Saturday, May 31, 2014

Femme(s) & Street Art: Femininity and Urban Ethos

If one walks for more than five minutes nearly anywhere in Paris stumbling upon street art-- Space Invader's retro videogame characters above street labels, Levalet's site specific figures, or the alien-like profiles of MG La Bomba-- is almost inevitable. Yet, like graffiti, it is a form of public art that is often depicted as a masculine endeavor. Galerie de Art Urbain's recent exhibit, Femme(s) & Street Art,  seeks to correct such a public image by exploring works by female street artists largely exploring representations of femininity in literature, cinema, and popular culture.

Running between March 8 and March 22 the exposition consisted of work from FKDL, Stoul, Nathalie Victoire, Vinie, Doudou Style, Jessica LeGuillon, Shaz Arts, and TonyOne. It was released in parallel with a separate exhibit in the halls of the 10th arrondissement local government building which sought to display street art in a public space open to a more general audience.
The gallery owners, Edna Mensah and Samia Eddequiouaq, opened Pari(s) Urbain in June of 2013 as part of a final project for their degrees. Edna noted: “It was our objective to valorize street art and to discover new talent…some of yet which is still unknown.” The Femme et Street Art exhibit was designed with the goal of celebrating the International Day of the Woman, and the show opened on March 8, with live painting by the artists around the front of the gallery. Women are involved in street art, but they are a minority, Edna added. Samia expanded: “The street art scene remains a masculine retreat, in general, and with this exposition we decided to put woman in a place of honor, on the wall with works that reflect on the woman…feminine street art is still not well known, and very few male street artists represent women in their works.” Male artists like FKDL and TonyOne are exceptional in that women are represented in 90% of their works.
The show reflects both representations of femininity in street art, and representations of femininity in popular culture at large by male and female street artists. Iconic images of Marilyn Monroe, Betty Page, and other pinup girls share wall space with Vinie's iconic but unique afro-haired woman.

Vinie. Pink is Beautiful. 2013. Aerosol et acrylique su toile. 70cm x 50cm. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.
A collage aesthetic dominated, some including the face of celebrities as the face of figures. FKDL, the collagiste who in solo or collaboration developed most of the collage works, explained that he draws from his vast collection of publications from the 1920s to the 1970s. For this show he draws from an era where femininity was strictly regulated, but even so, puts these female figures “into life, walking down the street” by pasting them on the walls. FKDL’s work in the exposition was drawn from a previous show he had organized himself, titled, “Cinema et Cineaste,” an exploration of cinema images. For the show he worked with four artists, collaborating over a period of weeks, and when working with one artist, keeping the paintings of the others hidden so that they would not influence the other works. The show explored the woman “in movement.”
Stoul's work featured anime style female figures in brightly colored clothing, many in close ups, and one in collaboration with FKDL where Stoul's iconic figure stands in for Marilyn Monroe, her dress composed of clippings about the starlet. Is the piece a commentary on the way in which, in street art culture, female members are often sexualized, demonized, or lionized? Or the intense influence that U.S. media has played both in the street art and graffiti movement and in global representations of femininity? Stoul suggested that her work addresses questions of the feminine, but also the feminist. “[My work explores] the feminine because there is a kind of glamour, but also I am feminist in my life, my discourse, which is not necessarily represented in my work…In any case…there is yet work to be done for the rights of women at the international level and also here in France.”
FKDL et STOUL. Marilyn. Acrylique et collage. 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.

Stoul. Nerf Rebelle. Aerosol sur toile. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.
My favorite piece was FKDL's play on Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," which included a background from the book version of the story, a cartoon figure of Melanie being attacked by bird-CCTV camera hybrids, pointing to the ways in which surveillance, both social and governmental, haunt women in and outside of street art milieus.
FKDL et Bereens. Bird's Brother. Aerosol, acrylique sur toile. 130cm x 97 cm. Galerie Pari(s) Urbain. Paris, France. March 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Asking DouDou about her perspective on the theme of the exposition she reflected: “When I think of the woman and street art, I think about birth, the beginning of life. The heart of a woman is very sensitive…woman can be very strong, but also behind that, there is a fragility, and so I try to depict both…strength and weakness.”

