Category2015

Xavier Ballaz

Barcelona: The Legal Turn

Xavier Ballaz, social psychologist and educator, has been developing projects related to urban art for over a decade.Co-founder of Difusor, a Barcelona based cultural association, has developed artistic and educational projects to bring art to the public, primarily through workshops, conferences and the development of participatory art projects.From Difusor, he created, along with Edu Crespo, the first online platform to deliver authorisations to paint legally in authorised walls, openwalls.info, working in Barcelona since 2008. Director since 2011 of the Open Walls Conference, which will again be held in October in Barcelona. This activity has led him to participate in many urban art related forums related, both abroad – Cans Festival (London, 2008), Dialogues and Graffiti Graffiti Sessions (London, 2010 and 2014), Bien Urbain ( Besançon, 2015) or being part of the Expert Advisory Board Graffolution Project (EU) – as in Barcelona, where he has had a major influence on the paradigm shift urban art is experiencing nowadays.

Barcelona had a bipolar relationship with a phenomena that happens in the public space, regardless sometimes is written over private property, commonly known as graffiti.

For nearly a decade, which ended abruptly in 2005, Barcelona lived a so called ‘golden age’ of interventions, defined by its innovative style as well as the quality and quantity of work. The streets of Barcelona had yet a good tradition of independent street messaging (some left wing muralism and vandalism, Miró and, yes, also Gaudí has a lot to do with expressing on facades, too); For nearly a decade, which ended abruptly in 2005, Barcelona lived a so called ‘golden age’ of interventions, defined by its innovative style as well as the quality and quantity of work.

Since the early 80’s this visual power growing in Barcelona was embodied in graffiti, imported slowly from Central Europe, particularly through the powerful stencil scene: born circa 1985 in an Art School in La Massana. Work from this art school invaded the city – mainly Gracia and Chino barrios – with comic, advertising, punk and ska iconography. After an exhibition named Barcelona Graffiti, by local stencil crews Els Rinos, PN+A and Els Trepax, comissioned by the multifaceted Genís Cano, there began to be some artistic activity on the street, parallel to the early fanzine movement and other cultural events and publications – such as the Barcelona City Hall book Barcelona Murs, yet discontinued.

But it was not until the (late) 90’s that Barcelona had the appearance of a “painted” city. Other cities in Spain had graffiti, however work produced by the sea was much stronger: an intense and vibrant street life, the permissiveness of the authorities, the unique creativity of a mixture of artists that created what some called the barcelona style, some technical improvements – and cheap prices – in a spraypaint introduced in 1994 by a newborn local company, turned the city into a world mecca for graffiti and street art.

This flourishing environment, sometimes even sponsored by local institutions themselves (Keith Haring mural done in 1989 and moved later to MACBA, countless books, being Barcelona Murs, written by Genís Cano, just the first of it’s kind, and cultural events, including the odd – not artistically, but because of the context it was painted in – collective mural done at the 2004 Barcelona Forum of Cultures – and that ended up being a significant epilog of this golden age – was abruptly broken in late 2005 with the implementation of the Civic Ordinance.

Since 2006 the City Council dramatically fined many activities occurring in the public space: skatebaording, drinking alcohol outside licensed establishments… and graffiti. Within a couple of horrifying months in the summer of 2005 – only half a year before the bylaw was approved –, the whole city was painted grey. Or beige.

Although the ordinance reserves the right to paint legally with municipal permission, the truth is that no one in City Hall seemed to know how and when this permission could be given.

This tour de force initiated by Mayor Clos has implications that surpass the pure desire to eliminate anti-social behavior: systematic buffing of graffiti, banning of leaflet distribution, even the prohibition of painting a chalk hopscotch on a playground, means the council went far beyond deciding which city wants to show to the tourist (one of the main economic basis of Barcelona, that significantly changed from backpacker to cruise passengers): this new public space policy kidnaps a space that had been public to the date. With the new ordinance, the public space is privatized and becomes a territory governed by a de facto state of emergency: if you cannot paint, nor even distribute leaflets on your own, freedom of expression is under a massive threat.

It is under the full implementation of the Ordinance when initiatives begin to appear trying to organize something around street art. Festivals like Urban Funke or Hipnotik include graffiti in their line-up, but always framed in time and space, far from what happens in public space and far from anything really interesting. The challenge was to provide means for freedom of expression.

