Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sandy and the 9/11 Construction Site: Is Rebuilding] differently enough

Disaster imaged by a city icon under threat. In several Hollywood blockbusters key icons from New York City’s landscape are turned into detritus, attacked, or mobilized, in various circumstances. A meme floating around facebook  enthymematically gestures to a cannon of New York disaster films, including Ghost Busters II, Godzilla, and, not included, Planet of the Apes. In the recent images from Hurricane Sandy’s landing on New York shores one of the many chilling images that caught my attention was the above image of Ground Zero construction site flooding.

It is a beautiful image, water cascading like a waterfall from the flat construction site bove, filtering through various tunnels and scaffolding to create a variegated crystalline flow that breaks above the lower level below, almost like the terraces in Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water house.  

In a way, spatially, disasters of two kinds: one the result of geopolitical distributions of resentment, terror, U.S. Empire, and an assortment of motives known and beyond knowing, but decidedly linked to human calculation, and another, the seeming blunt and faceless vengeance of Mother Nature at her worst. However, Hurricane Sandy is not some deus ex machina turned foul, it is the result of decades of overconsumption, lax environmental policy, careful attempts at sidestepping difficult collective decisions, and the residues of disasters felt in third and fourth world coastal cities to an even greater degree.  The image evidences the profound vulnerability that we all face vis a vis “nature” in an era of global warming. Further, it illuminates the threat of profound loss, a wound so great that it floods the capacity to remember and even honor its own memory, in the wake of natural disasters beyond reckoning.

The relationship was made clear to me while on a phone call with my mother. My family is all located on the East Coast. “I couldn’t sleep last night.” I said “The images, the destruction, it is frightening to know your home town is getting the crap beat out of it.” She answered: “I couldn’t either. That hum from the train, buses, cars, the normal noises. It was quiet. It was like 9/11. That eerie quiet.” The hunched shoulders, tight breathe, and sense of foreboding that I’d felt the last 48 hours, to the point of calling my family every four hours to check in on them, made a certain sense. The sense of betrayal that I was not physically there.

Among humorous references to New Yorkers “preparing” for the Hurricane by stocking up bottles of wine and complaining  what reveals is an affective economy of fear, and anxiety  that reveals not so much through public statements, though some, such as Governor Cuomo have at least admitted the need for rebuilding differently because of "greater frequency of flood patterns", but more importantly, through images.

Images of a transformer exploding , of a building façade crumbling,

 of a crane hanging of the side of a several story tall building: everyday objects, architectural tools or components of structures taking on a life of their own and becoming threatening. Uncanny.

But the image of the 9/11 memorial also, for me, unlocks a central component of Hurricane Sandy’s landfall that provides an instructive link between the trauma and tragedy of a city under terrorist attack, and a city under assault by nature: both require a more careful, and collective response, and in a bizarre way, both highlight the potential for care and compassion latent in New York City, a city largely defined as callous and “rude.”

The images reveal an anxiety about agency: how do we respond to, prepare for forces that are seemingly beyond our control, and more forebodingly, threaten to erase every human effort at remembering, and responding to disaster?

Ariella Azoulay argues that analyzing images helps us make sense of complex situations. Although she discusses images of quotidian violence in the militarized daily life of Israel-Palestine, her insight is helpful in a broader context. The images taken by journalists, and everyday citizens illuminates a desire to make sense of a situation seemingly beyond any individual’s control, a desire to hold on to some agency, and to care for a history the physical traces of which are vulnerable to being washed away in a very powerful storm. 

I am extremely lucky that those close to me are warm, and dry. I know that millions across the globe are not so fortunate and my prayers and good wishes go out to them. A discussion has been going on via images, and dialogue, for several years about the need to live in a more sustainable way with nature, and with each other. To make difficult decisions about changing consumption and energy use patterns. What the 9/11 memorial/Sandy image reveals is that crisis is not a one time occurrence. It has complex histories, pasts and futures. The nearest approximate to coherent action we can take is to think about how to work more holistically, and collectively to thinking about the distribution of disaster, risk, and vulnerability globally, and attempting to work towards understanding responsibility, rather than merely piling up sandbags. The flood can always burst through.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"American History 2000-2012": Empire, War, and the Media Through the Eyes of Gaye Lub

Gaye Lub contacted me in early October to let me know that she had been working on a public art project entitled "American History 2000-2012: A Visual History of Our 21st Century." Looking at her  website I was surprised and interested to see a series of dense panels, almost like the covers of the gossip magazines that might be found near the checkout line in a supermarket. However, the images were not of airbrushed (or "revealed") stars, but rather images from newspapers, what appear to be screen grabs from news shows, and looming hulking icons of Americana. Each panel depicts a different year, with thirteen total each at 296 square feet, spanning 70 feet when place side by side (email with artist). Lub describes the project as a "mirror," but it is a reflection of historical events that perforns the desperate non-sense that animated Bush administration War on Terror policies, the almost nauseating slew of images spat out at an American public, and the process of forgetting necessarily imbued in the media attempts to create consumeable sound-bytes. Lub posts the work on her website, as well as having shown it in her studio, at the 2012 Burning Man festival, and more recently at the junior college near her home, as well as at a Peace Awards Dinner in Walnut Creek, California, this Saturday, which will be attended Congresswoman Barbara Lee, among other denizens. Importantly, Lub makes her images open source explaining that they "belong to US [U.S.?]. They are our history." An interesting attempt to navigate the morass of media, memory, and politics, what follows is an interview I conducted with Lub via email about her recent work. Photographs of the Burning Man display were kindly provided to me by the artist to supplement the interview text. 

Interview Transcript Begins:

1.     Beginnings: On your website you explain that you began doing work in stained class. How did you become involved in art, when, and why?
I’ve always liked working with my hands. When I was a teenager I took a class at the local college in drawing and realized I really enjoyed it. A few years later I was experimenting with Stained Glass. Within months I quit my job and was supporting myself as a street artist, getting a lot of commissions for custom work. I continued taking classes and became trained in working with mixed mediums, glass, clay, paint, wood, metal, etc. In my mid 20’s I was working with a studio that taught me how to sand blast glass. This developed into a business where I sand carved and hand painted wine bottles for the local industry. NOTE: I live in Napa Valley, CA. I ended up designing and producing art wine bottles for 120 wineries and almost 200 corporations. Many of these bottles were used for promotional events and special auctions. Some of my bottles sold at auctions for over $200,000. U.S.D. During this time I also designed my own line of designer bottles that I sold wholesale and retail, nationally and internationally.
Working 60 up to 80 hours a week took it's toll. I sold my business to concentrate on being a mother and a wife. As my children were growing I started teaching art classes at the local school as a docent. I did this for 10 years working with kids in preschool up to the 8th grade. I got up to producing 17 classes a year. This was one of my favorite times of my life.
Working with computer graphics was a natural progression on how to manage the photos we were taking and marketing concepts I prepare for my husbands company.
Two years ago we renovated an 8-stall horse barn on our property. I got a new studio. This was exciting because I have many projects that wanted to get finished. As I looked around at what were my options, where to start first, I realized that the images I’d been collecting on current events were time sensitive, if I was ever going to do something with them the time was now. In October 2011 I started working on “American History 2000 – 2012” and finished it in August. Actually it’s not finished. 2012 is the final panel in this series and should be complete in March 2013.
The question you ask “Why did I become involved in art” can only be answered that it felt good. I enjoyed creating beautiful things and watching people enjoy them.
Making art all my life has felt good, until this project.

2.     Can you speak about your aesthetic style: what influences you? What or whom do you find helpful in finding forms of expression?