DouDou/Do U Art. Series: Do U Spleen? Acrylique sur papier. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

In the collage pieces 1950s media prevailed. Such a retro sensibility also emerged in Nathalie Victoires work, one of which was a combination of anglophone comic speech bubbles with snappy quotes like: "Great sufferin' snails its a girl! And whadda girl!" positioned alongside blackbook pieces and more abstract drawings.
Nathalie Victoire. Dara. 2013. Photographie numerique. 40cm x 60cm. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
These comic/digital image mixtures are Nathalie Victoire’s signature. She mixes cartoons, graffiti, drawing, and classical images. Loving to “mix and create anachronisms.” Since she was young she has been interested in hip hop and graffiti culture, cartoons, and enjoys mixing different tendencies. The “Dara” piece was the result of Victoire’s desire to do something on the theme of the beautiful warrior woman. Dara is a Viking, a persona that Victore found appealing because of her “beauty and strength.” 
Nathalie Victoire. OdalisK. 2013. Photographie numerique. 40cm x 60cm. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
In the room below, Victoire's piece, "OdalisK" refers to the art history icon, "Odalisque," as a high point of women's objectification in the plastic arts. OdalisK is joined in bed by two graffiti characters, industrial and lustrous, modernizing the scene slightly. Does the appearance of the characters change the fact that the figure is still the object of a sexualizing gaze? The scene is ambiguous, pointing to the murky terrain that female writers navigate on a daily basis.
 OdalisK, Victoire elaborated, is a drawing that came from her attempt to imagine OdalisK within a planetary space, while also using graffiti lettering and texture. It is an experiement in creating “interstellar graffiti, not urban, but interstellar…an idea of the urban future that also has a sensibility of being from the past.”
Although, in Victoires estimation, the works in the exposition are not explicitly polemical, the artists and their work offer an alternative social model. She reflected:

En cette periode de crise en France, avec…tous ce qui passent en les elections municipaux actuellement, je trouve que qu’est-ce si passe aujourd’hui ici [galerie] reflet de la veritable visage de la jeunesse française, c’est à dire, une France ouvert, une France multicouleur, une France profondement feminine aussi, je ne dirai pas feministe mais feminine, et fort, et belle, et international, et pas du tout dans le firmement de la port de l’autre. Non, pas de tout. Vivre la France!

In this period of crisis in France…with what happened in the municipal elections, I find that what is happening here [in the gallery] reflects a face of the French youth, which is to say, an open France, a multicolored France, a France that is also profoundly feminine. I do not say feminist, but feminine, and strong, beautiful, and international, without closing the door to the other. Not at all. Long live, France!

In this declaration, Victoire suggests that a feminine street art offers a different ethos and ethic for urban living that is open to difference, and the other.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Situ Art Festival Fort D'Aubervilliers: Aspirational Art and Transitional Space

Fort d'Aubervilliers was constructed between 1843 and 1846 to support the defense of Paris. The former army base is just north of Paris' city limits, has been a military base, car factory, and from 1984 onwards, countercultural expression including hip hop, punk, and rock performances. In Situ Art Festival, organized by the AFTRP (an urban redevelopment organization) and the organizatin Art en Ville (Art in the City), to transform two hectares of an abandoned military base into a public space. Over fifty artists have participated in intervening in the space by using the concept of transition, the project website states "an echo...that transverses the site, empty of its former uses, which the demolition of certain buildings this autumn will complete." The festival proffers a last breath for the physical site of rusty cars, concrete promenades, and vast leaky buildings, using aesthetic interventions to construct a space for meditation, reflection, and future-oriented projections for the site-to-come. One such future is the transformation of the site into an "ecoquartier," a sustainable neighborhood that is mixed-use, mixed-income, and mixed-gender. This new neighborhood is part of a broader scheme to transform the neighborhood of Aubervilliers in line with the new Grand Paris express line, the terminus of which will be based in Aubervilliers in 2025.

The entrance to the exposition is off of Avenue Jean Jaurés, one door past the official Fort entrance, a nondescript driveway distinguished only by a buffed billboard with the scrawl in white: "In Situ <---- p="">A grassy path with "Cyklop" poles with one-eyed monster faces exhibiting a range of emotions leads to a large shed structure and surrounded by metal siding walls that are covered in graffiti.

