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Play Power

New York City has always been a forest of signs. The walls talk incessantly, with the barking accents of commerce. NYC is the home of the tabloid newspaper. In the 1920s, the “screaming” headlines were shouted out by hordes of “newsies,” kids who sold papers on street corners. Commercial signage matched the papers for volume of distraction. To this day, bill posters in New York paper walls and construction fences continuously. In the 19th century, playbills printed from over-sized wooden type fonts could be easily read from passing carriages, and carved wooden trade figures stood in front of shops. Today the walls of Times Square veritably scream; it’s a tourist attraction for signage alone. The billboard is the raucous visual voice of the product, the herald of brands. Artists then and now have envied advertising its reach and ubiquity. The visual address of modern publicity informed the painting and collage of Malevich, Picasso and Delaunay, and the systems of suggested to the Dadaists sophisticated means of spreading the word about their movement. The Cadum baby, whose smiling image everywhere pushed soap, became a kind of Dada totem.

A murmur within this commercial orchestration began to be heard in the late 20th century. The lore of the graffiti movement dates it to 1970, when the tag “Taki 183” began to appear around town, on the walls and on signs in the subway system. Then, in successive waves of guerrilla strikes on the surfaces of the subway – inside cars and stations, and especially on the outside of subway cars – the artists of the graffiti movement made their names known. The artist – called a “writer” – was the brand him – (almost invariably) – self.

Young artists in the downtown NYC of the 1970s saw and became inspired by this vernacular art form which continued to build, despite mounting complaints from citizens and repression from government officials. In the front ranks of these was NYC-born John Fekner, whose spectacular stencils in derelict sites throughout New York won the respect of the graf writers. Fekner was joined by many other trained artists who felt compelled to make a mark on the walls of the city as well as in its galleries, to join that conversation on the streets rather than remain content with the muted mutterings within the galleries. In doing they stood with the artists of the graf movement during the period when hip-hop culture was being born.

After years of doing work out there on his own, Fekner exhibited in the seminal “Graffiti Art Success for America” show at the South Bronx artist-run space called Fashion Moda in 1980. He wasn’t writing his name, though, he was "labeling" the urban environment, stenciling captions on things that pointed to situations. Fekner was down with the graffiti movement when it had a moment of popularity on the left. As the only mode of self-expression in totalitarian societies with a controlled press, graffiti rises up spontaneously as a way of getting information to the people. The new public urban writing was seen together with the kind of inscriptions that signaled revolution in dictatorships. These were images like the ghostly silhouette of Augusto Sandino or his hat in Nicaragua, pictures of Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, when mention of his name in the press was banned by the government, and the Chinese “big character” posters.

The conjunction of downtown artists and uptown and borough-bound graf writers reflected a kind of obsolescence of the art milieu. The gallery/museum world was – and remains – insufficient to the desires (if not the ambitions) of many young artists. They seek to put their work next to and into a populist culture, and see how they hold up next to expensive corporate campaigns. Or they want to punch through the membrane of an all-pervasive banal commercial culture, to be and to point to something other than what is prescribed in the overweening regimes of representation established and maintained by commercial media through billboards, product placement in films and TV, and the permeation of realms of the imagination with products. Fantasy is a product; a new kind of life is a commercial strategy. Artists can create new things, new products out of the conditions of their lives. Finally, the graffiti phenomenon in the U.S. had more to do with advertising than with politics. It was a revolution, but an entrepreneurial one – graf heralded a style revolution which generated the cultural industries of hip-hop.

As these art worlds rubbed together in the 1970s, the question of street cred (credibility) joined to the gallery/museum legitimation system in a complex metaphysic of reputation. Fekner had both – standing in a subculture and a position in the art market. He had done impressive street work and ambitious gallery installations, several with the painter Don Leicht.

Charlie Ahearn stepped into the hip-hop scene as a documenter, a photographer of the movement, starting out with slide shows in the nascent hip hop nightclubs in the South Bronx. These became the raw material for storyboarding Wild Style, the best early film on the hip-hop scene.

Ahearn arrived in Soho in 1973. The newcomer artist showed a film by Matta-Clark in a screening he organized (both artists were twins; both sets of twins were artists). Ahearn’s photographs in this exhibition are drawn from the moment when South Bronx hip-hop began to break in the white media. One is a picture he took in Charlotte Street in the South Bronx in 1981. In the distance a Fekner stencil piece “DECAY” can be seen. Charlotte Street was devastated in 1979. Residential buildings were empty for ten blocks in all directions, and bulldozed within a central area. Ronald Reagan made a campaign speech there, with John Fekner’s piece reading “BROKEN PROMISES” in the background. Fekner was making pieces anonymously, and suddenly his work was on national television. At the time, Ahearn recalled, many trained artists were drawn to the South Bronx. “Like in the ‘30s when people would go to Spain. People wanted to be part of it…. They thought it was some kind of movement.” Charlie’s brother John was making portrait casts at the artists’ space Fashion Moda. Charlie showed his super-8 feature The Deadly Art of Survival, putting up posters and going to community centers. This film starred a Lower East Side karate master, Nathan Ingram, as a martial arts teacher struggling to defeat his rivals at the drug dealing Disco Dojo.

