Provocative and poignant poetic messages that could be found on walls and temporary structures all around Amsterdam are work of a prominent street artist Laser 3.14. Combining his love for SF with denominator for a public image to come up with his recognizable tag, his works are a visual poetry of sorts that convey squatter statements and political messages. He avoids euphemisms and is not governed by political correctness, so his messages always go straight to the point. Inspired by politics, popular culture, religion and all the issues that the contemporary society faces, he processes his thoughts into honest statements that make everybody think. Working during the night and keeping his identity a secret, he is an Amsterdam hero of sorts who lets his art speak for him. Often placing his works on temporary structures around the city, his art might have an expiration date, but it sure sticks in one’s mind. Apart from his graffiti works, he also creates graphic works on paper and sculptures.
Combining urban ferociousness and the aesthetical nature of art, his works are always reminding us on the important issues we tend to forget. Some of these works are on view at Vroom & Varossieau gallery in Amsterdam as a part of the exhibition Press Here for Some Counterculture. New bodies of work presented at this show play with the anti-establishment attitude and the ways it could be coopted. In an exclusive interview for Widewalls, Laser 3.14 talks about his visual poetry, the political power of art, the tyranny of political correctness, the temporality of his work, his choice to work from the shadows, and much more! Scroll down for the interview!
Widewalls: The gallery Vroom &Varossieau in Amsterdam will open its doors with your solo exhibition ‘Press Here for Some Counterculture’. Could you tell us more about the concept of this show and these new bodies of work?
Laser 3.14: The art work of this show leans to and plays with the origins of the 60s counterculture while also referring to the emerging feeling that there is some kind of countercultural resistance movement on the rise now. It does this through offering 'sound bytes'. The work also equally refers to a kind of wariness or critical eye to how easily these things are co-opted for profit, manufactured and mass produced, making it seem that it's as easy to "become" part of something, as simply pressing a button, most of the times unaware and sometimes even unwanted.
In terms of works, the show includes a large patchwork wall of wooden pieces with short lines like the ones I do on the street. I often think of these as kind of ‘sound bytes’ for what’s going on in the world currently. I’m also premiering my new series of long poem pieces on wood. When you’re on the street you often only have a matter of seconds to do what you’re doing, so being able to think through the textual and visual aspects of these longer form works has been great.
The counterculture of the 60s, like the hippie movement, protest movement and Civil Rights movement has always fascinated me.
In the past, the ruling establishment had no idea how to handle these movements. It feels like a similar thing is happening today. These kinds of movement, combined with cultural Marxism, relativism and socialist ideals (socialism already influenced politics before the counterculture movement) settled in society and took the seat in American and European governments, education systems and the mainstream media. They slowly transformed into the establishment we have now, not changing their critical thoughts, which obviously soon turned into a rigid thinking pattern: the pattern our politicians nowadays (some of them were the same critics back then!) never stopped pursuing. These ideals and ways of thinking also spawned what we now call political correctness. These thought patterns and corresponding actions have been unchecked and unquestioned for decades. Fortunately, since the last decade, they’re under fire and it’s clear that they as the establishment doesn’t know how the handle and deal with critique in an obviously changing and changed society. We can see people questioning the establishment, the values and the status quo of our time. While the cards being played are different now than they were in the 60s, there is definitely a feeling that something is brewing. People are questioning the mainstream media, questioning the politics in their country and we see movements, which are finally openly challenging the establishment, the political correctness and the status quo. We must question, speak out and take action against this rigid, too long unquestioned status quo. We have to do this because centuries of enlightenment and values are at stake.
Widewalls: You have a rich background in graffiti art, but the main part of your work is poetry. How would you define your practice?
L: Poetry is my motor. When things start stirring up in me, ideas or feelings deriving from the news, political developments or my surrounding my brain turns them into poetry. When I feel the urge I go outside and spread my thoughts and feelings. It can be parts of my poems or just loose sentences.
I never really took the time to fully define what I do or give it a name, and I’m not particularly fond of labels anyways. Lane Crawford dubbed it ‘visual poetry’, other people call it ‘street poetry’, both of which I like and work for me. I often think it’s for the better that I’ve never really gotten stuck on how to define my work or myself, because it keeps me questioning and thinking about what it is I do. I’m really trying not to slip into one of those status quos!
Widewalls: Your work is a poignant social commentary reflecting your strong political views and life philosophy. What is the responsibility of art today, can it be apolitical? Apart from interpreting and commenting on social reality, what is its potential to change it?