In 2007 there is the first organized response that points in this direction. Difusor 2007 Stencil Meeting brings to Barcelona – well, more precisely, they came on their own to a pretty much D.I.Y. event – one hundred international artists among which Pure Evil (UK) DOLK (No), M-City (Pl) or local Btoy, and begins the claim of a consensus proposal to intervene in some “authorised” areas. From the work of that festival was raised the Galeria Oberta (Open Gallery), a pioneer project in the management of public spaces for autonomous graphic interventions that, after a change of location, was named Openwalls. Then, followed other initiatives that gradually were opening up debate on the lace between urban art and the city.

Currently, it seems that the Council is in a crossroads: the ban costs them up to €4M per year only in wall repainting, isn’t reporting any remarkable benefit (opposite to that, Barcelona ceased to be a mecca for nothing – except for British bachelor parties – a long ago), and the alternatives developed by some independent organisations work fine. After the last municipal election, it looks like a breathe of fresh air entered the Council and there are some signs of openness (which to be honest, already started slightly before).

Nevertheless, despite this openness can bring a bunch of new oportunities, is still highly regulated under different forms, both explicit or implicit. What happens when informal creativity is allowed only under strict constrictions? Which are these new forms of censorship? In our 10 year experience in producing artwork in the public space, we’ve witnessed – and sometimes been part of – this lack of liberty for the artists, sometimes explicit, sometimes not, sometimes responded, but sometimes accepted. When organizing an open call to paint a wall, the decision of having or not a jury; when comissioning a wall, working with the neighbours or just showing – or not – a sketch to the authorities; inviting an artist or another to perform in a street art festival, thinking on what kind of challenge – for himself, for the city, for the society – can someone that has only painted after legal walls were settled have… all these are relevant issues to understand the challenges contemporary cities are facing.

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Carlo McCormick: Learning to Play Along the Battle Lines

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.
—Plato

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.

In honor of this year’s Nuart being dedicated to the notion of play as set forth by the Situationist International, and the participation of Jamie Reid as one of this year’s artists, I’ve set forth with some trepidation along that thin and contentious line where a kind of playfulness in gestures, if certainly not rhetoric, follows from the Situationists and the Student Revolts of May 1968 through to Punk Rock a decade later. Reid is after all most famous as the great graphic artist behind The Sex Pistols, the man who put the safety pin through the queen’s nose, wrote the lyrics to “Anarchy in the U.K.” and fathered that ransom note style of cut and paste lettering that became de rigueur for punk rock fliers ever-after. But before even that he was a Situationist, so he’s an easy example for all of us to understand how a tradition of visual antics and cultural pranks could be passed on through generations and end up playing such a significant role in street art today.

It is a relatively simpler task however to track the riotous radicalisms of the Sixties going forward than to understand where they came from. Rebellions manifest as the flashpoints along the fault-lines of our cultural dis-ease, each upheaval a seizure like a spasm meant to address some pathological discomfort in the body politic. I’m not particularly interested in changing the world, I just like to watch it dance and shudder trying to get away from its own sickness. If it is play it is like that of the shattered children in Jeaux Interdits (Forbidden Games), Rene Clement’s profoundly disturbing masterpiece about two little kids whose lives have been utterly destroyed by the war, entertaining themselves by creating their own little pet cemetery amidst the ruins of World War 2. This is the great game of artists working in the streets today, and though we find it all so amusing we might also heed the words of that true comedian of the people, Charlie Chaplin, when he said, “To truly laugh, you must take your pain, and play with it.”

To explain all this, how a culture of conformity could not only get pissed off enough to take up arms but could also somehow learn to laugh at itself along the way, I’ll be giving a talk called “The Revolution Goes Pop” as part of Nuart Plus. Here we will look at the art of the Situationist International during the height of the May 1968 uprising, in particular the graffiti and the posters produced by the Atelier Populaire, that is quite literally the street art of that time. And to understand how art could play such a prominent and populist role in the politics of that time we will also look at how pop art itself came to inform political art through a visual meme like Jim Fitzpatrick’s ubiquitous Che image based off the Alberto Korda photograph, and the highly influential art direction of Roman Cieslewicz for the French magazine Opus International. Along the way we’ll cavort with the cultural provocateurs of that era including The Living Theater, Black Mask, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and King Mob, and wrap it up with that pantheon of punk-freaks – Gee Vaucher, Gary Panter, Arturo Vega, Winston Smith and Raymond Pettibon- who, like Reid, re-imagined the ephemeral pictorial polemics of the Sixties into the iconic nihilism of a new day.

