Category: 2014

RJ Rushmore

Art Ignites Change

This year’s Nuart Plus program sets up a false dichotomy of muralism versus activism and neuters muralism’s power. Day one of the Nuart Plus talks will be on “Muralism,” and day two will be on “Street art and activism.” Is there no room for activism, or at least some kind of political voice, within muralism? By saying “Street Art and Activism” but just leaving muralism as “Muralism,” we have ripped out muralism’s heart. Shouldn’t it be “Muralism and X,” whether THAT “X” is “activism” or “gentrification” or “communities” or what have you?

RJ Rushmore is a 20-something living in Philadelphia. He became a fan of street art alongside his father when they began collecting art and searching out street art together in early 2008. RJ has written two books, curated some exhibitions and is currently communications manager at the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, editor-in-chief of Vandalog, and co-curator and artist liaison for The L.I.S.A. Project NYC. Some of RJ’s favorite street artists include Jenny Holzer, Brad Downey, Troy Lovegates, John Fekner and Swoon.

The way we have titled these events suggests that muralism is at best art for art’s sake and at worst meaningless. If we are meant to be having a debate about which of these two fields is “better,” those of us organizing Nuart Plus have already picked the winner simply by how we titled the each day of talks. I disagree that muralism is simply “Muralism.” It certainly can be “Muralism and X.” To pair it with “Street Art and Activism,” I suggest “Muralism and Social Change.”

Activist street art creates an undeniable visceral response, and it gives a voice to the voiceless. But what if you are not voiceless? What if you have access to the halls of power? Surely you are not precluded from also improving society, perhaps in ways that align with the same issues and values that activist street artists are interested in.

Take where I work: The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program has, for 30 years, shown that artists can infiltrate government and promote positive change through art while working with and from inside the system. Mural Arts is a part of the city government in Philadelphia, and the program has used an insider approach to fulfill ideas that traditional activists can only dream of.

Here are a few examples of how we work within the system and use muralism to ignite change:

  • Every year, Mural Arts works with thousands of at risk and adjudicated youth in art education classes where students assist in producing murals or other public art.
  • Mural Arts’ community mural-making process empowers residents to take control of the aesthetics in their public spaces, hopefully inspiring greater democratic participation more generally.
  • By building long-term relationships with Philadelphia-area prisons, Mural Arts provides restorative justice, art making, and job training opportunities to hundreds of inmates every year.
  • Mural Arts’ muralists and teaching artists are all paid, pumping money into the local creative economy and providing jobs in the arts for many local artists.
  • Working within the system does not preclude working for positive and sometimes radical change. Personally, I’ve never felt more like an agent for positive change than now that I am working for “The Man.”

Some murals are purely decorative: essentially outdoor wallpaper, covering up blight or whitewashing a sponsor’s reputation. Other murals are louder than a bomb: providing jobs for artists, empowering local communities, and skills training for at risk populations. Street art is the same. Artists like SpY draw our attention to the dangers of a mass surveillance culture. Other street artists use walls solely to promote their vacuous gallery art. Muralism is not the enemy of change. Apathy is.

Steven P. Harrington & Jaime Rojo: Murals, Activism and Censorship

Murals, Activism and Censorship

After examining and discussing this years’ Nuart 2014 theme of murals and activism we realized the underlying matter that strikes at the core for us must include a discussion about censorship, our varying degrees of comfort and discomfort with it, and how it impacts art in the streets.

Steven P. Harrington & Jaime Rojo are the Founders of the influential art blog With Steve serving as Editor-in-Chief and Jaime as Editor of Photography. Proud New Yorkers, artists, and cultural workers for more than twenty-five years, both are experts on the evolving Street Art scene in New York as well as globally. With daily postings on Brooklyn Street Art (BSA), 175 articles on The Huffington Post, and close to one quarter of a million followers on their social media network, the two have shown and discussed Street Art, graffiti, murals, and public art in more than 100 cities over the last few years.

Mural art is almost unanimously censored art and cannot be righty considered strictly as Street Art. Whether the content of the composition has been influenced by a wall owner, a real estate developer, a sportswear brand, a business improvement district, or by Father Paddy O’Reilly who lives in the rectory just up the street, once a mural has been discussed and voted on and approved, however tacitly, by an entity other than the artist, the mural takes one large step in the direction of public art and a fast run away from the D.I.Y. approach that we think of as Street Art.

Censorship is anathema to the entire activist spirit of Street Art that drew us to it to begin with. No permission is sought for commission, and no critique is necessarily desired either. By its very nature it’s all about politics – personal, geo, social, anthropological, philosophical, sexual, identity-based. Rabble rousers and challengers of the status quo, the choice to avert the established Art World path of university-gallery-fairs-museums-collectors and the multiple layers of gate-keeping is itself a sort of middle finger activism toward the self-appointed doyennes of art, design and basically any aesthetic endeavor. The only peer-review journal they are interested in are the thick dripping markers nearby or overtop their work – and in the various Internet hubs they participate in. Street Art, a corollary to and evolution of the graffiti practice never necessarily had in mind that it was answerable to any person or institution but rather it has been primarily a direct communication to the everyday passerby.

With the growing fascination, acceptance, and even romance with Street Art on illegal walls, real estate developers and moribund city centers are courting the very artists who once surreptitiously hit the walls, with some restrictions naturally. Only ten years earlier many of these same entities were alerting authorities to the vandalism occurring on walls in their neighborhoods. Now artists are being tracked again – but with a different request: please hit up my wall with beautification in mind and with something vaguely edgy.

“But please, no boobs. Also, no politics. And could you keep it family-friendly? If you can include a Ninja Turtle my son would be so totally stoked.”

