Category Archives: Street Art

Van Rudd at Work

“I wanted to be a conservative painter but something…” Van Rudd pauses, searching for the best way to explain his life and the world. Van Rudd, the nephew of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is a politically engaged socialist artist who installs provocative street art sculptures, exhibits the stolen forks of the ultra-rich and parts of exploded vehicles from Afghanistan.

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I wondered what he had been up to since he ran for parliament against Julia Gillard in 2010. As it turns out he is painting a mural the Trades Hall carpark.

It is hard to believe that Van was ever a conservative painter but he was shows me some photos of his early paintings, they are very good but conservative in style. In his late-teens he was painting plein air Impressionist paintings of Brisbane. He then shows me some cool paintings that he did of exploding figures in stylish lounge rooms; paintings that looked like a mix between Geoffrey Smart, James Gleeson and Brett Whitely. He tried the fine art and contemporary art audience and he didn’t get the response was looking for, so he went in search of a different audience.

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Now his audience is not into contemporary art or street art. Now his audience is the union member who has no interest or time for following artists on Instagram or buying art in galleries. It is the person in the street or someone looking at the news. Van sees himself as a propagandist, even though he freely admits that the power of art is minimal compared to economic power. His art is there to support and illustrate the message.

Considering Van’s diverse art practice, from illustrating a children’s book to street art installations, I wanted to know what he did with most of your time as an artist? Did he work in a studio? He doesn’t really have one. When he is not an artist his hobby is indoor football. He also goes to a lot of left wing meetings because he finds that is a condensed way of doing research and getting information.

The carpark walls at Trades Hall are covered in graffiti and Van has had to buff back two large concrete sections. The graffiti in the carpark is a mix of the most basic tagging, by writers like Pork and Nost, along with political slogans: “Unions are part of the detention industry.”

The large mural that he is painting in Trades Hall carpark is just at its outline stage. Van says wants to revive the tradition of political mural painting in Melbourne that happened with Geoff Hogg in the 1970s.

Work progresses slowly, especially with me asking questions. Van with a paintbrush is not as fast as the street artists with their spray cans. He is critical of what he calls the “proletarianisation” and the “hyper-exploitation of street art.” The artist as sole trader has no protection, from exploitation and hazardous conditions especially the street artists working at heights. He tells me that has recently got his CFMEU white card for working on elevated work platforms; scissor-lifts, booms lifts, etc. Not that he is going to be working at height with this mural. He puts on a fume mask to protect against both the paint and car exhaust fumes and gets back to painting.

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Caminando vias de agua – 12th Havana Bienale

During the 12th Havana Bienale 2015 I walked a lost river in Havana, Cuba. The walk took me through an impoverished part of Havana that was not far from the center but somehow well concealed. I discovered colorful shanty houses, a stark contrast to the colonial architecture that characterizes most of Havana, odd sacrificial objects nailed to trees, offerings to the pantheon of Santeria gods and the old port area, yet to be revitalized by the influx of foreign investment pouring into Cuba. A characteristic of this type of work is the unpredictable discoveries made as one walks a route not available on any contemporary map. This work, Caminando vias de agua (Walking Waterways), was my contribution to a group exhibition organised by curator, Claudio Sotolongo Menendez whom I had met many years previously. Other artists involved included: Alessandro Celante (Brazil), Heather Freeman (USA), Herve Constant (France) and Mariana Branco (Brazil).

It has been my experience that much of the reclaimed land where waterways once existed is prone to flooding, and is used for public facilities such as car parks, sports grounds and parks but in some cases housing for poorer communities. As I neared the location where the waterway would have drained into the sea, I was informed that the flooding in this part of Havana can reach 2 meters.

Caminando vias de agua involves identifying waterways in urban settings that have all but disappeared from view, usually having been subsumed by the urban infrastructure, rendered invisible. Despite this erasure, traces remain: the shape of the land, the propensity for flooding and the way that the reclaimed land itself is used. These traces when paid attention too, can reveal what was once there.

