Why the Mobstr Exhibition Failed

A few weeks ago I was tweeting a Vandalog interview and was enthusiastically calling Mobstr “my favourite street/ conceptual artist”. After two visits to his solo show “Sex, Drugs and Painting Walls” at the Truman Brewery, I feel the need to revisit my position, and clarify what I think about the work in this exhibition.

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First of all, there is too much of it. Almost all the work in the show is based on statements reflecting on the status of art in general, the art market or the indoor production of graffiti, each of which is meant to pack a punch and deliver it with sharpness and wit. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t get stronger with accumulation, and seeing so many of these statements side by side only dilutes their punch and makes them look, well… repetitive. Mobstr was on to something when he kept brevity at the core of his text-based work, but it seems that this principle should have also been applied when editing the work for the show.

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I have seen and heard many enthusiastic visitors on the two occasions I visited the show, first for the opening evening and second with a great group of people from I Know What I Like. Smiles, laughter and the words “clever”, “witty”, “brilliant” and “playful” seemed to be on everyone’s lips – but have all these people forgotten all about the existence of text-based conceptual art? Mobstr’s show had a rather unpleasant feeling of familiarity hovering in the room, as many of his statements seem to have already been stated decades ago, in very similar (if not identical) forms, by the likes of Lawrence Weiner, Christopher Wool, Mel Bochner or Matthew Higgs. The only new elements were the additions of #hashtags and of comments on indoor graffiti, which are really not enough to create a distinctive artistic voice in any history of conceptual art.

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So why is it that one can still produce, show and sell art made from quasi-clever black-and-white text that references art and text, and be received with such enthusiasm?

Mobstr is indeed a well-loved character in the graff/street art scene and for good reasons (I am still standing behind my tweet), but how come these works can acquire such kudos and visual capital when they seem to fail most of the important tests – material and graphic skill, message, self-awareness and situatedness?

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The tricky bit about this show is that it seems to actually check all these boxes: letters are hand-painted, surfaces have different finishes according to their statements, labels are (counter-)parts of the works and there is a mention of the art world being “full of stupid actions that end up being declared as clever” (referencing Duchamp and Warhol). However, there is no real provocation, no memorable insight, no visually stunning display (except perhaps for the Writer’s Block installation) – and in the end it all comes across as a bland story that has been told many times before.

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It seems to me that it’s a matter not so much of the works themselves, but of the entire cultural field of street art and graffiti. In order to establish itself as legitimate, this whole area of cultural production has to undergo formative moments and processes that fine art has already traversed in its history. Legitimation then comes by re-producing these moments and offering them to a new and candid audience, who is prepared to receive them as fresh and genuine artistic outputs.

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It’s like everything has to be done again, because this time it’s being done in the street art world and for a street art audience, and there was still a gap to fill in the conceptual street/ urban/ graff section (although Lush produces some excellent conceptual graffiti work and manages to somehow be very specific to the trade – as obnoxious as he may be). Mobstr has indeed successfully filled the gap, making sure that conceptual art doesn’t remain uncharted territory in the field of legitimised street art – but let us keep an open memory and give the conceptual art credit where it is due.

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On my part, I have two end credits to give, both of which go to a different side of Mobstr’s work: the HUH? installation in the exhibition – paying tribute to his tag, his crew and his roller:

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– and the HUH? tag on Holywell Lane, which still remains one of my favourite bits of street work in London.

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Framings Conference in Copenhagen

When I got the call for abstracts for a conference on Frames and Framings, I felt like this would be the perfect opportunity to research the topic in more depth and approach it from the perspective of street art. The surfaces of the built environment are frames for street art and graffiti, I argued, and presented three different instances of this process:

– street signs framing street art (traffic signs, shop signs etc):DSC04028

– architectural features framing street art (doors, windows, shutters):373 (2)

– and street art framing street art:2012-12-13 12.31.39

The paper was well received, although it stood in considerable contrast with the art historical approaches of other participants, who talked about things like Italian Renaissance frames (Harriet O’Neill, UCL/National Gallery); rope ornaments used for framing church doors (Jens Fleischer, University of Copenhagen) or different depictions of St John the Baptist in early modern painting (Barbara Baert, University of Leuven).

There were also a few papers which treated contemporary themes, like that of my co-panelist architect Açalya Allmer (Dokuz Eylul University), who talked about frames in architecture and buildings-as-frames – including the Dubai frame building project which you can see here; or Taisuke Edamura (University of Essex) and his research on glass in contemporary art.

Overall, this conference was a great experience, and I learned a lot from being in the company of art historians and looking at their concepts and research tools. A special thank you goes out to the organisers Gunhild Borggreen (University of Copenhagen), Slavko Cacunko (University of Copenhagen) and Ellen Harlizius-Klück (Gerda-Henkel Foundation), who gave us a very warm welcome and made sure everything worked in a highly professional manner.

Here we are exploring the city:DSC06786

..and over dinner in one of the fabulous locations we were invited to.DSC06821

I will finish off with the one of the first tastes I got of Denmark and Copenhagen, while waiting for the train to take me from the airport to Central Station. If there’s one thing I want to say about the Danish capital, it is how much I respect its lack of censorship, which becomes apparent in many different forms…DSC06749

“He may not be Banksy, but he’s all I’ve got”: AITO work in Leake Street

It’s been over four months now since I started my daily photographic routine in Leake St. There is fascinating activity happening there every day, but one less usual occurrence is stencil-based work. Freehand-drawn graffiti dominates the tunnel spatially, visually and stylistically, so when stencils do appear, they immediately feel frail and out of place.

One artist who has had the courage to repeatedly put up stencil work in the tunnel is Aito, whose pieces seem to appear there at regular intervals, although they never last long.

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His work often looks like a meditation on time and the human condition. The piece above might mean an entirely different thing (I can’t read Japanese), though there is a feeling of resignation in the body posture.

This other guy sees himself as a chicken when he looks in the mirror/ portal, and he’s about to get suffocated in tags.

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Here is Aito putting up work:

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… and the finished piece:

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Another wall that caught my eye was of this failed peace attempt-

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–  which was given a great addition the following day, making it seem more like a part of the tunnel environment:

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Now give yourselves a split second and observe the difference between this photo and the one below. Stuff grows on these walls all the time, it almost seems to come from within, spilling onto the surfaces and covering everything in its way.

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What made me post this today though was Aito’s most recent piece which I found on my regular photoshoot early in the day.

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It’s a slightly tacky picture of a painter who dropped his colours and brushes (notice them on the pavement) and got lost in an embrace with the woman he was painting.

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And, because October is Banksy month in NY and all over the Internet, I will end with the timely contribution which made me laugh out loud this morning: “He may not be Banksy, but he’s all I’ve got…”

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SABLE Day 2 on Leake St

Experience tells me that no piece lasts too long in Leake St, so I was expecting to find a completely changed wall today where the large Sable mural stood yesterday. Instead, Sable’s work was only in an initial stage of visual attack, much to my surprise.

DSC04181The tag visible here is by STUBS, who has been busy writing his name all over the tunnel for the past few days. Can’t argue with his choice of spots though – he probably wouldn’t have gotten mentioned here at all, had it not been for the placement of this particular tag.

DSC04180This shot has almost an exact framing as one of yesterday’s photos (an exercise I’ve been working on for a while now – results to be revealed soon), showing how Sable’s city is slowly getting occupied by a series of visual migrants. Is it a pity? I don’t think so. It’s not every day that you get such a cool background to put your tag on.

SABLE work in Leake Street

Leake St has been my main research concern for over two months now, as I have been photographing some walls there on a daily basis in preparation for a time lapse project. The chaos of that space is what I love most about it, but the work I found today reminded me of the pleasures of an imaginatively conceived and neatly executed piece.

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This is the world of SABLE, with roads, buildings, people and cars, a flat and intricate urban environment which dwells in the tunnel at Waterloo.

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This was drawn with a spray-paint, mind you, and is not some ready made poster simply pasted on the wall. The minimalist lines and camouflaged characters are a clear reference to Keith Haring’s work, whose little flat people used to animate billboards in the New York subway in the 80s. Sable created a whole city for the little fellows, complete with Escherian geometries and an impressive display of drawing skills.

After a few steps further in the tunnel, I got to like this guy’s work even better. I’m not one for a drastic separation between street art and graffiti, so I can only be glad when I see these two different pieces coming from the same imagination and steady hand.

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I’ll post an updated wall tomorrow to see how this work evolved. Until then, Mr. Sable is one to look out for.

Artscapes Conference in Canterbury

This past weekend (27-28 June 2013) found me in Canterbury on a professional trip, city break and country retreat all in one. Carolina Vasilikou, Manila Castoro and Jonathan Ward of the University of Kent organised a conference on public art and its publics with a young and engaging group of participants, who were also great fun over dinner.

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Discussions were quite diverse in terms of topics, but here is my usual list of memorable people and projects:

– The Artscapes group itself, which is just starting off but managed to bring together a good honest community in its first year conference;

Claudio Musso for his mural production and curation in Bologna and his lucid views on street art. For those who can read Italian, Claudio’s project is on Twitter @FrontierBo;

Eugene Nulman & Carolina Vasilikou for their thorough mapping of political graffiti in Bologna which revealed some connections between messages, buildings and city areas;

Jonathan Vickery for introducing us to Jochen Gerz’s fascinating 2-3 Streets project in an honest and exploratory way. The website is a good read of what the artist did – or rather what he didn’t do;

Bill Ruskin for his good art historical account of Dan Graham’s pavilions.

And finally Canterbury for being the quiet, green and tranquil opposite of London, also for its good academic humour:

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Urban Popcultures 3 in Prague, Czech Republic

Food, forgiveness, Hollywood, magic, “heavy fundamentalisms” and cyber culture – the guys from inter-disciplinary.net have a research and conference network going on for pretty much any topic you could imagine. My recent involvement was with Urban Popcultures, a conference as eclectic as they come, both in terms of subject areas and in terms of paper quality.

As keen as the organisers were on presenters not reading their papers and not using text based ppts, one must note that the overwhelming majority of delegates did read their papers and did use poor quality ppts – so much for the organisers’ over-the-top efforts in this respect. Hopefully it’s lesson learned for them, now for my favourite bit of listing my noteworthy people and projects:

Lara Bullock – for her inclusive analysis of Swoon’s Encampment Ersilia installation and for reflecting on the relations between creativity, ownership, appropriation and establishment, which are essential to any discussion of urban cultures;
Sarah Mills and Simon Baker – for their production of temporal urban spaces and their thoughtful reflection on their practice;
Vanessa Berry – because of her quirkiness and amazing knowledge of creative cartography and cool places (mostly Australian);
Stafford H Smith – for his incredibly vivid narrative and photographic account of the night time activities in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with menstruating Jesuses and lesbian mermaids called Lawrence of Alabia;
Konstantin Butz – because he just published a book on skateboarding;
Huston Gibson – for his soon to be online archive of city related songs and for teaching planning through pop culture;
Lia Tostes – for her M.Y. Urbanism concept (Mend Yourself Urbanism) and the thorough database she is putting together on small scale creative interventionist projects.

Interruption Theories in New York City

This wonderful trip was sponsored by the Urban Lab and organised by New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge (IPK) and the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies. We went through three days of presentations, discussions and drinks trying to figure out what interruption was and how we could theorise it in relation to urban life, urban culture, urban change. Conclusions are yet to be drawn, but the exercise was top class!

People:

Hugh Campbell – for his fantastic insight into photographer Abelardo Morell‘s Camera Obscura series;

Tim Cresswell – whose graffiti work I’ve been referencing for quite a while, now presenting on friction and its role in understanding mobility. Also has good knowledge of Manhattan bars;

Jeroen de Kloet – for his work on China and some fantastic contemporary Chinese artists whose names I forgot;

Shirely Jordan – for being such a lady and a great organiser; and for her thorough analysis of Stephane Couturier‘s photography;

Christoph Lindner – who was the main reason I ended up in NY in the first place. To be followed for research related to slowness and cities, slow art and creative interruptions of urban rhythms;

Bill Marshall – for studies on parkour photography

Richard J Williams – for his captivating story telling, his forthcoming book “Sex and Buildings” and because he made me take up Twitter again during the workshop.

Public panel discussion on interruption, left to right: Christoph Lindner, Shirley Jordan, Joseph Heathcott, Sharon Zukin, Richard J Williams:DSC02182And an evening shot with the fellow PhDs from the workshop + my friend and host, Jenny: Nick Jones, Pedram Dibazar, Jenny Aleman, me and Miriam Meissner. DSC02184

GraffiCity Conference in Cologne, Germany

The Morphomata Centre for Advanced Studies in collaboration with The Research Network for Latin America have produced a conference on the politics and history of graffiti, GraffiCity, where academics seemed to configure this topic between sociology, anthropology, archaeology and art. The conference took place between 17-19 April, this is what stays of interest:

– Morphomata (the research centre itself)

Allan Gretzki – graffiti artist and researcher focused on culture jamming

Mona Abaza – for her thorough and well evidenced documentation of contemporary Cairo graffiti

Martin Langner – the most well researched account of Pompei wall inscriptions I have ever come across

Javier Abarca – teaching about graffiti in Madrid

Sascha Schierz – solid knowledge on graffiti related policy and legislation

Johannes Stahl – my intellectual kindred spirit throughout the conference