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Nuart Plus Conference 2016 - Should Street Art be Given a New Name?

September 15, 2016
Ana Bambic Kostov is an art historian with passion for contemporary art.

For the fifth year in a row, Nuart Festival organized Nuart Plus, a series of academic discussions about the street art phenomenon. Guided by the two key topics this year, a group of leading experts in the field lectured, discussed and confronted opinions on the utopian and dadaistic traditions in street art, but one of the topical threads stole all the attention – the possibility of a new term for what we know as “street art”.

Divided across four days of the conference, Nuart Plus gathered names such as Carlo McCormick, Evan Pricco of Juxtapoz, curators and experts Christian Omodeo, Pedro Soares Neves, Emma Arnold, David Pinder and artists Robert Montgomery, kennardphillips, Henrik Uldalen and Jeff Gillette, whose exhibition Dismayland Nord is currently on view at the Nuart Gallery in Stavanger.

Read and discuss with public artist about works from 2015
Eirik Sjåholm Knudsen, Moderator of Nuart Plus

Fighting for the Street Art Name

The opening night of Nuart Plus started, traditionally, with a Fight Club, a bar debate about the potential new name for the new urban contemporary movement. The proposed term, which stirred up many spirits in Stavanger during the following days, was Post-Street Art. In the team propagating the acceptance of this name (suggested by non other than Martyn Reed, the main curator of Nuart), were Evan Pricco, the founder and Editor in Chief of Juxtapoz and artists Robert Montgomery and Jeff Gillette. The opposing team was led by Carlo McCormick, one of the leading authorities in street art circles, accompanied by curators Christian Omodeo and Pedro Soares Neves.

Setting the rules and the subject, the moderator Eirik Sjaholm Knudsen introduced the term to the pub full of eager listeners and let the games begin. What followed was a rather heated argument, which culminated in a game of yells between Robert Montgomery and Carlo McCormick, although, as it turned out, unnecessarily.

Post-Street Art appeared to be the light-motif of Nuart Plus in the next days, since each of the participants had an opinion, but they very often differed.

Concluding the evening, what could be learned is that labels might not be necessary when we speak about contemporary art, even though they can be useful in the academic community, most of all. The “post” in the proposed name was found to be the most problematic, since we should be done with “posts”, while the prefix might implicate inaccurate and limiting criteria. Artists’ opinions differed as well, and while Robert Montgomery believed that such term would be useful as it would finally let street art into big institutions, Jeff Gillette expressed that he would feel satisfied about belonging to something bigger than his own practice, even though his work is mostly conducted in the studio.

Eclectic as it is today, encompassing the work in the street and in the studio equally, street art has definitely evolved, especially with the appearance of internet and growth of social media networks. However, the unanimous decision on the name has not been made yet and according to the level of discord on the matter seen at Nuart Plus, it might not be made for a while. What can be concluded from the first night of the conference is that all of the participants approach the subject with true passion, and as long as there are people who engage in street art in such a way, labels might not be of such a great importance yet.

Read and discuss about public works
Fight Club Night (from left to right): Christian Omodeo, Pedro Soares Neves, Carlo McCormick, Evan Pricco, Robert Montgomery and Jeff Gillete at Nuart Plus

An Act of Constant Criticism – Utopia in Street Art

Second day of the Nuart Plus conference commenced with a speech given by David Pinder, a Professor at Roskilde University and a cultural geographer. Referring to the writings of Henri Lefebvre, Pinder addressed the importance of intervening within the urban environment, where street art comes as one of the natural acts. What is utopian in this continual striving for the better city is the constant criticism of the current situation, although the final Utopia would never be achieved. Awareness about the right to the city is a process of growth and not a final destination and art comes as the supreme method to channel this maturing of urban inhabitants.

Following the speech given by David Pinder, kennardphillips gave a presentation of their work and activism, perfectly illustrating the points the keynote speaker had made. In a Q&A with Carlo McCormick later, we could hear more about the duo’s involvement with the community and their disruptions of the artificial piece in the City, the most posh financial district of London.

Further speeches were given by Emma Arnold, who addressed the womens’ right to the city and the visual impact of the adds that appear to address female sexuality more than we are aware. Pedro Soares Neves and Peter Bengtsen continued the presentations elaborating on the rights to the city and the conquering on the urban environment in a more specific ways.