I’ve been collecting images all my life based on art, form, design, color etc. If I wanted to paint a picture but didn’t feel confident that I knew exactly how to put the components together I would go to my files and choose images based on how they related to what I wanted to see. I would use these images for inspiration. I also love to go to galleries and museums. I’ve had the opportunity to travel and study history while visiting great museums in the Mid-East, Far East, Central and South America, Europe, Canada and the U.S.
Note: The artwork I’ve produced prior to “American History 2000 – 2012” was based on feeling good. My art, my happiness was showing the recipient viewer whimsical beauty.  My job was to create joy, until this project.
Because I am affected by visual imagery when 9/11 happened I was traumatized. We all were. Because I could not get away from the images, they were everywhere, I started collecting them and putting them in boxes. It felt like if I put them in the boxes I didn’t have to hold them inside of me.
Working on this project has been very intense. I’ve had to concentrate deeply getting lost in time. When people see it in invokes a lot of response, primarily memory and fear. I had a lot of questions and have received many answers. I have more questions and feel a responsibility to show this collection to the U.S. It’s not just me. We all witnessed what this collection represents. I’m not the only one feeling the repercussions.

3.     On your website you post a video where you discuss the impact that 9/11 had on you, that it caused fear, but also fear surrounding the images from the mass media that we were bombarded with. You mention that one goal for the work is to help people remember. Can you discuss how the process of memory potentially inspired by your work relates to your concerns about democracy, and it’s being under threat?

WOW! Good Question!
I’ve witnessed most people see first and hear second. Visual imagery is a mirror reflecting what is going on around us and inside of us.
In Wikipedia the first words that describe Democracy are: Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.
Do you agree with this?
NOTE: Democracy is a form of government in which ALL ELIGIBLE CITIZENShave an EQUAL SAY in the DECISIONS that AFFECT THEIR LIVES.
This isn’t happening. I feel the name America has been high jacked and the word Democracy is being used to invade other countries.
Through visual images we are told what is going on around us.  “American History 2000 – 2012” reminds us that we watched 9/11, went to war, learned about the Middle East and learned new words like Al-Qaida, Taliban, Weapons of Mass Destruction and War on Terror.
We got easy credit. Consumerism skyrocketed and than the credit ran out.  We lost our jobs, our new or refinanced homes, our pensions and dreams for the future.
Unemployment skyrocketed; budget cuts hit all sectors of our lives. We realized that the stores we shop in are filled with imported items and question what happened to American factories. We hear that Global Warming is real, our food is being genetically altered and our health is challenged,
At a time when we are involved in two CREDIT CARD wars our nations financial structure collapses as military spending increases. We found out that there were NO Weapons of Mass Destruction;  “No Draft” means were going to Outsource; and the population is not 100% convinced that there was a plane that actually hit the Pentagon nor aware that THREE buildings were leveled to the ground at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
The only time that Public Voice really made an impact and received serious news coverage was when Occupy inspired millions.  That was last year. What happened?
Who benefited: The Weapons Industry, Pharmaceutical Industry, Oil Industry, Banking Industry, Shipping Industry and Overseas Manufacturing.  I don’t feel our government benefitted except for a few individuals who I call War Profiteers. 
We’ve been projected imagery that the idea of what is happening is OK or that we can only witness because others are taking care of it!  There have been times we’ve been encouraged to look the other way because it felt better. It’s been an emotional pull of strings that has had serious consequences. That’s what “American History 2000 – 2012” captures.  This collection reminds us to Pay Attention!

4.     Who is the audience for your work? You mention "we," "us," the "American people," but there are many ideological, political and social divisions within American society.

I feel this collection is important. I would like it to be seen in Museums, Galleries, on the TV, in locations where people can take time to ponder what it represents, at social events where people want to work to make a difference, in universities. 
This collection is nonpartisan. People need to come to their own conclusions. There is a story here but it’s also a research piece to remember our own history and how current events affected us individually.

5.     Where has your work been displayed (physically and virtually)? How do these different exhibition spaces change the potential meaning that viewers might get from the work? You mention you had a show at your studio August 12, what city was this in? What did viewers say?

August 12, 2012 was the first viewing of “American History 2000 – 2012” at my studio in Napa Valley, CA. This was the first time I actually saw the collection together, in chronological order, full size. There were over 100 guests.
Two weeks later the panels went to Burning Man 2012 Black Rock City, Nevada, where they were installed with a theme camp called “Fractal Nation”.
The day before we left for Burning Man we launched the website: gayelub.com and later americanhistory2000-2012.com.
The pieces have been on display in my studio in Napa Valley since Burning Man. Currently they are on their way to an event Saturday night where two congressmen, actually one congresswoman and one congressman will be attending. This is the first time that a government political official will see them.
Next Monday and Tuesday I am presenting a PowerPoint presentation to classes at the local Jr. College. The classes are titled “Political Science Philosophy” and “Ethics”. I’m curious to see the reactions of the viewers at these opportunities.  Beyond next week I have no commitments to show the pieces. Two local galleries have expressed interests in featuring them. Time will tell where they go next.
To Date: The main comment I’ve heard about this body of work is “Thank You”. It has been and continues to be a lot of space to hold, physically and mentally.

6.     Can you please talk about the process of making the posters? You mention in the interview videos that it was a way of "making sense" a sort of "therapeutic" or cathartic process. How so? And in the final product, in what ways does the work help viewers make sense of the post 9/11 world, or is it in fact just a reflection of the chaotic media scope that we are confronted with on a daily basis?

This work was done VIA computers. Taking images and scanning them into the computer invoked me to study more about what the images represented. I ended up making data bases with large contents of information. Most of the time it did not make sense. I was able to take information, print it out and string data together in a way that I could see it more clearly. I started to recognize patterns. I had moments I left my studio screaming and crying. I actually had two moments when my hands started shaking.
I’m still trying to make sense of it all but feel I have a better understanding. The main thing I want people to realize is not to feel guilty. We did not have control of many events that happened the past 12 years. During the Bush Era, so much happened very quickly.  Government, corporations, think tanks and industry pushed us to the edge and over. The panels also are a reflection to pay attention to what’s going on around you. America still has the impression that our voices can be heard.
The chaotic media scope we are subjected to makes me question how much of what we see is real and how much is theatre, is this real life drama or acting.

7.     You call your work a "mirror." Can you explain a little about what you mean in calling it a "mirror"? Why was it surprising to hear it called "political"?

When you look into a mirror you see an imprint of the image in front of you. Imagine that the collages are mirrors imprinting images into your mind. I call the work a “mirror” because I am reflecting back images that were imprinted in my mind. These images were seen national[ly]  and global[ly] .  I am not the only one who saw them.   
It surprised me to hear the collages being tagged “Political”.
Political makes me feel like we have to take a side and that it’s referenced to government. The collages are nonpartisan. Yes! They represent actions by government but also the Weapons Industry, Pharmaceutical Industry, Oil Industry, Banking Industry, Financial Institutions, Shipping Industry, Overseas Manufacturing and Think Tanks through media. It shows statistical data on how we were affected.
Remember ,“American History 2000 – 2012” is new. I’m still learning what it represents. It’s developing. There are moments it has a life of it’s own, moments I feel like a tool being used to guide it.
Currently the energy behind being tagged Political is shifting. It’s being called Cultural and Social.

8.     You have shown your work at Burning Man recently. For someone who does not know much about Burning Man, can you provide some context for how it was displayed (physical design and arrangement), and reactions it engendered? If there is a specific story or anecdote you have about a viewer's reaction to the piece that would be interesting to hear.

Burning Man is a like being at a circus and we are all part of the act. It’s amazing. Also imagine that you are on another planet in harsh desert conditions and this is large community that you live with. Again Amazing! I sent you 10 photos to view of the panels at Burning Man.
Something important to note is the support I received at Burning Man and from my families and friends.
1.     My husband is my ROCK that gave me the foundation to have the time and place to do this project.
2.     My children and friends fed me for months including sliding food to me when I could not be disturbed. Also my family and friends did get to see, remember and advise me on the panels as I was designing them.
3.     Family and Friends helped with the printing, framing and production of the panels we took to Burning Man. 13 panels, spanning 70 feet across, 296 square feet in total size.
4.     Representatives from Fractal Nation – Camp / Burning Man 2012 stayed at my home, helped with the completion of the building of the project and witnessed the first showing on August 12th
     When we arrived at Burning Man they had already set poles and made it easy to hang the panels. They also designed a lighting system so it could be viewed at night. Please Note: Burning Man can and did have harsh weather. Dust storms are persistent with winds 20 up to 70 M.P.H.
I am very grateful to all of the people that helped and encouraged me that this project is important.
At Burning Man I witnessed a lot of activity around the project. Sometimes I would just watch and sometimes I would interact telling people specific data and where to get more information. There were over 60,000 people at Burning Man this year. I imagine that at least 15,000 saw the pieces and 1,000 really spent a lot of time studying it.