Eager for the “exposure” and relieved to not have to look over their shoulder for the police, a mass of Street Artists are happy to create happy walls. Not exactly the public art murals of yesteryear that spoke to social ills and local pride, the new crop of murals is pleasant and sometimes aesthetically astounding, but the genteel censorship brings the final result closer to public art than Street Art.

Conversely, commercial mural walls are openly anti-activist and non-apologetic vehicles for the delivery of a sponsored message. For purists, if there are any, this is the essence of the Street Art creative approach now perverted by the integration of branded content, radically altering its essential spirit. We won’t say “co-opt” lest you think us hippies, but even hippies are sedate these days and this evolutionary phase of Street Art is simply the adopting of the language of a subculture to sell something to the dominant culture. In a time when TV is giving wars their own names and themed motion-graphics, Street Art as a product delivery vehicle is probably expected. From Elvis to punk to hipsters we have learned over decades that organically grown youth movements are first resisted then fully subsumed, synthesized, and re-employed.

Thankfully, not everyone in the next gen of Millennial #activists got the text. These digital natives whose initial cell division took place in an amniotic fluid floating in logos and slogans are hypersensitive to the commercial or political re-purposing of their anger and have taken the means of digital meme production into their hands and swiping fingers. With virtual location unmoored from the physical location, freelance and organized Street Artists create works on walls and fences and bus stops across cities specifically to be shot and re-Grammed en route to addressing topical events and issues. Unsanctioned takeovers of public and private space are quickly recorded and dispersed through the ether before being buffed – or even discovered.

No clouding or spinning of the message has a chance to take place before the campaign begins, only in reaction to it. With these and other means activists on the street are reaching their target audiences like never before. Whether it is the ever flaring Israeli-Palestinian disaster, the blossoming Arab Spring, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the verbal harassment of women in a Brooklyn neighborhood, factory-raised meat and GMOs at your local grocery, or simply the rapidly growing canyon between rich and poor worldwide, Street Art activism is way outside the censorious instincts of most mural programs and urban art festivals.

Ultimately the rise in large scale murals and mural programs and festivals are excellent for world-wide public art production but may have a silencing effect on the more traditionally rebellious Street Artist, with the resulting work a de-fanged and pleasantly neutered version of its original conception. If this is censorship imposed from outside or within, we may be seeing a more palatable art in the streets for the next few years, but it won’t signal the end of Street Art. You can securely predict that the discontented youth who prefer a more activist approach will be out there as well.

Carlo McCormick: The Torn Off Head …

The Torn Off Head …

There’s a little story by the supreme iconoclast and prototypical absurdist, Daniil Kharms, that seems to address well the contradictory polemics on the form and function of public space in contemporary urban planning. Kharms, who founded the Union of Real Art, or OBERIU, movement in 1928 and attained great popularity as a young man before running afoul of Stalin, died of starvation while still in his thirties in custody of a state psychiatric ward for his anti-Soviet ideas during the siege of Leningrad in 1942, which somehow grants even more gravitas to the nonsense he embraced as a poet to articulate the ridiculousness of reality. Short enough to quote in its entirety I take Matvei Yankelevich’s translation of this story from his book of Kharms selected writings, “Today I Wrote Nothing.”

Carlo McCormick is an esteemed pop culture critic, curator and Senior Editor of PAPER magazine. His numerous books, monographs and catalogues include: TRESPASS: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art, Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture, The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984, and Dondi White: Style Master General. His work has appeared in numerous publications including: Art in America, Art News, and Artforum.

Lynch Law

Petrov Gets on his horse and, addressing the crowd, delivers a speech about what would happen if in place of the public garden, they’d build an American skyscraper. The crowd listens and, it seems, agrees. Petrov writes something down in his notebook. A man of medium height emerges from the crowd and asks Petrov what he wrote down in his notebook. Petrov replies that it concerns himself alone. The man of medium height presses him. Words are exchanged and discord begins. The crowd takes the side of the man of medium height, and Petrov, saving his life, drives his horse on and disappears around the bend. The crowd panics and, having no other victim, grabs the man of medium height and tears off his head. The torn-off head rolls down the street and gets stuck in the hatch of a sewer drain. The crowd, having satisfied its passions, disperses.

The garden and the skyscraper it would seem are of equal value and beauty, two things our ideal city would have in ample abundance if we could have our druthers, and certainly not the kind of either/or proposition we would want to entertain. While most contemporary metropolises have both public gardens and skyscrapers, few could say to have them in perfect balance or proper distribution. Inequities aside, for surely some neighborhoods are better served than others by the ratio of development to public space or the relative beauty invested in either, the very notion of balance is itself problematic. That is, while collectively the body politic demands a need for both, rarely is either created with the other in mind. Born of very different agendas and serving contrary purposes, the garden and the skyscraper are rather more oppositional forces than complimentary terms.

Our talk, which is ultimately about how individuals, groups and in particular artists, can re-imagine these sites and situations of the city, queries this topography for points of access and weakness. We will begin by considering the visual history of the garden and the skyscraper as cultural metaphors- called different things over time, like parks or towers- that have helped define and design our concept of civilization for centuries now. But we regard them only so far as a kind of reconnaissance, and stay there only long enough to figure out a way to bulldoze them over. We must recognize the metonymic power of garden and skyscraper alike, how each is a kind of synecdoche standing in for so much more, and take their various significations- of innocence, life, purity, power, ill-fate, aspiration, of escape and return, city and country, utopia and dystopia, ascension and the fall- as embodiments of a certain authority or stasis which is there for art and society to accept or defy. These are the nodes of conjunction where we meet, places where we may take our collective stand and try to topple existing orders, diversions for the eye whose deeper meaning is just the stuff we could lose our heads over.