The process involves the utilisation of maps from the 19th Century in order to identify the location of the waterways and then embedding this information in a contemporary map so that the waterway can be walked. A mobile phone with a camera and the ability to send an MMS is used to document the walk. This documentation is transmitted during the walk and appears in close to real time on a representation in the gallery space, through the website http://peripato.net.
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In 2003 I had visited Cuba for the first time to exhibit and present a paper at the V Salon Y Coloquio Internacional de Arte Digital. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a long engagement with Cuba, its music, culture and most importantly, its people. I participated in the subsequent VI Coloquio and maintained contact with the organisers for many years, culminating in being invited to participate in the 12th Havana Bienale.

The curatorial theme of “the Biennial intends to involve architecture, design, the communicational phenomena, science and the forms in which the habitat is constructed”[1] to which my work was a good fit. This iteration of the ongoing series of walks grouped under the project heading Peripato Telematikos[2], was one of many that had taken place in many parts of the world, including Sao Paulo, Brazil and Istanbul, Turkey.

The curatorial team wanted the Bienale to spread out into public space, and it did this successfully except for one major hiccup. Tania Bruguera, a Cuban national, artist and activist tested the limits of the curatorial premise by re-staging a participatory performance piece in a prominent public space, Plaza de la Revolución, despite not being granted permission to do so. This landed her in jail and months of house arrest. Many locals supported her, whilst others felt that she had stolen attention away from the biennale itself. Whilst under house arrest, she performed a public reading of Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’.

At the time Cuba was in the midst of renewed negotiations with the US and the lifting of decades long restrictions. Bruguera’s incursion was intentionally testing the waters. Was the renewed negotiations with the US an indicator of a loosening of the strict control by which the Cuban government had reigned for decades? Not so, in that particular case. Some of my own experiences reflected this. I had been held up at customs for 4 hours because I needed to bring a wi-fi modem into the country. I had a letter from the Minister previously organized by the curator, but even this was not going to smooth my entry. I later discovered that this was because many Cubans were creating unauthorized internet access points and this was illegal in a country where the internet is very restricted and censored. I had also been warned about the photographic content of my work. There were unsettling times when soldiers would come running towards me, blowing a whistle, for photographing a building or landmark. The curator had conveyed to me warnings he had received from Bienale organisers, regarding the photographic component of my work. As he argued, thousands of tourists traipse through Havana every day taking many photographs that no one seems to worry about. But these warnings were not to be taken lightly so some anxiety prevailed.

On my way home, I received a message from a curator I had worked with in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I had staged a waterways work in 2009 at the Museum of Image and Sound. He informed me that since about 2010, there was a large interest[3] in the hidden waterways of Sao Paulo. Apparently, this was triggered by a water crisis in Sao Paulo, but the curator wanted to acknowledge my work that preceded. I suspect it was simply coincidence but it is humbling to think that I may have had a tiny influence.

Upon returning to Melbourne, I discovered that a friend was walking the whole length of the Murray River[4]. I accompanied him for a day. The walking continues.

Greg Giannis <giannis.greg [at] gmail.com>

[1] http://www.biennialfoundation.org/2014/05/havana-biennial-2015-curatorial-concept/

[2] http://www.peripato.net

[3] https://www.facebook.com/rioseruas

[4] http://mildurapalimpsestbiennale.com/blog/


The Great Australian Lie

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unknown, stencil, Brunswick

“Australian history does not read like history, but the most beautiful lies.” Mark Twain wrote and he knew how to stretch the truth.

There are so many lies; Australians aren’t racist but yet have managed to commit genocide and have racism in it constitution. The bullshit piles up so fast you’d be buried alive if you only listened to Australians.

