Will Stavanger Become a Street Art City ? A Talk with NuArt Founder and Director Martyn Reed

April 8, 2016

Stavanger is the fourth largest city in Norway, unofficially known as the “oil capital city” of this Nordic country. In the last couple of years, the city of Stavanger has become one of the central European cities when it comes to urban and street art – the city has deserved this status thanks to the well-known NuArt international contemporary street and urban art festival, taking place usually at the end of the summer. Widewalls has been extensively covering this amazing art event that was attended by some of the most renowned urban and street artists today. NuArt in Stavanger also saw dozens of amazing pieces (just to mention the largest outdoor mural in the world created by Ella & Pitr). But, NuArt is not only a street art festival. It’s something more, and the organizers want to achieve more. They want to transform to a smart art city, a city of creativeness, co-operation, de-institutionalized art, which is free for all – to become a platform of the gathering of artists, curators, volunteers, art lovers. It’s quite an ambitious plan, so we talked with Martyn Reed, the founder and director of NuArt festival in Stavanger. Scroll down, and find out more about this outstanding art endeavor!

NuArt Transforming the City

Widewalls: Martyn, first of all, we would like to hear about your experiences with the NuArt Festival. Widewalls extensively covered the festival’s activities recently. But, could you share with us your own experience with this amazing festival taking place in Stavanger? When was the first time you became involved, and what could you tell us about your own engagement in this quite unique art event?

Martyn Reed: Well, maybe a little background for your readers. I’m the founder and curator of Nuart so have been around a while ;-)

The festival was conceived in 2000 and established in 2001 as the sister festival to the Numusic Festival, an electronic music festival that I started here in 2000. The first iteration of Nuart being a Fluxus style “mail art” project with a budget of just $900. Artists were sent a sheet of A4 paper with instructions to draw and return. These were then exhibited at the Numusic event, 16 participants all for the price of a few stamps. The second iteration was in book format, i.e the book was the “space” the artists created work for, which was then given out to those attending the opening. We had a desire to create alternative ways and spaces in which to view and experience art and to reach people outside of the usual gallery system. Something we obviously continue to this day.

In 2003 I took over the curation and focused on new media and internet-based art, bringing it more into alignment with Numusic, the principle ethos behind Numusic being to promote the democratization of music production that affordable technologies had brought about in the 1980s.

The development of affordable digital technology in the 80’s gave rise to a huge creative outpouring from the underclass, primarily in music production. The exclusive means to produce new and progressive types of music was taken away from the few corporate behemoths of the day and placed in the hands of the people. This gave birth to an explosion of new genres from Techno in Detroit, Hip Hop in the Bronx, House music in Chicago and Rave Culture and Acid House in the UK. Sub-Cultures that were generally in direct opposition to the status quo and still carried the smoldering chars of Punk. The parallels here with Street Art and the Art world are obvious.

At the time of my own art practice in the early 90’s, the internet was in its infancy and offered what seemed liked a new era for contemporary art practice. Here was a new and completely unpoliced space to be explored, built upon and shared by its users. It offered a multitude of Utopic futures and had yet to be embraced by advertisers, institutions or significant capital, and like any new wild frontier, it attracted those looking for fresh possibilities whilst at the same time, offering a space to experiment without external critique.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t too long before “Art and New Technology” departments were springing up to support the culture, and slowly, those with the means to administrate and fund large-scale New Media works and events, rose to the fore, creating new media art stars and stripping it of it’s activist based content as they went. Sound familiar?

In the meantime, running parallel to an interest in new media art, was a long-held love of Street and Activist based work. After many long discussions with friend, colleague, co-curator and ex-new media artist Leon Cullinane aka The Dotmasters, it was decided to merge the two, virtual and public, with a focus on using the new technology to disseminate the content, as opposed to the tech being the focus itself.

In 2005, I applied to the arts council for a grant to turn the festival into a “Street Art” Festival, we’d already had graffiti crews and the likes of the Space Hijackers at previous events, so it seemed feasible. Needless to say, the application was unceremoniously turned down, so I took a small bank loan against my salary to supplement funding from the city council and ploughed ahead. In 2006, the festival transitioned to a “Street Art” festival and has been the core focus ever since, though of course it still contains some vestiges of our previous interests.

