Fairly recently, two astounding events in the world of graffiti/street art hit the mainstream news world. Though the two are completely unconnected, taken together they structure a fascinating conversation about the state of that art, how far it has come in terms of social and critical acceptance, and how far it has to go. These two events are the month-long exhibit at Tour 13 (or Tour Paris 13) and the white out at famed 5pointz.
Parisian curator Mehdi Ben Cheikh (owner of Gallerie Itenerrance) organized the transformation of a condemned building in Paris' 13 arrondissement into a 10-story matrix showcasing the work of 100 artists from Sao Paolo to Tehran. The building's 36 apartments and four facades became a gallery under very specific terms: the work would be shown for one month preceding the building's demolition at the end of October.
I'm not going to pretend to have already known a lot about street art. This was the first time I've heard of many of these artists (though I now harbor a small obsession with a three or four of them). But I am stricken by the level of some of these works as installations. The artists were more or less given carte blanche since the building was already scheduled for demo and had been mostly abandoned for a while. They were allowed to incorporate whatever they wanted, including pre-existing rubble, and essentially encouraged to tear shit up. Walls, flooring, windows, ceiling plaster, bathroom fixtures, found items, and, of course, paint, provided the palette for some of the most fascinating graphic art and installations I have seen in a while. Some used the opportunity to reflect destruction, the building's own demise, and the lost nature of their own art in that place, while others used found items in a ridiculous modern reinvention of trompe l'oeil that completely blurs the distinction between 2D, wall, object, and space. (A personal fave is Pantonio's stampede of black and blue demon rabbits whose chaos has ripped up the floorboards.)
Others used the opportunity to create stunning 2D graphics, paintings, tags, and commentary-based installations, like Paris-based Rodolphe Cintorino's Syria installation. The artists Shoof created a veritable meditative atmosphere by blacking out the apartment and writing arabic calligraphy on practically every surface.
I'm also fascinated, especially in the light of the 5pointz situation, with the explicit timeline of the project. Inti Castro responded to the WSJ's question about how he feels about the building's destruction in a concise and revealing way: "It's part of life, you do something for the others, once it's done, they see it, they like and it vanishes. (...) There's no feeling of property for my art." Despite the truistic trope 'graffiti is ephemeral', the artists and curator have embraced that side of the art and actually made the project about it. Tour 13 is, arguably, important both artistically, critically, and historically, because it only had a month to live. The limited timeline was certainly behind the 7-hour line of 20-something year olds that encircled the building around the clock by the end of October. The Independent has an awesome interview/article with some of the peeps waiting in that line that reveals just how intimately the existential timeline was incorporated into this massive and amazing project. (None of these photos are mine. Many are the property of Flickr acct mamnic47. Others are the property of Spencer Elzey.)
In a tone of the lamentable and quasi-tragic, 5 pointz, the 'graffiti mecca' of the world, was whited out over night on November 18 in a surprise attack by the property owner, as you may have heard or seen in just about every national news source--all of whom clearly went to interview artists in an effort to seem relevant to the non-mainstream dems. For those of you who, like myself, didn't and don't have a clue what 5pointz was, allow me to elucidate. Originally called the Phun Phactory (1993), 5 pointz (since 2002) is a 200,000 sq ft out of use factory appropriated for the display and concentration of graffiti art, which also became a hip hop and community events venue. The current 'curator' is Jonathan Cohen, aka Meres, who presides over a graphic version of survival of the fittest--apparently the curatorial system was in part orchestrated by how skilled or popular certain tags or graphs were. All of this, of course, was true up until November 18/19, when the property owner buffered all of 5 pointz a few months in advance of the building's scheduled destruction. (It is to become a $400 million development.)
The 5 pointz group has been petitioning the city and other organization for a protected status as a cultural site in order to stave off the long-foreseen demo. But the primary--and completely understandable--grief shared by the 5 pointz-Queens community (and by artists the world over) is that the property owner, one Jerry Wolkoff, scrubbed the building in secret, over night. The NYT shared a few heart breaking quotes from artists and people from the neighborhood, who discovered the whiteout on Tuesday morning and contacted their friends a small panic.
Predictably, the comments section of that same article is rife with ignorant bougie hate of street art, though it does make for some hysterical reading in that way that YouTube comments make you laugh and also lose faith in humanity. One of my personal favorites is "Let's face it: graffiti is really about the defacement of other people's property"--especially in light of Tour 13 and the many other instances of graffiti art entering the mainstream art world. As a whole the 5 pointz whiteout was considerably more controversial in the media, and when considered alongside Tour 13 it raises some interesting questions.
Namely, would Tour 13 have been so celebrated (socially and critically) if it was a permanent or unofficial installment? Interestingly, Tour 13 and the discussion surrounding it accepts graffiti as an art form from the beginning; that idea is implicit in the formation of that project. But Tour 13 also embraces the transience of that art in its formation, which was cause enough for its month-long celebrity. On the other hand, 5 pointz was, in a way, spontaneous and organic, and had been an operating art mecca for 12 years. Instead of being conceived as an art gallery-installation, it grew out of the social atmosphere of Queens. In a sign of how far street art has come, another commenter on the NYT article considers 5 pointz as a positive driving force in the reinvention and slow gentrification of Queens--which, perhaps, is neither here nor there, but I suspect it still informs the discussion.
Personally I have no idea how to feel about the 5 pointz whiteout... mostly i suspect i am saddened and irritated on their behalf. 5 pointz was a kind of living catalogue (with a website), a living exhibition as well as a community place. For both installations, the art continues to exist only in photographs, which perhaps moves them pretty squarely into the same category no matter how we talk about their former physical manifestations. Have no doubt there is a lot of conversation to be had about the two in conjunction and separately, and they would make excellent material for a seminar I feel. Someone TEACH THAT CLASS.