As we come to terms with the profound impact that Situationism, the youth revolt of the Sixties and punk have had on the kind of art being produced in the streets today, we need to also recognize what has been often lost in the translation and the hypocrisies that such a slippage of content and intent produce. We may locate this most succinctly at the moment in Dismaland, the latest subversive spectacle from Banksy now going on in England. The one artist working the streets today who bears the most obvious and direct relationship to Situationist and post-punk strategies, the fact that for all its parodist power Banksy’s satiric take on Disney magic must inevitably become its own mimetic reproduction, like a simulation of the simulacra, brings to mind Guy Debord’s Situation of the Spectacle. The landmark text of the Situationism written by the movement’s founder and published on the eve of the student revolts, it tells us clearly from the outset:

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” This primary lesson, that no representation can possibly free us from the endless web of reproduction we now live in, is one all artists working in this idiom should heed, and those of us who find our own cultural liberation in these forms might consider Debord’s warning that “the spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”

This collective folly then by which we allow our discontent to be distilled into art and as such subject to our aesthetic fetish is itself completely contradictory to the revolutionary purposes from which we so liberally borrow our ideas now. I think of this, and my own problematic culpability in this process as I put together the images for the Nuart talk. I marvel at the posters put out by the Situationists, and with an eye towards how “collectable” the prints of our favorite street artists have become, I am reminded that Atelier Populaire strictly forbids the sale of their posters for any reason, and explicitly condemns us from taking pleasure in these images, declaring:

“The posters produced by Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of struggle and they are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centers of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of factories. To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and effect. This is why Atelier Populaire has always refused to put them on sale. Even to keep them as evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle itself is of such primary importance that the position of an ‘outside’ observer is a fiction which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class. That is why these works should not be taken as the final outcome of an experience, but as an inducement for finding, through contact with the masses, new levels of action, both on a cultural and political plane.”
—Atelier Populaire, 1968

Steven P. Harrington & Jaime Rojo

Technology, Festivals and Murals as Nuart turns 15

Nuart is turning 15 this year and like most brilliant teenagers it is alternately asking you challenging questions, finding you somewhat uncool, or is on your tablet ordering a new skateboard with your credit card. Nuart started with mainly music and is now mainly murals; an internationally well-regarded venue for thoughtfully curated urban art programs and erudite academic examination – with an undercurrent of troublemaking at all times. Today Nuart can be relied upon to initiate new conversations that you weren’t expecting and set a standard for thoughtful analysis of Street Art and its discontents.

Steven P. Harrington & Jaime Rojo are the Founders of the influential art blog BrooklynStreetArt.com. 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.

We are in the thick of it, as it were, this great expansion of a first global grassroots people’s art movement. Give it any title you like, the flood of art in the streets that knocks on BSA’s door daily is unabated. We admit that we often get caught up in the moment and forget to study our forebears, Street Art’s progenitors and contributors – and that we sometimes are unable to appreciate the significance of this incredible time. So we are happy when the Nuart team asked us to take a long view of the last fifteen years and to tell them what we see.

As we mark Nuart’s milestone, we see three important developments on the Street Art scene while it evolves: Technology, Festivals, and Murals.

And just before we discuss these three developments in Street Art we emphasize what has stayed the same; our own sense of wonder and thrill at the creative spirit, however it is expressed; we marvel to see how it can seize someone and flow amidst their innermost, take hold of them, convulse through them, rip them apart and occasionally make them whole. What has changed is that the practice and acceptance of Street Art, the collecting of the work, it’s move into contemporary art, have each evolved our perceptions of this free-range autonomous descendent of the graffiti practice that took hold of imaginations in the 2000s. At the least it hasn’t stopped gaining converts. At this arbitrary precipice on the timeline we look back and forward to identify three impactful themes that drive what we are seeing today and that will continue to evolve our experience with this shape-shifting public art practice.