9.     Have you received criticism for this work? What did critics say?

Truthfully NO! I think it surprise people. Actually people give me ideas on what they think I should do next. When you first see the panels they are beautiful, colorful and than you look into it and it sort of hits you in the gut. It’s not a piece that makes you happy but it is a piece that makes you think.

10.  If you can update me a little about the reaction students at the Junior College have to the work, and at the Peace Award dinner later this month that would be wonderful.

Will Do!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Death, Mariachis and the Loop: John Jota Leaños' "Imperial Silence," Some Commentary

Skirting the line between playful and didactic, John Jota Leaños' opera, "Imperial Silence: Una Ópera Muerta," cajoles, threatens, offends, and woos the viewer using a medley of dance, singing, music, digital media, all drawing on elements from Día de los Muertos, in Mexican public culture, as well as live political issues in the Americas more broadly.  Themes emerge: the forgotten, the ignored, violence, celebration.  The four act piece opens with flamenco steps as the two virtuoso dancers burst onto the stage wearing, as all the players do, a striking assemblage of peasant style dress, and skeleton makeup turning their movements into a literal dance of the dead.  The "Los Cuatro Vientos," four mariachi singers/musicians ever-present both narrating and interceding in the various dramas depicted on screen, also wear skeletal paint, with sequins attached to the curves of their bones to better reflect their internal structure.  Proceeding from the first act, "Los ABCs !Qué Vivan los Muertos!" which is rendered in the style of a children's reading primer, illustrating the fate of Abu, to our Homey "who was capped in the ass," and again, to the refrain "Yes, our Homey who was capped in the ass," illustrated by cartoons of child-like skeletons on screen experiencing nuclear atrocity, torture, gassing, murder, neglect, and so forth.  Macabre, and also hilarious.  Act II presents "Deadtime Rhymes with Mariachi Goose and Friends," an animated series wherein Little Red Riding Hood becomes a gangster conspiracy film, with Red becoming a violent protagonist, the Wolf a neurotic victim, and Humpty-Dumpty a love-lorn mariachi, the paramour of Rapunzel, and Snow White, her conniving sister a crime queen who rides in a "wagon" that bounces like a hydraulic cadillac and works with Red to plan the annihilation of Humpty-Mariachi, and the Seven Dwarves who are instead malicious thugs.  In various intermezzos the dancers appear, frantic feet tapping out violent rhythms, in a frenzy similar to that of the Red Slipper, performing the violent (erasure) of Mexican GI's who were murdered by their platoons, performing balletic acrobatics to conclude by giving the audience the finger, partner-dancing while switching the lead from male to female, scrambling masculinity as well harmony. Another intermezzo occurs with the cheerfully delivered song "The House that Blacks Built," chronicling the domination and aggression of whites against blacks and how now "Tra la la" who cleans the House but "A Mexican!"  Act III, "!Radio Muerto! y el Muertorider" tells the story of the Muertorider, a Cadillac with black and white woodcut prints with "La Katrina" in the hub, and various scenes of violence and neglect on its sides, showing its construction, circulation, targeting by the police, and even its career as a touristy showpiece and photo booth.  As the animated skeletal driver, presumably on Route 66, drives his lowrider, the ""Los Cuatro Vientos," play music, and then fade out as other programs are tuned in, with a focus on "Poor Radio" covering the "Poor," where a heart-rending tribute to the Poor Newscaster's dead mother is delivered, and the story of indigenous annihilation is told by RedBull the Noble Savage.  Finally, CNN and myopic news reporting is lampooned in Act IV: "DNN: Dead News Network," where the reporter called "Donasque Dontatella" who is "dead on the scene" tells the story of a "Million Muerto March," an occupation of the White House with unclear goals, the non reporting about Juarez occurs (and doesn't), as well as a blithe "Think Local act Global" spokesperson and "La Katrina" weatherwoman explain that the solution to global warming is a positive attitude and being "chill."

Impossible to fully describe given its wide topical range, aesthetic complexity, and that, importantly, it works as a spatial practice with the tonalities of the singers, physicality of the dancers, and the weird juxtaposition of bodied and disembodied voices and images that is performative and not merely textual, "Imperial Silence" illuminates the productive possibilities in encountering death as an aesthetic and cultural resources that should be collectively negotiated, not managed and held at bay, and again asks the question, what does it mean for us to negotiate memory, history, and violence aesthetically? It provides a provisional answer in the performance itself: director Jota Leaños stated at the opening of the matinee, that the production engages death in ways that are often written out in the U.S., and he explained to the audience"Some things might not taste as good as they look...so take what you like...experimental theater is about...serious play."

The notion of "serious play" in conjunction with death, both as theme and empirical inevitability importantly has its roots in what might be seen as an understanding of mortality and community that is actively worked out rather than repressed in Mexican culture.  In León, Guanajuato, when seeing the celebrated aerosol mural piece "Las Katrinas" outside the Nicholas graveyard, Wes told me, We see death here, in Mexico, and we can talk about it, a sentiment later underscored by Nikkis.

The Day of the Dead is an occasion for death to become a public art: worked out, practiced, communicated with, where mortality is understood not the end of but a crucial element of humanity.  It is apropos, then, that Jota Leaños uses death, in a sense all of the players in the opera are "Las Katrinas," as a quilting point through which multiple kinds of violence can be negotiated, republicized, and introduced into public memory.

The opera is chaotic, but so its violence, publicity, and morality.  The final rave scene is an exhuberant, carnivalesque, opaque performance of hyperstimulation, embodiment, and excessive enjoyment in the face of and potentially because of death.  
Octavio Paz notes: "Everything in the modern world functions as if death did not exit...But death enters into everything we undertake, and it is no longer a transition but a great gaping mouth that nothing can satisfy.  the century of health, hygeine and contraceptives, miracle drugs and synthetic foods, is also the century of the concentration camp and the police state, Hiroshima and the murder story...The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips.  The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love....The cult of life, if it is truly profound and total, is also the cult of death, because the two are inseparable.  A civilization that denies death ends by denying life...It is useless to exclude death form our images, our words, our ideas, because death will obliterate all of us, beginning with those who ignore it or pretend to ignore it." (Labyrinth of Solitude p. 57-60).

"Imperial Silence," then is a form of "serious play" for the audience; an occasion to meditate on and work intensely with the supposition: what would it mean for death to be integrated into life, and for us to personify, dance with, and account for death.  And what does it mean for the above to take place in a collective register?

This serious play, to play on words, does not intend for the above exercise to be fully comfortable: at every juncture the United States, and Whites, are implicated in ongoing schemes of erasure, domination, and violence of many kinds.  The female dancer, after allowing the audience to watch her and her partner elegantly move, and strike the floor with their feet, challenges such viewing privilege by giving the finger.  However, even the representation of violence is beautiful.  It is unfair, perhaps, to fault the venue for diluting some of the political heft of the piece because of its location, in the lovely theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art.  But it seems to me that the location is central:  announcing prior to the beginning of the Ópera Jota Leaños stated that the performance was not "for a tourist gaze" but for those of us who are cultural outsiders, who get to enjoy it, might it be?