Remembering that the The Commonwealth of Australia exists as nothing but words. The country that calls itself The Commonwealth of Australia is built on the lie of terra nullius; everyone knows that the Aboriginals were the true owners of the land. The only things that is definitely Australian is the word ‘Australian’; everything else is disputed territory.

“Indeed, what we think of as Australia is a species of fiction – as, in essence, is any nation. Hoaxes lie at the foundation of the European discovery and settlement of the Australian continent and familiar myths like that of the Anzacs, Bodyline and the Kelly Gang all have a substantial, if often overlooked, hoax component.” (Simon Caterson Hoax Nation (Arcade Publishing, 2009, Melbourne, p.15)

Australia does have not much history, instead it has lots of ‘legends’; sporting legends like Phar Lap, folk legends like Ned Kelly, ANZAC diggers, lots of legends. The word ‘legend’ is widely used in Aussie slang to denote a superlative. No truth implied in the use of the word ‘legend’; the story is better than the facts, better than history. Nobody expects a legend to spawn imitators, who could expect to repeat to legendary achievements? A legend quarantines the subject whereas history has effects that are felt today.

“I said at the time, if only half of what is written about Australia is true, it must be lovely there; but all these reports are lies and deception. My advice is: stay at home and provide for yourself in an honourable way.” Carl Traugott Hoehne, 1851 (The Birth of Melbourne ed. Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, Australia)

When I first arrived in Australia I’d never encountered so many people so keen to lie to a stranger before in all my travels around the world, I had already lived in three other countries and had visited half a dozen more. I remember thinking how stupid all these Australians liars must be to think that I’ll believe this stuff. And I am not the only one Rudyard Kipling was amused the quantity of lies that he was told on his visit to Australia. (The Birth of Melbourne p.358)

Australians enjoy lying to foreigners but more numerous were the lies told by new arrivals to Australia about their own pasts. Coming to a new country is a process of re-inventing the self and the self is just a story that we tell ourselves. The great Australian lie that masks the deep Australian insecurity. The great Australian lie fosters anti-intellectualism and other aggressive responses to feelings of inadequacy.

Too often art is supporting this fiction but there are artists producing great art that attacks the Australian fiction. “Fictional beauty & beautiful lies” by Gemma Weston (Art & Australia v49 no1 2011) discusses the art of Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont. Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont’s video Gymnasium, that won the Basil Seller’s Art Prize in 2010, beautifully and knowingly recreates an example of the fascist lies of white Australia (see my blog post). There needs to be more art exposing, exploring and explaining the dishonesty of the Australian fiction. There is also a need for art to tell a better story.

 

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Graffiti dialogue in Brunswick

I have accepted the call from Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance for #7DaysOfResistance, Jan 20th-27th in the lead up to #InvasionDay. This post is part of the resistance.

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Recent Public Sculptures in Melbourne

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Alex Goad, Tethya, 2015

Alex Goad’s biomorphic Tethya on the corner of Fitzroy and Jackson streets in St. Kilda is a recent public sculpture. Since my history of Melbourne’s public sculpture was published last year there are a few new public sculptures around the city. Not that Sculptures of Melbourne was intended as an index of all the sculptures in greater Melbourne, that would be insane as I included street art sculptures.

Two ballet dancers, Les Belle Hélène by David Maughan, were installed on the lawn at the Arts Centre. And John Olsen’s Frog was installed in a pond in Queen Victoria Gardens. As if either location needed any more sculptures.

Further out of town and in a better, some might even say “site specific” location, John Kelly’s Man Lifting Cow was installed in Sunshine marking a return to his home suburb for Kelly. Brimbank Council really milked the cow with associated events: the 1000 cow project, an art prize, a John Kelly exhibition and an education program at the Brimbank Civic Centre.

Most of the recent public sculpture has been temporary sculptures or pieces put up by street artists. Local street artist, Kranky and other were reviving Presgrave Place. Ironically there were several street sculpture homes this year including several by MOW from the USA. MOW was in Melbourne sticking up a few tiny doors and windows.