Ahearn made his photographs during his early forays into the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the South Bronx, like the party-rhyming MC Busy Bee at a club, with Ahearn’s slide show going on in the background. Another shows b-boy turned DJ and MC Grandmaster Caz wearing giant glasses beside a graffiti mural. Abandoned buildings with tinned up windows are in the background. A picture of graf legend Smiley 149 wearing a do-rag led Ahearn to conceive the character of Zorro in Wild Style (played by famed graf writer Lee Quiñones). “When I was making Wild Style I would put these pictures up on the wall and rearrange them to make some narrative sense, and that’s how I wrote the script…. In my mind, when the slide show was shown at a hip-hop club with music, I was watching a movie.”

Another photo shows Zephyr in a train yard in the dark. “I was going into the yards with some of the really great writers. It was adventure and fun. Zephyr and Dondi took me into a yard to do a train, `Heroin Kills,’ and I did a little picture of Hot Stuff [the devil cartoon character], with a trident, and they seemed to think it was passable to go with their car. It was a great honor to have worked with these guys in the subway yard, and we didn’t get caught.”

For artists of today, the work of the graffiti artists of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s has become a mother lode of resistant culture. As Ahearn points out, graf writing is an entire underground visual culture, with dozens of books out on the subject, and hundreds of small magazines worldwide. Three generations of artists have been inspired by this work that is almost never shown in museums. For Ahearn, the broad influence of graffiti is comparable to Cubism. “What came out of the graffiti scene in the late ‘70s in New York has inspired generations of artists around the world. It doesn’t mean that they have to spray their name on a wall, but that they’re nurtured by this culture and inspired to themselves become artists and show work to their friends.” And in so doing, “They remain outside the art world, resolutely outside the art world, the entire thing, without exception.”

I talked with Charlie Ahearn about corporate sponsorship. Nike sponsors the recent “Beautiful Losers” skateboard/hip-hop/graf show, and underwrites a gallery of street culture in Berlin. Other corporations have sponsored screenings of Wild Style around the country and abroad. American corporations sell culture that is criminalized in the U.S.. This art is celebrated abroad, and at home it is continually stepped on. Is repression part of the business strategy? In a nutshell, the mercantile system of culture is in league with crime. What’s bad is good business.

Nelson George (in Fricke & Ahearn, 2002) writes that hip hop grew up in an ethos of “casual illegality,” in a South Bronx devastated by the neglect of both government and capital. The battles with big sound systems in public parks after dark were surely illegal, just as the graffiti on trains in the subway yards. These were so ill-policed kids could get in to work for hours making the car-long “burners” that so amazed the world. The clubs that nurtured the culture in the ‘70s were run by drug-related businessmen, and dealing was widespread. The b-boys break dancing came straight out of gang confrontations. It was battle dancing, like the wildly stylized kung fu of Asian “chop socky” movies, and the Brazilian dance style of capoeira. The routines and structures of gang culture ordered the hip-hop posses and graffiti crews. A new business, modeled on criminal enterprise, made jobs for unemployed minority youth in something besides the drug trade. George compares this to the lawless culture driven by the unrealistic Prohibition laws of the 1920s which spurred the development of jazz. Tight policing, what under Mayor Rudy Giuliani came to be known as “quality of life” enforcement, would not have enabled hip-hop to grow.

Sandra Fabara, aka Lady Pink, is the most famous woman in a man’s game. She started writing graffiti in 1979, and painted trains in the early ‘80s. She starred in Wild Style, playing a character based loosely on herself, as did the male lead Lee. The film’s cult status means she is recognized in the streets of cities she’s never visited before with teenagers following her on the street. Of the many hip-hop films, she says, Wild Style is a true picture of the scene as it was. “Charlie A’s movie was on the money. It was all really like that. All dirty, a lot of foul language. I have fond memories of it.”

For this exhibition Pink plans to paint a giant woman –She’s a Brick House, painted in latex and finished with spray paint. “She’s a big sexy woman, all made of gray brick. She’s just kind of strolling through the black silhouettes of the buildings, walking through casually, but she has a regal bearing, a confident strong kind of walk.” Pink will put tags on her legs, graffiti names, the way a wall collects urban scrawl. And students will be able to add their own things with markers provided. The tags should reach her waist. “From faraway it’s going to look like she’s wearing a very colorful pair of pants.”

Pink likes to paint big sexy women. It’s a statement, and a comment back to the boys’ club graf culture she grew up in. In the past decade, more girls became involved. “In the ‘70s there were a lot of girls that painted…. But they were not as well documented and the guys don’t speak about them very much. They just mumble.” The Brick House figure looks like a stereotypical pin-up, but Pink, a feminist, makes no apology. ”I don’t think that women should have to compromise their femininity or sexuality when trying to be strong and successful,” she said. “I love to paint women. And I love to fuck with men’s minds, because this is their expectation of what a woman should be. She’s gonna be 14 feet tall. A guy will come just about crotch height. So good luck with that, and as much as you try you cannot reach her big boobies.”

It is an animated architectural metaphor. I noted a work on Pink’s website from 1996 in which her letters are turning into buildings. She said that her father in Ecuador, and her brothers are all architects. She moved in NYC when she was seven years old, and studied architecture in high school. But the math repelled her, and she turned to painting.