Very smart scholars such as Phaedra Pezzulo have written extensively about the relationship between tourism and death, and how it can still be a politically redeeming endeavor.  Here, though, I want to put the accent, and perhaps the question mark alongside the question of enjoyment, and whether, in Jota Leaños' framing, we can distinguish among different kinds of enjoyment in ways that might yield more productively attuned forms of citizenship.  Specifically, how might place be implicated more critically in the performance itself?  Michigan Avenue is the consumptive-tourism hotspot in Chicago, and importantly, it is a place where visitors can have an anxiety free experience of urbanity- something that presents itself as metropolitan, but precisely without many discomforting scenes of poverty, violence, mental illness, infrastructural decay, emptiness, and racial tension.  It allows high-end retail stores to stand in synecdochically for Chicago as a whole, a Chicago that is home to thousands of Mexican immigrants, the site of immigration protests, local businesses, vibrant art scenes, gang activity, church activity, stoop dwelling, informal economies, and so forth.  Chicago is a place where death is zoned geographically, and shootings in "safe" areas are highlighted as a surprise and ongoing street violence in "shady" areas is relegated to the normal.  So it is with profound gratitude, and interest that I got to see this performance of joy, death, and re-memorialization in a strange theater, within an urban non-place, to use Marc Augé's terminology.

The Ópera concludes: "!Silencia! !Silencio! ?Se puede? !Sí se puede! Has llegado a la frontera de la muerte, La tragedia é nacita! Lloren, no rian, La Vida nos une..." The inverse to the opening which solicits the listener to laugh, not cry, because death unites us.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Tats Cru Headquarters: Px12's Public Participation

Today I went on a trip with my mother’s students to Tats Cru headquarters to meet with Bio, one of the crew’s members, and for the students to learn about graffiti.  We arrived in the Hunt’s Point neighborhood, large boulevards striated with faded and not so faded markings, a series of bodegas, chain stores and people hanging out on sidewalks, at corners, in lawn chairs on the street, coming out of the 6 train station into the din of construction and food trucks and cars.  The office is located next to a theater building, and enclosed by a metal gate and brick walls.  Within there is a small garden, and then potted plants in vertical and horizontal formations.  Paint and flowers side by side.  Bio greeted us and gave everyone a poster calendar with prints of the crew’s murals on it, an we went up to the second floor of the little room where he pointed to toys they collected from travels across the world, stickers from different artists, and then photographs from artists they have met over time.  I noticed a ‘StayHigh” signature over the door, reminding me of the artist’s recent passing.  Then we went back downstairs to look at the ‘train’ which Bio said had been painted over by a bunch of artists and didn’t have much fancy on it, because they had had a barbeque with out of town artists.

After walking through a courtyard with an L shaped wall with three murals on it and a bed of vegetables and flowers in the angle of the walls we turned out into a repurposed parking area. There, a plyboard wall had been turned into a subway car, covered with tags and throwups, and the four students stood in front of it in awe.  “Do you want to paint?” Bio asked the students.  “Yeah!” one responded enthusiastically. Another retreated to a bench.  Bio disappeared and came back with four plastic gloves and four spray cans, a light blue, dark blue, white and orange.  He told the kids to hold the can close to the wall, straight up and town.  First hesitantly, in constrained spaces, and then across more sprawling distances the students delved into painting for forty minutes.  Bio interjected with suggestions for making wider or thinner line width, color selection and font tips.  Abraham, a 6’2’’ student grinned widely “I like this!” Luis, who has an obsession with video games, wrote “Supermario brothers,” “WII,” and “Legend of Zelda Anniversary Edition.”  

Shamaria, who had been sitting quietly on a bench a little ways from the wall finally wrote her name, carefully and with intense focus. The para, Ms. Barbara, wrote her name and her son’s names “I could get used to this!” she said laugh.  Bio walked us to look at an older mural, done in 1995, on the front of the theater adjacent to the TATS CRU office, and talked about the free programming there, and how TATS CRU used to teach mural classes.  “How did you learn to do art?” Abraham asked “In junior high, from friends, just starting in books, looking at cartoons and comics and copying them” he responded.  “I want to do more” Abraham said, and Bio laughed.  “That’s how I got started too.” My mom, their teacher, added “But always ask permission—otherwise you will get in trouble.”

The students are all “alternate assessment,” meaning that they have been diagnosed with varying levels of autism or other mental disorders, and frequently have issues engaging in activities, paying attention, and working independently.  Painting on a fake New York City subway car, although I had mentioned to them that the Bronx and New York were important in the history of graffiti, they were at that moment performing the same practices that youth had done decades before them, enacting a kind of kinesthetic sympathy with older artists through the practice of bringing finger to nozzle of paint can to wall.

At the wall site they exhibited intense focus, playfulness and creativity, and a desire to develop artistic skills.  Seeing other public murals with recognizable figures, a “I like cookies not war or brutality” cookie monster mural, for instance, they commented on such icons, asked to be photographed with them, and engaged in a kind of public sense making. A writer, Haste, mentioned that art is a form of “color therapy” that changes urban spaces.  In the Hunt’s Point neighborhood these visual markings were prominent between the 6 train and the Tats Cru office, as well as in my own neighborhood of Inwood in upper Manhattan, where I saw a piece showing a bridge that read “Community” on a grate near the 207th street bridge.  Bio and his crew have gone to Mexico City, in the 1990s, painted international art figures such as Nikolaev and Vorotnikov from Voina, and welcome international artists like Banksy to their studio.   Watching the students react and respond to different color schemes, abstract representations of interconnected brains or feminism, suggests that the visual is a way to activate urban citizenship, and deliberate engagement and participation is an important way for youth to have a sense of connection to neighborhoods, and broader locales.

Thank you to Bio of Tats Cru for letting us see your office, spending time with us, and letting us experience the joy of writing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Atmospheric Non Futures: "Destino al lugar del siempre"

In Puebla this week there is a conference, hosted at Benemerito Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) on women, literature and art. By sheer coincidence a colleague, unlike myself, actually familiar with the city, is attending a different conference at BUAP this week. We, along with his Puebla family, arrived late after making our way through the different terminals of Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City, and driving through the seemingly unending edges of Ciudad de México. It is an eerie feeling, leaving D.F., the intense crash, clank, honks and whistles of activity die out suddenly and you are left with hills and varying air pressure (and altitude) the ghostly smattering of light a reminder of the megapolis being left behind. Puebla, on the other hand, at least the Centro Historico, has a more manicured and relaxed feel: kids, teens, adults and the elderly loiter around the Zócalo square, backpacks are left against columns of the surrounding plaza as workers repair some tiling on a balcony, and plants are held in pretty painted pots around the square as a fountain gurgles in the middle. People walk at a less frenetic pace, and there are several concentrations of pedestrian only zones, with two-lane only streets. In short the Centro Historico fosters intense sociality, has regions for encounter and rest, and is part of an urban ecology of architectural distinction, a high level of upkeep, and relative security.

One of the activities for the conference was the inauguration of some paintings, which circle around themes of femininity, masculinity, the erotic, and violence. Taking place in Casa Bovédes, a casa de cultura with classes and talleres, in its courtyard, a stone area surrounded by yellow and black columns and arches which blend into railings for the second floor balcony, paintings were placed around the recessed floor which had a fountain in the middle, allowing viewers to circulate around the paintings, and gather in the center. A band played on the stage on the north side of the building, and a food and wine station was set up on the south-west side. Conference attendees and youth at the center for other classes (a dance class had ended moments before) entered from a door on the south side of the building which opened up to the main street, Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, and bodies spilled into the courtyard in a triangular trajectory, around the paintings installed on the southwest and southeast sides. The paintings formed sticky visual surfaces which arrested the motion of the crowds arriving, like a fly in a web, and reoriented trajectories to talk about the work, reflection, posing with it in pictures, or, in the case of some, giggling about some of the overt sexuality. The installation was overtly temporary: on mobile easels the paintings had a fragile hold on the installation space, underscored when someone bumped into a stand that was adjacent to the food and drink table and knocked a painting off the scandalous crash followed by laughs and shrugs when glass was not broken. A live band played, stopping between songs to remind us about the conference, and to be proud of the women who helped put it together.

