Friday, December 9, 2011

Meeting of Styles Mexico: FASE Interview

FASE reminds us of the importance of love and commitment in graffiti- that it is a kind of art that does not guarantee fame but instead is about the love of it. The following is the transcript of our interview, facilitated by SWER, partially in English and Spanish.

C: What name do you write?


C: How do you spell it?

F: F-A-S-E.

C: What crew name do you write?

F: I don’t have a crew.

C: What does Fase mean to you? Qué significa?

F: No es un significado realmente profundo, solo me gustan los letras y simplemente pensado un etapo o momento, FASE.

S: It doesn’t really mean anything deep but at the time she liked the letters.

C: When did you start writing?

F: Like nine years ago.

C: How old were you, que edad tenías?

F: Fourteen.

C: Why, Por qué?

F: Solo me gustaba y pensé solo—era algo para expresarme en ese momento y después haciendo me gusta ya.

Just because I liked it and it was a way to express myself, and after I liked doing it.

C: De dónde eres tu estilo? Where is your style from?

F: Mi estilo es muy simple me influencía mucho por lo que veo de los Estados Unidos, California, letras. Lo que mas algo, lo que más me gusta.

My style is very simple and is influenced by what I’ve seen from lettering from the U.S. and California, which I like the most.

C: Algunas personas en particular has influyado? Any people in particular influence you?


C: Cuantos del “Meetings” has participado? How many MOS have you participated in?

F: Trés o cuatro. Three or four.

C: Algunos cambios en los Meetings? Any changes in the Meetings?

F: Si, yo veo que en este hay menos gente que en otros años. Yes, I’ve seen that in this one there are less people than in other years.

C: Y tantas artistas internacionales que en otros años? And as many international artists than in other years?

F: En este creo que menos. En otros años han venido muchos mas. In this one I believe less. In other years many more have come.

C: How did you find out about it?

F: Soy muy contenta venir y ver a mucha gente. I was happy to come and see a lot of people.

S: No, dice que como aprendiste del Meeting of Styles?

No she says how did you find out about MOS?

F: Ah, por internet. Y porque siempre organizas eventos por muchos amigos. On the internet. And because friends are always organizing events.

C: What is your favorite part or best memory of the Meeting?

S: Cual es tu parte favorito o mejor memoria de la Meeting?

F: Ver a todo el gente que viene, porque poco genta de la Republica del pais entonces es uno de pocos eventos por nosotors estar juntos.

To see the people that come because there are few events that bring us all together.

C: Que te molesta o te frustra mas de la Meeting?

What bothers you or is most frustrating about MOS?

F: No no me molesta. Nothing bothers me.

C: Es perfecto? Its perfect?

F: Si. El sol, la clima a veces.

S: The weather, the sun sometimes is annoying.

C: Why do you think its important to see international artists?

S: Por que creo que es importante ver artistas internacionales?

F: Porque pues tomar mejor inspiracion, tal vez, y estan carte de somos estile o anuncio o diseño.

Because we can be inspired, or perhaps to get something from their style or design.

C: Who is the audience for MOS?

S: Quien es la audiencia para el Meeting of Styles? Solo grafiteros o algo mas?

F: no, toda la comunidad que pueden. Y más en Neza siempre ha vido mucho graffiti la gente aqui lo acepta, lo admira vamos.

No, all of the community can see it, and more so in Neza because the people have seen a lot of graffiti and they accept it and admire it.

C: How was MOS helped the community or changed the community in Neza?

S: Como le influenciado?

F: A Neza? Pues creo que la gente sea mas abierta a todo tipo de personas y no nos califique como delinquentes unicamente o como gente castigaño de la sociedad.

In Neza? I believe that the people have become moe open to all kinds of people and don’t characterize us as only delinquents or people that are cast out of society.

C: How would you feel if there were no more Meeting of Styles in the future?

S: Como te sienteras si no hay más MOS?

F: Seria triste. I would be sad.

C: Como definiras graffiti?

F: Como una manera expresar o tambien demonstrar lo que eres tu.

S: It’s a way to express and to show what you can do and who you are.

C: How do you think think graffiti could help communities or help Mexico if at all?

S: Como crees que graffiti puede ayudar la comunidad?

F: No creo que ayude mucho tampoco porque nos gusta tambien la illegalidad, y nos gustan las cosas que no deben hacer, pero, pues unicamente como un medio de arte porque finalemente el aerosol es un tecnica, no más, en la que uno manera de pintura, una manera crear arte.

I don’t think it could help much either because we like also the illegality, and things that you aren’t supposed to do but, it is mainly a medium of art. In sum, aerosol is a techniquen, nothing more, a way of painting, a way to create art.

C: Do you have any fears about the future of graffiti? Any worries?

S: Tienes algun miedo por graffiti en el futuro?

F: No, creo que cualquier que pase o que la misma comunidad de graffiti lo superas, siempre va graffiti mas arriba de lo que nosotros pensamos.

S: No, I think that there is always graffiti that goes above us or out own style—its an evolution.

C: How do you document your work?

S: Como lo guardas?

F: Pictures, facebook, myspace.

C: How do you feel when your work gets buffed or gone over?

S: Como te sientes cuando tu trabajo es encima…

F: Nunca me ha pasado. Never. I think I’d feel mad, I don’t know, but I’ve never…

S: Its never happened to her.

C: Do you think graffiti has a social purpose?

F: Creo que graffiti tengan uno proposito? Es que mas bien que nosotros hacemos de eso manera porque graffiti solo es la pintura en la pared y nosotros somos lo que hacemos para un proposito social…

Graffit is just painting on a wall and that is what we do for its social purpose.

C: Do you think that artists in Mexico have a particular role to play in society?

S: Cual es el papel que es que juega el artista aqui?

F: No, pues.


C: Tienes una relacion con los Tres Grandes como Orozco, Siqueiros, o Rivera en tu trabajo?

