Category: 2017

Evan Pricco

Fall on Me

“Me, on the other hand… I’m an optimist. So, when I see this, I don’t think the sky is falling. I think that, sir, is the sound of opportunity knocking.”

—Mike Milligan, Fargo, Season Two

Evan Pricco is the Editor-In-Chief of leading international contemporary art magazine, Juxtapoz, based in San Francisco, California. Prior to starting with Juxtapoz in 2006, Evan worked at SF-based gallery and apparel company, Upper Playground. He is the author of Juxtapoz’ continuing book series, including a brand new title, Juxtapoz Hyperrealism, out in stores in Fall 2014. He has contributed text to numerous books, as well as written for Playboy. He continues to champion Public Art everywhere he goes, and has been interviewed by Bloomberg News about the merits of Public Art and its financial impact. He now lives in Sausalito, California.

I’m going to start this essay off by trying to connect the best written TV season ever, Fargo Season Two, and the concept of street art and power. There is a big part of me that sees the sky falling. Everywhere, not just here in America. Shit is falling apart. You can just feel it. We had these eight standout years that were, obviously, not without struggle, conflict and frustration with power and those in charge. But you felt like the conversation was moving forward; that we were evolving and beginning to understand the nuances of race, sex, gender, justice, climate change, and simply language itself. We were (and the “we” here is those of us who constantly think of the evolution of these previously listed nuances no matter what leaders are in charge) beginning to feel empowered to really challenge the status quos and turn our space in the world into a place where everyone could begin to feel included. And then, well, we took a few steps back this past November.

I’m speaking for America, but it applies to a lot of people and places. The sky is falling. Not everyone was ready to have these nuanced conversations. A lot of people, Europe, Asia, America, still digest information in simple platitudes, banal expressions and ignorant speech. We’ve gone back to the language of 1984 while living in Brave New World. We are distracted. We have toys. We have gadgets. We have a celebrity president whose catchphrase was gas station memorabilia in the early 2000s. So the attempted progress of a few years ago is sort of back to square one.

But… but! I’m going to be like MIke Milligan here. Don’t think of the sky falling. Think of what this means in terms of how we now have to fight against power. This is an opportunity for the arts. This is a time where we really need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, to retool our arsenal about how we compete with and challenge the power structures in the world around us. This year’s Nuart Festival is based around this theme of power, or, as they note, “…questioning who has it, who doesn’t, and how sanctioned and unsanctioned street and public art can challenge prevailing mechanisms of control.” What Nuart has successfully accomplished in past years is putting street art and graffiti into the pantheon of historically relevant political interventions. Whether those interventions come in the form of revolutionizing the way we look at art itself, or how we look at dissident behavior, or how we challenge power structures, Nuart has always attempted to connect these dots.

When the theme of “Power” was raised for the 2017 edition, I immediately thought of this classic Milligan line: we are in a time of opportunity. It’s our time to question. What have we done well in the past? What can we do in the future? How did the power structures form, and how do we fight back and infiltrate these systems with better ideas and plans to make the world, if not better, more sustainable and equal. Using the idea of public space, as Nuart bases its whole program on, is the best place to start. It’s where we shop, eat, drink, gather, wander; it’s the place we all share. If we begin to share ideas here, or challenge the notion of shared space in the face of powerful entities that control what we see and what we buy, this is us challenging the system. Or, challenging the man, shall we say?

While we are at it, let’s not talk about Tweeting. Don’t show me your iPhone photos from a protest. Don’t Snapchat or Instagram that you passively care about a cause. Let’s not discuss social media’s impact on challenging these power structures. These new modes of communication are owned and operated by the definition of power. These are, by Wall Street definition, the man, man. I love that these mediums connect us with causes around the world, allowing us to find like-minded struggles in far-off places, that they teach us new ways to challenge this idea of power. But Nuart is about discussing and doing. Street art and graffiti, when it’s great and subversive, is about the action on the actual street. When you get on Instagram and see something that challenges the way mainstream audiences think about the world, when you see something that is in direct conflict with power structures and you start to feel empowered yourself, it is generally right next to a photo of a kitten. I love kittens. They are my favorite thing on Earth. But when I want to feel enabled and strong when I see equal rights rallies in Korea, or Occupy Wall Street protests in NYC, I don’t need comfort. I want that unease. I want to see and feel something new in my consciousness.

Yes, I went from Fargo, to power, to Instagram, to kittens—but my point is that we live in a tremendous moment in time where we constantly see progress nullified by grabs of power that leave us feeling defenseless and hopeless. We have always had wonderful tools to grapple with these feelings, whether it be through Street Art, protest, social justice reform, human rights, and activist platforms brought to the forefront through the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Sometimes we needs these reminders to fight back. To understand what the power structures mean. Where Nuart takes this discussion, from the way the streets are owned and operated, to the way museums control our art history, I see an opportunity to equip ourselves for the intellectual and ideological battles ahead. The sky is falling, and we are ready.