Cyklop. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Insitu Art Festival Signage. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Metal siding pieces. 13bis. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
This first encounter with the site offers wildly divergent representations of what "street art" may mean. On the right, a photocollage piece by 13bis depicts a cupid, or an angel, seated on waht frm far away may be a pile of rubble, but on closer inspection is a pile of eyes that disquietingly follow the viewer from different angles. Across from and adjacent to the winged being is aerosol based work, one by ZDV BOYZ represents a smiling cyclops with a handheld bombing device.
ZDVBOYZ. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

The other, a letter based composition with shadowy characters contained within three panels of names, gestures to iconic images of Paris (the eiffel tower, Metro signs), and other more sombre elements of French history (a military skeleton, a puppet master wielding the word 'control), and the third a more fantastical wolf-man in a winterland reference.
TAP, N3MC, TCG Crew collaboration. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The sign briefly announces the Fort's complex history, and explains the shared them of "transitions," that each artist has undertaken. It further contextualizes: "Since its beginning in the 1960s street art has always been in urban spaces in transition," and indeed, from Situationism and the student protests of '68, to the growth of hip hop in France in the 1980s as well as punk movements, pouchoirs, graffiti, and collage has been an active part of the urban scene. What is distinct here is street art being deliberately called for as a public mechanism of discussion, commemoration, and transition. As such, it is being invoked as a means for collective conversation, one that is being made legible to a broader public.

In order to enable such art to "speak" to a general addressee, Insitu offers what might be understood as a meta reflection on graffiti and hip hop's own roots in the site itself. Photographs by Willy Vainqueur of Fête en Fort, the first hip hop festival in the Paris region in 1984, are blown up and laminated onto one of buildings that frames a seating area, as well as an array of abandoned (and entirely decorated) vehicles.

Pierre Terrasson. Collage Photographique. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Pierre Terrasson. Collage Photographique. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
These photographs depict key punk and hip hop groups from the 1980s: Oberkampf, Russian Roulette, and images from Fête et Fort, including the Parisian Breakdance Crew (PBC), and graffiti writers, as well as DJs and photographers from the era.

This countercultural past, rendered with blown-up snapshots with handwriting scrawling names and dates, stands across from a rubble-based housing unit, simply marked with the sign "Here soon," "Ici prochaînement."

"Here soon." Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Showing the outlines of rooms, distinguished by sparse renderings of recreation (a stone couch and television), repose (a teddy bear), consumption (a refridgerator), and rest (a bed), the viewer is left to wonder if what is to be here soon, is not more uncomfortable than the already bare concrete and corroded buildings and automobiles.

Almost as an answer to this very question, what the human element of the new built environment at the Fort will resemble, is a monumental mural titled "Grounding Gratitude," by American-Cuban artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada. The artist, who has since 2002 done works in homage to "invisible heroes," the series is titled, "Identity." This  piece represented a social worker in the neighborhood and President of the Neighborhood Board, Nicole Picquart, who is a well-known local figure who has resided in the area since 1970.
"Grounding Gratitude" by Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada. Photo Credit: In Situ Art Festival.
The portrait is 1200 meters square, the size of a parking lot, and, because of its gigantic size, is impossible to see from the ground. Although visually frustrating, this lack of vision raises important philosophical questions about the place of the site, and its historic and social visibility. Can it only be known, or registered, through aerial views and a large vertical distance (Paul Elliot Johnson hazarded that it may work as a reverse punctum, an observation I cannot fully digest yet)? Even if it were recognizable from the ground, would the homage to a local heroine register for visitors (many of whom are from outside the neighborhood)? And importantly, will figures like Picquart fit within the purview of future development plans?

The place of women within the Fort's future is one that was explicitly gestured to within the ambit of the festival. As we moved from the parking lot to the second major accessible space, this one involving an corridor with window-sized pieces, a large parking lot, and then a circular viaduct, a sign advised that the exhibit was intended to

...mark in the site's history a constant and (unedited) change. For the first time, the fort will be open to mixtures of difference: a melange of uses (the future neighborhood will include lodging, schools, and cultural centers), social mixture and especially a mixture of genders. From a virile universe (the army, the automobile, etc.) that has been constructed through visitors that are almost exclusive since its construction, it thus promises to turn into a place that will be open to all.
This is the transition that is reflected in the majority of the works created for the festival InSitu. If the carcasses of abandoned cars in the site evoke their passed usefulness, the variety of mediums retained (graffiti, stencil, wheat pasting, etc.) and the numerous portraits-- of women, of children and of couples, but also of animals--painted by the artists in residence who transform the Fort and figure an ecosystem that is full of richness and diversity.

