Tag: street art

Martyn Reed: Laugh Now


I was working on a project recently with an artist, when he turned to me and said, “please don’t mention that I’m a street artist in the press release, say I’m a neo-muralist”. I felt the hairs on my arms raise. He’d said this in spite of my knowing that he’d spent the last ten years nurturing a “street art” profile, a subculture that was almost the antithesis of this new municipality sanctioned corporate mural culture he wanted to be seen to be embracing.

Martyn Reed is an artist, researcher, producer and in his own words, an “ambivalent curator” dedicated to the democratisation of art production through the promotion of street art practice. His projects are designed as a critical response to the cultural hegemony whilst offering a celebration of radical DIY alternatives. He is a graduate of Jacob Kramer (Leeds) and Hornsey School of Art (London).

Now, I’m not against muralism as such, it’s a powerful medium with a rich history, particularly in the America’s, with at times, strong associations with social justice issues and community building. The communities being “built” and associated with street art now however, tend to be from the top down and integrate a type of generic muralism involving artists unaware or unashamed of abandoning street art’s original rhetoric of transgressive spontaneity. Developers favouring a kind of colourful and premeditated faux subversion to anything genuinely “street” or authentic.

They still put art on the streets for people to # and enjoy, so what’s the problem you might ask.

The problem of course, is the same one that Street Art initially set out to challenge, that is, the mechanism and conduits to power within public space and “culture” overseen by neo liberal courtiers to the elite. The same mechanisms that desire an ever more passive audience primed to consume #muralart in the same manner as they consume other disposable goods and product. Street Art of course, for better or worse, set out to challenge this.

In a culture of globalised brands and neo-liberal ideology, this new one-size fits all style of public mural art is ideal for clone developments & gentrification projects, it’s middle of the road, middle class and middle-brow. Like public art of old, it is fast becoming the Mumford and Sons of street art, creating a culture that seeks nothing more than your uncritical attention and adoration.

All of this got me to thinking, what can be done to wrestle back “Street Art” from corporate property speculators and those organisations and institutions dedicated to simply profiting from it. Living parasitically, from a culture predicated on resisting this onslaught of power wrought by capital. Can the coming tsunami of big budget bucket paint and cherry picker productions destined to rewrite what constitutes “street art” be averted, and if not, what should all of those concerned with this development do about it. Last year, in order to broaden the palette, we toyed with the term “post street art”, but perhaps this years adoption of the term “critical street art” is where the future lay. Try it, “Critical Street Art”. Sounds good ?  better than “neo muralism” right ?

Authentic Street Art’s impending demise, or at least the death of any meaning ascribed to the term, made me recall the first piece of street art, that first stencil, that hit me with an impact like no mural ever has, or probably ever will. Like a song that cuts to the bone, it contained that same lyrical power that makes you want to leave your small town and small life for bigger and better things, it sprinkled both art and activism into eyes tired from the smog of advertising I’d experienced in the taxi ride from the airport to Shoreditch, where I was to Dj that night. As I lugged my pre EDM record box (yes, vinyl people) from the back of the cab, I was confronted with a slightly less than lifesized single layer stencil of a disgruntled looking chimpanzee holding a sandwich board that boldly stated “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge”. It appeared at a time when transgression was not simply a marketing technique and whose immediate cultural value far exceeded any possible commercial value I could think of, there were no street level stencil art marketing campaigns I was aware of at the time, so it was undoubtedly art. But what sort of art was this, who had created it, was it animal rights related, was I the monkey, was the monkey the working class or the creative class, was it public art, did it relate to graffiti?

Stripped of any references, it left me momentarily lost, and like all good art, it had pushed me down a rabbit hole to live for a moment in a different world. A world away from the cab, the city, my dislocated self and the information overload I’d just experienced.

It was 2000, and It was of course, Banksy’s “Laugh Now”.

This wild counterpoint to the overly regulated distribution of images and signs that i’d experienced on the way in, triggered a life long obsession with Street Art. It has, in its most authentic form, never lost the power of that first defiant punch, a punch that instantly knocked the art education out of me. It acted as a trigger not only to thought, but to action, and that same year, I established the Nuart Festival.

Stencil art, is the tool that those without power, already possess. It enables us to speak of the times in the language of the times, leaving traces of the familiar in often unfamiliar surroundings. Unlike contemporary art, I realized it was not a mirror, but a compass to show us the way, though we seem to have lost our bearings a little recently. It isn’t produced for a community, but is a shout out to create a community. Some mural artists, often through necessity, have to be nuanced in the way they communicate politics, but I’m tired of nuance, and the stencil is very direct in all it’s hand cut black and white glory. There are people, companies and organisations out there quite prepared to use mural artists as the shock troops of gentrification, moving into an area and clearing a path for developers, mine stripping the culture of its relevance as it goes. We need to be prepared to offer and fight for alternative platforms, spaces, patrons, finance and events if the culture is to maintain any authentic link to its radical roots. In the meantime, it’s the anonymous and unsung heroes of Stencil Art that we need to once again, focus on and celebrate. Those nameless champions of multiple series of small and human scale works whose lifestyle’s and rebellions have avoided keying into the corporate world. Unnamed, unsanctioned, unauthorized, unart as opposed to nuart perhaps.

In a culture where anti-authoritarianism can be “diagnosed” as a “disorder” and medicated against , one where contemporary art is in thrall to the market, we need quick, simple and very public transgressive acts, and a lot of them. It’s the stencil that offers us this, a form that echoes Joseph Beuys famous statement “everyone an artist”, in the most literal of senses.

In the beginning, you’ll feel like a fraud, an imposter, a faker, and you can damn well bet you’ll be inauthentic. But continue, and somewhere along the line, you may just create an incantation that reverberates with the now, a song of ourselves, a trigger that spurs others to action generating a belief in the idea of art, love and community. As “Laugh Now” did for me, you could do for others.

As critic and author Robert Hughes said in the 1980s tome, The Shock of the New: “What does one prefer? An art that struggles to change the social contract but fails? Or one that seeks to please and amuse and succeeds?”

I’ll leave it to readers to decide which is which.

Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.

Martyn Reed

Originally written for Juxtapox Magazine Nov 2017

Join the Revolution

The Real Power of Street Art aka Join the Revolution.

This series of articles, like Street Art itself, sets out to explore those grand historical narratives, that until recently contemporary art has been in retreat from, themes exploring issues of politics, justice, power, history & capitalism, a word that we hear less and less of in art as it is replaced with the ideology of a visual culture in cahoot with neoliberal economics.

Paradoxically, street art at its best, lets call it “Critical Street Art”, is a recognition that culture is not always a medium of power, but also a mode of resistance to it. Something those financing the fashionable shift to a banal monolithic muralism, marketed as “Street Art”, would do well to remember.

What started as a peripheral trend for a material and artistic use of public space by self-taught artists armed with cans, markers, stencils, paste-ups and stickers, has quickly developed into a truly global democratic and egalitarian movement of visual art practice capable of rocking governments. Whilst contemporary art was slowly slipping into a self-induced VIP coma of extreme fetishised consumerism, the disruptive and subversive potential that street art offered became more and more relevant to a public starved of both political and visual representation.

While curators of covertly commercial multi-million euro Art Biennale’s, at the apogee of their power and privilege, conceived of exhibitions exploring the nature of borders and boundaries (& canapés), the likes of Bahia Shehab in Egypt, and unwittingly a 14yr old Naief Abazid in Daraa, Syria, were busy breaking them, both taking the single most direct route to the public (and power), by spraying work directly on the walls of their respective cities, one contributed to the overthrow of a violent dictator, the other, inspired by artist’s acts in Egypt and Tunisia, inadvertently sparked a war whose reverberations are still being felt around the globe today. Transgressions will be punished, Naief’s simple “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad”, sprayed under his school principle’s window led to his torture and imprisonment, 22 other boys would be arrested in connection with the graffiti, at least three of them are now known to be dead. Less than half remain in Syria.