Carlo McCormick

To the Streets

An ode, not a battle cry.

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.

Nuart is calling and there is urgency to their tone. Things are heating up, battle lines are being drawn, and I still don’t know where I stand. Martyn writes me- “The festival theme is Power, who has it, why and how do they use it, what are the conduits to it and the mechanisms that control it, specifically as it relates to public/private space and the shaping of art and the city… We’re having huge challenges here with the art establishment, public art and public space and public funding being the new battleground. I’d love to keep focus here and champion street art.”

Indeed there is cause for concern, and I’m no help because I’m still jumping down rabbit holes of cultural obscurity, looking for what? A way out, or maybe I’m just ducking for cover. He wants me to address these pressing issues with the polemics I once brought to these things, back when the streets offered so much novelty and discovery for all of us that the possibilities seemed endless. But I still remember that time too well, and even the time before that when we had the cities to ourselves, wastelands of social abandonment so fecund for growing culture. There was a time when artists played in the streets unattended, without adult supervision like those great photos Martha Cooper and many others were taking in the Seventies and Eighties of kids inventing their own play out of rubble strewn vacant lots framed by the shells of burnt out buildings. And it’s not nostalgia to remember that- it wasn’t that great a time to begin with and the urban landscape is far too embattled now to dwell on the past- but it is vital to know how the topography has changed so we can figure out our place in it.

I don’t have a manifesto for the new city, sorry Nuart, just the odd musings of an old flaneur still lost in the crowd, as Baudelaire described “in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and infinite.” This is the city we all inhabit, all the more so now that the long trend of depopulation has reversed itself and it’s all become that much more busy and crowded. Where do we find a place for art in the new city of prosperity and privilege? More importantly, what kind of art do we need there? Now seems hardly the time to reward and ratify such status with aesthetic bling. In New York City, where I live, the trend for luxury dwellings is to commission major works by artists like Anish Kapoor and Yayoi Kusama, so it might be more important that ever to resist these baubles of vulgar wealth in our public spaces, like Paris- a place that allowed us to fall in love with what a city might be- confronts the extravagance of Koons poisonously baited public art gift. Urbanism increasingly seeks to adapt strategies for bringing utility to the disused zones of our cities, to bring order and rationality to the chaos. Have we forgotten so quickly the lessons of Jane Jacobs who told us in no uncertain terms; “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” If the city is to have a public art in needs to embrace and even celebrate this ugliness and disorder, not to deny it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I kind of love the idea of public art, but does it have to be so God damn horrible? More than thirty years ago, when I was still young enough to entertain my follies, I had the idea of doing a guidebook of all the very worst public monuments cluttering our towns and cities. Though I knew far less of the world then, and far fewer people than now, I was immediately inundated by people trying to communicate to me how the ugly statuary they walked by daily, commemorating some figure few remembered and fewer yet cared about, deserved the dishonor of such a wretched inventory. And this was before the Internet. Could we presume the cultural clutter of our landscape has gotten any better? Hardly. It sure doesn’t help that the ever-avaricious contemporary art market has gotten into the game. Municipal and corporate bureaucracies have no idea of what we need or want, they simply find consensus in mediocrity. Community-based mural programs hardly have a better record of creative vitality; rather they strangle authentic vision and artistic idiosyncrasy through some wishy-washy negotiation through the petty concerns and imaginative bankruptcy of the many. Surely this is the kind of asshole thinking one should expect of an art critic, but let’s face it, art in the streets does not beg for an overlying authority, it rejects it.

A few years back, stumbling upon an ugly rock inscribed in 1664 as testament to the Danish traitor Corfitz Ulfedt “To his eternal shame, disgrace and infamy,” I thought it possible to define a new kind of monument, to make public shame rather than heroes. I’ve not had much luck in my search since then, though I am somewhat heartened by the establishment of the Fallen Monument Park in Moscow, the Memento Park in Budapest and Stalin’s World near Vilnius, Lithuania. The Soviet Empire has much to contribute to the litany of atrocious public art, but we too have plenty of historical and artistic missteps to fill similar parks of our own. Maybe in the United States this could be the solution to all the suddenly contested monuments to the Confederacy. I’d bet there are plenty of states in the south with ample room for such a hateful assembly and that something like this would be immensely popular with tourists. Let’s too consider a space for all the empty signifiers and boring banalities from the fine art world that populate our public spaces, or even a lot of what street art has given us by a similar measure. There’s plenty of kitsch to go around, so it’s a good project for one of you out there, and I’d be happy to serve on your advisory board, though with my shifting attitudes towards such monumentality I might have to spell that as bored.