Pink’s work is neatly divided between her gallery art, commercial murals in a variety of styles, and collaborative murals. These last she does collaboratively with her husband who writes “Smith” and their friends. They get permission from a landlord – but no money, because they want the freedom to design the theme. Then, “Everybody shows up and it’s like recreational mural painting…. It’s usually, bring your own paint, paint what you want. We trust you.”

In this work, Pink is very pragmatic. I asked her about the influence of the Mexican muralists of the last century, and she acknowledged the influence. Still, she says, it is not possible to do controversial political statements as they did. “People with opposing views will take out your stuff. You’re at the mercy of the locals, and I’ve lost a number of pieces that were just slightly controversial.” The mural commissioning group CityArts, which was commissioning strongly political murals during the same years graf artists were bombing trains, is curiously at odds with the writers who do walls today. Pink says CityArts has to put their murals high to avoid being covered over. “The streets are not for everyone. Stuff really has to kick ass if you want to survive.”

Recently she has started to do work with schools, painting murals with students at the Frank Sinatra High School for the Arts near her home in Queens. This work is supported by the Martin Wong Foundation, named for the late painter of the East Village who collected graffiti art and piece books early on. She has also recently done artwork for a video game about being a graffiti writer. Players can run around, paint, and run from the cops. Her husband Smith sold his image and his voice for the game.

Despite her multi-faceted career and civic engagements, Pink and Smith continue to be the targets of the NY Police Department. This is common with graffiti writers and artists throughout NYC today. Recently their work was seized as evidence, landlords where their collaborative murals are sited were approached and threatened with city harassment if they didn’t expunge them. “The police admit that the walls are nice, but they say we inspire young people to pick up spray paint and they want us to stop setting an example…. I do inspire young people. I see their shiny little eyes when they come up and ask for an autograph, and there’s just no way I can stop. We inspire everyone. I don’t want to just work for the elite who go to galleries. What about the common folk? What do they get? Advertising? That’s lovely.”

The late Gordon Matta-Clark was among the first to sell graffiti as art. The Soho sculptor had seen graf when he worked in the South Bronx cutting up abandoned tenements for his work. In 1973 he took his truck there to be painted on by all. He exhibited the marked-up vehicle during the summer Washington Square Art Fair, an annual artists’ venue. He mounted his Photoglyphs, long pictures of painted subway cars, in a park along the sidewalk, and parked the truck in the street. During the day he cut pieces out of his truck with an acetylene torch and sold them on the spot.

Matta-Clark later exhibited the Photoglyphs on the wall behind the 112 Greene Street artists’ space so the pictures could be seen through the back windows, evoking moving subway trains. He hand-colored the black and white photographs, reinscribing the color the writers had painted. Matta-Clark appropriated New York graffiti signs as if they were from a prehistoric culture. It was all available to him, part of his work with the ``urban fabric.'' This concern was political, however: ``By urban fabric I mean social economic and moral conditions as much as the physical state of streets or structures throughout the city” (Matta-Clark in Diserens, 2003).

The artist was already notorious for a piece called Day’s End. He and his crew, cut huge circles and slots into an abandoned ship pier on the lower West Side of Manhattan, a work that alarmed municipal authorities. In his view, Matta-Clark was beautifying what was abandoned and neglected, a derelict pier used mostly by gay men cruising for sex, and turning it into a spectacular artwork. The work was beautiful, but in a strange and frightening key, a radically aggressive avant-gardist beauty. In his work of cutting up buildings, Matta-Clark had a sense of confident entitlement combined with a squatter mentality. He engaged in a continuous practice of radical aesthetic appropriation. He took what he chose that wasn’t nailed down and policed – and sometimes even if it was, and made it into something else. These ritualized attack transformations share a lot of the spirit of the graffiti crews, and, like them, Matta-Clark also worked with a crew of construction workers.

Matta-Clark was a child of the Surrealist painter Matta (although Matta did not raise him). He was literally heir to the Surrealist practices of the city, the intoxicated aimless walks studded with cryptic monuments, like those Andre Breton pursued with his mad love in the novel Nadja.

Like the deadpan minimalist sculptural ethos he was a part of, Gordon Matta-Clark’s films are clean and dry, a kind of visual anthropology of the city. He relishes texture, and the buildings he images we know he plans to use through abuse – by cutting them up, enacting grand gestures of power by reshaping. Castrucci descends. Castrucci’s works often bespeak the darkest corners and deepest caverns of the urban. It is like a depth psychology of the misery, filth and alienation of city life.

Castrucci is drawn to the opaqueness of the modernist architectural façade, and its gigantic scale, like the late World Trade Center. Corporate buildings are often fortress-like, expressing capitalist absolutism, and total dominance. International style modernism became the signal of a new fascism (in the sense of a union of government and business), just as designs after fortified Renaissance palaces expressed the power of bankers in the 19th century as a new aristocracy. In mid-20th century art, this is matched by what Anna Chave described as a “look of power” in Minimal sculpture. A hallmark of Castrucci’s perspective on architecture is reflected in both his images and his modes of display. This is his legacy from Minimal art, which regularly brings architecture and art into relation. It is also a personal situation. His father and brother are both builders, and Castrucci himself lives in a squat on the Lower East Side.

