Conflating Space: Street Art 2.0

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

This past Friday and Saturday, November 5 and 6, I attend two events in relation to the Irving Contemporary’s opening of Street Art 2.0 (new window). While inescapably positioned within their own institutional realities, both events raised issues surrounding the role of context, intention, and the formation of meaning, and activated positions of artist and audience (as viewers and interpreters) in their prospective ways.

Image Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary.

On Friday evening The Phillips Collection (new window) hosted a panel discussion with four of the artists, David Ellis (new window), Romon Yang, Chris Mendoza (new window), and Gaia (new window), moderated by both Klaus Ottmann of the Phillips Collection (Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art) and Martin Irvine of Georgetown University. The panel sparked much discussion surrounding the space that street art activates; particularly the role that it plays in the appropriated space of the studio versus the original space of the “street.” Definitions of this hybridity are often further involuted by the production, dissemination, and documentation of art through digital technologies.

David Ellis, Animal, 2010. HD video, 9.5 mins., Blu-ray. Film still. Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary.

In his introduction to the Friday panel, Ottman referenced Ludwig Wittgenstein’s aesthetics (new window), in which he offered a definition of Art as “ethics plus aesthetics,” in order to raise questions surrounding the role of ethics in art. A loaded word, especially in the context of the traditionally subversive practices of street art, members of the audience pressed for clarification. Moreover, as a conduit for the conversation that followed, Ottoman spoke to his view that the differential between art (ie: art as craft) versus Art (capital A), is that in order to be defined as such, Art must contribute to the human condition. Speaking to these statements, the audience engaged with the artists, inciting a dialogue which attempted to unpack the unique historical position that street art inhabits.

Chris Mendoza, Untitled, 1 (2010), 2010. Mixed media and stickers on paper. 20 x 16 in. Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary.

On Saturday at the opening of the show, the artists from the panel were present to discuss their work. This time, the gallery space itself served as testament to the inescapable reality of the art market. To bring the conversation back to ethics, I regret not begging the question as to how the artists personally dealt with the implications of this monetized space, as some feel artistic acts such as street art (being a type of performance, and therefore raising the desire for instantaneity over commodification) is particularly complicated by this truth. The fact that the exhibit must confront the way in which the art has been contextualized by the gallery simply confirmed the double life that street art leads.

Though the panel managed to delve into an incredible breadth of topics in such a short time, there were still many questions left unanswered. This is by no means to suggest that I was left unfulfilled, as it was quite the opposite. Discussing the boundaries and definitions of what constitutes Art and what constitutes audience allows us to enter into a bevy of postmodernist concerns.

Thinking about the moral, aesthetic, and theoretical questions activated by the activities that surround street art raises larger questions about how meaning is activated by institution, how object enters into conversation with commodification, and how acts of viewing are structured in within distinct environments. Can street art maintain its force once appropriated in the context of a gallery, or does space, history, and realities of the institution imprison the objects within particular realities?

This academic dialogue does not take place on the street. I suppose these dueling dialogues, this line between art and vandalism, the tension between aesthetics and politics is what street art has long been attempting to answer through its perpetual, palimpsestic history. For me, it is in this undefined space where Art, capital A, is truly activated and perhaps even defined.