Within the jovial scene of networking, relaxation, inebriation, and food consumption the paintings and photographs occupied a slightly discordant, though productive place. Images of a male nude with his head chopped off, a woman in a white mask with a knife and three playing cards, a headless woman holding a monstrous visage, a photograph of a woman on a crucifix head turned away hair covering her face wearing only a loincloth, and nearby a woman in a small canoe, hair undone, staring down at her feet, almost invisible in the blue of the sea and the sky. The last work, "Destino al lugar del siempre," "Destined to go to the forever place," by Alexandra Deloya Vélèz 2012.

The woman standing in the boat is dominated by the surrounding environment, swallowed up by the blue of the ocean that meets the blue of the sky creating a zone of indeterminacy where the small canoe balances, holding the naked woman in her retiring stance. The upward curve of hte front of the canoe throws into relief her vulnerability, and the dangerous act of standing in a boat in an endless sea. hHer body is offered to our gaze but she is spatially put out of reach, esconced in an atmosphere of suspension. Destined to go somewhere...forever. Forever destined to go...to be in transit. Destined-to go...the rush of the waves against her boat accentuate different possible futures, non futures, trajectories without completion. Her head is hung down, making her voluminous brown hair encircles her shoulders almost reaching her breasts, hand hung limply at her sides, left hip jutting out and right knee slightly bent, a posture of resignation, exhaustion, or also holding herself in reserve. A gaze withdrawn saying you may look but your look will not be completed and the body that is the object of contemplation is far out to see, constantly receding.

The boat, "The Tomorrow," in "Children of Men," which is either the sign of a future or the sign of defeat recedes into the grey holding Kee and her child, Dylan, a promise at the very least of a short period of community within the boat. "Destino al lugar del siempre" holds no such promise: it with-holds the possibility of the female body being a conduit for social completion, pulls away and holds it in abeyance.

Now, within the space of the busy inauguration gathering the melancholic tones of the paintings strike a discordant note, but an important one: they highlight the ordinary affects that gendered subjects experience on a day to day basis. Desire, defeat, refusal. By refusing to offer us the straight on gaze of a demand, a plea, explicit communication, and instead presenting bowed heads, turned faces, masks, vaginas, and facelessness they demonstrate the incompletion of mere recognition, the day after of violence, what it means to live in a present that is structured by failed promises. And it is seductive. The woman in the boat pulls you out to sea into a space not structured by demands, sympathy, and senses of fulfillment, but a heady atmosphere of non futurity.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

MOS 2011: Chicago- Interview with NERD

Interview with NERD at 36th and Albany Sept 18th, 2011

I met NERD in April at the Chicago Loves Hip Hop Conference sponsored by Words Beats Life and Columbia College. He, RAVEN and MONK/TOASTER were teaching a beginners graffiti class and I went both to meet more artists, since I was doing this project on global public art, and also to learn more first hand about the techniques that go into graffiti writing. The guys brought a bunch of ink markers, paper, urban calligraphy work sheets and graffiti magazines to help us look at different styles, and NERD led us step by step through the process of making a tag. RAVEN rhymed while we worked (transcript of our interview coming soon). I will use this as an opportunity to say that going to Meeting of Styles or taking a graffiti class or just learning about the process of doing graffiti from tag to production really helps a person understand the level of skill, effort and creative energy that has to go into graffiti—it is not mindless and it is not easy. You have to have a good sense of scale, color balance, geometry and motor control. NERD is a world-class writer, who has been writing since 1988 and is an expert about the Chicago scene, clearly a very good teacher, and along with RAVEN and MONK was really encouraging of all of us. After the lesson NERD agreed to give an interview about Meeting of Styles, and I caught up with him at the festival, asking questions while he worked on his production. The transcript is below.

CB: when did you start painting?

N: I started painting NERD in 1988. And I’ve been painting since maybe the 2nd grade since maybe 82, 83 as a little kid.

CB: What got you into it?

N: Growing up in my neighborhood, Uptown, is like a huge graffiti neighborhood. And my older brothers did it, all my neighbors did it, it was all the things to do.

CB: when you started writing in uptown, did you go to other places too?

N: actually being a northsider I was one of the first northsiders to travel out south and hang around with southsiders. You know I like to make friends with people was I am outgoing so. But I mainly stayed on the Red Line.

CB: How do you think the Red Line has changed, graff wise, over the last couple of decades?

N: Great question. I just rode the train about a month ago and I almost was about to cry it was the worst I’ve ever seen the line it was bombed up but like places where they would do pieces and burners were all like one color, two color type shits and throw ups and shit and I’m like why the fuck would they climb all the way up here just to do this one color shit? But they did so it was kind of depressing and sad at the same time.

CB: Where do you think now would be the best places to go to see really good graff, in Chicago?

N: Just mainly the underground, like kind of what we call chill walls or something like they are illegal but they are kind of so down low that people don’t care you are painting them. But you could get arrested. Or I like the freight scene, its going pretty good still, and I like the fact that on the freight scene your piece will last for years and they travel around and they come back and they are all like faded looking and shit. Permissions walls, battles like this you are getting a lot of good graff. But don’t get me wrong I love the bombing aspect but there are things that need to be bombed but not the walls where you could be doing big assed burners on you know?

CB: have you painted in Little Village when its not Meeting of Styles?

N: Little Village? Yeah I’ve been painting Little Village my whole life too, different spots up and down, different walls over that way. Another crew that I’m down with called CT they are out over there.

CB: do you have to prepare for Meeting of Styles in any special way, different from when you do other productions?

N: Nah, this year was the first year I got someone to come from out of town to come and paint with me. He prepared a little bit and usually last year we prepared a lot but I never know the letter styles I’m going to do or the piece I’m going to do but we kind of prepared the background and kind of get the theme going. And this year we did the theme of Akira. We just met but we are both Anime fans, so we just felt like man lets do some cool anime. I’m excited to do one of my favorite animes that got me into animation.

CB: what’s your favorite part of MOS?

N: Meeting new people. I just like the competition of it because everybody is trying to do better than the next guy too. Its like a battle in a sense, but there ain’t no prize, and it comes as the ending of the summer in Chicago and it always seems like a great way to end the summer, to me. I always like that aspect of it.

CB: Is there any part of it that’s kind of difficult or frustrating?

N: For me its hard because there are so many people that want to paint and the object of Meeting of Styles originally was to bring people from out the country here and host it here, but every time Chicago people want to take all the spots. And me, I don’t want to really paint I’d rather give my spot to somebody, but then I see everybody else still paints and I’m like fuck that I want to paint too.

CB: How would you feel if there weren’t any more MOS, like if it just ended?

N: I would be sad. It’d break my heart. I’ve been bringing my son: he’s been to eight MOS, it’s the eighth year, its like a family tradition in a way, almost. My daughter been here plenty of times.

CB: How has it changed over the last eight years?

N: I would say from a Chicago perspective I would think that people are trying to take it more seriously the last couple years than they did in the past, and people are just kind got of a lot better...I think it brought a lot of people here and we met so many people that it got a lot of people here to travel to other countries and paint out there so it brought the world together a lot, I think.

CB: What is the importance of meeting international writers, writers not from Chicago?

N: I think its like meeting a family member, you know, meeting somebody that’s to into the same likes as you and just the mutual respect and you never wonder how they look and what they always was and you seen them in magazines, or shit like that, but you always wonder “man I wonder how they are in real person, are they cool and humble or are they assholes, are they just like you.”

CB: How do you document your work? Do you use photographs, do you use facebook, do you use Flikr?

N: I throw a little bit on Facebook but mainly Flikr is where I like to keep it more underground, I think Flikr is more undergound.

CB: Do you keep a black book anymore?

N: I get a black book and a throw a couple sketches in it and for years everytime I get one somebody steals it, its to the point that I’m not even mad no more.

CB: how do you meet other writers? In person, on facebook or online?

N: I mainly just meet em in person. If they respond to some shit and build a relationship on facebook I’ll meet them and be cool with them. But I’m not big into trying to meet everybody like that.

CB: Do you have any worries about Meeting of Styles getting kind of commercialized? Like corporate sponsorship or something?

