Luggage Store Gallery. This gallery has featured in an earlier post on this blog  (see ‘On tagging’, January 2009), and the gallery is certainly worth visiting just for a look at the archive of tags provided by its stairwell, but on the day that I was there it was also the site of an exhibition of Swoon’s work.

Instead of simply being pasted onto walls, as happens when Swoon (or any other artist) puts up work in the streets, here she had pasted them onto cardboard or wood, or other found objects, which were then displayed in a manner which lent them depth, perspective, dimensionality. These photos will give you an idea of what the works looked like:

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Swoon had made use of all the space available, even extending her work over the gallery’s windows:

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For the spectator, this provided the novel experience of standing inside and looking through an artwork to the street outside (a neat re-working of the constraints enforced on much urban art, in which the artwork can exist either in the street or in the gallery, but not in both places).

While one strand of Swoon’s work focuses on figures in the everyday, The Swimming Cities of Serenissima derives from what is emerging as another major interest, the built environment. As the website for The Swimming Cities of Serenissima states, the vessels are inspired by ‘dense urban cityscapes and thickly intertwined mangrove swamps from [Swoon’s] Florida youth’. It involves three vessels, ‘built from salvaged materials, including modified Mercedes car motors with long-tail propellers’, which have been sailed by a crew of 30 artists from Slovenia to Venice. The vessels resemble ships but also evoke the floating skyscrapers of Gotham or the counter-intuitive wonders of Venice itself.

This is the third floating sculpture made by Swoon (previously, she created the Miss Rockaway Armada which sailed down the Mississippi River, and The Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, seven rafts which sailed from Troy, NY, to New York City). Reading about the remarkable floating cities created by Swoon made me remember another highlight from my visit to San Francisco, visiting CELLspace. This is a fantastic place combining studios and gallery space for at-risk youth and artists in the Mission District, to see Card Burg, a city being constructed from cardboard:

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It was absolutely wonderful to wander among the towering skyscrapers and to see the small spaces of everyday lives within the metropolis – an incredible urban artwork about the nature of life in urban space.

I’m pretty sure that for anyone lucky enough to see one of Swoon’s swimming cities, the experience will be similar: wonder, awe and sheer pleasure. But I’ve also been thinking about these two separate strands in Swoon’s work: the individual and the urban. Individuals going about their business, sitting on the stoop, walking through the city. And cities: fantastic, miraculous spaces wrought by the imagination. It makes me wonder whether it’s possible for the two to be brought together: if the contemplative woman can be allowed to exist within the urban setting.

Of course, you could argue that this is exactly what Swoon’s street images do: the paste-up of a woman is placed in urban space. But I wonder if we need more than that. When I saw Card Burg, I realised that part of the pleasure in visiting that imaginary city was brought about by the exhilaration of – literally – walking tall among the city’s buildings. The altered dimensions of Card Burg meant that I stood almost as tall as the skyscrapers.

Similarly, Swoon’s swimming cities shift perspective and dimension: the city is produced in inevitable miniature, and is thus, somehow, tamed. To me, what’s important here is the transformation that’s brought about of the experience of being a woman in the city. For far too many women, city spaces are still the location for sensations such as anxiety, fear, intimidation. Is it possible for an artist to create an image of being a woman in the city that can acknowledge that reality and that can still seem beautiful? This isn’t a criticism of Swoon’s work, which I find inspiring and hopeful and lovely. But it’s important to note how difficult it is for art to do justice to the fact that, for many women, ‘walking tall’ in the city is fraught with risk as much as pleasure.

The art of the space

Once again, it has been a long time between posts, and, once again, apologies for the delay. Same excuse: I’m (still) finishing a book, and am spending every minute I can trying to fix up references, check quotations, and, yes, write bits of chapters. Almost done: hopefully by the end of April, after which normal blogging will be resumed!

But even though I’m not posting as much as I should be here, I’m still looking at art, still living by certain images. In the last few months I’ve seen a lot of works around Melbourne by the same artist, and I have taken photographs of some of them. I keep coming across more: I spotted some more last night, and am hoping to go and photograph them soon.

Here’s one I kept seeing, in the hot days of the summer, since it’s in a laneway off a street that I drive past most days:


And if I don’t drive down that one (Elgin Street), I’m driving down Grattan Street, where I kept seeing this:


I also discovered one not far from the Law School at Melbourne University:


What really appeals to me about these images is not just their graphic, characterful humour and style, it’s the fact that the images work so well in the spaces they have been placed in. Whether it’s the boxy shape of the switching box on the corner opposite the Law School or the narrow space between a billboard and the corner of the wall on Grattan Street, the artist had made images which respond to the spaces they inhabit. The space enhances the image, and the image gives the space a buzz. Look closer, and from a different angle, at the one on the switching box near the Law School:


Here you can see how the artist is working with three-dimensional space, not just placing an image on a flat surface, but making the most of the possibilities offered by the box, extending the image around the corner and onto a second side, to make an image which works from different angles and which draws our attention not just to itself but to the space it occupies. Really satisfying to look at…

And if anyone knows who the artist is…..let me know!