Castrucci straightforwardly described the aesthetic of his recent gallery show as “crude graffiti-like stuff mixed with the more refined surreal minimal stuff.” This contrast gives piquancy to his work, mixing a raw, even brutal content with a delicacy of touch. He is a kind of gothic minimalist. Behind his grim, sonorous image-things lies a fascination with power, its implacability realized in simple structure, in raw order. His work traffics too in dark impulses – blood and death, and the deeps. This exhibition includes his ten-foot painted view of the World Trade Center towers. It is a close-up truncated view, juxtaposed in his recent solo show with a painting of a pair of knees.

A key work for Castrucci is a kind of chart, a complicated diagram of things and places in life and art which evolved out of a statement about his work required for a grant (one version of this chart was a street poster, another an ad for a ten-year anniversary show “Resistance of Memory” at the Bullet Space gallery he runs). There is a density of relations in this work, like the cosmogram of cryptically conjoined words, mixing references to architecture, color, moods, drugs, art history and some symbols, chief among them the hook. In one photograph in this exhibition, Castrucci joins his words and images to graffiti on a wall near the Williamsburg Bridge, painting words and a dance of various kinds of hooks across the wall, and then photographs it.

The hook has become an icon with Castrucci. “I’ve been fishing in the East River obsessively. The symbol is also literal in that I grew up fishing and parts of my family are very involved in the fishing trade and have boats, and growing up my neighbors built boats.” The emblem also relates to addiction, to drugs, sex, food. Castrucci first used it in the book he edited for Bullet Space, Your House Is Mine, as a reflection on the heroin trade. Also, he said, “I always imagine a homeless guy going around hunting, he’s got an invisible fishing pole.”

At the end of the 1980s, in the turmoil on the Lower East Side after the Tompkins Square Park riots, Castrucci produced a silkscreen print project for Bullet Space which he called Your House Is Mine, after a slogan by rocker Peter Missing. While a deluxe edition was sold to art institutions and libraries, many of these posters were put on the street, including a set posted onto the front of the squat housing Bullet Space. “It was our weapon to defend us to exist.” In 1993 Castrucci published an over-sized tabloid newspaper also called Your House Is Mine, a sophisticated expression of the ethos of the squats (Moore, 2002). In researching for Your House, Castrucci examined hundreds of “piece books,” the books graf writers used to prepare their tags and throwups, which were in the collection of painter Martin Wong. He remembers these as an education in the history of the art form. “I grew up with them [the graffiti artists]. I always wind up in shows with Daze and Lee and Martin Wong and Lady Pink.” And, while he is an outside to graf, he shares the ethos of the honest criminal.

“I always felt we had to give something back because we stole a building, we had a low rent. That’s why we had the exhibition space, the [silkscreen] print shop… We contributed.” This attitude is very like Lady Pink’s, who feels she must work within her community making murals. It may seem paradoxical that these artists who have been involved in illegal activity should have such a high sense of community obligation. But that’s the logic of crime – or, rather, of law.

The Digital Turn

Walls talk, but they also hear and see and talk back. The walls are calling the cops. Store displays sense and report the flow of stock, mood sensing technology for public spaces is on deck, and surveillance cameras are everywhere. We have moved from an expressive to a responsive environment, combined with all the new developments of control for the post-911 era. The 21st century city envisioned so well in the movie Bladerunner is growing up around us. Taxis flash headlines beamed to their rooftop displays. They talk too, as you climb in and out. Signs on top of subway stops grab your attention as you step into the street. The new media of the city lays down a constant layer of civility, dictates and procedures. Attention and habits are prescribed. This is beyond suggestion; this is media as social law. And a media that no longer knows its place, but has spread through every space of the city, all over architecture and throughout transportation systems, like a fog.

Within everyday life, consumer mass media is ever more ruthless in its traditional role as supplement or stand in for human relations. My roommate comes home from work at Wendy’s and catches some rays. She is exhausted and helpless before 100 channels. She says, “The TV is watching me.” She is behind the fifth wall that John Fekner writes of in his foreword to this catalogue. In this situation, video gaming represents a way out, a path into relation. It is the interactive mode of private media.

Fekner’s interests over time have followed this shift. He has gone from doing site-specific work within the urban and exurban landscape to making digital art. This is a transition from the actual to the virtual, from actual writing in landscape to writing in virtual space. This transition is marked by a piece in this show, a painting of characters from the Space Invaders video game. The painting he made with Don Leicht, Your Space Is Being Invaded, depicts the tiny characters of the Ur-arcade game, the first U.S. popular success and the avant-garde for hundreds more. The painting appears in a 1983 artist’s book as part of a series of works that purvey a very dystopian view of television as “introverted escapism,” offering the suggestion that kids might have to go to “library hospitals” to recover a vestige of literate culture.

When I first saw it, I took the Fekner and Leicht 1982 painting Your Space Has Been Invaded to be about gentrification. Now the message seems broader. With the rapid emergence of the internet, what fiction writer William Gibson called cyberspace has become a virtual reality where many spend much of their waking lives. Daniel Shiffman’s work with screens and interactive media software materializes a new kind of wall, the autonomous robotic imaging wall.