N: I’m not worried about it and I wouldn’t be mad if they would sponsor some paint especially right now because this shit’s expensive. I like the art, I like the fact that they make the paint for artists nowadays. And graffiti came a long way because the paint came a long way. Its fucking good now. If we were still using the old paint we probably wouldn’t be as good as we are.

CB: Do you think MOS is just for graffiti writers or is it trying to communicate with other audiences?

N: I definitely see a lot of different [artists] – the person I just met next to me she only does framed work she uses a paint brush so you know its bringing out other artists too. Definitely street artists get into it, and definitely performers, like, DJs and rappers and shit.

CB: Do you think its gonna change how people think about graffiti, like non artists? Like change the stigma?

N: I think you know, we had a conversation earlier that its pretty much been around so long that much aint changing no more. We’re at a point that everyone knows about it and either loves it or hates it now. You know its no big deal to them now because they are like, whatever, its graffiti. Seen it a million times.

CB: What do you think the best aspect of graffiti is in terms of what it does socially?

N: [Its] definitely social... I’ve met a lot of friends through it and they are friends for life, and I’m always constantly meeting new friends.

CB: Well that’s all the questions I’ve got. Thanks so much.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

León: Ciudad de Paradox

Today marked the (hopefully temporary) end in my four day crash-course in the graffiti scene in León. I had the opportunity to speak with Wes, Kif, Nikkis, Nose, Truko, Asme, Dermy, Kiddo, Dano, Jhard, Sic, Zanko, Nukleo, Waxny, Back, Juan, and hear Arnick, Jafer, and many others express their opinions about legal and illegal graffiti in León.

By way of background: since 2010 the Instituto de Juventud has been engaging in partnerships with graffiti artists to create graffiti murals throughout the city. Out of these collaborations over 100 murals have emerged, a book titled "Cuando Las Paredes Hablan," several articles on the León Joven website, and a few expos. A sharp turnaround from the Zero Toleráncia policy imported from the Giuliani administration in New York, the current media campaign to use graffiti as the contemporary medium for cultural patrimony, rather than a demonized form, raises many questions about the relationship between graffiti and institutions, legality and illegality, state and citizen, and more concretely what does not appear on the glossy León Joven website.

At the heart of the matter is a fundamental paradox, which Juan explained, referencing a line TKid 183 spoke in "Wild Style": "its not that the government doesn't like graffiti, they don't like something they cannot control." In other words, what debates over the government support program raise is whether or not graffiti is more than a question of medium (aerosol) but necessarily individual, spontaneous, and anarchic.

Dermy argued that to work for the government is a form of castration, because it is to give your labor to them turning you from artist to laborer. Bote reminded me that the government does not sponsor pieces that are just letters there have to be characters. The kinds of things that are supported are "happy things; animals, happy scenes," Back elaborated. Nikkis, Wes, Juan, and others pointed out that the sponsorship creates a new culture for emerging writers, one of legality, and one where they can develop their style, innovate, and experiment. Not everyone receives support, and often themes are dictated which limits artistic license. However, Nikkis personalized "the government" and told me about his meeting with Pedro, the director of the institute, whom he was skeptical of, but impressed him by coming to meet with him by a wall he was working at and stood talking to him in the pouring rain, dripping down his face, getting in his hair, ruining his suit, and that it was an ongoing conversation. Wes reminded me that as a result of graffiti's mainstreaming he can make a living off of it.

These conflicts are evidence of an important moment for Leon graffiti, and one which raises broader questions about what it means for a community or a practice to go from being underground to public, how participants negotiate changing power structures and maintain control over their forms of communication, and how it is important not to think in terms of general publics but specific contexts.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Finding Home"

This is a repost of a guest post I wrote for the Pathos Workshop, check it out http://pathosworkshop.com/blog.php

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Más que Frida

When I met with Patricia Quijano Ferrer in October, sitting in the café by a monument to (male) muralism, I described to her the chapters in my thesis. “I will start with the conflict at Rockefeller Center, and its formation of ‘Man Controller of the Universe’ in Mexico City today.” “Why ‘Man’”? She asked point blank. I stammered, “Well yes it is a vision of Man but perhaps it means community?” She laughed, and told me, of course she knows I am not trying to be exclusive, but this is indeed the question, no? That we assume public art, monumental art, is made by and representative of, men.

Patricia’s comment, which gave way to an extended talk about her work with other women artists, and their political concerns, gave me pause. At that point, 2011, it seemed to me pretty much a given that public art, especially communal mural art, was a fairly inclusive, communitarian and liberal genre. Having studied muralism in Chicago’s Pilsen, Logan Square, and Humboldt Park neighborhoods and in Philadelphia’s city center, what I had seen was largely an art which sought to “take back the streets” from corporate control. As a woman raised Feminist (if there is such a thing) I was of course aware that most, if not all of the muralists I had encountered were men, and that the practice of mural production is in some sense a very macho task: physical, intensely demanding, and involving great scale. However my belief was that the social effects of many murals still reached many parts of communities, whether or not they participated in the mural’s production.

The public face of Mexican art is dominated by the visage of Diego Rivera, Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, and more recently, Frida Kahlo. With the release of the film Frida increased interest has been attracted to Mexican art on the part of American art lovers, but this fascination is framed by a problematic understanding of the place of women in public art: that they have no place.

The Frida/Diego dialectic is a simplistic one. She painted intimate, personal, emotional scenes, and he painted grand, historical, public ones. She was emblematic of the exotic, the native, the home, and he the cosmopolitan, the political, the global. What is lost in this binary is the fact that there are a large amount of female contemporary artists in Mexico today working on public art, and that the impact that Frida had on the art is not confined to “feminist” circles: it impacts broader counterculture practices, particularly artmaking inspired by the “Neomexicanismo” movement of the 1980s.

Art that is often called “peoples’ art” easily obscures the fissures and exclusions at work when talking about works meant to represent an entire “people.” In the opening of a fantastic documentary called “¡Women Art Revolution: A Secret History” by Lynne Hershmann Leeson people are interviewed in museums, parks, and other public places and asked “What women artists do you know?” and the answer inevitably is not much more than “Frida.”

While laudable that Frida’s work has such cache it also marks a serious deficit in public knowledge about the mere existence of women in art today. Patricia argued that this lacunae is even more pronounced in Mexico. She argued that to many art is understood to be a hobby for women, not a career. However, there are many talented women artists, of all ages and from all backgrounds, they just lack a public space to exhibit their work. She described muralism as communication in “voz alta,” in a strong voice, but that without space, there is no voice at all.

Mujeres en el Arte is an organization that has exhibited in a small sala in the Palacio de Bellas Artes for the last ten years, across from the monumental works of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco on the second floor. These exhibitions, once a year, are themed, and display the skills of women in visual arts across genres. However, the ability to exhibit in Bellas Artes is not a given. It is a fight, Patricia explained, and in this fight you learn that feminism is not a given if you are a woman. Confronting bureaucracy, gendered standards of artistic excellence and professionalism, and costs, she elaborated that the exhibition has grown, poco a poco, over the years, but is not guaranteed. However, when they do occur, it is amazing to see the broad range of people that are brought into the famous Palacio that would not normally be there. By opening up the doors of the “public” a little bit to a new kind of gendered female public, it becomes more dynamic.

In my trip back to Mexico this march I hope to speak with graffiteras, academicas, artistas and curatoristas about the fights, successes and goals they have for mujeres en el arte in Mexico today.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Changing Walls, Evolving City: 5Pointz

5Pointz on Long Island City, New York, is a globally recognized center for graffiti art. The several story warehouse boasts works by talented graffiti artists from all over the world, and visible from the 7 train, and across from PS1 it also is a testament to the complicated negotiations and movements that graffiti makes between street, sketch pads, museums, and galleries.

I've had the luck to be able to interview a couple dozen artists, in Mexico and in Chicago, from all over, and some of the questions I often ask are how they feel when their work gets gone over, if they are worried about graffiti's future in the wake of increasing commercialization and generalized style via the internet, and how they conceive of their style. The word "evolution" comes up numerous times: that the artist has to evolve their style, that graffiti is ephemeral and so it is merely evidence of a continually transforming city scape, that graffiti as a movement, and part of hip-hop culture has been evolving in terms of range, technique, and audience. Evolution then is a crucial element of an art which on some level is based on repetition of the basic tag name (in simple throw up form or in more complicated productions), a kind of repetition with a difference.

