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Vandals or Vanguards?

Who decides what the future will look like is always a political issue. Will it big business, big government or a network of creative individuals on the street?

As part of the “Space Invaders” exhibition at RMIT gallery there was a street art seminar, moderated by Jaklyn Babington, Assistant Curator of International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books at the NGA (National Gallery of Australia). It was a panel discussion featuring Luke Sinclair from the Sticky Institute and artists: Nails, Civil and Jumbo.

The discussion looked both back at the exhibition and forward to the future of street art. And from this naturally lead onto the politics of the street and the politics of underground art. All of the speakers emphasised the importance of networking to the scene. Most importantly there is the power of networking through the internet but there is also the networks of collaborating street artists and the networks of zine distributions.

Some hardcore street artists and others might wonder at the inclusion of zines in the exhibition and Luke Sinclair from Sticky Institute on the panel. The NGA sees their collection of “street art as a paper based, alternative print making and drawing”, curator, Jaklyn Babington explained. And zines, like street art, are definitely an alternative tradition in print making and drawing. Zines are part of the same d.i.y. culture as street art. They are an urban sculptural object, a handmade art version of the common magazine that you pick up and hold in your hands.

The exhibition is a retrospective of look at the NGA’s street art collection and any examination of the history will naturally lead on to politics. Civil looked back at the exhibition as street art from the Howard-era when there were mass protests against the Iraq war and the World Economic Forum. Looking back Sydney artist, Jumbo spoke about how he began experimenting on the street beyond the formula of aerosol graffiti. Nails was interested in the legitimisation of street art through the communication between street and art gallery. And the concern expressed by some parts of street art community that something was being taken away through the legitimisation. Luke Sinclair also talked about the politics of underground work, the responses from both the mainstream and the underground to being exhibited or included in a zine book, as in the case of Fanzine, by Thames and Hudson. (For more information than anyone could want about this controversy see the website.)

Civil spoke about the politics of street art as the “broad conversation off different voices” on the streets, of “the handmade gesture in the city”, “markers” and “memorials” in the street. The title of the seminar, “Vandals or Vanguards?” contrasts the ‘vandals’, the way that street artists are portrayed in the mass media, or the ‘vanguard’, the leading front line position. Nails said that the vanguard is frustrated with how slow the mainstream responds, that he has become middle-aged waiting for it to catch up. But like the other speakers Nails is hopeful about the future of street art, comparing it to the punk scene “that died and then became even more interesting.”

Civil, "Freedom" 2010

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

One response to “Vandals or Vanguards?

  • urbanmonk

    Along the Princess Freeway heading out towards Laverton, just before the Millers Rd exit, theres a memorial (presumably to a car crash victim) of a wooden cross, some planted daisies and some flowers and streamers woven into the cyclone wire fencing in some otherwize very barren surrounds. Further along the freeway closer to Laverton theres a massive new public sculpture (which I happen to think is a well positioned, executed and appropriate piece) that is no doubt paid for with public money.

    I wonder about the politics of street art and publicly funded art. So much of public space is controlled not by the public but by the rich and powerful few. And thats why I am attracted to street art.

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