Personally, I’m happy to see so many of my friends doing so well in career and life with this global muralist movement. Indeed, in many ways this art is making our cities better. Honestly however, that is not what I got into street art for. Murals, for all their glory, have come too often to work with the city as a commodified space, representations of renewal and hipness that serve a gentrification process which pays little heed to the diversity which makes cities great, landmarks for a new kind of cultural tourism that while laudable have become so prolific we risk the heart of their authenticity; to express the locality of space and not simply play an alternate tune of the same global hegemony perpetrated by multinational franchises.

So what am I looking at these days? I’m trying to reconsider the kind of art that was made when the city was a great canvas precisely because it was abandoned and reviled. I want an art that grows in the forlorn and forbidden, like it was for my generation with the first graffiti masters and those proto-street artists like Haring and SAMO who took their cues from that movement, but also oddities on the periphery of my memory like the wheat field Agnes Denes grew in lower Manhattan in the landfill that would become Battery Park where I used to woo my sweethearts in that brief time before I was married. I’m remembering the early work of Roa, who I came to late in the game but fell in love with when I understood how those murals were about bringing beauty to a place everyone hated, and how that transformation can be something physical and of the heart. I’ve been checking out the work of John Divola, now getting some serious recognition in the art world for his wonderfully abject vandalisms in abandoned spaces in southern California during the Seventies. Scott Hocking too, who is also one of the blessed few to be getting real attention in the art world, was not just one of the leading figures of what we’ve come to recognize Detroit’s great age of “Ruins Porn” wasn’t simply a terrific photographic trespasser but a great sculptor building magical interventions in the mighty vacant cathedrals of America’s industrial collapse.

Nuart 2015: Bordalo II
Photo: © Ian Cox

As usual I’m looking at a lot of garbage, but with a purpose this time. Oh, I don’t mean those “in”formalist heaps of trash that we see piling in MFA programs, galleries, and museums (though I remain beholden to their antecedents in Dada and Schwitters), but artists who are actually confronting the filth itself outside the white cube. Since doing this show called Magic City I’ve been looking for rats that thrive in our rubbish, thanks in this to the help of Christian Omodeo, tracking them from Christy Rupp’s street posters in 1979 through the likes of Blek le Rat and Banksy, but appreciating them too as the union organized protests using inflatables called Scabby the Rat as well as coming to terms with how the unwanted, such as Jews in Europe, have often been depicted as rats, more prevalent now that my country turns to a demagogic vilification of the other. I can’t stop thinking about El Seed’s mural for the garbage collectors in Cairo, or all the work Merle Laderman Ukeles has done with the sanitation department in my hometown since the Seventies. And there’s this wonderful piece “Pink Trash” done in 1982 by Maren Hassinger where she went through Central Park lovingly hand-painting every bit of garbage in her path pink and then placing it back just where she found it. Now that’s fucking alchemy.

I’m totally smitten by the art of this young Polish friend of mine named Adrian Kondratowicz who works in Harlem and the Bronx (as well as further afield in places like India) where he makes decorative trash bags to organize communities to clean up their polluted environments. I was happy to share with him recently the “cultural exchange” organized by the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers in 1969 where they brought up all the garbage piling up in my neighborhood by subway to dump upon the then recently built Lincoln Center. In fact, I asked Nuart if I could just trash-talk my address so to speak, but well, they quite rightly didn’t think there was any place to go from there if their keynote address was so lowly. I still don’t know what I might talk about, but if by chance it sounds uplifting, understand my mind and heart remains in the gutter.

Adrian Burnham

Cleverly Contesting the Surfaces of Power

The material surfaces of towns and cities index legal, civic and corporate influence. With rampant privatisation these last two seats of power coalesce into a regime that proposes and propels corporate capitalism as the only socio-economic option available.

Adrian Burnham has a long held empirical interest in both the variety and efficacy of interventions on urban space and a particular fascination with paper-based art and visual activism. His career spans both a mundane engagement with the metropolis – as a commercial flyposter in the 1980s and 90s – to more academic study of the city and the social production of space at Goldsmiths University.

After 10 years leading courses and lecturing on art and design at Hackney Community College, in June 2016 he founded and continues to curate a street display and online platform for socio-politically engaged artists.

However, in the UK and elsewhere, recently we’ve seen a substantial and growing number of people hungry for analyses of the flaws of neoliberal governance. In ways that were almost unimaginable even a year ago, a contemporary democratic socialist and/or communitarian conscience appears to be gaining traction. Although, in this era, when it is perfectly possible to imagine oneself connected and active without ever leaving the purview of a screen, ‘real’ or material, physical interventions calling for social conscience, needling for change or simply helping viewers to see the world afresh can take on enhanced significance.