F: No los consideran un influencia para mi trabajo porque yo solo hago letros, porque son lo que más me gustan hacer, pero, obviamente los admiro y admiro mucho el trabajo de los muralistas mexicanos pero no considero como por le menos para mi un influencia, no que hago.

I don’t think of them as an influence for my work because I only make letters, because that’s what I like to do the most. But obviously I admire them and admire the work of the Mexican muralists a lot, but I don’t consider them an influence for me.

C: Algo mas que quieres decir a los estadounidense cerca del graffiti?

Anything else you want to say about graffiti?

F: Principalmente si lo van hacer, lo manejen con respecto, y no solo lo hagan por hacer parte de algo o despues lo dejen o queran demostrarle a algiuen que son algo y despues lo dejen. Esto es una manera de vivir, tambien.

S: Shes says, if you do graffiti, don’t just do it for one moment because you want to show off something. Or you want to prove something. You have to do it beause it is part of your life, it is a lifestyle. And it involves a lot of things. So do graffiti because you love it.

C: Muchas gracias.

Meeting of Styles Mexico: ARTE 1810 Interview

Writing for nearly twenty years in the Bay Area, ARTE 1810 was introduced to me by SWER. His commitment to his art was evident in him soldiering on with a broken toe during most of the festival. The transcript of our interview follows:

C: What name do you write and what crew name?

A: ARTE 1810

C: What do those names mean to you?

A: ARTE—when I came out I wanted a Spanish name, to represent my Latino heritage. Arte means Art in Spanish. When I started writing I used to battle a lot with other writers in the city. ARTE also stands for something, it means “Always Running The Enemy.”

C: What year and what age did you start writing?

A: I probably started doodling around 1992. So, 6th or 7th grade—I started with gangster kids graffiti, just trying to fit in, and it evolved, I guess, from me trying to get into a more graffiti style and then I started coloring it in and doing throw ups and stuff.

C: Do you remember what year that was?

A: When I started painting and stuff? It took me a while to actually start painting. I started writing in 92 didn’t start get into painting painting until 2000 or 1999.

C: why did you start?

A: I liked the fact of seeing my name in big burning colors. All over the city. That’s why I took it up.

C: Where did you get your style from.

A: I actually started with a guy named Rios, he’s the one that kind of took me under his wing, he’s another big name in San Francisco , and also taught SWER. He kind of took us both in and started teaching us both.

C: How did you find out about MOS?

A: I painted at MOS last year in San Francsico, and we have SWER over here in Mexico, so we decided to come over here…

C: What kind of differences do you see between the MOS here in Mexico and the one in San Francisco you were in?

A: I see out here that they are really big on detail and characters, and just their artwork here is on a whole different level. The 3-d here is amazing. It’s a different style.

C: And in San Francisco is it more like lettering?

A: My style is kind of old school. I just do simple colors, thre colors, 3-d, that's it, basic letters.

C: Why do you participate in Meeting of Styles?

A: Its all about the art, especially the fact that I get to travel, especially out of the country.

C: Whats your favorite memory or the best part of MOS for you?

A: just the whole event itself. Its been a different experience for me because I am in another country and meeting other writers that are big out here and its just been great, the whole thing has been awesome. You get a lot of love from the locals. They’ve been treating us right since we got here.

C: Anything difficult or frustrating about this Meeting of Styles?

A: No no, everything’s been pretty smooth.

C: Do you think its important to see international artists, and if so why?

A: Yeah definitely, you get a new understanding of what different cultures have to offer, different styles. Networking, meeting other people and getting to go to other places. Like maybe next time I might want to go to another state. Its all about networking. And that’s the thing about art. Its like a universal …all kinds of people. As long as you are involved with some kind of art or graffiti, you have a connection on this planet.

C: How would you feel if there weren’t any more meeting of styles?

A: Thatd be a really big loss to the graff world and not only to us but to the communities that we help beautify.

C: Do you have any worries about the future of graffiti, so for example commercialization or on the other hand stricter fines in a log of states now in the U.S..

A: Right, right. For example where I am from, I’m from the Bay Area, and over there a lot of the white trucks are offered to be painted legally but I guess the city is fining the merchant owners for having graffiti on their turcks so its like graffiti is always going to…people are always trying to prevent that type of art. Its not going to stop. Graffiti is graffiti. Just because some things, maybe people want to put a stop to it, that’s when its going to come harder, you know? You start seeing it in more outrageous places than you would usually see it. The more you try to stop it, the more its going to come.

C: Who is the audience for MOS? Is it just graffiti writers or are there other people you think see your work?

A: I think, and I hope and from what I see it is for everybody. Its for everybody to enjoy. Its not just for us its not just for them, its for everyone to come out with their families and to have a good time and walk around and talke a look at all of these wonderful artists and just enjoy the whole scenery. Because it is a beautiful thing going on.

C: When you were in San Francisco did you notice MOS changing the community that it was in in any way?

A: Its seems like since it is an event that looks like its more organized people are more open to walking by and interacting with the artists because it looks like a big event and something that is unified. It makes it look more positive.

C: Do you remember any interactions that you’ve had with community members here or in San Francsico?

A: I’ve had a couple of kids come up here and take pictures of us and introduce themselves to us, and a couple families going “That’s nice,” you know and they always come by and tell you “thank you.” Everybody appreciates it.

C: How do you define graffiti?

A: Can’t define it. Its just there.

C: For example when people say that graffiti and murals are diffeent, do you think that that is a bullshit distinction or do you think that there is something there?

A: Graffiti is more of a style, you know? But now its like muralists are interacting with graffiti artists, so it is like a blend of it, you know?

C: How do you document your work?

A: Pictures, really. Sometimes when you don’t get that picture you just remember what you did. That’s it.

C: Do you use facebook or Flikr or anything like that?

A: Flickr, I have a Flickr account. We have a Flickr for the crew.

C: How do you feel when your work gets gone over?

A: It gets irritating but as long as its not a diss or something direct to me I’m fine with it.

C: What makes you ok with it?