Technology

Hands down, a primary genesis for the far flung modern embrace of Street Art/Urban Art/Graffiti/public art lies in the booster rocket that propelled it into nearly everyone’s hands; digital communication and all its sundry technologies. From the early Internet websites and chat rooms accessed from your desktop to digital cameras and photo sharing platforms like Flickr in the early-mid 2000s to ever more sophisticated search technology and its accompanying algorithms, to blogs, micro blogs, and social media platforms, to the first generations of laptops and tablets, iPhones and Android devices; the amazing and democratizing advance of these communicative technologies have allowed more of us to access and share images, videos, experiences and opinion on a scale never before imagined – entirely altering the practice of art in the streets.

Where once there had been insular localized clans of aerosol graffiti writers who followed arcane codes of behavior and physical territoriality known primarily to only them in cities around the world, now new tribes coalesced around hubs of digital image sharing, enabling new shared experiences, sets of rules, and hierarchies of influence – while completely dissolving others.

As old guards re-invented a place for themselves or disappeared altogether, a new order was being remixed in front our eyes. There were a lot of strangers in the room – but somehow we got used to it. Rather than making street art pieces for your local peers, artists began making new compositions for somebody’s phone screen in London or Honolulu or Shanghai.

Cut free from soil and social station, now garden variety hoodlums and brilliant aesthetes were commingling with opportuning art collectors, curious gallerists, unctuous opinionators, punctilious photographers and fans… along with product makers, promoters, art-school students, trend watchers, brand managers, lifestyle marketers, criminologists, sociologists, journalists, muckrakers, academics, philosophers, housewives, and makers of public policy. By virtue of climbing onto the Net everyone was caught in it, now experiencing the great leveling forces of early era digital communications that decimated old systems of privilege and gate keeping or demarcations of geography.

Looking forward we are about to be shaken again by technology that makes life even weirder in the Internet of Everything. Drone cams capture art and create art, body cams will surveil our activity and interactions, and augmented reality is merging with GPS location mapping. You may expect new forms of anonymous art bombing done from your basement, guerilla image projecting, electronic sign jamming, and perhaps you’ll be attending virtual reality tours of street art with 30 other people who are also sitting on their couches with Oculus Rifts on. Just watch.

Festivals

Thanks to the success of festivals like Nuart, myriad imitators and approximaters have mushroomed in cities everywhere. Conceived of philosophically as a series of stages for the exhibition of artistic chops with the proviso that a cultural dialogue is enriched and moved forward, not all festivals reach those goals. In fact, we have no reason to expect that there is one set of goals whatsoever and the results are predictably variable; ranging from focused, coherent and resonant contributions to a city to dispersed, unmanageable parades of muddy mediocrity slammed with corporate logos and problematic patronage.

Some festivals are truly grassroots and managed by volunteers like Living Walls in Atlanta or MAUI in Fanzara, Spain. Others are privately funded by real estate interests like Miami’s Wynwood Walls or business improvement district initiatives like the L.I.S.A. Project and LoMan Festival in Manhattan, or are the vision of one man who has an interest in Street Artists, like the now-discontinued FAME festival in the small town of Grottaglie, Italy and the 140 artist takeover of a town in Tunisia called Djerbahood that is organized by an art dealer.

In some ways these examples are supplanting the work of public art committees and city planners who historically determined what kind of art would be beneficial to community and a public space. Detractors advance on opinion that festivals and personal initiatives like this are clever ways of circumventing the vox populi or that they are the deliberate/ accidental tools of gentrification. We’ve written previously about the charges of cultural imperialism that these festivals sometimes bring as well where a presumed gratitude for new works by international painting superstars actually devolves into charges of hubris and disconnection with the local population who will live with the artwork for months and years after the artist catches a plane home.

Nonetheless, far from Street Arts transgressive and vandalous roots, the sheer number of Street Art/Urban Art/Mural Art festivals that have popped up – either freestanding or as adjuncts to multidiscipline “arts” festivals – is having the effect of creating a wider dialogue for art in the public sphere. As artists are invited and hosted and scissor lifts are rented and art-making materials are purchased, one quickly realizes that there are real costs associated with these big shows and the need for funding is equally genuine. Depending on the festival this funding may be private, public, institutional, corporate, or an equation that includes them all.

As you may expect, the encroachment of commercial interests is nearly exhaustive in some of these newer festivals, so eager are the merchants to harvest a scene they had little or no hand in planting. Conceived of as vehicles for corporate messaging, they custom-build responsive websites, interactive Apps, clouds of clever #hashtags, company logos, Instagram handles, branded events and viral lifestyle videos with logos sprinkled throughout the “content”. You may recognize these to be the leeching from an organic subculture, but in the case of this amorphous and still growing “Street Art Scene” no one yet knows what lasting scars this lifestyle packaging will leave on the Body Artistic, let alone civic life.