As cultural anthropologists Megan McLagan and Yates McKee (2012) put it in their book Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism:

«Material networks are important because they shape the nature of cultural forms that travel along them, but also because, like platforms, they are political actors themselves. Politics does not lie within the image, as if the only political exchange at stake is lodged in the […] ability to decode a meaning that inheres in the text. Rather the modes of circulation and of making public are forms of political action in and of themselves.»

While corporate culture continues its creeping grip on education, health, the news, entertainment and our personal and collective consciousness, opportunities to express views outside the narrow confines of the established political order are diminished.

Like Nuart the flyingleaps project seeks to offer a material platform and a critical, enduring digital media presence for artists and visual activists. Making space for alternate ‘voices’: those who resist. As Chris Hedges wrote in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Hedges and Sacco: 2012) the ‘[D]oubters, outcasts, artists, renegades, skeptics, and rebels – rarely come from the elite. They ask different questions. They see something else: a life of meaning. They have grasped Immanuel Kant’s dictum, “If justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning.”’

And it’s the multiplicity of voices, tactics, the range of visual languages employed as well as inventive siting and enactment of art and visual activism that lends it a strength, that affords it a much better likelihood of breaking through, effecting a publics’ concerned awareness – publics plural because urban dwelling is an agglomeration of many ideas and mentalities – arguably sometimes even to the extent that visual engagement translates into action.

Whilst I think some work on the more radical end of the art/visual activist spectrum is brilliant at skewering government wrongs or exposing corporate cant and abuses of power, what the activist art rebels have to do – and I know the best do this constantly – is consider the efficacy of their message. Is it managing to get anywhere close to reaching those who are not already persuaded? Humans for the most part are not simplistic. We thrive on and evince a multitude of ideas and practices.

Take, for example, the Artist Taxi Driver (aka artist/activist Mark McGowan): his practice consists of serious sociological interviews, comical interventions, vituperative rants, practical support and involvement, collaboration with popular music and producing ‘naïve’ watercolours (which themselves are incredibly varied)… The point being he is all these things (and more besides) and we’re all, for the most part, similarly complex. That’s why the critical visual art we make needs to appear in various forms, work in various ways to at least have the potential to affect us in differing registers.

American architect, urbanist, writer and teacher Keller Easterling (2014) observes in Extrastatecraft that the declarative and enacted approaches to activism are to an extent bound together and complimentary. She cautions, however, that too glib a reliance on any declarative ‘us versus them’ rhetoric completely misses the mark in terms of effective dissent in contemporary political work. Worse, it plays into the hands of excessive power and wealth because more and more the means by which the ‘1%’ maintain control is extremely sophisticated. ‘Righteous ultimatums or binaries of enemies and innocents that offer only collusion or refusal might present a structural obstacle greater than any mythical opponent’ such as Capital, Empire or Neoliberalism. Adopting merely a simplistic oppositional stance lets big business, government and the sophisticated mechanisms of global capitalism off the hook.

Many powerful players that […] activists oppose maintain fluid or undeclared intentions by saying something different from what they are doing. It is easy to toy with or trick activist resistance if declaration is all that qualifies as information. When targeted, the powerful wander away from the bull’s-eye, arranging for shelter or immunity elsewhere. They may successfully propagate a rumor (e.g., that there is evidence of WMD, that climate change is a hoax, that Obama is not a US citizen) to capture the world’s attention.

Capturing attention to divert attention. Vested interests are ever cloaking themselves in the mantle of resistance. The commercial construction sector negotiating to build quotas of ‘social housing’ – inadequate in the first place or, as we’ve seen recently in the fallout from the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, a blatant con – or the thrust to privatise services, schools, the pushing through 24/7 of access to health is ideology in the guise of reform. Mainstream media plays the same surreptitious game. Witness, for instance, the cynical volte-face of a Murdoch press now loudly ‘supporting’ breast cancer awareness.

Easterling’s concern is to unearth and explore ways that publics might counter the power of global infrastructure but her proposed co-option of extra state craft in support of radical reform has other elements that accord with thinking and practice that stands a better chance of being productive. ‘[…] Techniques that are less heroic, less automatically oppositional, more effective, and sneakier – techniques like gossip, rumor, gift-giving, compliance, mimicry, comedy, meaninglessness, misdirection, distraction, hacking, or entrepreneurialism.’

Leaving open the question as to whether and how directly socio-politically engaged art and visual activism speaks to social justice, what does occur from time to time is a work – image, text, installation, T-shirt, performance, street poster… – can challenge and even help to alter the public’s disposition. Here, in part, resides the value of turning our urban environment into a platform for artists: it’s an opportunity to visually delight but also a chance to question, maybe even shift shared beliefs, ideas and ethical concerns operating across society.