A: Well sometimes the city will come through and probably buff some of it, or half of it, and leave the other half up or some kids will come by and doodle on it, or someone else will put something on it…that’s fine with me because its been dissed already.

C: What do you think the social purpose of graffiti is more generally? How do you think it might be able to help communities?

A: You could have workshops and have kids involved attending workshops which gives them something to do other than running the streets. They could do community projects and involve the people.

C: Does it have to have an illegal aspect to have value?

A: I think its good for it to have a lot of legal things going on with graf because it shows that we are also artists too and we are not just out there to vandalize and mess up the city.

C: Do you feel like you have any relationship or influence from the Mexican mural movement for example Rivera, Siqueiros or Orozco? Like those guys?

A: My art, the type of art I do, I love their art but that’s not the type of art that I do. They are definitely a positive influence in my interest in art.

C: Any artists that influence you that aren’t graffiti artists in terms of your style, or maybe graphic design influences?

A: No, not that I know of.

C: Anything else you want to say that you want people to know about graffiti, to know about 1810?

A: Pretty much 1810 is a movement that was started, the definition is more than just the numbers itself if means to us freedom and revolution so it’s the year the revolution started out here in México, and the crew has expanded, its like we are all types of nationalities not just Mexicans even though the original idea came from Mexico.

C: So it sort of seems an idea of revolution shared internationally.

A: That’s right.

C: Cool, thanks a lot.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Art Basel Day 4: Exit Through the Giftshop Reconsidered

Yesterday I saw Mr. Brainwash’s gallery on 21st and Collins. The large 2 story exhibit had a giant Mr. Potato Head with a spray can in his hand, starship trooper figures on the balconies, and a banner with Hitchcock with a graffiti background behind.

Entering the large warehouse I was barricaded with images, chickens covered in paint scattered around, large scale sculptures (two horses on their hind legs framed the painted slogan ‘life is beautiful’ in the back) with display cases holding ‘relics’ of his work (paint stained shoes and pants, type writers with the phrases ‘life is beautiful” and so forth) and oil/acrylic paintings which conformed to the formula of iconic figure, figure holding a brush or spray can, and a slogan, and a graffiti style background. There were a ton of people there, lots of kids and families, a couple I ended up walking behind was enthralled the man telling the woman “do you know the history of this painting?” pointing to a reappropriation of Norman Rockwell’s “1st amendment” painting with van Gogh substituted for the main figure and the title being “tagger”. The woman said “No” and the man said “I will explain it all to you Van Gogh was also a tagger. This is a very important painting.” Later they asked for a photo with Thierry Guetta/Mr. Brainwash and congratulated him on his work. Another large man took a photo with the horses “make sure life is beautiful” is visible. A couple talked to Guetta about buying one his works “this is the only one left” he said “but it looks like that other one over there” they said pointing to a near replica “but see the paint drips” Thierry gestured. I didn’t stay to see the conclusion of the transaction. The exhibit was if anything, fashionable, presenting an edgy surface and easily identifiable figures. The handout of Guetta’s bio described him as a “pop” artist, inspired by his research subjects, street artists, to make street based pop art, and then going public in 2008. Notably, in the film that emerged from Guetta’s footage, “Exit Through the Giftshop” by Banksy, Guetta is posited as kind of a mad fool, who outraged many of the subjects he had recorded by appropriating their styles, called “biting” in the graffiti world. I had heard him mentioned by a couple of my writer friends, who sadly noted that he was stationed near the Art Miami central festival, that he was unoriginal, that he was reviled.

I initially watched Exit Through the Gift Shop because it was produced by Banksy and he was one of the five to six street artists that I knew of at the time. The movie, which is beautifully filmed with dramatic cuts and incisive humo read ot me, upon fist viewing as a story of Graffiti/Street art having been victimized, taken advantage of and cheapened by Guetta, shorn of its authenticity and edginess and turned into a consumable object.

I told my grandparents to see the film that Christmas, because it was the most mainstream thing I knew of that featured talented street and graffiti artists, and they wanted to know what it was I studied/wrote about. Much to my chagrin their diagnosis of the film was that “Banksy is talented, but that Mr. Brianwash, he is great, and a very good businessman.”

So running into Guetta at the gallery I told him my grandparents liked his worked, and asked to do a short interview. He kindly agreed, and the interview follows:

CB: How do you define your art?

MBW: Life, colors, pop.

CB: Can you say something about your process? It seems like a lot of this involved a team or a factory.

MBW: Some of the installs require help, because I want to make things bigger and bigger- I made a spray can that was 25 feet tall, and it becomes a whole industry. The small pieces, that work stays in the studio.

CB: Do you still do work in the streets?

MBW: I do some work but I do not have as much time, and doing all of this work takes time, working day and night so I do not have time to put it on the street—I leave that to others.

CB: Who is the desired audience for your work?

MBW: Kids, strollers, mothers—people—the mass—I am more a lover of people—hopefully kids will come and love the work and that with get something to change in them for them to dream and to create art. I love people.

CB: What artists are significant for you, who influenced you?

MBW: Lots of artists, I love Pollack, Magritte, Dali, Picasso, Basquiat. I love every art. The name is not as important. I am open to every art because art is freedom and this is a way that people can express themselves, I am not in the world to judge.

CB: Why call your art pop art when it has clear graffiti and street art influences?

MBW: Its another thing because it is done with a spray can, and people that were before me were doing street art. Whether you call it graffiti art, street art, pop art, in the end its always art…my son who is 18 wrote on my studio wall, what was it “Artists are like every color, each one different.”

CB: Does it make a difference to you whether your work is in the gallery or outside?

MBW: It does not matter, one way or the other.

CB: Thank you very much.