Schooled in mathematics and philosophy, Shiffman is a new kind of artist. He lives in the close active world of information design and digital media. These departments of academies train students to work in the booming video game industry. Shiffman’s Swarm emulates Jackson Pollock’s “drip” painting technique using the animator Craig Reynold’s 1987 “Boids” flocking software. Reynolds calls this “behavioral animation.” The rules of a computer program govern the movement of a group of images across the screen. Rather than the ordered march of the alien vessels in the Space Invaders game, the flocking movement is slightly randomized – it looks natural, like artificial life. The flocking software illustrates the concept of emergence in that large scale global consequences ensue from the interaction of multiple single local causes – a big picture formed from a lot of apparently independent-acting little ones.

This might seem inherently creepy, watching a verminous swarm of computer critters make up your face. And Hollywood uses this and similar computer effects regularly to evoke just such feelings. Shiffman’s work has a swirling elegance instead, using key signifiers of Impressionist art – high key color, a soft focus, and a “brushstroke” that is more like Renoir or Hassam’s fast stripe-like image formation than Pollock’s abstract figure-making drips. Swarm is the robot portrait eye, announcing its benignity through adherence to artistic conventions like hyped-up color and indefinite non-representational brushstroke.

Unlike the screen-based signage that has recently appeared on the streets of NYC, Shiffman’s screen-things are not television. They are “proxivision,” concerned with their immediate environment. He understands these as digital “organs…feeding off the unpredictable shapes of human behavior.”

Both works in this show that depict the World Trade Center were made before it came down. They read now as charged with that event. Photographer Monica Bravo’s video is famous. She shot September 10 2001, Uno Nunca Muere La Vispera inside the Towers on the night before they fell. Bravo was one of a number of artists in residence there. She had set up cameras pointing through the window slits to capture clouds for an installation she had planned. The week had been disappointingly clear, then on the 10th, somebody yelled, “Monica, your clouds are coming!” “And I got more than clouds, I got the most beautiful thunderstorm.”

After the cataclysm which claimed the life of her fellow artist Michael Richards, Bravo cut the videotape to a sharp and rapid electronic score and released it on public television. In those days after 9-11, I recall seeing this piece, and feeling happy that such a finely wrought work, which was coincidentally a historically significant document, existed. It was the first strong artwork around the disaster, although as Bravo points out, “It’s not about September 11, it’s about the day before. It’s not even about me, because I was not even watching” (the cameras were on time-lapse automatic). The title, she explains, “refers to the fact that one doesn’t die on the eve of your death, you die on the day.” “September 10” is expressionist compared to most of Bravo’s work. For her this portrait of a building, or, rather, what the building feels, its being in a storm, seems as if “the buildings are crying” on their last night. “They know.”

The new work she is doing also deals with the structures of architecture. But, she says, “It’s not about buildings, it’s about how we relate to and perceive the spaces around us.” The tape Wind-Eye (2002) is bright and clear and fast in the brilliant lapidary joining of multiple images of Times Square in one screen. In her forthcoming show, the 1:26 minute tape will be part of an ensemble shown on a touchscreen monitor in a casing that looks like a lightbox. It’s part of a series she’s making that explore well-known places in New York that we think we know. She spoke of the incessant change that is Times Square. The people in Wind-Eye are “almost transparent. They are there but they’re not there. They don’t have a special face.”

Bravo is an architectural photographer, but her work is nearly abstract, intensely paced and dizzying. Wind-Eye begins with a slide show like succession of building images dissolving into one another, then blurred figures moving faster and slower. The screen is split, and we see rapid shots of angled building close-ups and reflections. Then we’re looking down on ghostly greenish people shapes. A flashing grid of architectural details rotates like an old Chyron cube, then we’re out on a shifting lattice of moving blurs. The effect is kaleidoscopic (like the title moments), driven by a rush of imagistic contrasts – hard and soft focus, up and down angles of view, varying speeds of filmed motion and framing moves. One writer called the effect lyric, operating in “dream time” (Robert Blake). Another compared the effect of Wind-Eye to Mondrian’s painting Broadway Boogie Woogie digitized (David Hunt).

The feeling of a place is what she is after. She was interested in how to perceive certain spaces emotionally. “Times Square is changing all the time. That’s what life is about. We cry because we don’t like change. We cry because people die, but when you die you change your form. You are crying for that space that was left because there’s no body there anymore to hug and to love.” The video work is “about condensation. It’s a tool for you to get inside yourself.” All this sounds rather heartfelt and mystical, and Bravo is studying Chinese language and culture.

Phillip Baldwin has done some of his major work with interactive media systems in the East. Baldwin works with site-specific, immersive environments which combine media, producing work here and abroad. Many of his projects are collaborative, built as environments for performances. He works big, like his DMZ 2000 project produced on the North-South Korean border with money from Hyundai. He has built a room that responds to the subject entering and walking through many laser “pins” that trigger media events. Baldwin loathes the flatness of most media work. He loves to project on stretched fabrics, and dancers’ bodies, a forest of shifting surfaces which add the dimension of time to environmental work. In some pieces, the actors and audience could flip and change hinged shapes as they wished. Baldwin uses the adjective “Wagnerian” to refer to his work. “I’m pointing to, a combination of narrative with space.” He admires the blend of space and time in the Japanese garden.