Nuart was established to challenge the cultural hegemony, to offer an alternative platform and arena in which to experience art, to free art from the clutches of institutions and the education system and to act as an amplifier for those that practiced “Street Art”.

So yes, that’s the early evolution of Nuart, and apologies for the lengthy response and going off on tangents, a bad habit of mine.

Widewalls: As perceived from outside, Stavanger is known as an oil center of Norway? How has Nuart influenced the urban landscape of the city? Since you have been actively involved with the festival, could you tell us something about the residents’ reactions to the changing of the urban landscape?

MR: Stavanger is a relatively small city (pop. 120 000) with a quite condensed center so the visual impact downtown has been quite significant. Initially, we focused our productions on the East side of the city, the old industrial working class area. This was based on the premise that the area was likely to be the last place that government institutions would expand arts resources on. If we were taking public funding, we’d attempt to act as a middleman to redirect some of the region's resources into this area, this gained us a wave of early support. It also helped that this was the area with the least development and the most cracks into which we could plant seeds. The last years have seen rampant gentrification in the area, but thanks to the ideology of locally engaged independent planners such as Urban Sjøfront, the area retains something of its original character, though this is now being eroded by larger more corporate developers.

Over the years we’ve steadily moved productions into the City Center, linking large-scale murals in the East from the likes of Blu, Herakut, Vhils, Ericailcane and Roa with downtown murals from Eine, Swoon, David Choe and so on. This has united the two areas, traditionally separated along socioeconomic lines, with a shared aesthetic.

People respond favorably to these larger works, but I think equally if not more important are the smaller more personal and mostly unsanctioned works down hidden side streets, the small stencils, stickers, tags, ad takeovers, pieces, multiples, interventions and paste-ups you find off the beaten track. Not very sexy for city councils and they don’t challenge the public arts sector in the same way as huge murals, but they are the real heart and soul of the event and something we work hard at promoting alongside the larger works.

We commissioned a survey back in 2010 to explore the impact of the event in the region and found that people were breaking decade old habits in what routes they took through the city, some people were navigating by the landmark works whilst other, lifelong residents, were exploring areas of the city they’d never had reason to visit previously. New desire lines were being created and new narratives established. Residents were devising their own routes and were now engaged in actively creating their own individual city.

Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities” was an early influence. This idea that the City is constructed not from bricks and mortar but from desires and fears, memories and signs, the dead and the sky and so on and so forth. Cities within cities, hidden cities, quite cities, raucous cities ad infinitum. So reading this in the report was genuinely inspiring.

Influences and New Ideas

Widewalls: In what way has NuArt Festival in Stavanger influenced similar projects in other cities and countries? We could even say that this type of art event was a pioneer, since after the NuArt we could see a lot of similar events taking place across Europe? What was so inspirational and innovative with NuArt that incited so many other festivals across the continent?

MR: There were of course events and festivals before Nuart, Berlin’s Backjumps is a good example, but I think Nuart was perhaps one of the first “Street Art” projects to have a vey defined idea about what it wanted to achieve and who it wanted to reach. We’ve hosted and advised numerous events, city councils and public institutions over the years, but the most inspiring are the occasional personal emails from artists or community activists asking advice on how to set something up. We happily share everything we know.

I think through Nuart, many people realized that they could have quite a significant voice in their city, in the creation of their own mental and physical environments, something taggers and writers and street artists had been doing for decades.

I imagine it also gave people a sense of DIY empowerment, idea, paint, walls, artists, Internet. It’s a pretty achievable goal for anyone with a desire to set something up.

I come from both a fine art and underground club culture background and could never really understand why galleries and visual arts events didn’t use the same tools to promote in the same way as music venues, its almost like they didn’t want a broader public to engage with art.

I think it was this way of “promoting” a visual art event that really inspired others, not so much the format the event took, but how we managed to disseminate the content beyond the boundaries of a regular audience.