The neutrality and irrelevance that Guetta gives to specific spaces and the content of his work is evident in the site it was in at Art Basel. In South Beach, proximate to the “main” event at the Convention Center it was both spatially and economically nestled closer to the center of the art world, though not so central that it lost its allure of “renegade” art. The convention center itself was something of an alien space ship full of at, descending on Miami and leaving, with little altered. Shepherd Fairy, Cope 82, T-Kid, STEF, English, Gaia, Liquen, Estria, Vogue, Swoon, and many many other street art and graffiti icons located their work in the Wynwood Art District, near Overtown, in the alternative “Off the Basel Path” (as called by the Biscayne Times) locale. Notably, many of these figures were also film subjects for Guetta.

I want to offer a revised reading of the film having seen the MBW exhibit, and its patrons, arguing that MBW is less culprit of an exploitation of street art aesthetics, but tells us more about both graffiti’s relevance to a dominant public AND dominant frameworks for art consumption generally, which has to do with Formatting, Affect and Affirmation and Access and Recognition.

As noted above there is a clear formula to the paintings and/or sculptures: 1. Graffiti background 2. Repurposed Icon 3. Icon holding can or brush, more or less. Affirmation is used as an affective identification strategy: love, dreams and humor are deployed in all of the figures rather than critique or demands. Finally the use of icons, as well as the wealth of free posters, postcards, and admission to the exhibit created both conceptual accessibility and literal access for the works. People are allowed to enjoy without critical thought, consume without cost. And the enjoyment was palpable, made even more so because I was feeling snarky most of the time, and a little bit like a spy, having only talked to street artists over the last year or so. When the man said to his girlfriend “this is a tagger” I wanted to say “MBW is not—he is a celebrity pundit. You don’t know the whole story.” But then again neither do I. In fact there is not whole story, there are only fragments, and that’s what a general public sees.

Guetta’s responses to my questions about form, influence, site and audience incredibly generally, but affably, reminding me to take free posters on the way out. This struck me not as a calculating villain but a regular guy—one who tells us a lot more about conditions of reception and publicity of our time and the potential that graffiti has to be mainstreamed, packaged and formatted as a genre.

What is undeniable is the high level of enjoyment people were getting out of the art, posing with the deer, kids hanging off bull horns, people loudly reacting to the starship troopers and the Mr. Potato Head outside, getting to be proximate to the phrase “Life is Beautiful.” It demonstrated a clear need for more accessible and interactive public art, but it also admitted a clear complacency with contextless and apolitical art. It mirrors a public culture invested in play with icons rather than engagement with everyday realities. It also suggests that graffiti has an immense potential to reach a larger public, but reminds us, at what cost? Through repetition and decontextualization? By stripping it of irony and anger to make it affable? There is a danger in the affirmative and judgementless work of MBW but the danger does not lie solely with him, it is located in a liberal-democratic culture where liberalism wins out over democracy and consumption vanquishes rigorous thought.

Art Basel Day 3: Commemoration and the Life of the Monument: Judepapaiokothegenius’ Obelisk

The Jakmel Art Gallery is a small but distinct space- Jude’s painting of a woman coming out of a tree, the geometrically painted exterior with a metal face, and circles of color draw the wanderer in from the street. Inside are an array of spiritual/totemic paintings based on Creole mythology using striking colors and clear strong lines. However what is most imposing is the seven foot tall blue obelisk a mere six feet from the door. The piece, the artist told me, is a model for what he hopes to be a bronze monument in Haiti, in order to remember the earthquake. The model is semiotically dense: blood comes down from the top, distinct against a royal blue background, and a combination of painted pieces (medical gloved hands holding a black hand, Toussaint L’Overture, angels and so forth) and collaged magazine cover images create an agitated surface. The words “help” move across the east side of the structure.

This piece performs what we often lose sight of when contemplated finished commemorative spaces: the public culture that form the aesthetic resources for the work. Jude’s use of magazines, historical figures, and his own commentary demonstrate the multiple kinds of memory and trauma at work, all at once subjective, collective, and unfinished.

The piece itself has traveled, becoming a part of an exhibit in Japan after the earthquake there, also demonstrating how monuments are not necessarily “external memory deposits” as they have been lambasted by some theorists but active vehicles for collaboration, communication and reconstruction. However one question that I have is to what degree the “final product” of the monument will eclipse this former life it had.

A concern more relevant to the final bronze monument to be created in Haiti is about what history is being reinforced—the doctors are almost exclusively white and victims all black in the images on the obelisk. What it runs the risk of underscoring is a narrative of Anglo-European rescue that elides the history of colonialism that helped create the conditions in the first place of poor physical and economic infrastructure that exacerbated the effects of the earthquake, and its ongoing catastrophic results. In the bronze likely color will not be relevant, but a relationship of victim and savior will be apparent. I wonder if the message will be “rescued” or “more action needed.” This is a concern that applies not just to Jude’s prospective monument, but commemorative public works in general: how do fixed works (physically) continue to have move and live in terms of their meaning?

Thanks to Jude for speaking with me about his work, it is truly beautiful.

Art Basel Day 2: Gated (Street Art) Communities

Wynwood Walls are located on 26th street (more or less) and 2nd avenue, and have large wrought iron gates on the 2nd avenue side, with a metal sign for the walls that resembles the “Metro” font used in Paris for train entrances. It is an immersive environment: at all times one is flanked by painted walls. Entering on the right are walls by Shepherd Fairey which surround a outdoor café area for the restaurant on the corner, which features 15 dollar entrees. A path leads to another open space, with more walls, one by a Brazilian artist, another a neon kind of homage to Keith Haring, with two smaller galleries facing each other across the plaza. Then another entrance into a part with a series of works: a street scene, a couple of portraits, a series of psychadelic mushroom type characters, an RV entirely covered in 3d neon mold-like splatters, a man’s face chiseled into the wall, a roided out baby-soldier, an Aztec figure, among others. Deer statues also covered in camo stand in a grass plot, and in the midst of a painted spill by the baby wall. A documentary was airing about the making of the walls. Testimony was given by several of the artists, who often gestured to the relationship between art and gentrification, that they are agents of neigborhood transformation, and voiced ambivalence about it. The “placemaker” Tony Goldman claimed that the project—to market Wynwood, a rugged neighborhood, as an art district was the “greatest risk taking” and noted that they use some of the “grit” in the neighborhood but not all of it “because there is a lot of grit.” Gaia in his clip noted that the artists make neighborhood transformation happen “for better or worse” and that Wynwood was a “gated community” which made it a museum where “art goes to die” or could be called a “vibrant art spaces.”