A prolific author, Baldwin is a devotee of emergence theory, the idea that no longer are societies built from the top down, but rather from the bottom up. He asks; what are we as individuals within American society building? “In Asia, the new emerging cities are looking to take from the West what they think is cool, and leave the uncool things. I think as a westerner our whole way of thinking is like a train, our history means so much to us, in the Hegelian sense, we don’t have short haircuts without the long haircuts before it. The new emerging global Confucianism is going to be vastly different. A lot of the world does not think in Hegelian way that modernity did.”

In his work for this show, he begins from the premise that the urban environment is on a world stage. His wall is attuned to “the concept that every surface could sell to you, could be information.” On the all a sequence of Ls and squares will be projected that have internet “lifestyle” portal sites behind them. “Here I’m following Gidden’s idea of disembedding, that one could be disembedded from one’s locale just by jumping around [the internet].” This wall will be a portal, an opening to somewhere else. “I want to show that walls are not only about enclosure, but possible entries into other reality. It’s the Cinderella concept. Your life could be transformed depending which portal you go through.”

Neo-Graffiti

In this show, we are looking down the long tunnel of a parallel art world, spying bright flashing facets of a public project open to all comers that has been unpublicized, in fact expunged almost as fast as it appears. Now, like wolves and coyotes barbered for the dog show, it surfaces in an institutional space.

This is the outlaw subculture of the young, folks being where they shouldn’t be (skaters), doing what they shouldn’t do (graf and sex and drugs), pumping hormone-filled young bodies into free creative liberated action. And all the while it’s being reported, described and represented in tight formal linear style, based on, and returning to, the letter-form. I keep thinking of the aesthetic philosophy I heard Rammellzee articulate to Edit deAk years ago. At the time, his “Ikonoklastic Panzerism,” the letter armed, sounded like the fatwa of a jailhouse mullah. Now I see it as an early ambitious attempt to make a grand theory to unite all the varied practitioners of graf throughout the five boroughs, even as their crews were running hard on the trains, and the MTA hadn’t yet figured out how to annihilate their work. Ikonoklastic Panzerism was a nutshell formalist parable about the indomitable spirit of youth – that impulse will have its say and stake its claim, your rules be damned.

In the climate of a highly politicized artworld, this work is doubly orphaned. It is like Clinton is to Bush, or better, like Ginsberg was to Ike, at odds with the social law of contemporary culture. Or not – it’s well-clad evasion, stylish subversion, dressed up in the suit of the letterform. It is officially repressed culture which U.S. museums and publicly funded institutions dare not regularly exhibit or historicize. Although, as this exhibition evidences, that is changing…

How does neo-graf move into the sphere of fine art? One instance is afforded in the work of the youngest artist in this show. In Shinique Smith’s studio on the Lower East Side there is a work in the corner. It is a kind of untamed paper cloud, skeins of strips with text-like markings scrambled up to look like boiling noodles. This wall piece she says as is a sketch for an installation, temporary sculptural graffiti. Smith explains that it’s a combination of graffiti and calligraphy, built up in layers. For this work, she paints, writes on paper and on the walls, cuts the paper, molds it together, and paints and writes on top of it. Sometimes she adds fabric and clothing bits (“bound sculpture,” knotted fabrics in bundles lay on the floor beside the wall piece). The text in the work comes from excerpts of lyrics, literary and religious texts. “They are soundbites in my head,” she said, like Bible quotes and lyrics from the Beastie Boys. “The things that I’m writing are affirmations, meditations. They are hermetic…. A lot of hip-hop and rap music is like praise poetry. There’s a lot of power in the declaration of ‘I am, I’m going to do this, I am enlightened, I am that I am.’ ” The piece in her studio is similar to the one she plans for this exhibition, which is to be some 20 feet long, black and white, with interjections of color and fabric. It’s an ode to 1985, and a graffiti artist she knew during that year of her youth.

The text in her work is illegible. The sense of it has gone into form, and into the “performance” of calligraphic marking, cutting, shaping and bundling. “Think of graffiti as another language that only graffiti artists can read…. It’s not meant to be read, but it’s meant for the word or the mantras to be experienced more subliminally.” Smith grew up in Baltimore, an important city in the East Coast graf scene. There she wrote “Zebra.” She studied Japanese calligraphy, and draws on the swirling hieroglyphic designs of her South Pacific ancestors.

In abstracting her sense of an urban streetscape of hidden messages, Smith has been inspired by cardboard in NYC, and how people bind it up for recycling, and machine-compacted bundles. She studies how things are discarded, and juxtapositions like a piece of wood with graffiti all over it that is wired to a chain link fence. Today instead of tagging, Smith is sticking bundled things on a lam post, or taking things from her studio and wheatpasting them up. She calls these ephemeral things temporary sculptural graffiti. For her, this behavior is natural. “When I do things out in the city I’m making environmental art. … [looking for] places to intervene or interact. For me interacting with a wall or a lamppost is like going to the woods.” Smith’s art is sensibility-based, inward turning like the inarticulate explosive abstractionist Pollock, or Mark Tobey, the mystic Baha’i painting his “white writing” in the Pacific northwest. This hermetic direction is somehow unexpected coming from the subculture of “ego markings” (McFee, 2004). In, she has a long way to go in this direction.

Stephen Powers came to New York to publish a magazine. The fanzine Name of It started in Philadelphia as a graffiti magazine that covered hip-hop. At the same time Powers was writing graffiti as Espo. When the ‘zine folded, he became a full-time artist at the age of 29. For three years he wrote graffiti as a “conceptual experiment.” He bet a friend he could paint graffiti in Mayor Giuliani’s heavily-policed New York “really huge on the corner illegally in broad daylight and get away with it.” Espo won $20 painting the graffiti-covered gates of a former comic book emporium on Broadway with a broad mass of silver paint then adding strategic chunks of black to spell his tag: “ESPO.” “When people stopped and asked what I was doing, I said, you know, I didn’t like the graffiti on the gate, I wanted to do something else, I wanted to paint the gate, and I’m making it say something so that nobody tags it.” Powers realized he’d better follow it up before other writers copied him. “So I jumped on this thing, I did it about 80 more times throughout every borough.”

Graffiti suppression and removal is a billion dollar industry in the U.S. Espo’s hyper-cogent tagging almost answers a short film called “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal.” This documentary time-lapsed graf and its painting out from Midwestern corporate buildings in a balletic counterpoint of scrawl and not-quite-right-colored covering patches. Espo’s work takes the filmmakers’ ironic premises quite literally, and makes it the basis for a new kind of graf.

Powers had been inspired by Revs and Cost who started writing in Soho in 1995, big blocky letters and masses of wheat-pasted papers with their names. “A lot of people were really aggravated by them,” Powers said (I know I hated those name billboards.) “They broke [graffiti] down to a real aggressive grunt.” No longer was street graf to be full of bright color and calligraphic flourish. “Revs was keen on making it simple. He thought graffiti got too elaborate and was too ridiculous and pretentious, and he wanted to make it really base and ugly and primal again.” In the reciprocity between graf and ads, these writers anticipated saturation marketing. A lot of the spaces they painted in Soho have been taken over by billboards, Powers observes.

Espo’s own blocky letter work initially had a mixed reaction from other writers. Some felt it wasn’t right since it wasn’t spray paint. “It was a little too good, too polite… It wasn’t the gut-wrenching – It’s supposed to be like a Stooges song or like an Iggy Pop yelling at you type of experience, really loud and brash and exciting. Mine was a lot more bossa nova or kind of smooth, easy listening.”

Powers is an impassioned and articulate advocate for the art/sport/activity of graffiti. To him it’s innocuous, “a totally mundane activity, it’s just kids scribbling their names around, so to me it seemed like a really sensible, fun thing to do.” We discussed the recent NYPD busts of Lady Pink and Smith. “I think graffiti looks quite good in a lot of places, and nobody cares either way about it…. It’s such an innocuous crime…. But we’re perceived as the heavies, so [the police have] got to chop us off first and deal with us.”

In transitioning from graffiti to art, Powers found that the bridge was sign painting. He’s been painting signs as his art, researching the craft, and meeting sign painters. Now he needs a sign-painting table for his studio. This will be his contribution to this exhibition. He will make this table and clad it in old signs he’s collected, and mount little lamps on top. On the table he will place his four-by-six photo albums of all the graf he’s done in New York, and all the magazines. “It’s like its own rolling retrospective table.”

Powers never thought graffiti was an art form. It’s a language, a visual form of communication which an insular group of people use in speaking to each other and competing. “It’s like you won’t understand what crickets were saying, but it’s kind of cool. Maybe it’s annoying if you’re trying to get some sleep.”

“Graffiti is a release, it’s a freedom, it’s out there, it’s owned by nobody, can’t be fenced in, can’t be controlled… And the art world is invitations, curators, slide shows, transparencies, auctions, genteel and wine and cheese… So, I’m with Charlie Ahearn, keep them apart, you know! It’s really tough to bring it inside and make it feel good. If it’s a really good piece of graffiti, it’s going to be like a feral cat, just piss on everything, rip up your furniture and create problems. And that’s the way it should be…. It’s not really bad, but it should never be good.”

While Powers is a historian and analyst of graffiti, Shepard Fairey is a theorist, a polemicist, and an organizer of situations. Ex-skater punk Shepard Fairey built a street postering campaign pushing images of wrestler Andre the Giant into a hot L.A.-based marketing and design studio. In his manifesto, Fairey says it was an exercise in “phenomenology” – pushing an image without any real relation to sense should make people more attentive to their environment. I read about him in an online article in Inc, the business ‘zine (Walker, 2003). He discusses his work with the agency Brand Buzz, part of Young & Rubicam. Ad agencies call him (or others) when they want to reach the young male market, 13 to 18, who are cynical about TV, media and advertising. At times now agencies emulate graf and stencil artists directly, and hire bill posters to put up their company’s images illegally. (In ’02 Microsoft flooded Times Square with butterfly images on thin sticky plastic for the launch of Windows 2000; they paid a $50 fine to the city – graf writers, eat your hearts out!) When agencies hire a studio like Fairey’s Studio Number One for a campaign, they are looking for something that is cool but doesn’t repel squares. Finding that image is the “sweet spot.” Fairey has the knack. He doesn’t know why.