A forest of abandoned autos. Laurence Favory (FR). Acrylique. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Pourtant, l’aménagement prochain d’un écoquartier sur le site marque dans son histoire un 
tournant inédit. Pour la première fois, le fort s’ouvrira à la mixité : mixité des usages (le futur quartier comprendra aussi bien des logements que des bureaux et des équipements scolaires ou culturels), mixité sociale et surtout mixité des genres. Aux univers virils (armée, automobile, etc.) qui en ont composé la fréquentation quasi exclusive depuis sa construction, promet ainsi de succéder un lieu ouvert à tous. 
A cock with a ball gag. Monsieur Qui.  Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
C’est cette transition que reflètent la plupart des œuvres créées dans le cadre du festival 
InSitu. Si les carcasses de voitures disséminées sur le site en évoquent les usages passés, la variété des médiums retenus (graffiti, pochoir, affiche, etc.) et les nombreux portraits – de femmes, d’enfants et de couples, mais aussi d’animaux – peints par les artistes en résidence esquissent le devenir du Fort et le préfigurent comme un écosystème tirant sa richesse de sa diversité. 
FKDL (FR). Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Indeed, the feminine figures as a common feature of the second portion of the space. Guy Denning, FKDL, STOUL, and Stephane Carricando offer abstract references to femininity, ranging from the impressionist, to 1950s couture, and elongated anime-style features.
STOUL. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
More realist faces emerge in Dan23's work, as well as in Jana&JS's collages. More ambiguous, however, is the central mural in the second parking lot.
Borondo. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The image, of a nude woman lying in a fetal position, her right arm cradling her head and the left arm wrapped around her belly, while a more indeterminate figure on hand and knees crawls above her, cupping her left breast, could be an intimate portrait of a couple. Yet, her stare outwards and the other figure's lack of discernable facial features, makes the affective tenor of the piece more unsettling, and (discomfortably) calls on the viewer to interpret the scene. Borondo's other work is similarly marked by nude figures of different colors, painted with a sense of rawness and blurred facial figures, painting in ambiguity into the scene.

Partial view of viaducts.  Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Kanos and Onoff's collaboration call attention to the element of creative destruction involved both for the art festival, and for the eventual transformation of the site.

Kanos/OnOff. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Some of the cars seemed freshly burnt to serve as better canvases for the work, as in the case of Dan23's work:
Dan23. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Mygalo 2000's viaduct piece, "Chaleur Humaine," Human Warmth, similarly troubles easy calls for mixture, unity, and an amalgamation of differences. Skeletons piled ceiling high huddle together, some looking out of bars, obliquely calling attention to the thanatopolitical history of the site, or, more simply poking fun at the idea that more bodies necessarily means more warmth.
Mygalo2000. Chaleur Humaine. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
While there, two separate school groups with youth around 8-9 roved around with teachers, each carrying packets with a set of images to look for. This sort of scavenger hunt enabled the youth to have some mechanism to relate to the site other than pure association, and it was clearly thrilling being able to run around an automobile bone yard. Finding a recent pornography magazine in an otherwise charred interior of the one of the trucks was also a cause for mirth.
School trip. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
It is clear that the organizers are well-aware that the art alone cannot do all of the labor to transform the Fort into a new site for living, commerce, and community. These pedagogical endeavors along with the series of live programming (live painting, hip hop festivals, and opening the festival in tandem with the surrounding Maladerie block party) offer examples of how the festival is a vehicle for proving aesthetic spaces for encounters that are partial participants, not the sole players. As an art that reflects on, but also enables, social transition, it remains to be seen what role InSitu will play on generating a community that is a bastion of meaningful (and sometimes ambivalent, contrarian, and difficult) diversity, or yet another extension of Paris' frontier that continues to create further peripheries.

Refreshment stand. Fort D'Aubervilliers, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce