People have always felt the need to create and decorate. Almost all of us do it at home. And some do it in the public domain, too. The rules for who gets to decorate public space aren’t always clear though. Who plans public space? And who gets to decorate it? During BRAINS 5.0 - a meeting of minds that can be described as the department Research & Development of the urban arts in Belgium - artists, architects, professors and urban planners gathered in an old factory in the multicultural district of Antwerp to exchange thoughts on the craft of designing and decorating public space. Street artist who created remarkable murals in the spirit of Diego Rivera for the project ‘MURAL’ attended these sessions too. It got dirty. They talked about politics and making money. The reflected on the relationship between street art and contemporary art. And last but not least: they discussed how their creative genius can make a random passer-by in the street dream.
Both BRAINS and ‘MURAL’ were initiated and facilitated by the Mestizo Arts Platform (Fiëbre vzw).
Concept & setting
The Mestizo Arts Platform, a cultural organization based in Antwerp (Belgium) has developed the concept BRAINS to bring together experts from a wide range of fields and disciplines to discuss issues and challenges related to our contemporary cities. Earlier editions dealt with urbanism, innovative communication strategies and alternative organization structures. For the fifth edition of BRAINS, the usage of public space is the central topic of the discussions. The main focus: how to integrate street art and murals in the broader environment of the public domain?
Visual artists Pieter Huybrechts and Erki De Vries created a live version of ‘La condition humaine’ (1935), by Belgian surrealist painter Renée Magritte. The artists took pictures and almost instantly projected these on screens around the discussion table, building up layer after layer, blending the reality and the pictures on their canvas seamlessly.
Kris Delacourt made use of the same principle in his soundscape: he recorded audio and created a continuous feedback loop of the discussion at the table, mixed with pre-recorded sounds of kids playing soccer in the streets of Istanbul and snippets of traffic passing by. It created a vibrant and stimulating atmosphere and a seemingly ever-expanding mindscape.
BRAINS 5.0 took place in October 2015, during the Mestizo Arts Festival. Ten different nationalities participated in two intense and inspiring days. An interpreter provided simultaneous translations between Dutch, Spanish, English, French and Portuguese. Throughout the discussions Picante - a faithful dog - lay down his head to rest, but kept vigilant. He seemed to be on the lookout. At times the atmosphere felt surreal, as if a conspiracy was going on and a plan to conquer – or save? – cities all around the world was being plotted.
Cities all around the world face challenges. Some of these challenges are similar across cultures, some are completely different. But the basic concept of the city remains the same all over the planet: a lot of people live together on a small area of land. They buy or rent a tiny fragment of it. They locked that off and design and decorate it according their own taste. And then there is all the space that surrounds their own tiny fragment of the city. How do they use that space? Who designs that space? And who gets to decorate it?
Artists exploring urban wasteland
More than half of the people on our planet live in cities where different urban functions, such as transport, housing, commerce and leisure, compete for every available square meter. Most of the cities are growing faster than ever before. But some cities seem te be in decay.
Defining the urban landscape
Historically street art has flourished in cities with abandoned factories and unused transport infrastructure. These cities attract artists, who start using the streets as their creative playgrounds. And the oversupply of housing offers them cheap apartments, so the artists tend to stick around and decorate the streets with their artwork. They decorate walls with their traditional graffiti, but also with stencil graffiti and wheatpasting, or they design street installations. Their artistic interventions become defining elements of the urban landscape.
The Belgian city Charleroi is a good example to explore the dynamics of street art in an environment with lots of urban wasteland. In the mid-nineteenth century, Charleroi became a prosperous mining city. This golden period came to a halt shortly after World War II, when many mining companies and the heavy manufacturing industry it had attracted went bankrupt. In the 1970’s unemployment rates soared and even today, the city hasn’t fully evolved into a post-industrial city yet. The remnants of the glorious past are in decay, creating a feeling of failure and abandonment. The city is a seemingly haphazardly created composition of viaducts, fly-by roads and an unused subway system.
Adriaan, on of the artists at the table, got interested in the city five or six years ago. He created the project ‘Hotel Charleroi’. ‘We rented a small house for a summer and invited friends. Together we explored the city. We experienced it as a big vacuum.’ The group of friends started questioning the political, economical, and social situation of the city, both in exhibitions and on the streets.
Adriaan: ‘We talked to the director of the museum of contemporary art. Not that we wanted to organize an exhibition in the museum. No. We asked if we could sleep there for a month. So basically, we squatted the museum. And that became our base camp to explore public space.’
Over the years he and his friends created numerous art installations in the streets of Charleroi. Artists recorded the rhythmic drum of a heartbeat and asked residents of a tower block to play it simultaneously through speakers hanging out their windows. It made the entire building vibrate with energy. Another artist cleaned a fountain, cashed the deposit of the bottles and cans lingering around in it, changed that money into coins and threw those in the fountain, so it would shine again. Also, there was a spoil tip – a pile of waste rock that originated during the mining activities - close to city centre. It was not accessible. Adriaan: ‘The view over the city and the surrounding landscape is fantastic, once you get to the top. We literally tore down two walls so people could access it. Now local residents and visitors have a direct route to the top, so they can climb up easily to enjoy the view. It is land reclamation: we, as artists, intervene to redefine a place, from an abandoned industrial site, to a place where people can gather and meet.’
In the project Hotel Charleroi artists recycle – or rather: upcycle –public places. They fill the vacuum, by creating new social meanings for urban areas that have lost their original function. Can artists do the same in metropolitan areas where the population density is much higher and competition battle for space between different urban functions such as housing, transport, industry and leisure is much more fierce?
Urban planning of A++ real estate
Catherine Clarke (MUF) is trained as an artist and urban planner and has lots of experience in (re)designing urban space. ‘Often we meet people who didn’t think about the fact that public space is designed. They just regard it as the space left over between the buildings. You can’t believe how liberating it is for people to think about public space as a site for imagination.’ According to Clarke, at its best, public space the shared experience of difference: a place where everyone can be who he or she wants to be. For her, the challenge for urban planners is to create an environment where truly everyone can live up to this idea, without the restrictions of predetermination. ‘Urban planners need to create a place that is not fixed. It should not just have one meaning; it should be able to have multiple meanings, often at the same time.’
On a really fundamental level urban planners are creating a platform, where social interaction can take place. There is no way to predict how people will start using the platform. But one thing seems clear: ‘we should not fragment social space. People should share it.’
Dynamics for creating public space
Street artists can claim space illegally, by creating work without permission, or they can join the conversation with urban planners, architects and policy makers to get their fair share and legally conquer a piece of the city where they can cultivate their creative genius. But bringing together architects, artist, urban planners, policy makers is often a very complex process. Ton Theelen, founder of Rubia Collective – a private company that specializes in the negotiation between artists and potential commissioners - summarizes: ‘Once you’re reinforcing the relation between an architect, urban planner or the owner of a building and an artist, and once you can show the added value of this approach to all stakeholders you get workable approach to integrate street art in our contemporary cities.’
Sounds like quite a challenge, no? The Mestizo Arts Platform set out the ambitious plan to put the theory to practice in the project MURAL.
For the project MURAL, the Mestizo Arts Platform contacted cultural institutions and local governments in Belgium, looking for walls which could serve as a canvas for street artists. In close collaboration with the Mexican embassy six murals were created in the spirit of Diego Rivera. By making muralism the topic of the fifth edition of BRAINS, artists had the opportunity to exchange experiences. Numerous questions were raised at the table. Is street art always political, or can it be purely aesthetical? Are street artist inevitably doomed to dwell through back alleys and abandoned buildings in urban wasteland, or can and should they shimmer and shine in galleries and museums as well? Can their work contribute to the symbolic interactions in the public domain? And can their work enforce and enrich local communities?
Diego Rivera is a cultural icon. His frescos and wall paintings are at the centre of 20th century art history and belong to the cultural canon of our day. Contemporary muralists on the other hand, whose work can be found in back allies and abandoned buildings, often operate in the margin and create their art in the territory of urban wasteland. As if they’re struggling to find a place. They walk a thin line as they find themselves in a twilight zone: some attribute the devastating label !vandalism! to their work, while others – fashionable gallerists, quoi? – put their work on a golden pedestal.
Sylvia: ‘For me, the emphasis lies on the artistic and on the creative, not on the political dimension.’ This purely aesthetical approach, where the work of art is presented as an object that tingles your senses, just as music can do, is one possible approach. Other artists voice a different opinion and insist that any work of art, especially a work of art in the public domain, should contain a message. An artist explains: ‘You can’t just denounce world politics. What is happening in Ukraine? What is happening Palestine? Or in Syria? Why not use our works of art to generate attention for this? This way we use the public realm as a political arena.’
Facilitated by politicians
Artists can take two diametrically opposing positions: either they create guerrilla art as an underground fight against ‘the system’; or they participate in projects funded and facilitated by the government. How do the artist at the table feel about working for others and making commissioned art? And does the creation process become more complex or does it make things easier, when it’s the politicians themselves who ask to create work?
The advantages are obvious: artists are facilitated with practical things such as ladders and lights - or even coffee. Furthermore, initiatives funded by the government will have a communication budget and maybe even get extensive press coverage. This exposure might create a momentum for their artistic career.
Also, when an artist wants to create a piece in the public domain in a legal manner, getting all the permissions to create it can be a Kafkaesque. In the project MURAL, KOP vzw had been working on the paperwork for 8 months. Then a local politician came by. He was able to speed up the process. A few weeks later, artists set out to create their mural.
There seem to be numerous advantages to working for a local government. But some artists seem reluctant to do so. Sometimes governments want to work with street artists for other reasons than just for the sake of their art: ‘we got picked up by local governments and often they contact us to create work. But they contact us for other reasons too: they consider us to be people who can reach out to fucked up kids in the neighbourhood and do something meaningful with them. They want to make it a socio-cultural project’, says Guillaume.
To guerrilla, or not to guerrilla?
Once an artist or a group of artist becomes famous, things tend to change for them. Some kind of institutionalization seems to take place, which changes the way the artists work. ‘We don’t do guerrilla anymore. Most people know us by know. Today we work with local governments and aim for the future, we try to realize projects that make a meaningful contribution. That doesn’t mean we don’t break rules anymore, though. We still do. But I believe we break different rules now.’
Even though they work with the local government, they try to retain their freedom to criticize social situations or decisions. ‘We can’t be used for city marketing. We do feed policy makers ideas about that. But at the same time, in our own work, we often criticize them. That’s tricky. You need to find the right balance.’
Artist working with or for local governments seem to be double agents: they work together and have a close relationship, but not too close, in order not to get corrupted. ‘We do have a love-hate relationship with the city counsel. We are critical and point out structural problems. But on the other hand we also create new opportunities for their city.’
A lot of artists are offered commissions by companies too. Is it frowned upon to do commissions for major brands? Some are very eager to say yes, others eager to say no. (Argentina): ‘Having less makes you more creative. Not having the comfort of being backed-up financially, pushes your artistic boundaries.’ On the other hand someone states that creating a solo show requires one full year of labour, without having an income. And in the meanwhile, the rent has to be paid for. An agent - yes, street artists appear to have agents, too - shares one of her experiences: ‘A major American brand wanted one of my artists to appear painting in a television commercial. They offered her $10.000. I raised the bar to $55.000. The company said yes, but we denounced the offer after all.’ The discussion continues for a while, without evolving in the direction of a consensus. Until someone remarks: ‘Shows in galleries are the most capitalistic events on the planet.’ This raises the next question: does street art belong in a gallery?
Underground versus Bellas Artes
Galleries can pick up artists who decorate public space with refined pieces of work. Two key questions dominated the discussion: how strongly is street art bound to its context, and how do you deal with the temporality of most pieces?
In the conversations about location of street art, practical issue of being able to transport a work is the first that comes up. ‘When you paint something on a wall in the public domain, your work is bound to the materiality of the wall. A white canvas on the other hand, has a fixed context. It can be moved from one context to another: from the atelier, to a basement or an attic, to a gallery or a museum. That is not the case with street art. Often, it can’t be moved around. It is inherently bound to its context.’