The campaign this year to save Chris Booth’s Strata had a happy ending with MONA agreeing to take the sculpture and pay for it to be reassembled. Melbourne’s loss will be Hobart’s gain.

There was no campaign to save Peter Corlett’s sculptures of John Farnham, Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Edna Everage and Graham Kennedy in the Docklands. There were many reasons for this chiefly because they had very little artistic quality, few people in Melbourne want to remember that these entertainers came from Melbourne and no-one ever saw them in the Docklands.


Alison Young & Melbourne’s Street Art

One of the unique features of Melbourne street art scene is the involvement of “Banksy’s favourite criminologist”, Professor Alison Young.

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CDH, portrait of Alison Young (Image courtesy of CDH)

Every city with a thriving street art scene has street art collectors, like Andrew King and Sandra Powell, or a blogger equivalent to Dean Sunshine (Land of Sunshine) or Facter (Invurt), or a photographer like David Russell, documenting the scene.

A tall, middle age Scottish woman with blond bob, Alison Young does not look like the typical fan of graffiti and street art. I first encountered her at a graffiti forum in an art gallery, probably the way that many people do. Speaking at venues from the National Gallery of Victoria to delivering the keynote lecture at a conference, Philosophy of Street Art: Art in and of the Street at Pratt Institute and New York University in 2016.

Subsequently I subscribed to her blog, Images to Live By and, would then run into her at various graffiti and street art events around Melbourne. Writing her blog was both a way of introducing herself to the street art community as a sympathetic observer and  also a way of introducing her thoughts to the same community.

Young has been researching graffiti since 1996. Central to Young’s examination of street art and graffiti is that our response is shaped by the way that we encounter with them. That initial moment where we are assessing what we are seeing based on how we think about where we are because the location is central to graffiti and street art.

Young has written four books on the subject: Judging the Image (2005), Street/ Studio (2010) with Ghostpatrol, Miso, and Timba, Street Art, Public City. Law Crime and the Urban Imagination (2014) for which she was awarded the Penny Pether Award 2015 and, most recently, Street Art World (2016). Not that it is possible to tell where her research ends and the fan of street art begins, complete with a tattoo by Miso.

Alison Young is not the only academic studying street art in Melbourne. There are other academics who are studying street art and graffiti however most are post-graduates and not a Professor of Criminology at Melbourne University. Young’s academic seniority that allows her to be influential in both the street art and academic worlds.

There is an account of Young’s involvement with the City of Melbourne’s graffiti policy in Chapter 6 of her book in Street Art, Public City – Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination (Routledge, 2014). But Young’s influenced Melbourne’s street art in more ways that advising and being ignored on the city’s graffiti policy or the odd appearance as an expert witness in court. Simply by being at live sprays, talking to artists, exploring cities, writing a blog, can have a subtle but important influence. Her sympathetic but sharp and insightful mind is part of the conversation, the discourse of Melbourne’s street art. For example, there is an article about her interactions with Kaff-iene in Articulation, the University of Melbourne Arts Faculty blog.  In this way her contribution becomes embedded in the local scene.

See also my review of Young’s Street Art, Public City. Law Crime and the Urban Imagination.


Train Lines and Graffiti

I was intrigued when I saw a couple of these notes from the train, travelling past them at speed I couldn’t be sure of what I read. I knew that there were probably more and so I rode my bicycle along the Upfield bike track to photograph as many as I could find in Brunswick.

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The more of these messages that I saw the less interested I became. Soon it wasn’t as interesting as some of the graffiti and street art that I was seeing.

What is it? Why is it there? It wasn’t graffiti because there was no tag and the stencilled letters had no calligraphic quality. It had no obvious appeal or charm so it wasn’t street art. Therefore it had to be contemporary art, or, maybe post-graffiti, if there is a difference.