Stylistically these festivals can be a grab bag as well with curatorial rigor often taking a back seat to availability, accessibility, and the number of interested parties making nominations. While some festivals are clearly leaning toward more traditional graffiti schools, others are a hodgepodge of every discernable style from the past fifty years, sometimes producing an unpleasant sense of nausea or even tears over regrettable missed opportunity.

Clearly the quality is often uneven but, at the danger of sounding flip or callous, it’s nothing that is not easily remedied by a few coats of paint in the months afterward, and you’ll see plenty of that. Most art critics understand that the metrics used for measuring festival art are not meant to be the same as for a gallery or museum show. Perhaps because of the entirely un-curated nature of the organic Street Art scene from which these festivals evolved in some part, where no one asks for permission (and none is actually granted), we are at ease with a sense of happenstance and an uneven or lackluster presentation but are thrilled when concept, composition, and execution are seated firmly in a brilliant context.

Murals

Finally, murals have become big not just in size but popularity. Every week a street artist is exclaiming that this mural is the biggest they have every made. It is a newfound love, a heady honeymoon, a true resurgence of muralism. Even though you can’t rightly call this legal and sanctioned work true Street Art, many former and current Street Artists are making murals. Un-civically minded urban art rebels have inferred that Street Art has softened, perhaps capitulated to more mainstream tastes. As Dan Witz recently observed, “Murals are not a schism with Street Art as much as a natural outgrowth from it.”  We agree and add that these cheek-by-jowl displays of one mural after another are emulating the graffiti jams that have been taking place for years in large cities both organic and organized.

From illustration to abstraction to figurative to surreal and even letter-based, this eclectic injection of styles won’t bring to mind what one may typically associate with the homegrown community mural. Aside from the aforementioned festivals that are festooning neighborhoods, the growth in mural-making may be attributable to a trend of appreciation for Do It Yourself (D.I.Y.) approaches and the ‘makers’ movements, or a desire to add a personal aspect to an urban environment that feels unresponsive and disconnected.

Philadelphia has dedicated 30 years to their Mural Arts Program and relies on a time-tested method of community involvement for finalization of designs and most municipal murals have a certain tameness that pleases so many constituencies that no one particularly cares for them.

The New Muralism, as we have been calling it, that is popping up is often more autonomous and spirited in nature than community mural initiatives of the past with their ties to the socio-political or to historical figures and events. Here there are few middlemen and fewer debates. Artists and their advocates approach building owners directly, a conversation happens, and a mural goes up. In the case of upstart community programs like the Bushwick Collective in Brooklyn, one trusted local person is ambassador to a neighborhood, insuring that community norms about nudity or politics are respected but otherwise acts purely as facilitator and remains hands-off about the content.

On that topic, effectively a form of censoring often takes place with murals – another distinguishing characteristic from Street Art. Given the opportunity to fully realize an elaborate composition, normally wild-eyed and ornery aerosol rebels bend their vision to not offend. Sometimes an artist can have more latitude and you may find a mural may clearly advocate a political or social point of view, as in recent murals addressing police brutality, racism, and inequality in many US cities, anti-corruption sentiments in Mexico, and pro-marriage equality in France and Ireland.

This new romance with the mural is undoubtedly helping artists who would like to further explore their abilities in more labor-intensive, time absorbing works without having to look over their shoulder for an approaching officer of the law. It is a given that what they gain in polished presentation they may sacrifice as confrontational, radical, contraventional, even experimental. The resulting images are at times stunning and even revelatory, consistent with the work of highly skilled visionaries, as if a new generation of painters is maturing before our eyes in public space where we are all witness.

Moving Forward

Despite the rise in festivals and mural programs and the growing volume and sophistication of technology for sharing of the images, Street Art is still found in unexpected places and the decay of neglected spaces. As before and well into the future these self ordained ministers of mayhem will be showing their stuff in the margins, sometimes identified, sometimes anonymous, communicating with the individual who just happens to walk by and witness the work. The works will impart political or social messages, other times a simple declaration that says, “I’m here.”

Whatever its form, we will be looking for it.

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