This ambivalence is well warranted. Repeatedly we see that transforming neighborhoods into arts areas has salutary effects on the local economy, but also problematic results for existing low to middle income residents who cannot afford either increased rent, or increased cost of living. The question becomes, who is art for, how does it relate to its environment, and what are the stakes of its non existence?

These questions are of course situational, varying from context to context, but Goldman’s comment about “grit” tells us something else about how the idea of “urban decay” works socially. Wynwood is a place of too much “grit” Goldman’s comment seems to suggest—the neighborhood is read architecturally, with little reference to the humans that occupy it. Indeed I only saw residents when I went down a wrong street, and then noticed people hanging out on porches, kids on corners, watching art-goers watch art. The function of art then is to correctly reorder spaces and surfaces, making them cleaner, less gritty. It is an interesting strategy, because the production of wall art is typically a messy enterprise involving vast amounts of waste, fumes, and in the case of the carved piece, creating more debris. It is not a subtraction but an addition. But not a simple one, because it changes the kinds of capital flows going into the neighborhood, flows of bodies circulating around it, representations framing it in publications of various sorts. The enterprise is “risky” not just for the investor but for the neighborhood, generating a series of unpredictable effects.

What is telling in Gaia’s comment about Wynwood being “gated” is that his conclusion actually might be the opposite, or modified. The art within the Wynwood walls does not go there to die per se because it is much more protected from vandalism, the elements, and being torn down or repainted by wall owners than many of the other works in the surrounding neighborhood, but it is precisely this lack of uncertainty, the safety guaranteed to the objects that makes them lose their life force, because public art is public exactly by being in a space of the unknown, the up for grabs, the utterly contingent. These works run the risk not of physically being destroyed but of becoming visual zombies.

Some of the artists I’ve talked to also painting around Wynwood: Quake, Haste, Sloke, Stef, they have explained that work is not expected to be permanent. That it is about evolution and movement. So while wall art is fixed, spatially, it is not fixed in terms of its meaning. While what the opportunity I had to witness was lively, exciting, and vibrant, well framed by documentary material, what I fear is the risk of gated art spaces succumbing to the fate of dead, pinned butterflies in a collectors case: to become frozen spectacles of something that once generated movement and thought, becoming mere cadavers.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Art Basel Day 1: Commiserating with Lorraine O’Grady/Madamoiselle Bourgeoisie and Adrianne Piper

So this is a rather vent-y post. I have never been to a Biennale although reading about them in art and critical theory journals to an academic they seem like a place to be the kid in the proverbial candy store. So with great excitement, and a little trepidation I sallied forth to Miami Beach. I woke up early to go to the first of the Conversations, a series of public talks held in an auditorium of the Miami Beach Convention Center. Wandering out Convention Center Drive I found what seemed like a plausible entrance (all of the buildings are white and City Hall is immediately before the Hall, and during my frantic walk there were few people) by following a skinny-tight-butt-fitting slacks wearing man with a beard and Ray-bans who was walking with a purpose to Hall C. There I encountered one of what became a quadrant of pink shrug wearing ushers. Fur, stacked heels, an array of white pants and slacks, coiffed hair, designer glasses, slightly irregular and thus highly modern skirt cuts, perfectly done makeup, manicured nails, and crisp hip suit jackets confronted me in the white hallway, with a white fabric hanging between the hall and the lecture room. The lecture room was set up with three sets of white chairs, facing a white screen, and with white benches in the back. Already mostly full, I sat on the bench, watching the cornicopia of people come in. After the start of the presentation, a “conversation” in which Michelle Kuo gave Gabriel Orozco different prompts to discuss various elements of his oeuvre, multiple more people filed in, this time including students looking more like myself with backbacks, scruffed up jeans, and imperfect hair, other men with half unbuttoned shirts, and an ordered chaos of facial hair. Lest the reader think that this has become a (poorly written) fashion blog, I will remind that these spectators, and also often exhibitors were styling themselves self-consciously as an art-appreciating public. And my observation and argument, which I will try to flesh out anecdotally is that the construction of elite art publicity requires a level of aggression in display, manner, and forms of engagement with work (and others). The why I am not sure of, though I’d hazard a guess that it has something to do with exclusive models of property ownership related to the economic structure of the gallery.

Criticisms of the gallery/museum are old news. I know this. My work, which deals with public art contains an implicit desire to refuse to prioritize the gallery space, and has drawn on the important work of scholars such as Rosalyn Deutsche, among others. However what I miss in reading such criticisms is the phenomenological problem, the felt exigence that moves these writers to critique. I experienced such a movement at Art Basel.

During the talk, the bodies filing in late had nowhere to stand but in an increasing pileup in the back corners of the room, and in front of the back bench, or on the floor. Because of space issues these overflow-folks would end up standing in front of we bench-sitters. Thus ensued a forty minute battle fought with innuendo and the poke of a program between a couple seated to my right, and whatever person dared stand in front of them. Vision was not so much relevant to this presentation: Orozco declared early on that the slide-show was screwed up and the images were not corresponding to his words. Perhaps the couple wanted to have the experience of a discord between sight and sound to theorize the gap between the signifier and the signifier, or they were protecting their space, or they couldn’t hear without seeing, or they were claustrophobic…but this miniature battle which I thought was amusing but aberrant only prefaced what was to come.

