Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Boy Had a Mouthful of Glitter: The State of Street Art in Dunedin

Last night I dreamed a beautiful dream. I was walking through the city in a murky light.  Around the area of Vogel and Jetty Streets I was delighted to see new artists has added to the murals left in the wake of the Dunedin Street Art Festival. Palettes had been expanded, dialogues were being engaged in within the painted field of the work, and the work had grown with new voices and narratives emerging. The art crawled away from its designated walls and was beginning to infect the non-authorised spaces around it, becoming an autonomous thing itself, guided by the hands of anonymous artists who had  actually inhabited the world they were shaping. It was indeed beautiful.

As are most dreams of impossible things.

Painting on walls is one of the oldest human activities that we have evidence for. It has been with us shortly after homo-sapiens, and possibly the neanderthal, first gathered in the shelter of a cave. The first flickering comprehension that the world can be changed through action manifested in humankind reaching out to mark its immediate environment, to define its habitat.

Graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii give’s a deeper insight into the everyday thoughts and opinions of the people more than any official record. One always tends to think immediately of those unflattering caricatures of authority figures, though Pompeii also gives us a wonderful catalogue of wall-scrawled slogans. Some true flashes of poetry emerge here amid a cavalcade of scatological declarations and tallies of sexual conquest. Consider: Whoever loves, let him flourish. Let him perish who knows not love. Let him perish twice over whoever forbids love. Or a case of the medium critiquing the medium with: O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.

Moving forward with the narrative of expression projected upon the environment, we accelerate through democratising codes of early twentieth century hobo signs indicating areas of opportunity or oppression, the May ’68 declarations of revolutionary impulse, and the New York graffiti writers of the nascent hip-hop scene. Finally we arrive at contemporary iterations of what has been gathered under the clunky rubric of ‘street art’ and stumble into a mire of taxonomic confusion, wholesale cultural appropriation at retail prices, and an incredibly toxic and limiting attitude to the nature of public spaces.

There is, of course, nothing new about the troublesome hegemonic negotiations around the legitimacy of street art and the perpetual parasitism of mainstream narratives upon underground currents of culture. However, whether or not the artists involved are simply selling-out or knowingly buying-in or whatever else is a not the issue here. It is rather the level of engagement or the negotiations that one must make as an artist with the machineries of the dominant culture that becomes important. Although in terms of paying dues, one may suspect that Dr. Glen Hazelton’s background in street art may have come more from a coffee table book on Banksy than cutting stencils, jumping fences, bombing walls, and keeping one eye out for the five-oh.

No one can doubt that the Dunedin Street Art organisers are well meaning in their woefully misguided attempts to foster a ‘creative quarter’ in the city. Though surely by now we have learned that ‘well meaning’ simply means ‘about to mess things up in a major way’. So it is with these folks, who in their hubristic rush to self-hagiography and breathless frothing over hashtag-fucking-gigatown cannot grasp the extent of the damage they are doing. This is not the thin end of the wedge of gentrification, this is a solid swing of the mallet and cannot be tolerated.

The problematic earnestness of the whole venture wraps itself around a cargo cult mentality regarding art, culture, and authenticity. The cargo in this case being some kind of lifestyle payoff, and that by enacting ritualistic gestures towards what they perceive of as art, they may invoke the beneficent attention of the real thing. It’s a notion of ‘cool’ that seems to be a play here.

This unacknowledged lip-service ideology extends through the development of businesses in the ‘creative quarter.’ Wine Freedom and Freedom Hair, I’m looking at you. Surely there must be some classification in the DSM for the mental glitch that causes these things to happen. Eleven years after the first humvees rolled into Iraq and have we still not learnt the difference between occupation and liberation? So, let us be absolutely clear, the revolution must include dancing but freedom is not about wine, or wigs, and it is certainly not about 'cool’.

There was a fair amount of murmuring about selection process for the artists to be authorised to make their mark on the permitted walls of the festival. Apparently early on the festival organisers had to be reminded that women make art too. Then, note that all the artists from Dunedin are, at least by the official story, stepping into street art for the first time. Ex-Dunedinite Sean Duffell/Ghstie’s persisting pieces not withstanding, there has never really been a particularly notable street art scene in Dunedin. Perhaps this not surprising, the town may have been too far too aggressively conservative, apathetic, and a little bit chilly at night to foster artists developing their voices in the street art arena. So, to get some work from practitioners with honed skills we need to import some spray-can jockeys from far and wide, granted, but it also makes the whole things feel even more of an invasion and imposition upon the local environment.

Indeed it seems that the majority of the artists involved, even those currently calling this town home, just came to the party with their established bag of tricks. The same contextless imagery that saturates this whole aesthetic cannon of pop-surrealism/designer/contemporary-illustration stuff is regurgitated by these people wherever they wrangle their next commission. I recognise that maintaining style and identity is paramount in this game that was born from traversing the city throwing up names, however there really should be a little more consideration around site specificity and context. An exception apparent in local boy Sam Ovens’ Vogel St piece presenting the only overt reference to the long history of cultural production in the city with his use of imagery from Robert Scott’s cover of The Bats’ By Night EP. For everyone else, engagement with locality appears entirely limited to negotiation of the dimensions of their assigned picture plane.