Maybe this has gone too far now and the “brands” should step back and re-focus on the artistic content, it’s something we’re acutely conscious of when planning the program and is the impetus behind the more academic and industry based conference, Nuart Plus, that runs in tandem with Nuart, an arena where we and like-minded organizers can reflect over what it is, and why we do what we do.

It’s an interesting time for the culture, I’m looking forward to see how it meets the twin challenge from both commerce and academia and especially how festivals and street art organizations adapt to these changes and pressures.

Widewalls: There is now an initiative to establish and administer a “smART City plan” for Stavanger focusing on the convergence of new technology, street art and future cities. Could you be so kind to explain this idea to broader audience?

MR: Well, just to clarify, there is an initiative from the municipality to establish Stavanger as a leading “Smart City” in the Nordics and beyond. The city is looking to transition from the Oil sector, which is collapsing, to a more tech-orientated sector. Stavanger, alongside Manchester and Eindhoven are “lighthouse” cities for of a European initiative named Triangulum. An EU-funded smart city and communities project.

It’s a top down corporate-led initiative, and in the current climate, probably a wise move. However, it’s also a very singular approach based, in general, on maximizing efficiency in delivering public services, and presumably, shareholder value. How resilient these industries are, without roots into the community, we don’t know. From what I understand, Stavanger has, historically, a quite myopic approach to industry, a very sector orientated view. First shipping, then herring, then canning, then of course Oil. The city's history is a continuous alternation between economic booms and recessions, one of which we’re now experiencing. This of course generally leads to cuts in the arts, but also, for self-motivated cultural producers, opportunities. If Stavanger is no longer going to be identified as “Oil Capital of Norway”, is there a possibility that Stavanger could be recognized not only as a “Smart City”, but also as an “Art City”, that investment from the municipality and private sector, also looks at the region's creative industries, from the world-class culinary clusters in town to a resurgent and dynamic visual arts scene.

Based on this premise, Nuart is in the process of developing and promoting a more holistic look at the cities identity and available resources. Can we develop new arts and culture related profile, based on the expertise we already have with producing large-scale pubic art programs, how can we integrate this into the regions “Smart City” plans. To put the Art in smart if you like.

We’ve always sought to reconnect private and public life through the use of public space, primarily physically, but also digitally. We’re looking at how these new technologies can not only deliver content, but how they can activate and benefit bottom up, citizen-led initiatives. Nuart’s Art City project runs parallel to the Smart City proposal and aims to find points of convergence that benefit or gives voice and identity to the community.

Our recent projects with Nipper and PublicAd campaign’s Jordan Seiler are the first steps in this direction.

Widewalls: In January 2016, Oslo kommune announced a five-year Gatekunstplan outlining fifteen measures to promote graffiti and street art as contemporary art forms in public space. Could you tell us what is the difference between this Oslo’s kommune initiative and the NuArt (Stavanger) concept?

MR: Nuart is a small independent not for profit dedicated to providing a platform for Street Artists. Oslo’s “Streetartplan” is a municipality ordinance that annuls their 20 year “Zero Tolerance” approach to the culture. It outlines in general terms, the positive aspects of the culture and opens up possibilities for artists and cultural producers to apply for funding for graffiti and street art productions. We’ve been involved in developing the idea but it’s primarily an initiative brokered by Oslo resident and activist Viktor Gjengaar, a member of the Green Party and founder of Oslo’s Urbansamtidskunst, an organization that has been lobbying for this change for many years. They’ve been responsible for bringing the likes of Inti, Zed1, Aryz and C215 to Oslo in the past.

We’re currently working with Urbansamtidskunst and various other partners, including Oslo Council, in developing a really major project for the city. More of which soon. You’ll be the first to know !

Tou Scene Project

Widewalls: We heard you’re developing plans to create an Institute of Contemporary Urban Art to be housed at Tou Scene in Stavanger? Is there any opposition from the government or local authorities?