Waiting to go into the main exhibit a pileup occurred—the “well heeled” as an art magazine labeled the Art Basel public rushed the single usher at the entrance, insisting that their VIP status entitled them to entrance to the room inside which was in fact just another holding space. The usher became a body-machine which is to say that she reverted to repetition and politeness to soften the sarcastic and passive aggressive protests by patrons who needed to enter the gallery space 5 minutes early. “Please, only exhibitors, show your exhibitors passes only. The show does not open until NOON exhibitors only.” A larger man stormed up to her, blind to the two lines long that he walked through. “Can I help you sir?” She asked “I am a VIP.” “Sir, the exhibit is not yet open, please wait a few minutes and then you can enter. “But I have a VIP pass.” And so it continued. It created a bloat, a knot at the front of the line. The usher called for security support. At 12:02 I felt a surge and we were propelled forward. I wondered if I would experience my first trampling not at any of the music festivals I’ve gone to, but at Art Basel Miami. I also wondered what really the rush was since the art was for the most part, fixed.

The convention floor was a maze, organized by gallery dealer, not by artist, which facilitates buyers in locating work that they have searched out, but makes for a strange experience conceptually. Five minutes in I heard a woman ask “Can we buy this one?” The only thing that seemed to have visibility were dealers, buyers, and the art. It was a tad dangerous to step back to look at a work from far away because I had gotten run into several times. Champagne carts flitted around the plastic “gardens” set up: ingenious plots of Astroturf and fake hills to recline on, and there were no water fountains anywhere. The condition of viewing the work then, without buying $4 water, is light-headedness.

Eating a $12 dollar piece of spinach pie because I’d foolishly forgotten to bring my lunch I looked around the dining area. Champagne, wine, and beer bottles flowered. Collagen lips proliferated. A well-groomed dog sat on the lap of a well-coiffed woman who later showed the dog an exhibit by Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth about overconsumption, forgetting, violence and oppressive immigration policy. I wondered if the dog counted as a child under 16, or had to pay the $40 day pass fee, since it was not visibly a student. The bananas overflowing from the green VW van that was part of the exhibit had not yet fully matured Paulo said, and sometimes people don’t notice ripening in the U.S. because everything is consumed so fast.

There was an unbelievable amount of interesting, beautiful, and well-executed work. My issue is not exactly with the art itself but what the Biennale environment makes of it. How can a work, ranging from the polemical to the oblique, generate reflexive thought when the possibility of having an intimate relation with the work is severely curtailed? It was hopeful, and helpful, to see animated student groups. Not everyone was rude, pushy, and overbearing. Watching participants play with Louise Bourgeoise’s “12 Mirrors” piece demonstrated how when the work calls for physical and emotional engagement without the necessity of purchase, it can create sociality. There was diversity in language, dress, gender, nationality—however not economically. I longed for Adrienne Piper to calmly remind walkers by about the assumptions they were making about art, identity, and privilege, and for Mlle Bourgeoisie to storm in, making a hubbub, forcing people to stop waving their business cards around like swords and just really look at the damn art.

I have not yet gone to “Art Public” the public art exposition officially linked to the festival, so this account is by no means complete or exhaustive. Galleries themselves are not all oppressive. In the Wynwood Art District there was a huge amount of experimentation with medium, form, publicity. But what I experienced phenomenologically was a need to create a space, a break, to literally step away from the elite and monied universe of the convention center proper.

So now I have an experience based reason to say that I am more interested in, drawn to, and able to dwell around public art. After three hours I went to see the live mural/graffiti painting that the guys from CBS-Lords Crew had told me about at Meeting of Styles in Chicago. Haste said “This stuff you will notice, it is different than the stuff we did at Meeting of Styles—it is in the context of an art festival, and it is showing that graffiti can work in a fine art context.” The site specificity of many of these walls evinced the promise and possibility that public art can create a form of publicity that is responsive, generous, and intimate. There were dogs too, but these dogs would walk on their own four legs, and were participating in Occupy Art Basel performances.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Meeting of Styles Mexico: SWER Interview

SWER started writing in 1998, and has lived in both California and Mexico. He was my translator in addition to letting me do an interview, and getting to hang out with him and his crew, 1810 helped me learn a lot about how graffiti is a way of creating informal families across borders, and share national memories. 1810 crew stands for "revolution and destruction" and Swer, and his crew mates, argue that it is a way to remember the Mexican revolution in the United States and to continue revolution. It suggests that contemporary Mexican graffititeros/as are the present-day heirs of Revolutionary muralism, maybe not in form or content, but in spirit. Thanks to Swer for all of his help, and his insight.

C: When did you start writing?

S: I started writing back in 1998, I was around 14 years old and I was in high school—I mean middle school.

C: What made you get started?

S: It was because at the time a lot of my friends were doing graffiti and I really liked the style they had. I wanted to put my name up, I started doing my name first, in notebooks, and everywhere I could.

C: What name do you write?

S: Swer- 1810.

C: What does Swer mean?

S: Swer – means a lot for me, its like the other part of my self that does graffiti and it has a lot of meaning. Its just my second face.

C: What does 1810 mean?

S: 1810 means freedom and destruction and we started 1810 because it is a Mexican year of independence so we really want to represent something Mexican in the US so we started doing 1810.

C: Where did you get your style from?

S: Basically its from California. I started in California. I had to go to Califonia because my parents lived there at the time and I started looking at Saber, Twister, Revoke, all of these big people. I got influenced by all o them. King 157. Jyan, Jace, a lot of cool writers at the time in 1999 when I went to California so that got me crazy.

C: how did you find out about MOS?

S; The first MOS I knew of was in Europe, and from Europe they went to the US and from the US they went to Mexico. I’ve only been here in Mexico for two years and so this is my first time at the Meeting of the Styles.

C: What’s been the best part of it for you?

S: The best part is all the people you get to know, that really like your work, that come and ask for your signature or tag on their books, and how they try to talk to you and be like ‘you are a good writer.’ I like to be with all my friends, because this is where I get to know everybody.

C: and what is the most frustrating part?

S: Getting a spot. And getting paint.

C: How would you feel if MOS ended?

S: It would be sad because it’s the one time a year we get to stay together with all of our friends that we don’t really paint anymore together we try to be here together just that one day. So it is a point of reunion for everybody the meeting of the styles. Its just like kicking it with everybody.