L: Back in the 90s I read an article that expressed the idea that as an artist you need to be the retina of society. I don’t remember who wrote it or in which magazine it was, but the quote always stuck with me. Recently I’ve watched the Nina Simone doc What Happened, Miss Simone? One of the things she says is “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”. I think this is extremely powerful. I believe that it’s the artist’s job to tap into the current Zeitgeist. It doesn’t mean that you have to be political, but it’s great if you can observe and absorb what’s happening around you and use it in your art, whether it’s writing, painting, sculpture, music or fashion.
Personally, I am convinced it’s the responsibility of artists and their work to go places not everybody is brave enough to go to. I don’t necessarily think art has the ability to change things, but rather that it’s a reflection on and a reaction to change that is happening around us. It certainly starts conversations, and that’s part of what I do, but art isn’t the mechanism that gets the deed done.
Widewalls: You are getting your message through in a direct manner without unnecessary euphemisms. On the other hand, we are witnessing the governance of political correctness in public speech. How does political correctness affect art?
L: Charleston Heston once said, “Political correctness is tyranny with manners.” Political correctness and the fear to offend has run rampant for years and has silenced a lot of people and artists who are now even more careful to say certain things at the fear of being labeled “all that’s horrible” in the world. It created a war on free speech and is adamant to crack down on certain ideas, debates or anything that might “offend”. I think it’s a form of fascism and bullying. The effect on society has been that a lot of people are afraid to openly speak their reality and truth they see and feel. It has certainly made people feel less free to speak about important things because they are afraid of being marked for instance a bigot or racist. Just the fear of being labeled that way is enough to kill the genesis of the important debate. It’s sad, destructive and disruptive and stops the possibility of solutions being worked out and executed because people are afraid to speak their mind.
I think political correctness has certainly affected some art, making it much more “safe”. I believe it’s the artist’s job to not be held back by this, otherwise, you might not be able to get to the center of what it is you want to express with your work, and I truly believe this will limit you. Art can offend, but being offended is subjective. There will always be somebody somewhere in this world that will be offended by something or someone.
Widewalls: Your work has moved from streets to galleries. How do you differentiate between the work you are doing in the streets and a more controlled setting such as a gallery, while still maintaining your visual identity?
L: There is a huge difference between the effect of the work in the street and the controlled setting of a gallery. On the street, you have the unpredictability of changing light, streets sounds, seasons and what not. In a gallery, you don’t have these factors, so it takes a different approach. But both are equally interesting for me to work with. I love to create work for the gallery space because it’s a completely different way of working and creating.
On the street, the Laser 3.14 tag is repetitive in style (for example, it’s always sprayed on a non-permanent surface with one color spray paint) but the subjects and content of the sentences are dynamic and changing. The context sometimes occurs by deliberately placing it somewhere. In fortunate incidents, the surroundings of placement add to the context and quality of the line I sprayed. And sometimes the whole context of the words I’ve sprayed changes or is enforced by the placement in the city. That’s what I like about working outside.
When I work in the gallery, an idea is my starting point. Then I let the show, the pieces of art shape around it. It is an organic process. I use a lot of different materials like metal, different colored backgrounds, and sizes and shapes of wood. Because it’s a more controlled environment I can create more of an installation-style work. On the street, a passerby mostly takes a quick look and then walks on. In the gallery, people take more time to stand still, look at and absorb the work. What I tried to do in this show is play with that fact, making larger work with longer poems. These are both different ways of interpreting the work. They’re both very fun and interesting ways for me to approach my art.
I think my visual identity will not get lost in all of this because in the end it’s about the words and the poetry coming from me, whether on the streets or in the gallery. I’m the same person everywhere, communicating the same beliefs, just in a different way.
Widewalls: Your work is often seen on temporary structures, which puts an ultimate expiration date on your artworks. How does this temporality fit into your practice?
L: I like the “here today gone tomorrow effect”. The way I see it is that placing work all around the city on temporary structures is similar to the way the universe works, where at any given moment one star becomes a supernova and disappears while at the same time another star is born. When I visualize my art mapped across the city in my head, it kind of resembles a galaxy with stars dying and being born all the time.
Widewalls: Could you describe your practice, from creating poetry to placing it in a public space? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
L: I write poetry and make a lot of notes, by writing and typing them out. Before I go out I go through my notes and poems and pull lines that really resonate for me that day and take those with me to share across town.
The kinds of things I write about are triggered by whatever I’m observing, feeling, or experiencing. It’s like something will happen or I’ll read something, or see something, and then words, images or emotions all come together in me and it flows out as poetry, a sentence or a specific art piece.
I draw inspiration from everything around me: life, love, hate, tolerance, intolerance, music, movies, politics, religion, all of it. We are definitely living in interesting, complex and confusing times. For me as an artist, it’s this kind of crazy mix that makes creating work exciting. There’s so much out there to draw from.
Widewalls: You have chosen to work from the shadows and keep your identity a secret. How does this mystery aspect affect your work and the message you are sending? Is it difficult to remain anonymous in the surveillance society of today?
L: I think it adds to my work because people can imagine me to be whom- or whatever they want me to be. The mystery is not something I’ve planned. It just happened. I’ve made the choice to be photographed anonymously, with my hoodie on, for different reasons. For example, not needing to have my face in the media when people started to ask me for interviews. It’s amazing but not uncommon for people to fly under the radar and stay “hidden” in this surveillance society. What I personally like about it is that it gives my art a chance to stand on its own without the background noise of how I look, where I come from or what I do besides my art. I think the absence of this makes people’s connections to the work stronger.
Widewalls: There is a real hype surrounding graffiti and street art today, it’s booming on the art market and the increasing number of galleries is opening their doors to it. How do you feel about this commercialization of street art?
L: I actually don’t mind it in the sense that it has opened doors for artists who now get the chance to show their talents and be successful, where there previously wasn’t space in the gallery scene for what they were doing.
To me there’s nothing more beautiful than a person who might not have walked a conventional path in life or did not get the right chances but has made their talent their own, works hard, gets recognized for it and is able to make a living, make a career out of something they truly love.
The only thing is, that you have to be very careful that the whole commercial mechanism of the market doesn’t take away the soul of making art for you.
Widewalls: After a book about your street work ‘Are You Reading Me’ and a book of poetry ‘White Phosphorus’, you are working on a new title ‘The Hippie Damage’. Could you tell us something about this new work?
It’s a collection of poems that I’ve written about the ideals that emerged in the 1960’s and spawned from the counterculture movements that sent Europe off into “half a century holiday from reality” as Douglas Murray would put it. Actually, the book opens with this exact quote by Murray. This book is my critique on the perception that times have changed, but the ideals and idea that once fought and spoke out against the establishment now have become the establishment itself, refusing to change and adjust their ideas and ideals to the modern times. Next to that I’ve noticed that the people who were part of the counterculture movement of the 60s, who once fought for freedom and free speech and open and honest debate, have turned into people, who are cracking down on free speech, not wanting to have to do anything that even vaguely can be considered “offensive.
To me they have become very dogmatic, rigid and intolerant towards other ideas and opinions and need to be questioned and held against the light of the contemporary status quo in open and honest critique and debate. I noticed when you do that these ideals and ideas crumble apart. Maybe this is needed to get back to the core of the original meaning. These are the concepts I tried to touch in this book. I still haven’t found a publisher for it yet but if I don’t, I will self-publish it this year. The exhibition and subject therein connect with my book.
Widewalls: You are also working on a new project called ‘The Counter Canon’, a website on Amsterdam’s counterculture from between 1971 to 2001. What does the counterculture in Amsterdam look like now?
The counterculture in Amsterdam at the moment is hard to find. There are some people who are questioning and speaking out more and more and I have the feeling that people’s perceptions are slowly changing, but from my point of view countercultures or subcultures are pretty low and scarce in Amsterdam at the moment. It used to be a lot more when I grew up, Amsterdam being the progressive place back in the 60’s and 70’s. The street art movement, for instance, is not as big as in the UK, France or the States. I believe it will pick up again. I think this has to do with the gentrification that has gotten hold of this city. But we can already feel the cracks, people are starting to feel more and more dissatisfied. Something can spawn from this and create new subcultures. Then again, as always with most subcultures, they are first happening out of sight of the general public and underground before they are being picked up by the masses. There might be a lot happening somewhere, which we haven’t picked up on yet, but all the elements are here for something to explode out of all of this and I can’t wait to see what it is. I think there’s always a hunger and desire for new or different things to happen that will take people on a journey that leads to new creative ideas and movement. We’ll just have to see.
The Counter Canon of Amsterdam-site is something I want to realize because I believe it’s an important part of the history of the city that needs to be preserved somewhere. It is a big project and needs a lot of focus to get it right. When I started the project I was also working on two web projects. I had to make a choice. I chose to work on my online Laser 3.14 T-shirts web shop first, a web shop where I started releasing limited Laser 3.14 shirts with a different quote each two months. The site is now up and running.
All images courtesy of the artist.