Given this keen awareness of graffiti's temporariness, in terms of style, mere existence, and total immersion in the tides of change, why is it important to have fixed places and spaces for graffiti to exist? How are we to understand graffiti's affiliation with evolution alongside calls for some kind of protection. Specifically, over the course of 2011 5Pointz has been at risk for demolition and replacement by condominium developments. In an interview with Meres One, curator of 5pointz (transcript below) I asked about why this building was under fire, and what the importance of it was. He explained that it is an "unofficial landmark", that it fosters international connections between artists, and that it is a free museum that allows people who might not otherwise have access to art education, or awareness about graffiti, to "witness it." Responding to my query about why the threat of demolition he responded that because 5pointz is "geographically close to Manhattan" it is valuable, and vulnerable to become changed from an industrial to a residential corridor. This comment is an important reminder that even though graffiti is an art that moves, changes, and adapts it depends on physical city spaces for its existence. The increasing closure of public space, the replacement of large brick canvases for artists with private dwellings for consumers is an ongoing issue in many cities across the world. Graffiti's ephemerality is testament to its ability to survive, but also evidence of the increasing fragility of the public written word in a world where currency is valued over communication, consumption over expression. What 5Pointz reminds us is that among evolution, radical change, we must hold some things relatively still, if only so that others can have the chance to gain the skills to get with the flow.

Many thanks to Meres One for meeting with me, as well as Dane-2 and Zimad for talking with me about NYC graffiti, and Sloke for talking to me about how important 5Pointz is. Go to 5ptz.com for more information and links to documentaries and media about this important cultural space. Transcript of Meres interview follows.

Transcript Interview with Meres One 12/19/2011.

CB: So I was first hoping you could talk a little bit about how you got into graffiti?

M: I’ve been doing art all my life so there was just a time that it got introduced through a fellow artist when I saw his book of graffiti art. From that moment I was kind of curious as to what that was, and he explained to me, and upon looking through his book and noticing the tags and stuff in the street it became something that intrigued me.

CB: About how old were you?

M: That first instant was probably in early 6th grade, junior high school.

CB: How long have you been writing then?

M: About twenty years. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was sixteen, seventeen, and then I started getting into it.

CB: What made you get more serious about it?

M: I just liked being a vandal, rebellious in a sense, the general rush. Its kind of like, the thing with graffiti is that it allows kind of anybody to become famous. You could be a quiet geeky kid, or you could be that popular kid in high school that played football, sports, or a goth kid, whatever it is the artwork speaks for itself. It doesn’t really matter the makeup of the individual.

CB: Any one in particular influential for you?

M: I’d say starting out Subway Art was one of the first books I got my hands one, Spraycan Art, and Ghandi, Scheme, everyone in that book was an influence to me in Subway Art. At a young age, being sixteen/seventeen, when I got to a point which I thought was getting good and now looking back I was still a supertoy I got to a point where I looked at that book as obsolete and wound up tagging up the whole book and throwing it out, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I went and got another copy of it that I keep till this day. And I have a greater appreciation, even for [stuff] older than that, for [art] back in the seventies, upon reading and then studying it a little and then realizing that at that time there was no wild-style or 3-D pieces. It was basically a simple typography, with an outline around it. Kind of like the development of break dancing. I was watching last night the 2011 Redbull [PC1?] and its almost as if they defy gravity, compared to the first generation, you know.

CB: So why do you think its important to hold onto the old school stuff?

M: In order to go anywhere you have to know where you have been. I think its important to respect the history for its good and bad moments and incorporate your part of and your knowledge into the history of graffiti art itself too.

CB: I wanted to know if you could next talk a little about the history of 5Pointz and how you got involved.

M: It used to be Phun Phactory which –p-h-u-n- and then p-h-a-c-t-o-r-y- kind of similar run organization, didn’t have as much wall space because the landlord didn’t allow as much of the building [to be used] I also covered everything higher than a ladder up to the top using a cherry lift crane. The level of the art wasn’t as fine tuned as it is now and the gentleman who ran it wasn’t a graffiti artist. So to kind of be in the culture itself gives you a little know-how of it..

CB: So now its under threat to be destroyed—probably a shitty subject but can you talk about that?

M: I’ll say this. Long Island City, anything that is geographically close to Manhattan is subject for change its only a matter of time until Long Island City becomes changed from industrial to living quarters and his vision is to make it a condo and a …I really wont speak too much…I’ll say this: the importance of this building… it is an unofficial landmark, a world wide landmark for many people throughout the world. It has a rich history and it is also the only legal space for this kind of art where people can come at any given time and exercise their right to paint.

CB: So there are no other legal walls in the tristate area?

M: Not to the level …lets just say I go out and I go to different neighborhoods and I see different walls that I want to target and I say listen can I do your wall…I gotta get ahold of the landlord of the building and get permission from him and then its like, can you do whatever you want, but if you do it, it doesn’t mean that someone else can do it, and it becomes a kind of your wall, this is the only kind of community wall. So I mean, whats going on and with what he wants to do I am not concentrating on that, I am more so concentrating on…our ten year anniversary and we do have another year out of it. They just signed another year lease inside so we will be here at least till next winter, so my goal is just to continue to expand the program to educate people and make it more of a world wide impact so that at least if it was to go down for whatever reason more people could say that they have witnessed it.

CB: What kind of documentation do you do since the walls change?

M: I have photos of a lot, pretty much most of the stuff. We take some video, numerous documentaries done on it. I think that’s another thing I want to concentrate on this year a lot is getting a lot of videographers to do all different types of documentaries on 5Pointz, like the one that Aegis did but there is also another gentleman that did a narrative kind of storytelling documentary on 5pointz which is cool, not too long ago, and kind of encourage that more.

CB: What impact has 5pointz had on the community, not just artists but other folks that live around here?

M: Well it brings PS1 brings foreign tourists but so does 5pointz. A lot of people that come for PS1 will stay in the neighborhood to witness 5pointz. A lot of people that had no intention at all of even getting off anywhere over here that see it from the train out of curiousity end of getting off and wind up kind of wandering around to see what it is. Every person that comes to look at 5Pointz is a potential customer to the businesses around here: to the restaurants, and bars, and you know, galleries and stuff. So it helps the revenue of Long Island City. And if it were to grow even more that would improve even more.

CB: I saw in the documentary that you are doing work with kids that are into illegal stuff and trying to get them to do more legal stuff?

M: You know, my thing is this: I’m not, I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. I’m not telling a kid what to or not to do, I’m just saying a) it is harder than when I was younger. The charges are harder, the penalties are harder, there is an alternative now, its not an alternative I had. So the time that someone spends here they are not going out and defacing something, so whether they do it illegally or not, and still come here and do it, it lessens the time they are out writing on the streets. So I like every element of graffiti.

CB: So in that respect is just giving artists more options in terms of where they can write?

M: Mhhm.

CB: Have you noticed other effects writing at 5pointz has had on artists?

M: To have a place of this size and level it enables you to learn without taking classes. You just come, any given day you just watch an artist paint, you learn techniques, you make connections to artists from all over the world that you would most likely not meet. I mean, in all reality, how many chances are you going to get to meet a French graffiti artist or one from Spain, or Italy, it doesn’t happen, but over here its pretty much everyday that that could happen.

CB: What is the importance of meeting international artists?

M: you know you share…every place has different values and different styles. Its good to see what is out there in the world and to kind of network and build and expand your horizons so that it is not just like the five boroughs is your whole world. You have an opportunity if you go to France – like when I went to Germany I didn’t pay for a hotel, I stayed at a graffiti artist’s house that I met here. And you know I was invited to another even in another part of Germany where another graffiti artist I had met here was and that’s…its good to kind of look outside of ….I know some people that don’t even leave the neighborhoods, their whole friggen lives. Its like, you go to a different city and they are like whoah that is like going to France. These cats stay in Brooklyn or they stay in Queens..i grew up in Flushing and there are kids that never leave the neighborhood.