Images in public space have the power to change the world, they can alter the way we conceive and construct our own reality. At the hands of urban planners they have the potential to shape space into place creating a new form of gentrified urbanism, murals, fake grass, bike lanes and deckchairs anyone, and that’s fine. But they also offer us another opportunity, something more, the opportunity to shape and change ourselves, the spaces and places we inhabit being inextricably attached to us, we combine with them and they begin to define who we are.

So what sort of self do we want to be and can critical street art in public space help us to become that person?

I think it can.

Critical Street Art has the capacity to shift our perception and priorities, from a state sanctioned, corporate or academic mandated way of being and seeing, to one of individual “wokeness”, at the very least, a wokeness to the absolute impoverished visual terrain we’re currently offered, dominated as it is by a combination of commodity advertising and an architecture designed to express an aesthetic of power. In this singular monolithic and heavily “legislated” city; transgressions will of course be punished, but it’s transgressions we now desperately need.

Our art institutions are for the most no better, designed as they are to contain and control an entire field of incredibly fluid creative human expression, an impossible task of course, but perhaps not if you then declare yourselves as the ones to define what excellence and quality in art actually is, then develop vast bureaucracies and an inexplicable language that requires a PHD in lexical semantics to unravel the meaning ascribed to the work. The only people now excluded from the debate of what constitutes excellence in art, are those that the artwork was originally intended for, the public. Unlike contemporary art, whose hermetic lexicon seems to have been deliberately designed to exclude, street art discourse is one of openness and inclusion, of community, of sharing and gift economies. It is part and parcel of a burgeoning open source movement that has a desire to communicate to and engage with ALL citizens.

Those locked out of art discourse, by whatever means, the borderline, the disenfranchised, the poor, the white collar, the blue collar, witches, strangers, pirates, punks, pinstripers, comic artists, graffiti writers, outsiders and yes, street artists, amongst many many others, are regularly informed that their art is “low brow”, somehow beneath, under, sub-cultural, subversive and always implied, substandard. This criticism is delivered with the mythic maxim that only our art is good for you, come on in they say, this is legitimate, quality, filtered and mediated, and we may eventually submit, only to be met by the inexplicable, feeding off the carrion of a bastardised Marxist critical theory in a frenetic crucible of hypocricy & consumerism designed to separate you from your money. As Banksy once famously noted, Exit through the Giftshop.

Many of our art institutions forget that their task is to give expression to the collective mind of the people, and looking at my social media feeds, and the contents of this magazine, the collective mind of the people is demanding something else, something more, something at least authentic. A surfeit of 1990’s MFA curators are still prioritising their own theoretical reveries without understanding that we’re aware we are occupying a space where our relationship to both place and artwork is exclusive, legislated and to a certain extent contractual. As opposed to Street Art, which is of course free, inclusive and organic. The institution pays lip service to inclusion but regularly excludes those whose art and politics aim to undermine the structure within which such inclusion occurs. And again, for a few decades at least, transgressions will be punished, this time by exclusion, from the art press, from funding, from the “artworld”.

Street Art enfranchises, it places art anywhere but the white walled havens of the institution attended by an art viewing elite comfortable with its complicit relationship to neo-liberalism in the form of the commercial art fair, investment-growth potential and mega-corporate sponsored events and exhibitions. And I don’t use that “elite” word lightly, knowing how it can be twisted to serve populist right wing rhetoric. But anyone who has ever found themselves with the time, energy, resources and not least, VIP invite to the vernisage on a regular basis, should regard themselves as part of a privileged elite, winners in the lottery of cultural life.

Street Art at its most powerful, and there are many who would like to see the word “street” removed from this term, but that’s another story, can reconfigure the city as a place where citizens play an active role in the construction, revision and imagination of our world, including our art institutions. It can show us new ways to inhabit and configure the city whilst offering access to those cities within cities within cities. Those dark alleys of alienation inhabited by the “other”, the artist.

Critical Street Art has the potential to erase boundaries, turning walls into doors, citizens into artists and activists with agency. So forget seal clapping that monolithic tower block mural, grab some cardboard, a can and a craft knife, photocopy some paste-ups and take to the streets, join the revolution.

Originally published in Juxtapoz Magazine Oct 2017