Saturday, October 26, 2013

Tour Treize: Ephemeral Monumentality

This month is a busy one in the street art and graffiti world in Paris. Opus Délits, a group show featuring 40 street art headlines including Jef Aerosol, Miss Tic and Mosko; État des Lieux at Galerie du Jour Agnes B. featured Monsieur Qui, Ox, 36Recyclab, Sowat, Psychoze, PAL, Ludo, and Seth; and the Tour Treize project, a reclaimation of a 9-story residential building featuring over 80 street arts from around the world.

Tour Treize is a fascinating site: towering over the Quai de Muriac on Paris' Left Bank, it is a covered in neon orange paint and a large banner showing the Statue of Liberty (that it is  the statue of liberty, and not France's lady liberty, I deduce from the english comments handwritten within the banner, referencing locations like Stuyvetson, the Bronx, Staten Island, and so forth). The project is only open during the month of October, after which both the building and the online archive will be destroyed.

Early in 2013 a tower in the 13th arrondissement was slated to be destroyed. Given the history of street artists living in the building Gallery Itinerrance intervened, (spearheaded by Gallery Itinerrance director, Mehdi Ben Cheikh) and working secretly with the Mairie of the 13th, and the owner of the building ICF Habitat la Sabilière, a hundred street artists from across the globe were contacted to become involved in a project that was free to the public, open to the all, and entirely non commercial. Each artist was given their own space to transform from floor to ceiling. The resulting collaboration involved artists from 16 different nationalities. The resulting project is the largest street art exposition in the world, with over 4,500 square meters of art spanning 9 floors and 36 apartment units. The physical site is only open to the public from October 1st to October 31st.

The author of documentary and website, Thomas Lallier, remarked after his first visit: "After the first visit...I asked myself...why had I not noticed this little building before? Without a doubt it is because it is situated in an area that one, in general, would not [deliberately] pass by. It is not antique, nor particularly striking...Six months later this building has become a sort of attraction: passersby stop to take photos, and its visual attraction holds a sort of mystery...because of these artists, I have re-experienced my fascination with urban space, the sense of curiousity that takes hold of you when you stand in a strange hallway...this transmedia detached from the constraints of continuity. A creative view is made visible, but in the fragile, reactive, and ephemeral character of art in situ..."

After Tour Treize closes its doors, the website will still be available, but only for 10 days. The organizers urge viewers "click by click, pixel by pixel, to save Tour Treize!"The rationale for even an ephemeral website is that "given the urgency and ephemerality of street art [as a movement] this is all that can [or should] be saved." A 52 minute documentary has also been created (starting in March 2013) recording the artistic work behind the exposition by Thomas Lallier.

I hope to write a longer form manuscript about this project, but for now, I will recount some elements of my visit, and a few of the many pieces that really pulled me.

The line for Tour Treize by 10:00am winds all the way around a city block. On average, it inches forward perhaps an eighth of a block every hour. If one is more than a block from the entrance, it is entirely likely that the way will be upwards of 7 hours, or even futile.

The gallery security put up signs to that effect:

Waiting, then, to see Tour Treize is the quantitative majority of one's experience. I tried three times to see the building. The first day I arrived a little before 1 pm, on a drizzly cold day, and took my place in line a block and a half from the entrance. After waiting an hour with no movement, I had to leave for an appointment. I returned again at 10:00am on the 22nd of October, and persevered for four hours. This time I began 2 and a half blocks from the entrance, in fact, diagonal from the entrance, which I could sadly watch through the gates around a courtyard. The line is an amorphous, smelly, vivacious entity. Filled with people from age 7 to 60 it pulsates and simmers, surges and dissapates. Veterans of Paris cultural events bring foldable chairs or stools, thermoses of coffee, and many friends so that turns can be taken for bathroom breaks and walks. On my second visit I was behind a cluster of art students who sat blissfully drawing and smoking before sneaking ahead into a part of the line closer to the entrance. A few hours in, the typical unspoken urban barriers for conversation erode as smiles and sighs of frustration are shared, sometimes people chat about their previous attempts to get in the exhibit, and finally, when the end is in sight, we utter cheers every time someone exits the building, counting heads.

