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Tag Archives: political art

Political Graffiti in 2018

In late April on The Conversation Dr. Flavia Marcello. Associate Professor at Swinburne University’s School of Design, asks “Where has Melbourne’s political graffiti gone?” It is worth asking the question but aside from the yearning for the 70s and the overtly political graffiti of those times there wasn’t much to the article.

The scene on the street is now a more complex system, with greater diversity and more types of graffiti and street art operating. Rest assured Dr Marcello there is still plenty of political graffiti and street art in Melbourne. In all kinds of media from aerosol paint to stickers and even yarn bombing. Some of the best is done by stencil artist like Crisp and paste-up artists like Phoenix.

There is a wide variety of causes being promoted from ending Australia’s abuse of refugees to free West Papua. These causes are now in front of the eyes and cameras of international tourists who throng in their thousands to Melbourne’s graffiti attraction of Hosier Lane. The Free West Papua slogan managed to occupy space in the highly desirable Hosier Lane by using a chainlink fence that the aerosol and paste-up artists didn’t want. Consider the subversive power of a series of paste-ups calling to Free Liu Xiaobo in front of the cameras of Chinese tourists taking selfies in Hosier Lane.

So here is a collection of some of the best political street art and graffiti that I’ve seen in Melbourne in the last year or so. Although I am aware that there are many ways that graffiti and street art can be political, as in, contesting public and private space, I have tried to keep the politics of the collection clear and obvious. 

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Tram Conductor Performance

At the anti-EastWest Tunnel rally in Brunswick on Sunday there was a man in a Melbourne tram conductors uniform giving living-history performances with a political edge. The dream of better public transport in Melbourne was the positive agenda for the rally.

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Melbourne tram drivers no longer ride the trams selling tickets and helping passengers. They have been replaced by machines that are of little assistance to passengers, especially if they are tourists, the elderly, parents with small children, people unfamiliar with the route… grumble, grumble…

The tram conductor’s political street theatre engaged people in conversation about local history and politics. He even was of interest to small children. The tram conductor was from a performance group called The Connies, that is made up of former tram conductors. They advocate, amongst other environmental causes, the reintroduction of tram conductors.

Dressed up in the old uniform of a tram conductor complete with the leather ticket bag with its brass fittings, ticket punch and tickets (remember when a purple city section ticket was only 30c?). The ticket bag was complete with collectable cards of famous tram conductors: Joyce Barry, the first women tram driver in 1975 and Armand “Frenchie” Lefebvre, the performing tram conductor. Hole punched for authentication.

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The tangible element of the street theatre; the cards about the famous tram conductors and the old tickets made it a very genuine and engaging performance. Really attractive playing-card sized cards.

I walk home from the rally, thinking/dreaming about better public transport. On the subject of transport I find an automatic email that about my blog being quoted in Free Walks of Melbourne using our Trams.  Apparently my post provides a “The following link is a balanced overview of the village” (Pentridge Rehabilitated).


The Intervention @ Counihan

Jason Wing’s “Intervention: Criminal” speaks powerfully. It is a giant paste-up photocopy of a photo of himself with the words “An Australian Government Initiative: Criminal” on a sign hung around his neck. The image has all the sympathy of a mugshot. In 2007 by act of federal legislation the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) legislation better known as “the intervention” removed the rights of the Aboriginal population in the NT. The Australian government gains political power by marginalizing and criminalizing minority groups.

Jason Wing’s image is the centre-piece image of the exhibition “Ghost Citizens: witnessing the intervention” at the Counihan Gallery and features on the exhibition flyer. (In 2009 I wrote about Jason Wing’s first solo exhibition of  in this blog.)

My favorite images from the exhibition are Chips Mackinolty’s digital prints “National Emergency Next 1,347,525km” “…and there will be no dancing”; signpost the incredibly vast territory that as an emergency is absurd. I had seen Bindi Cole’s work at the NGV’s Studio space last year but her series of photos are well worth another look to see the absurdity of the idea of the standard image of aboriginal Australia.

The paintings of Dan Jones, Kylie Kemarre, Sally M. Mulda and Amy Napurulla provide a colorful accompaniment to the other works and the bleak subject of the exhibition. Fiona MacDonald’s woven archival print of the landscape of James Cook Island at Sylvania Waters in NSW provides the contrast and made me question who is need of an intervention. There is so much balance in this exhibition between the works of 8 Aboriginal and 5 non-Indigenous artists.

The excellent curatorial skills of Jo Holder and Djon Mundine OAM make this exhibition a powerful experience. The Counihan Gallery has done another great job at bringing together art and politics in this exhibition, a feature of their program this year.

The subject of the exhibition is extraordinarily important to Australia’s culture and its claim to be a civilized nation. Considering the up-coming federal election everyone should make an effort least see this exhibition and try to understand what is happening with the “Basic Card”, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT and the “intervention”.


Ashes to Ashes

One of the most clearly political street artists in Melbourne is Phoenix. His paste-ups are the visual equivalent of a play by Bercht; they always has a message but you to think for yourself. In the case of Phoenix you have to look at the play of words and images in his paste-ups.

Although I write about the politics and street art I haven’t mentioned Phoenix’s work that much because the message is always so clear. But if Phoenix’s work were only political messages there wouldn’t be much art to them. The collage overlay method that he uses to create his images throws up many surreal combinations. The shapes and use of primary colours only make his work instantly recognizable even though there is no tag or other signature.

Phoenix’s paste-ups have a wooden backing and are coated polyurethane that makes them both weather resistant and difficult to remove. There is another reason why his paste-ups are seldom removed, even when the rest of the wall is buffed, and that is the obvious quality and workmanship in every piece

The same artist? Melbourne

Phoenix, t-shirt face, 2010

I first noticed Phoenix’s paste-ups when he was using t-shapes and then I met up with him when he volunteered at Sweet Streets. Phoenix is a thoughtful guy; he is not the art student type, and older than the typical street artist, more of a cheerful eccentric. His art reflects his thoughtful approach to life and street art.

Phoenix, spraycan hand, 2012

Looking back on the war on terror: I was alert to the anti-war stencils and street art but not alarmed. It was a war with many different sides fighting a propaganda war and Melbourne’s street artists were mocking the official line. Mockery the one thing that really works – laughing at the enemy. The propaganda war continues on the street with street art and stencils.

Phoenix, Osma Scare, 2011

Pheonix, statue of liberty, 2010

Phoenix’s art roses from the ashes of a studio fire and now disintegrates on the streets in a loop of creation.

Phoenix, Less Ephemeral More Ephemeral, Melbourne


Democracy in Art

A century ago Appolinaire wrote about some of Duchamp’s early paintings; “he will reunite art with the people”. The remark was more critical rhetoric by Appolinaire than analysis, as there was no reason to believe the Duchamp’s early cubist paintings was any more or less democratic. Prior to the 20th century art was not democratic it was purely plutocratic, a pursuit for the rich and powerful. Appolinaire was right that art in the 20th century would become more democratic, but I don’t think Duchamp was the artist to do this.

I’ve been thinking about is democracy in art. No, I’m not talking about voting, or people’s choice art prizes. And I’m not thinking about an ideal socialist man who works in a factory in the morning, fishes in the afternoon and writes art criticism in the evening – that will just end in knitting circles. I’ve been thinking about democratic art that is by the people and for the people, as opposed to being by a particular caste/class to another caste/class. Not an abstract “people” that is discussed in political circles, nor people whose public role (be it king or art curator) has diminished their individual taste with organisational responsibility, just individual people.

From the people does not mean that democratic art has to be created by amateur artists in community groups. From the people means that artists do not have to come from a particular group, class or caste. Warhol and Basquiat were both from disadvantaged backgrounds and received their art education at public expense.

Democratic art is promoted peer to peer rather than by academic or royal approval. In the past popular arts had a bad rap from critics and it was probably justified if you consider a life limited to listening to the top ten songs. In the past the limit of the media and this limited audience forced popular arts into a lowest common denominator position, with the occasional rare exception. The limited numbers available for an audience in all but the largest of ancient cities meant that all popular art forms had to cater to the lowest common denominator otherwise they wouldn’t get an audience. Now 1% of a population can be a huge audience. This has changed the arts from what most people would like or should like, to a world where individual preferences are tolerated.

Being able to tolerate your neighbour’s terrible taste is another part of democratic art. In a democracy just as you tolerate right of others to express their stupid political opinions, their blasphemous religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs) and, along with this their taste. Taste, although apparently superficial, is part of politics, religion and culture.

The democratisation of art in the 20th century followed the triumph of the bourgeois in the 19th century. It required both changes in technology and the distribution of art. Technology has been responsible for the democratisation of art – it is no longer mob rule. Shakespeare had to keep both the groundlings and the lords happy. Not anymore. From a room of ones own to headphones; the changes to technology that have lead to a horizontal market for taste, instead of a vertical, hierarchical determination. The vertical market sells exclusively to the hierarchy of institutions and collections. The horizontal democratic model sells to anyone who wants to buy at a price that they can afford. This requires cultural products that come in multiple editions to be sold in large numbers.

Democratic art is not completely level, some people have more money to buy art and some people have more time to post images and comments on the internet. Appreciation of art will always remain an elite activity; the refinement of taste will be a pursuit that not all will choose. But there can be many elites; the elites of speed metal, of classical ballet, of contemporary art or graffiti. The diversity in contemporary art is a feature of its democratisation. Now being an elite is open to everyone but it is a pursuit that only a few will have the time, will and inclination to do. What mean by this democratic elite is a meritocracy the 1% of people who put the time in to contribute seriously to a culture, who aren’t prepared to simply swell a scene in the chorus or to be a spectator.


Street Art Politics Forum

I did get to the Sweet Streets artist’s forum at 1000 Pound Bend on Saturday 23 October. The forum focused on “the challenges and politics surrounding being a Street artist and working on and off the streets.” (Festival website) The panel featured Kirsty Furniss (from KA’a), Tom Civil, Junky Projects, Haha, and Boo. The forum was organized by Boo (who is on the festival committee) and facilitated by Mickie Skelton, a circus performer who did an excellent job in introducing the artists, keeping the questions coming from the audience and the discussion moving.

Street art is not exclusively political but there is a political dimension to claiming a space, the personal empowerment of not being locked out and DIY. The decision to be arrested for a political empowers the individual to take dramatic actions like painting “No War” on the Sydney Opera House roof.

There was a small discussion by the Newcastle artists – Junky Projects, Civil and Boo about the differences between Newcastle and Melbourne’s approach to graffiti. Newcastle is fighting a loosing war on graffiti – “Dig a hole and throw money in it.” Junky Projects. All of the artists are currently living in Melbourne because it is more tolerant than Newcastle of graffiti.

All of the artists in the forum were interested in the political issues of street art but not all were political activists unless HaHa’s offer to fill USB sticks with conspiracy theory videos counts as activism. Junky Projects is not a political activist but his propaganda by deed of creating art from recycling junk bring attention to the politics of consumption and waste. The other three artists in the forum Tom Civil, Kristy and Boo have all used street art in political activism. Culture jammin’ was the entry into street art for both Kirsty and Boo.

It was a rambling discussion Tom Civil pointed out early anarchists propaganda techniques that have been taken up by street artists, including paste-ups. He has recently published a new edition of “How to Make Trouble and Influence People.”

Boo talked about her use of cognitive dissidence in her art to make people think. But even the way that she puts up her work on the street has some cognitive dissidence – Boo puts her work up with a tube of liquid nails on the way home from doing the shopping.

The discussion moved on to what is the future of Melbourne’s street art? “Brunswick” Junky Projects said it in one word. Junky Projects also pointed out that there is less hip-hop graffiti and more graffiti from other subcultures like, punks and metal. There are punk street artists with names like Snotrag, Neckface and the Looser Crew making ugly pieces.

Other predictions for the future were more proscriptive. Civil wants bigger street art, whole building size, but deeper subjects rather than the current shallow content. He is looking forward to more mature street art and hoping for break from the American aesthetic that has dominated street art. Boo is hoping for a less masculine street art, not just more women involved but less machismo in the street art produced. Boo noted that there were more women artists participating in this year’s festival.

(See my entry on Political Street Art)

 


Urban Intervention @ YSG

Urban Intervention: a street sculpture exhibition and art trail opened on Friday night at the Yarra Sculpture Gallery, part of the Sweet Streets festival. (I must declare that I am the festival’s secretary, a volunteer position but it does give me a bias in my reports.)

Opening "Urban Intervention" @ Yarra Sculpture Gallery

People don’t often ask what is the future of street art? Very few people are asking this question because street art is ephemeral and it is perceived as fashionable fad (although the fad has lasted some 30+ years). The whig history of art dismisses street art as a fad because it doesn’t fit with art history’s idea of progress. But there is a lot of progress in street art scene: street sculpture and yarn bombing.  There are other aspects that are not easily packaged like culture jamming and site specific installations.

There are a lot of impressive elements to this exhibition; a whole painted ute was parked in the gallery, a shopping cart covered in knitting and an installation of light, smells and sounds. There was street sculpture from Mic Porter, Nick Ilton, Will Coles and Junky Projects. The Melbourne Light Painters exhibited photographs and the objects that emit light (sparklers, toys swords and other things). Van Rudd exhibited a work protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Phonenix brings Banksy’s “The Little Diver” from Cocker Alley in Melbourne back from its destruction with a paste-up that was recreated and documented in the exhibition.

Nick Ilton's "Suggestion Box" and suggestions

Importantly for a street art exhibition the exhibition is not limited to the gallery there is an associated art trail where the artists from the exhibition have work in context with an online collaborative map. I haven’t walked the trail yet but I have looked at it online – the detail in this Google map is fantastic. It is important for this to exist in both the virtual and actual versions because so much of street art scene exists online, as well as, the streets.

I was disappointed that there wasn’t any guerrilla gardening in the exhibition, maybe I will find some on the art trail. I must do that when the weather improves.

Curated by Anna Briers and Kelly Madigan this is an important exhibition about under-represented trends in street art: “site specific installation, culture jamming, underground light painting, yarn bombing…” It also sets new benchmarks in quality in exhibiting street art.


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