C: how do you document your work?

S: Pictures. I go to flikr sometimes. I just am always hoping that someone will take a photo of my work because sometimes I do not always get all of the pictures when its illegal/legal.

C: How do you feel when your work gets gone over?

S: It makes me go up there and make another one, not in the same spot, but it makes me paint harder, bigger and better.

C: Who do you think the audience is for MOS?

S: I think everybody. Like kids, family, all the families that come here and appreciate your work. I see kids today and they are talking to me and the dad and the mom, even a mom asked me for my signature today so its crazy.

C: do you think its important to see international artists and if so why?

S: Yes, it is important because it is like we are all getting together. Its not about who is the best, its about all of us painting together. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you come from Europe, if you come from the US, it doesn’t matter. Because if we paint together you are going to learn from me and I am going to learn from you.

C: How do you define graffiti?

S: Graffiti is life, its sacrifice, its everything. You have to be ready to leave many many things to do graffiti.

C: For example?

S: Your family, relationships, sometimes its even work. Sometimes you don’t work because you want to do graffiti.

C: What do you think graffiti can do to help communities, to help Mexico?

S: I think graffiti can help communities by supporting the artists, not just by giving them the spot, but by supporting them and keeping them going, and there are a lot of good artists here. But the government doesn’t care about them they just want to make money, and it’s a waste of talent.

C: If the government supported graffiti artists more would it change things in Mexico?

S: A lot. How—it wouldn’t be just here in Mexico, we could go all over the world, we could do many different things. Because graffiti is just one dart that you [use] to open up your mind, and from there you go crazy, you do all kinds of different things.

C: What is the role of the artist in Mexico today?

S: Its hard. I’ve been here for two years and it is really hard to find a spot, to find a sponsor, to find someone to have your back. So its really hard.

C: Do you have any relationship to the Trés Grandes?

S: Yes. Rivera is my inspiration. My graffiti has nothing to do with him but the way he thinks and does his artwork inspires me to keep on doing my artwork, to be who I am today.

C: Is there anything else you want to say about graffiti?

S: I just want to say, be ready for everything. If you want to do graffiti do it because you love it, don’t look for the fame because fame is not at all here. Just do it because you love it and everything will come.

C: Awesome, thank you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"How Philly Moves": Unleashed Images, Community in Motion

Around 4pm JJ shakes the hand of a nervous woman, who just minutes before had been flinging her arms around her head, pulling her knees up to her chest, and moving her shoulders with such fluidity that I felt my own muscle tightness start to melt away, now standing with her arms crossed tight against her chest, says that she is not sure she will be any good. He says to her: “Anything you do will be perfect. The only person who can mess up is me, and I will, but I’ll also take some good pictures too.” The music starts, strong drum rhythms, and, she takes center stage, opens her eyes and explodes into motion, arms thrown out, knees bent, hands making circles like birds taking flight. JJ follows her around the stage, sitting, almost lying on the floor taking a low angled shot, and then on his knees keeping the camera in line with the rapidly moving dancer. While he continues moving, now walking around the dancer, he circles his left hand, like a catcher signals a pitcher, and the lights change to create a snowflake effect, magnifying the greens of the dancer’s shirt and the smile on her face. The person keeping records of who danced when, the even coordinator, and the sound technician shimmy in their seats. Myself and another runner dance and shout next to the risers. Four minutes later the music ends and we all are smiling.

Watching JJ Tiziou work I recall Ariella Azoulay’s writings on the civil contract of photography. She argues that we are not spectators, we are participants in a photographic situation, and that the subjects of a photo are also members of a civic sphere wherein they have the right to demand to be looked at. An open dance call in Old City Philadelphia certainly seems to have less overtly political stakes than the context that Azoulay writes about, ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine and the layers of gendered violence that emanates from a militarized public sphere, but its very ordinariness helps to lay bare the potential that photography, public photography, has to bring different people together.

Azoulay argues that photography finds notions of property and ownership “foreign,” (103) and that it is a vehicle for citizens to “actualize their duty toward other citizens as…a partnership of governed persons taking up their duty as citizens and utilizing their position for one another…” (104), it is a way to “rehabilitate one’s citizenship” (117) because we all have a duty to look, or rather, to watch (14), and such a duty has no end (137). In other words, taking a photo provides a way for viewers to acknowledge the lives and bodies of others, but it also provides a way for the photographed subject to revitalize their own capacity for public communication, even if it is mediated through the viewer. The photographer then does not own the photo but creates a public, collective scene of ongoing communication.

“How Philly Moves” was the brainchild of JJ who liked the idea of “public photography.” It began as a project that was supposed to be an installation in a subway station, but after it failed to get elected he continued working on it, and then proposed it for the Gateway project that the Philadelphia Department of Transportation and Philadelphia Mural Arts Program were working on. It was to be a large scale mural on the parking garage of the airport celebrating Philadelphia via images of Philadelphians—dancing. JJ said:

When I was putting together the proposal for Mural Arts, I started processing my work more in the public art realm and realizing that even though I didn’t have any solid installations on my resume a lot of the stuff I have done has fallen in that vein of celebrating communities through image making, and then sharing those images back with them directly, and sometimes that’s been in a temporary slideshow projection kind of digital installation and sometimes stuff through the web that ends up all over people’s facebook profiles and stuff like that. […]The photography realm has changed a lot with the transition to digital [media] and it has made it so much easier to share imagery. It’s a different model. I feel like there are so many people practicing photography as a public art without thinking about it that way. […] I make these images and I can share them straight with my audience. I don’t have to exhibit anywhere, I just upload them to the web. (Interview March 2011)

Often photography occurs in public, in advertisements, for purposes of surveillance and control, and in portraiture, but it is not always for and of a broader public. Current presumptions about ownership and copyright dictates that photographs are the domain of their producers, the photographers, not the photographed, or viewers that want to repurpose them. Unofficial laws about beauty and power dictate who can even be a photographic subject. For an art that has such a technical capacity to be used by nearly everyone, and the reach almost every corner of the globe, it is controlled, and represents a very few in the mass media public sphere. JJ explains:

Everyone photographs the same way you know like when they are comfortable when they are excited when you have that real smile at that real moment you can get beautiful images of them and it has nothing to do with what their background is nothing to do with what situation they are in and how much money they have and everything else if they are comfortable and they are happy you are going to get a good image of them. It has to be well lit and everything else but its definitely something where my eyes tell me that there is a sort of universal value to everyone, but, the media market tells me that some people are more valuable than others. And there’s a big disconnect there between some of my priorities and the mainstream media markets, and I find a lot of value in creating imagery about the communities that I respond to and that I value inherently and then in sharing those images directly with them. (Interview March 2011)

JJ’s comments illuminate the capacity that photography has to make things public by making them accessible, not just in terms of photographic subjects receiving their images over the web and then being able to share them, but also that everyone can be photographed and everyone can be photographed well. The medium of the photographic still also equalizes dancers by showing crucial moments, rather than letting viewers criticize their technical abilities as one would in a longer film sequence. Finally, JJ uses his own photography as an equalizing model by making “bad shots” available as well, opening up the editing process by breaking with the notion that the photographer (auteur) knows best and instead allowing for a larger set of people to apply their varied perspectives and investments in the photos by using and disseminating them on their own, via facebook and other social networking devices.

It is precisely the idea of community actualized at the level of emotional (affective) attachment that attracts me to this project. Even though it has received large scale publicity as a “Gateway” project, a new “postcard” for the city (How Philly Moves Mural Site) which seems to suggest that it communicates at an abstract, global level, it in fact works on the level of the “hyperlocal” (TIziou). As a project that has appeared on the 36th street storefront, on the Kimmel Center at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, online, at Gallery East on 9th Street and Market, on the airport parking lot and in terminal B it is about different kinds of mobilities (how Philadelphia(ns) move). It also performs mobility in communication and emotional networking as well by having multiple potential sites of inscription and actualization, but all of these sites, across the city, link back to concrete bodies (of the dancers), experiences and memories that shape their movements that are incredibly intimate. However the content of these different dances condensed in the bodies of the performers and represented in JJ’s photos also testify to the way that this “hyperlocal” is also transnational at the same time—it demonstrates the multiple scales and spatialities that collide in any urban space and community.

Greeting dancers and then walking them up to the performance space at Christ Church Neighborhood House during the fourth photo shoot I saw tribal belly dancers, Moroccan belly dancers, Irish step dancers, West African dance, East African dance, rhythm tap, ballet, modern, a traditional Indian dancer, an Indonesian dance collective, hip hop that had a kind of west coast languid flavor, an eight yer old in a sequined go-go outfit doing the mashed potato and other 1950s sock hop moves, and free form club dancing. These different styles have a multiplicity of origins, and for some dancers tether them to homes that are elsewhere (India, Africa, Indonesia, Ireland), or to a certain vision of America (1950s bee bop, 1940s images of Uncle Sam and the Good War), or to a certain sense of themselves (learning about how their bodies feel different after disease, after age, after childbirth, all contained in a four minute dance).

What the airport mural, and other expositions of the photos offer, is not a neat picture of how to understand and consume Philadelphia, but a complicated, emotionally charged set of connections that spill outside Philadelphia’s borders, overlap in different ways within it, and create an image that is explosive, blurry, and constantly in motion. Asking JJ about whether he worried that “How Philly Moves” might turn into “How Philly’s Marketed” he noted:

I think its challenging because these things this project is trying to touch on is on the hyperlocal. Its on the level of the individual. And so much of what Philly has that’s amazing is its skill and its communities and its people and its hard to some that up in a glib advertising slogan. Sure, how Philly moves can be the next advertising slogan for the city and they could do billboards and ad campaigns and what not but its something where you know I think that when you are really trying to reach a broader audience through the mass media sometimes you have to simplify the message a little bit. Because I guess I haven’t looked a whole lot about how Philly is marketed, I know “Philly is more fun when you sleep over” and those “dear such and such letters” and… what I hear from a lot of friends like visitors is [go see the] Liberty Bell and [eat] cheese steaks-- that is what Philadelphia is. Those are both great but there is so much more …it is hard to go out and find out and hear about that stuff but its so worth because there is no lack of exciting things to get involved with and people who are actively working to make the city better, more livable, more just for all, more beautiful and safe. The thing is that if you like stay at home and kind of watch TV and don’t get out and get involved beyond main media campaigns its hard to access. You have to seek it out. (Interview March 2011)

JJ explains powerfully how communities are complex and can never be presented on a silver platter. What his comment also evinces is that one can never fully know or grasp the entirety of a city. In a sense, cities and their communities have a level of opacity, they are in motion and escape being pinned down or captured.

What the “How Philly Moves” photo shoots offer then is a civil contract that has no definite endpoint—they generate conversations, friendships, emotional connections, and lines of potential that run ahead of any neat advertising campaign. The photographer, photographic subject, and viewer occupy equal positions with respect to interpreting, creating, and disseminating the photography. Even though the mural that resulted from the first three photoshoots created a grand tableau that is technically fixed in space, the images themselves resist becoming static. Their blurred edges and sometimes obscured features (due both to the architectural impediments of the parking garage itself and rapid movement of the dancers and blurred faces as a result), along with the fact that it is a painting of a photographic still, not a film, leaves it up to the viewer to wonder what might happen next. The image does not try to show all. It is precisely this uncertainty, and wonder, that makes it possible, and necessary to continue the task of constructing and reconstructing community through image making.


Azoulay, Ariella. The Civil Contract of Photography. Zone Books, New York: 2008.

Tiziou, JJ. Interview with Caitlin Bruce, March, 2011.

Many thanks to JJ, Rachel Kantra Beal, and the other volunteers who let me share and learn at this event.