The visit felt more like a kind of alternate universe, a suspended space of expectation and determination, where sore lower backs, knees, feet, and shoulders are ignored by dreaming of the art inside. Such fantasies are sparked by the more garrulous who, as they exit, say "It was just, wow!" and "Bon courage!" Arriving at 7:30 a.m. last Wednesday, armed with a book that I had put off reading for over a year, croissant, cake, lentils, and an apple, I took my place in line, literally running across the Pont de Bercy lit by dim streetlights and a fully moon. I began only three quarters of a block from the entrance. Of course, arriving at 7:30, I knew I was in for a wait, since the building did not open until 10:00, after the line contracted and places seemed relatively set, I, and everyone around me, took a seat on the ground. Someone who had done a head count announced "200 people in front of us!" I resigned myself to being kicked by the elder gentleman to my left who seemed to have no sense of spatial awareness, and entertained myself by occassionally looking to see the every-lengthening line. This period of waiting is peaceful. Without any movement, there is not attempt to "get one over" on other line-members by moving faster, or slipping ahead. Instead, my fellow line dwellers unpacked breakfasts, quietly listened to music, or sat with eyes closed. As the sky became lighter we rose to our feet and began the long work of intentional waiting. Six hours later, I had made it to the front. There was an air of intimacy that had been cultivated between myself and the four other people in my immediate vicinity. We smiled and cheered, and wished each other well, later sharing conspiratorial glances as we walked through the exhibit.

At 2:00 pm I stumbled into the dark building, and followed arrow marks painted onto the floor into a room that had a map of Syria on the floor, and paint cans covered in navy-green with little wings attached that appeared as a cluster of bombs over the map.

 After taking the cramped elevator to the 9th floor, where a guard told us "Try to keep to 10 minutes a floor" I tried to efficiently move through each room, taking photos, and taking in the overwhelming array of images.

"Street art" is a funny label that purports to be a genre. If anything, the work at Tour Treize illuminated the astonishing range and diversity of "street art," as such. From installation work, to light sculptures, to paper architecture, painted walls, photographs, and wooden sculpture, the rooms in the tower were complete transformed to create a total sensorial experience.
ReaOne. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Each floor, roughly, represented a country or region. I saw styles that I was relatively familiar with (3D styles, Mexican iconography, stencils, sketch-based paintings, and wheat pastings) to others that I had never encountered.

C215 is a relatively recent artist, but is world-renknowned. In the short film, Five More Minutes with C215 he recounts that his art is a way for him to have connections with a world that he doesn't easily emotionally cathect with. His aesthetic: stencils that are layered with a hand-drawn sketch style and rendered full of energy and movement through the use of flourescent and brightly colored lines. His work can be found all over Paris, often appearing on public electricity boxes, mailboxes, and signs.
C215, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

This piece by Stinkfish, from Mexico, offers a portrait of Zapata where windows in the building become Zapata's eyes, filling the room with filtered light through the figure's gaze.
Stinkfish. Mexico. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Dan23's work from France with vibrant, photorealist images, offers a good paradigmatic case for a prevalent difference between American and European graffiti styles. Whereas the former is still focused on lettering and the name, the latter traffics more heavily in the figurative and representational.
Dan23, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.

Faces, however, could also be haunting. David Walker's pieces uses black, white, and greyscale large format portraits and contrasts them with colorful objects, creating a melodramatic and moving rendering of human expression.
David Walker, UK. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Mario Belem's lettering work also resonated with the aesthetic Steve Espo uses in his Love Letter project.
Mario Belem, Portugal. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Pantonio's flying/running rabbits were one of my favorite elements of the project. They also ran across the exterior of the tower, and so seeing them inside created a kind of visual connective tissue between inside and outside. The dynamic and fluid motion was mesmerizing, and seemed appropriate given the scene of destruction (floor boards torn up) around the creatures.
Pantonio, Portugal. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
A destruction-aesthetic figured in many of the apartments. Appliances filled with waste, paint cans, or foam, and floors entirely removed or reduced to dust, the pieces implied immanent elimination. Katre's room, which was covered with photographic images of architecture, lines extending from the images across the ceiling, and a breakfast table surrounded by rubble with a radio, glass, and plate, refers to life interrupted, cut in the middle, and the shock of architectural disruption.
Katre, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.
I was thrilled to see work from Tunisian and Iranian artists, regions I have little knowledge of as venues for street art. Dabro's work was unique and haunting. His pieces create atmospheric environments where his figures, barely distinguished from their background, emerge as ghostly whispers from the walls.
Dabro, Tunisia. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Inti Castro, from Chile, further draws on tropes of memory, forgetting, and violence. The entrance to the main room has the words "Memorias" in legible typset print. Entering the colorful inner room one sees a wall violently punctured, but the paint designs are not disrupted. Embedded in the hole in the wall is a photograph of a little girl. Memorias could point, here, to the loss of a loved one and the memoria as a kind of shrine, or ones own memory. But the jagged doorway and uneven floor creates a sense of unease, a memory not fully worked through, nor appropriately remembered.

Inti Castro, Chile. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
In this piece by Loiola, from Brazil, we are confronted with feminine figures, intimate, and anxious. One figure notes "Don't leave me in peace/alone." Elements of the apartment (curtains, doors, a radiator, bathtub) are used as environments for the various figures that occupy the space, reminding the viewer on the everyday lives quietly, or not so quietly, lived in this building.
Loiola, Brazil. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce.