CB: What do you think 5Pointz does for the global graffiti movement?

M: 5Pointz enables people to kind of come see it and witness it and get their own opinion without being kind of brainwashed by the media, and by the police, and by the politicians that automatically give it a negative kind of stigma. Its really a beautiful art form, whether you like it or not, whether its done illegally or not, on your property, its still art. And rather than wipe it away, and pretend it doesn’t exist, 5Pointz allows people to come and witness and then they can leave not like it still, and they can leave and say “hey you know what I kind of liked some of this this is really cool, it is a lot deeper than I thought it was.” And its giving people options, options that otherwise I don’t think they’d have. Its helping legitimize the art form.

CB: One reason I’m asking is that some writers I’ve talked to have fears about the future of graffiti, whether its commercialization, or because of the internet styles becoming more general…

M: Here’s the thing. Everything is evolving. Break dancing started out, cats were doing it on linoleum, not even linoleum- on a cardboard box in a park. Now they are doing it at Redbull arenas with you know hundreds of people watching and the prize money is god knows what. And they are getting sponsors, and they are travelling…everything evolves in life so basically you either can embrace the change or get left behind because graffiti is evolving and its becoming a gallery sensation, and its becoming commercial and it means that every individual graffiti artist has to take their route, kind of [decide] what is fitting for your self. For me as an artist I’d rather do graffiti art and do canvases and do commercial work, stuff that I enjoy, than be a friggen robot going 9 to 5 working in a cubicle for the man and not really being able to enjoy life the way I want to enjoy it. So maybe it doesn’t fit in what some person’s breakdown of what graffiti is, but you know what, graffiti doesn’t really have a solid definition. Its to the individual that is doing it. Some people have tons of money and can afford to go out and get arrested and pay for lawyers and some people did do a lot of trains back in the day, and they killed it, and now they have city jobs and they even drive the train, or they are a court officer, or they are a union worker and they don’t want to lose their pension. Does that mean that they are not as, that they shouldn’t be as respected because they did what they did at the time that they did it and now its because its not fitting for them in their life that they are no longer graffiti artists, that they are a sell out? Its like, I tell these little kids that try to approach me, you know, how old are you? Sixteen, seventeen maybe twenty one? I’m thirty-eight years old and if you even make it to thirty years old and you are still doing graffiti, then you can maybe complain to me because your complaint isn’t even valid to me [now].

CB: How do you personally define graffiti?

M: Its expression. Its using all different types of canvases. Its taking and leaving a statement. Its an adrenaline rush. Its doing it without permission, its doing it with permission. Its getting a message across and ultimately its art.

CB: One reason why people don’t like or react negatively to graffiti is because of it being illegible in terms of the text—do you think graffiti should be more legible?

M: Ah, you know its to each your own. I don’t do- when I do a Wildstyle I’m not doing it—people that could read the art form kind of decipher your style after x amount of tries of seeing your stuff, you kind of have a blueprint to your stuff, but ultimately when I do a Wildstyle it is more for my own pleasure than to say oh I want everyone to read my stuff, I mean, some people do big bold things to be read, some people just do their names, some people do political graffiti only, some people don’t do their name and they just do political messages, ultimately human kind in general—if they don’t understand something they tend to not like it. They are scared of the unknown. So rather than embrace it in some form, whether you like it for the colors or what it may be…my father is a pure example. When I was younger and doing graffiti I’d work on a black book piece for like a night and I’d say “hey look at what I did” to my mother and she’d be like “oh cool” and my dad would be like “this is shit this is crap look at this garbage”. And now because I am making a living out of it and he sees me on the TV he is like “that’s my son” so it has changed. I think it was a mix of him seeing it as a dead-end art form

As well as not understanding it, that he wasn’t even willing to give it a chance. Now that he sees how famous I’m getting of of it, and the jobs, and the amount of money that I am capable of making, that he is proud and accepting. And he still doesn’t understand what the hell it says, but at least he understands money.

CB: What does your tag name, Meres One, what does it mean?

M: It doesn’t mean anything. I started out first tagging public school I just first started doodling on paper I was Kid Ace, which was horrible, and then I switched over to Heck, H-E-C-K, and then after that I realized relatively quickly that those were a hard group of letters to kind of play with, H, Cs and Ks don’t really work too well. So I was kind of sifting through the alphabet and jumbling letters around, I picked M, E and R, and upon jumbling those around Mere had the nicest swing to it, and eventually I added S to the end. And that’s pretty much what I stick to.

CB: What do you think the social function of graffiti is? In terms of how does it impact society, how can it help communities?

M: Its helps. Look at 9/11. When 9/11 happened countless graffiti crews, everyone was impacted by 9/11 who lived in New York. Everyone in the world was impacted by 9/11. But if you lived in New York especially I guess the best way you could describe it is that somebody broke into your house and kind of violated your safety and your happiness and everything, and at a time when some people were mad and they ran off to join the services, and that was their thing, some people ran down to the Trade Center to help, some people like myself were like “yo I have to create something to voice my opinion.” And the first wall we did was kind of more aggressive, it was a proud American wall, we did a huge American flag with the twin towers coming out of it and it was more like an “F-You this is our country” type wall, like my process of healing when on, I had another opportunity to do a wall which was a more emotional kind of wall. That was a timeline of the chain of events that led to that, and it not only helped me vent but enabled a young lady who lost her boyfriend in 9/11 to kind of have some kind of closure and those things, that incident, allowed us to express ourselves. People that normally don’t like graffiti, don’t want it in their neighborhood were kind of open to 9/11 walls, and there were 9/11 walls that went up everywhere, in neighborhoods that I would not expect to see a 9/11 wall in . So tragedy brought about goodness in that sense, and it was cool. Lady Pink, she does a lot of political stuff, she is very strong and voices her opinion and art is like the best way to really get that across, more so than text, so is probably a big part of the reason why they don’t like graffiti, it’s the right to voice your opinion without having to pay for it. Without having to be silenced, you know?

CB: How do you decide who gets to write on a wall, and can they write whatever they want?

M: We let everybody paint and depending on the level of ability of the artist things will last longer. You could be a great graffiti artist, come and then not cover what you went over and you wont last long. You could be a great graffiti artist, come and not decide to do a full effort and just do a piece, and you could just last accordingly. You could be a great graffiti artist and do a production and it could last up to a year. You could be a not so great graffiti artist and put in the A-plus effort and put in like two weeks on a wall and that’ll stay for a year. It goes on depending on how much traffic we get, how good it is…

CB: So how do you make those decisions about how good something is, how do you make that quality assessment?

M: Of what lasts? I try to be as fair as possible. I’m not partial to ne styles or another. I get stuff here that is kind of fluffy and South Park-ish, and some stuff that is more like aggressive, some stuff that is political, and all in all I try to have a variety. There is stencil art, there is street art, there is wheat past…there is a little of everything.

CB: Do you think there is any relationship between graffiti and for example the Mexican mural movement in the 20s?

M: I mean there is a connection in terms of that you are telling a story, it’s the artist telling a story whether you are telling it with letters and images, or you are telling it with just images, we are story tellers, we are here to give and receive feedback.

CB: In an ideal world would be have multiple legal walls or is it important to have a central point?

M: There should be one in every borough, why not? But the thing that is hard is finding the people that can run it. With no salary, it really lessens that incredibly, because I know a lot of good people that could probably run 5Pointz but aren’t as stupid as me to be here ten years salary free, but you know, you have to be involved, I’d say it helps to be somewhat good, but you also have to be not so involved such that you get involved in personal politics, and not be too aggressive but not a pushover either.

CB: Is there anything else you want to say?

M: Just check out our website, 5ptz.com. We have the official 5pointz page, check that out, and that’s it.

CB: Thanks a lot.

M: Cool, cool.