Carlo McCormick (Rose & Strike, 2004) recollects Futura, an NYC graf artist whose Kandinsky-like sprays were favorites during the graffiti-to-gallery moment in the 1980s for moving right along when the art bubble burst. Futura did “pioneering work in streetwear, artist-designed toys and co-branding sponsorships with major corporations.” McCormick, who was never a friend of political art, scorns the “heap of baggage” that “kept us sabotaging our careers… Depending upon where you sit on this old school timeline, you called it selling out, being co-opted, abandoning the cause or turning state’s evidence.” Compared to the accomplishments of these new media-savvy artists, he marvels “at how long we spent pissing in the wind with righteous indignation towards an enemy that didn’t even know we existed.”

Converting private code into corollaries of brand names voids them. Subcultures thrive in isolation from the mainstream. Using social capital to feed consumption erodes it. That’s not to say it should not be done. All kinds of yeasts are used to flavor beer, and artists do what they have to do to survive. But when your special thing becomes something everyone can buy a piece of, you might have fond memories of the time when the piss blew back on your bare legs.

When you sell out, what are you selling out? Where is “out”? Well, it’s outside Never Never Land, the sugar mountain of youth. These capitalist United States is/are not a playground, and we all got to wake up and buy the coffee. When we buy Obey Giant clothing, we’re not going to ask where it’s made. We pay for it, and everyone who makes it gets paid; only some get paid more than others.

Fairey in his work passes directly from subculture into design. The institutional and gallery world of art is incidental to his project; it’s buzz. Still, he may change it. Fairey thrives on the contradictions of his position. He is avant-garde. “How would you feel…if all companies had marketing materials that didn’t insult the consumer? That were somewhat creative and intelligent and almost like an art piece with a product behind it? It sounds pretty utopian to me” (Walker, 2003).

Some of Fairey’s recent images derive from heraldry, a tradition of martial imagery. These signs are also private codes designed for the medieval battlefield. The weird attenuated forms of heraldic animals, stretched bodies and enlarged paws, are meant to be seen and followed amidst the fray. This formalism is like the space-time visual analysis that results in the letter forms of graf laid onto moving surfaces distending in motion in space. The vocabulary of heraldic imagery can explicitly represent shifting military alliances. Through “marshalling,” the political conjunctions are expressed by combining images in multiple fields of the blazon. In this era of U.S. warfare in nomadized tribal regions, we are getting used to shifting alliances. Young men die on the streets of inner cities for gang allegiances, then they die overseas for state and corporate interests. What is “expression” in this context? What is involved with the reproduction of one’s expressions? In this moment of neo-fascist consolidation, alliance with different sectors of capital seems the best way to achieve if not social change, at least cessation of gross exploitation and amelioration of neo-feudal conditions. Who are we down with on the field of corporate battle?

Avant-garde musician Karlheinz Stockhausen notoriously said soon after the event that the destruction of the World Trade Center was a great work of art. This “undoing of a building,” in Matta-Clark’s terms, was surely one of the great works of archicide in history. It was immediately compared to the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin, and compares to the burning of the library in Sarajevo.

What does this reveal about what artists do? Graffiti only “defaces,” as artists work imagery into urban spaces. Even Matta-Clark only ever cut up derelict buildings, structures out of use. Other artists in this show seek only to represent the psychology of space and the interactions within it. Nevertheless, all these acts and events are on a continuum of deliberate interventions into culture. This show invites us to think of them together.

Graf is self expression, but it ain’t like writing haikus. It’s crime, like architecture, urban planning, surveillance and government. It shares the arrogance of intent to change the public landscape, but it is change subordinated to play which restores the culture to truth (Lefebvre, 1996). To the inventory of architectural tools must be added the spray can, the stencil and the sticker. Graf is play power in action, volunteer child artists doing what architects could not, driving the dérive through color and line, “going all city” and putting names all over town. This is a threat, a usurpation of the space marked out for messages of consumption. It is also a spiritual threat from a liberated individuality, a tribe of autonomous individualists advertising themselves. That’s why their signs must be erased. They are friction, a joie that calls out to the streams of antlike workers as they come and go along the byways of the working city, ever busy ever busy, moving purposively.

References

Joe Austin, Taking the Train (2001)
Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, Subway Art (1995)
Herbert Cole, Heraldry (1922)
Edit deAk (with Ramellzee), "Train as Book: Culture is the most fertilized substance," Artforum, May 1983
Corinne Diserens, ed., Gordon Matta-Clark (2003)
John Fekner, Beauty’s Only Screen Deep (1983)
Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, eds., Yes Yes Y’all (2002)
Groninger Museum, Netherlands Coming from the Subway. New York Graffiti Art (1992)
Steven Hager, Hip Hop (1984)
Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities (1996)
Norman Mailer, The Faith of Graffiti (1974)
MASS MoCA, The Interventionists (2004)
Josh McFee, Stencil Pirates (2004)
Ivor Miller, Aerosol Kingdom (2002)
Alan Moore (with James Cornwell) in Julie Ault, ed., Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985 (2002)
Stephen Powers, The Art of Getting Over (1999)
Aaron Rose and Christian Strike, eds., Beautiful Losers (2004)
Schmidlapp and Phase 2, eds, Style Writing from the Underground (1997)
Allan Schwartzman, Street Art (1985)
Kirk Varnedoe, et al., “HIGH LOW” Museum of Modern Art
Rob Walker, “The Buzz Guru,” in Inc magazine, August 2003, accessed online
William Upski Wimsatt, Bomb the Suburbs (1994)

Alan Moore
Staten Island, November 2004