And even though its location might be fixed, the context can change throughout time. Roa created a piece in an old building in Gent. When the building was going to be renovated, the architects wanted to keep it and integrate it in the fancy new lofts. Is that a good idea? Opinions differ. On the one hand, one seems to feel instinctively that this might violate the integrity of the artist or his work. On the other hand, on might argue that the new owner has the right to do whatever he wants with his property, and that it’s up to the owner to decide what happens with the street art, no? But then someone at the table raises a pertinent question: ‘If one would be able to buy the Sistine Chapel, would he or she be allowed to demolish The Last Judgment?’
In some cases, street art can be moved and thus find its way into a gallery. Contemporary art and street art are different social fields, though. Of course, there is an overlap. But artist in these two scenes read different magazines, they use different cultural codes, they speak differently and they shake hands differently. In short: it’s a different cultural scene. A street artist distantiates himself with a one simple phrase: ’Let’s be honest: contemporary art is a lot of blablabla.’
The mechanisms of the Artist and his Ego striving for recognition are the same in both worlds, though. ‘Why did Picasso paint? He was advertising for himself. All art is self-advertisement’, says Guillaume. Other artists at the table concur. ‘We know that people in the art world will notice the street art we create in public space. It’s not purely a philanthropic thing to create works of art in the public domain, for free. It’s about recognition. And it’s about preserving and enforcing your identity as an artist, too.’
Making people dream
Not everything is about recognition for the artistic genius though. Rivera made art for an illiterate public. He had the goal of communicating something and used a comprehensible visual language to reach out to those who could not read words. Is the visual language of contemporary murals readable for a wider audience? Can the murals in our cities be understood and appreciated by a random passer-by? Or is the average person walking by not able to read the piece of art, and is it just labelled as ‘vandalism’, because the message is written in a language that can’t be deciphered? And is ‘vandalism!’ the only message that gets through?
Not necessarily. Street art can play a significant role in a neighbourhood. Once a community attributes a positive meaning to a mural, the people living there become attached to it and they tend to appropriate it. The work of art can become a shared cultural icon. And the beauty of it is that street art doesn’t encourage people to buy something, do something, or go somewhere. It is an open invitation to transcend the daily reality of their lives - and dream.
“Today a lot of public space is claimed by companies. But there are a lot of grey walls as well. It’s nice to see that some artist use these walls and offer a true piece of art to society. And that they do it free of charge.” – Gijs Vanhee
BRAINS is the department ‘research and development’ of the new urban arts. It is a platform where challenges in the art sector are detected, analysed and discussed. By bringing together experts from different fields, unexpected answers arise. This way, BRAINS is a celebration of our collective intelligence. It is a tribute to the spontaneity and ingenuity of our thoughts and thinking. It’s a pointblank shot of inspiration, which resonates far into the future. The concept was concept developed by the Mestizo Arts Platform (Antwerp, Belgium).
Participants in the discussions during ‘BRAINS 5.0’: Guillaume Demartes (Farm Prod), Alexis Corrand (Farm Prod), Gijs Vanhee (visual artist), Melanie Nassimoff (producer), Adrian Jurado (visual), Sylvia Reyes (Mexican Embassy), Marina Castañeda Gutman (Mexican Embassy and expert on Diego Rivera), Carina Meulders (WP Zimmer), Catherine Clarke (MUF), Adrien Tirtiaux (visual artist and founder ‘Hotel Charleroi’), Ton Theelen (Rubia Collective), Jason Poirier du Caulier (Plus one Galeries), Dirk Van Oosterwyck (Universiteit Antwerpen), Shari Legbedje (Podiumkunsten.be), Rob Ruts (Haagse Hogeschool).
Special thanks to: Barbara Duthie (Volunteer MAF), Mayra Romero Guadalupe Romero López (Estudiante de doctorado en Sociologia del Arte y la Cultura en la Universidad Libre de Bruselas), Lucila Guichón (photographer MAF),Erki De Vries, Pieter Huybrechts en Chris Delacourt (Curating Space) and all the lovely people from WP Zimmer for the technical knowhow and for hosting the event at such an inspiring location.
Produced by Mestizo Arts Festival: Eline Verzelen, Tine De Pourcq, Femke Vanpoucke, Heleen Fivez, Ruth Van Ammel and Selm Wenselaers.
All works of art created for MURAL can be visited during the opening hours of the participating cultural venues: WP Zimmer, De STUDIO, Kop VZW, Arenbergschouwburg, t,arsenaal, KVS.