MR: It’s early days but we’ve just received confirmation from the board of directors that our plans to develop this have been accepted. It’s key to our plans to have the city recognized as an international destination for the culture, a street art “hub” if you like. It’s an incredible space that has housed Nuart’s indoor exhibition and festival for the last 10 years. It offers in excess of ½ kilometer of wall space and is unlike any other exhibition space I’ve ever seen, almost designed for the culture and the history of street art in the walls is unprecedented.
We’ve presented the plans to the local authority and Norwegian Arts Council and have their backing, now the hard work of fundraising begins. We’ll take over the location in January 2017 and will be planning to run a program from Spring.

Widewalls: Could you tell us something more about the Tou Scene project? What is so unique with this concept that could be perceived differently from other similar platforms?

MR: Primarily, the difference would be that the space is part and parcel of the culture already, and has been central in amplifying the culture for the last ten years, it’s a very natural, artist-led organic development. Unlike a traditional “show and tell” museum, the institute aims to develop a much broader approach to the culture taking the City and Art for Everyone as it’s starting points.

Many other institutions are focused very much on the “Art” part of “Street Art” and how to present it in a traditional museum context, whether this is through inviting people to paint the walls, or chopping them out from the street and exhibiting them ala Bologna. Many overlook the “Street” aspect of “Street art” and historically focus on a very narrowly defined “Cornbread to Banksy” narrative.

We aim to take a very different and more radical approach to the culture that takes in everything from Dada to CoBrA, Auto-Destructive Art to Situationism, Punk through to Graffiti and Street art.

We’re in the process of devising academic and educational programs to support the thesis and hope to create a world-renowned center dedicated to the cultures underbelly. Aspects of what we do will of course always be part of the “Spectacle”, this is unavoidable as it’s a huge part of the culture, but we’ll also be discussing critically, why this is the case.

Widewalls: As far as we understood, the idea is to create a much larger acceptance of the culture city wide, which would involve the fight against privatization of public space?

MR: We’re interested in helping to create an environment that is conducive to citizen-led creativity, be this guerrilla gardening, urban knitting, ad takeovers, wheatpaste or mural production. For this to exist city-wide and not just in creative “hubs” such as Shoreditch or Williamsburgh. We’d like to see city center’s as areas for play and creativity and not just for commerce. I think Street art and related urban practices can lead the way here and believe Stavanger to be an ideal place to trial some of these initiatives.

The arguments surrounding the encroaching privatization of public space isn’t really an issue here in Stavanger, but regardless, it’s something that anyone engaged in the culture should be aware of and actively fight against.

Widewalls: Finally, we would like to ask you: Do you believe that it is possible to transform Stavanger into an international “hub” for culture? Do you expect any oppositions or obstacles? Could it be that emerging street and urban artists can expect from this project to become a platform where public space can be freely used for street art projects?

MR: Stavanger boasts a concentrated area of expertise and resources in this culture including an annual festival that is being emulated by municipalities across the globe. The next generation are already primed to accept this as part of city life, over 8000 kids have passed through Nuart’s education programs in the last 4 years.

We believe Stavanger has a great opportunity to capitalize on the 15 years of experience and work we’ve already put into the region. The regions shift to “start up” culture, innovation, smart cities and a concentrated Urban Center requires a youthful and dynamic environment. We believe we can contribute significantly in helping to create this without compromising the cultures roots. There’s sufficient rigor involved in our choices and processes.

We have steadily become a community of producers, promoters, administrators, businesses, patrons, councilors and volunteers who together, create an annual platform for Street Artists and their art. The festival platform is activated once a year by the city and its citizens. It’s a template that has been successfully demonstrated, disseminated and replicated 100’s of times across the globe over the past few years and will continue to be. Last year there were 134 registered street art festivals in Europe alone.

We believe, and hope to prove, that those festivals, should and could in fact be cities. That Stavanger can be the model for a new dynamic approach to public space, an amplifier of possibilities that can and hopefully will again, be replicated in some way, shape or form, worldwide.

Featured Images: Martyn Reed; Ella and Pitr - Lilith and Olaf; Brian Tallman - Ella Pitr in Stavanger. All Images used for illustrative purposes only.

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