There are a number of literary references in the building, with carefully curated bookshelves featuring texts by Francois Mitterand (perhaps a gesture to the BnF Mitterand down the street), and also a piece by Speto in a kitchen where the door screamed: "Nietzsche lived in this room!" Perhaps also another reference to the role the building played as a home for artists, or an ironic reference to the lack of celebrity afforded to the space before the Tour Treize project.
Speto, Brazil. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
A kitchen is taken over by aggressive, careening, and bicycling figures. A man eats an automobile, while another sips out of a gas pipe that juts out of the wall, and below, a chef has a filleted car on a platter. Mobility, consumption, and frenetic motion collide in a room which was the site for routine consumption.
Hopnn, Italy. Photo credit: caitlin bruce
The final exhibition is of wall paintings and objects painted in white in a room lit only by flourescent lights. Ordinary objects (grocery carts, a mannequin, chairs, a television) glow eerily, discarded and lonely. The artists, Lek and Sowat, highlight the ultimate destruction that the building will be subject to, the frenetic splashes of glowing paint further disorienting a likely already-tired and sensorially-overloaded viewer before they are thrust back into the light of day, where all one can do is sit quietly for a moment, and try to return to a less aesthetically saturated ordinary.
Lek and Sowat, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Institutional Ambivalence: American Social Realists in the 1920s and 1930s and Contemporary Graffiti

This morning, while editing the introduction to the dissertation and trying to thicken the dialogue in my notes about how the 1932-1934 Diego Rivera controversy at Rockefeller Center has been critically discussed, I came upon Raymie E. McKerrow's 1983 piece, "Visions of society in discourse and art: The failed rhetoric of social realism." The piece effectively conveys some of the complexity and paradoxical optimism in artist communities during the Great Depression. In the wake of a collapsed, or, seriously weakened artistic patronage system, the Federal Government took on a much larger commissioning role and artists began to self-organize.

The Artists' Congress was one such organization, which produced the short-lived radical publication "Art Front." McKerrow observes:

The rhetoric of the Artists' Congress, ultimately, cannot be separated from the art of
social realism as innovative presentation. Unlike socialist realism, which hewed closely to a
party line, the art that has been labeled social realism spoke less to a specific ideology than to
a general reaction against police brutality, poverty, and other social ills of the period. Philip
Evergood, for example, saw in the Depression an opportunity for artists to free themselves
from the confines of "patronage art" and produce art for the people. Along with others,
including those in governmental authority, saw the chance to bring art and the people closer
together—to make art a part of the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Evergood's Artist in
Society (1937) depicts the transition from wealthy connoisseurs poring over paintings they
dimly understand to art produced for the people, and reflecting their oppressed conditions
(Peeler, 1987). Where the "American Scene" painters (Grant Wood's masterpiece, Amer/can
Gothic is an example) were "celebratory" in their depiction of subjects and scenes, those
earning the sobriquet social realism tended to believe that "critical dissent had more
validity" (Peeler, 1987, p. 208). Although their discourse railed against the establishment,
their art tended to depict the downtrodden, the oppressed worker, the poverty-stricken "as
sad, drab, and spiritually depressed individuals, rather than as heroic workers bursting with
the kind of vitality capable of building a new society" (Baigell, 1974, p. 59).
While they took as their subjects depictions of "labor unrest, police brutality, lynching"
and the threat of fascism, they tempered their fiery criticism by adhering to Government
standards as necessary to win commissions. In part, the commissions allowed them to
continue with more radical projects on the side. (233)

The situation that McKerrow describes is compelling. In the wake of seriously weakened capitalist institutions, social realist work aesthetically contended with such failed promises. Moving away from a patronage system of artistic production, artists engaged with the idea of the "masses" and the "people" as a legitimate aesthetic object, but also, as audience.

Federally commissioned projects, however, sought to temper the radicality of public works. The people were to be represented as a harmonious proposition, part of a flourishing "American Scene." Craftily, some artists would follow conventional guidelines in federally commissioned work, pocketing their stipends, and then spending them to produce more radical work. A similar practice takes place in León, where, as part of the City of Murals program, graffiti artists will apply for municipal support and then use the same paint to produce illegal (or illegal style) throw ups. Working in the grey areas of institutional sponsorship, graffiti artists produce styles that diverge from an iconic approach to national identity, playing with abstract lettering and fantastical imagery in the place of figurative renditions of famous historic figures. The social effectiveness of such work becomes more fuzzy, tethered neither to institutional fidelity nor complete autonomy. An analogous phenomena were the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Sponsored graffiti battles in Chicago in the 1990s where the CTA, a major force in graffiti eradication, would host (and provide paint and cash prizes) for graffiti murals.

I highlight the above strange state-artist alliances to push towards thinking against artist and institutions in monolithic terms, instead, suggesting that we stay attentive to the strange spaces of alliance, lull, and play that happen among official and unofficial publics.