Who Has the Right to the City? – Discussion with David Pinder, Pedro Soares Neves, Peter Bengtsen and Emma Arnold Nuart Plus

Artists to Start Throwing Toilets in the Streets? Why Don’t We Just Call Them “Fountains”?

Third day of the Nuart Plus conference was dedicated to Dada, commemorating the 100 years of Cabaret Voltaire and the beginning of this crucial avant-garde movement. What are the similarities between the dadaists and street artists? How are their methods compatible, how do their practices compare? The most natural answer is – destruction, since both Dada and street art seek to destroy or negate something, in order to impose a new, fresh and liberated idea.

The day started with a historical review of the phenomenon of erasure in street art, brought by Carlo McCormick. In his presentation entitled The Art of Negation: Defacement, Destruction and Erasure as an Act of Creation, this acclaimed art critic laid out a series of images that show how acts of erasing one’s artwork were, in fact, artistic statements par excellence, starting in the era of Dada and finishing with the mention of Blu, who recently destroyed his murals in Bologna as a reaction to the exhibition he did not want to be associated with.

Coming after McCormic, Evan Pricco, Jeff Gillette and Henrik Uldalen discussed the potential borders of street art. Jeff Gillette gave an intriguing talk about his practice in the slums of India and his post-apocalyptic visions embodied in the interplay with irony and the iconography borrowed from the “happiest place on Earth” – Disneyland. The poverty-striken peoples of the third world become heroes of Gillettes stories and experiences, where the powerful message can be read in the fact that they all recognize Mickey, even though they have never, and most probably will never, go to the magic kingdom of Disney. Consumerism and inequality surpass all borders and the global population is affected much more than the majority of the people is aware.

Not to leave the audience in the state of dismay, Gillette lightened the atmosphere with an anecdote on how he bombed Barely Legal, the Banksy exhibition in California held in 2006. Gillette snuck in and put up his own work amidst the exhibited ones. Even though this piece was up there for no more than half an hour, people did stop and look at it, thinking it belonged to Banksy.

Henrik Uldalen presented another end of street art practice, with a powerful personal content, without any overt engaged messages. Poignant, large in scale and highly aestheticized, Uldalen’s work deals with matters of despair, contemporary human condition, disassociation and numbness provoked by the cruel society we live in. The result is just as powerful as viewing an engaged piece of art, as these dark, beautiful murals touch the viewer in a different, more private way, despite being classified as public art.

Cat Phillips, Peter Kennard and Carlo McCormick at Nuart Plus

The Controversy of Preserving Street Art

Final speech given the third day of the conference belonged to Christian Omodeo, one of the curators of the controversial Bologna show entitled Banksy & Co.. Explaining in detail what happened at the exhibition, why the crew chose to take one of the Blu’s walls and conserve it, what was the goal and how the show was, in fact, revolutionary as the biggest street art exhibition in Italy to date. The act of taking down Blu’s wall introduced a new conservation technique and when viewed from a strictly museological point, it is in fact a good thing for art. However, the overall feeling at the conference was that the act of appropriating a wall without the artist’s consent was something the majority condemns, even though the piece was later donated to a public institution, for the people to enjoy. The arguments were in favor of temporality of street art and also the authorship of the painter, which was allegedly disrupted.

Still, the question of whether such an act was justified remains open. The viewpoints so far clash, but we are yet to see if this street-art-preservation trend will continue.

In a private conversation, Christian Omodeo mentioned that he regrets that all the media attention was given to this incident – the show was opened with the strong presence of police forces – and that there was little interest left for the exhibition, which was, in itself, a curatorial street art spectacle.

Christian Omodeo, Evan Pricco and Carlo McCormick Discussing the Controversial Show “Banksy&Co.” at Nuart Plus

What We Learned at Nuart Plus 2016

The art world in 2016 is very different than what is was only ten or even five years ago. The street art movement, urban contemporary or – Post-Street Art, as it was suggested at the Nuart Plus conference is more vibrant and diverse than ever. The expansion of this new expression now encompasses a very wide variety of styles and practices, from studio to the street and from personal commentary to direct social engagement. This new practice might not yet be ready for a proper name, but that is alright, because when now becomes history – the appropriate term will certainly appear, as it always does. Right now, instead of deliberate labeling, what we should do is discuss street art and record what is happening and most definitely – encourage artists to create, just like Nuart Festival does.

Images by Kristina Borhes, courtesy Nuart.