Of the visitors, only Be Free really gets a pass as a street artist doing the job properly with a handful of pieces appearing off the official grid of the festival. By going stealth and spreading her work beyond the authorised spaces provided Be Free engages in an more unmediated exploration and interaction with the geography of the city.

While we are doing the artisits hit parade, a moment needs to be taken here to address Jon Thom’s work. Although merely a translation of Thom’s regular practice this piece still falls into the street art trope of the contextless-female-portrait-produced-by-a-man, and has to be called out as the bullshit it is. Thankfully eschewing overt sexualisation the work is not the worst example of this kind of thing,  but still Thom’s treatment of a woman as empty decoration is pretty much tantamount to just scrawling a big cock and balls on the wall. Hearsay has that this is a portrait of one of Thom’s friends but even that brings no sense of identify to the image. Compare this to the young ladies in the work of Andy McCready, Devon Smith, and Be Free who come to us as characters with at least some associated signifiers of action indicating agency in the world and independent narratives. Thom’s friend has no depth, no activity, no story, and no reason why her image is three stories tall on the streets of my city other than the artist thought she looked ‘nice.’

It is also aesthetically and technically a terrible painting.

And then we begin to approach the real heart of darkness of this whole thing.

Premise: The external walls of the city occupy a liminal space between the public sphere of the street and the private space of the building. In this intermediary state the wall is purely two-dimensional becoming an almost Plantonic picture plane.

Premise: These external walls form part of a visual commons, a shared visual geography of those who inhabit and pass through the city. This landscape of the seen is essentially constituent to the psychogeograpic navigation of the city.

Premise: As such, use of the walls as picture plane should be open to the constructive participation and free expression of all those who share in this common property. i.e. Those who have to look at them every day.

In this light, the negotiation of public (Dunedin City Council) and private (business/building owners) occasioned by the street art festival represents an oppressive ideological enclosure of the common. It is unsurprising, yet deeply saddening that the festival occasioned a tidal wave of the grey buff rolling across most extant examples of the minimal local art in the Vogel Street area. Tags, stencils, paste-ups - they all had to go. Dunedin has always been a town that favours this patchy, grey high water mark on its walls rather than the free expression of the citizenry but the irony and hypocrisy of cashing in on ‘street art’ while erasing art from the streets leaves me unable to find an analogy angry enough.

What should be deemed a site of free expression and exchange of ideas of all has come under a form of highly restrictive domination and control by a minority group who have convinced themselves that they march under a banner of ‘fostering community.’ All the while, the people of Dunedin are reduced to the subjective status of consumers rather than participants in our own shared urban space.

Even if one accepts the official narrative that this sanitised, authorised version of local culture is ‘Public’ art, rather than having to digest the supposedly radical notion of common ownership of the inhabited environment, there are other, more functional, models immediately available.

Consider the work and method’s of the Blue Oyster Gallery’s recent CNZ Pacific intern Amiria Puia-Taylor with her South Auckland centred project ‘Painting for the People’. Although bringing it’s own problematic structures - not the least of which is still the operation of a permission-based business model - Painting for the People at least indicates a step in the right direction for the visual landscape of our shared urban spaces. In Puia-Taylor’s model, community engagement takes primacy generating mural works that are designed, executed, and enjoyed by those who live in the immediate presence of the work. The community are invited to participate in the creation of the images that inhabit their world and to project their own stories onto the walls around them.

One can identify certain apprehensions around opening up the walls to public dialogue, but in looking to other places we can see that it is possible for a strong set of ethics to emerge spontaneously and non-hierarchically. For example in the bottom-up organisational mode of graffiti writers of late 70s New York in which the general consensus was: you don’t paint trees, people’s houses, places of worship, respect the quality work, crush those who show no respect, and so on. This negotiation of street art’s original modalities suggests that self-organisation is not only possible but inevitable in leading to more representative and democratised visual landscape.

It may be worth noting that already voices of dissent seem to be appearing upon the walls with the Blek le Rat/Banksy inflected rodents of 'Decoy' and ironically stenciled slogans of, “Fuck Street Art, Let's Riot.” A sentiment I can probably concur with, at least ideologically. Or perhaps just more and better street art is needed to incite some kind of revolution in thinking about the staid and over-circumscribed visual culture of our city.

However, until true spaces for these negotiations are open and available it is up to the true creative community of Dunedin to formulate our own responses. If the history of social struggle teaches us one thing it is that no one is ever going to just give you your rights. You must stand up and take them. Take back the walls, take back the city. It has always been ours. We must kick open the gates of the false paradise that seeks to enclose us, spray paint the walls on the way out, and slash the tires of every SUV in the car park.

Let him perish twice over whoever forbids love.

Let them perish thrice over whoever forbids love while invoking its name.

Now, more than ever we need the impossible and the beautiful.

Sous les pavés, la plage.

Cool is just not fucking good enough.

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