Why it was there became obvious when I saw the MoreArt 2016 program. Train Lines is the creation of interdisciplinary artist writer and director, Marcia Ferguson is the artistic director of the Big West Festival. Ferguson intended Train Lines to be a poem based in interviews about the use of the Upfield line as mortuary transport to Fawkner Cemetery. Again you would have to have read the MoreArt’s program to know any of that.

It reminds me that in all its years MoreArts has never come to terms with exhibiting in the same areas as graffiti and street art. Existing in their own conceptual bubbles, each competes for attention without acknowledging the existence of the other. There are so many groups competing to use areas along the Upfield train line, see my blog post from earlier this year.

Ferguson’s Train Lines has the quality of what Alison Young what calls “streetness”: “a quality whose importance derives partly from the fact that the street does not provide passers-by with details of authorship that we take for granted in a gallery.” (Young, Street Art World, 2016 p.35) However, Train Lines is not street art.

Many histories of street art and graffiti ignore that contemporary art also exists outside of the art gallery and often in the street alongside street art and graffiti. From land art to happenings contemporary artists were creating art outside of the gallery.

An early example is Christo blocking a small street in Paris with oil drums, Wall of Oil Barrels – Iron Curtain on June 27, 1962. It was a protest against the Berlin Wall that had been built the year before. If you look carefully at Jean-Dominique Lajoux photograph of Iron Curtain you can see that the street that Christo and Jeanne-Claude used has graffiti on its walls.

“Streetness” or urban locations for contemporary art is it a difference of competing ideas and intentions rather than one of style?


Homeless @ Hosier Lane

The aerosol painted walls of Melbourne’s Hosier Lane did not occur by accident. Nor are they entirely there by design, at least, not in the way that Flinders Street Station is painted yellow by design. For Hosier Lane exists in a strange symbiotic relationship with the city council, building owners, artists and many other people.

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US artist Mows putting out the welcome mat in Hosier Lane.

It is a delicate urban ecosystem frequently about to tip into catastrophe. It is maybe a delicate urban ecosystem but, unlike an art gallery or a theme park, it is not an enclosed system, real world problems effect it. Looking at street art and graffiti keeps raising a wide variety of real issues; issues like private and public property, freedom of speech and currently, homelessness.

It is used by a strange mix of people: from artists, international tourists to local homeless, residents, office workers, delivery drivers and now construction workers. The lane is used as access to Rutledge Lane and from between Flinders Lane and Flinders Street. As well as graffiti and street art the laneway itself is used for wedding photos, advertising shots, school groups, graffiti tours and the homeless.

Melbourne’s homeless generally have a positive attitude towards street art and graffiti.  And the street artists and graffiti writers are generally supportive towards the homeless. There are enterprises in Hosier Lane supporting disadvantaged people, like the Youth Services, the coffee shop and the occasional, shoe shine stall.

In August there were reports in the media (Herald Sun, Channel 10, 3AW) of drug use in the lane, mostly smoking marijuana. This is basically it what many Australians do in their own houses but when you are homeless you are doing it in the street… in front of international tourists.

Problems for the homeless in Hosier Lane increased when demolition work commenced on the old Russell Street Theatre that backs onto the lane. Part of this involved boarding up the alcoves on the Russell Street side of the lane. The hip-hop group, Combat Wombat, took direct action cutting through the boarded up alcoves so that the homeless could use them again; see their video.

As if there is a specific solution for Hosier Lane. Specific solutions ignor the fact that the problems are symptomatic of a far larger planning and social issue. Melbourne’s Mayor Robert Doyle is talking about CCTV for the lane again, as if there is any evidence to suggest that will be a solution, because he doesn’t have much of an imagination.

The Hosier Inc are looking at every option, from CCTV to buffing the whole lane and moving the street art and tourists on to another location in the city.

Every year there seems to be an 2017 the existential crisis to threatening the existence of Hosier Lane. This year it is homelessness which being real makes a change from last year’s invented crisis for the media.

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John Jones in Hosier Lane


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