Sunday, 8 February 2009

Fairey Tale

Shepard Fairey, the creator of the Obama HOPE image, and artist behind the OBEY street art, was arrested in Boston on Friday night at the opening of his new exhibition at the ICA.

He was arrested for outstanding warrants for damage to public property, a charge he has already faced 15 times. In addition to his arrest, a new concern must be his attorneys ongoing discussions with the associated press over the use of their image as the inspiration for the Obama poster. They want credit and compensation.

Shepard Fairy talks about his poster for Obama

His work is all over the streets in Boston and Cambridge, in a combined gallery/stealth/sponsored street campaign – similar to the Tate Modern exhibition of street artists last summer. My understanding is there are commissioned works on the streets of Chinatown sponsored in part by the gallery and part by the local business association as well as a number of major pieces that have gone up in secrecy over the two cities in the last few months. One giant piece I noticed on construction hoarding in Cambridge was taken down the next day – my assumption was that it was removed due to its controversial imagery – I have since heard rumor that the owner of the construction site was notified that it might be worth something...

I’m not sure how I feel about that guy profiting from what was meant to be a public piece of art. Yet I see that it was clearly his property to do with what he chooses.

The value of street art as a commodity raises an interesting conversation - The infamy of Banksy, his recognition as a mainstream artist and a cache of celebrity buyers, has pushed street art into legitimate and sellable art form. This has had a game changing effect. No longer is a mural seen as a nuisance to be washed off, now its seen as a gift to be protected (many Banksys across London are protected by sheets of plastic screening), a value add (in the case of the Liverpool pub a Banksy mural was auctioned with the building thrown in!), or an opportunity to pilfer and profit (pieces of wall removed with angle grinders and the stolen piece auctioned on ebay for twenty thousand pounds). They have become tourist attractions with Banksy tours and guidebooks to the city available.

Yet the location of these pieces, outdoors and all weather, painted and postered and usually publicly accessible, make them at their core, transient and temporary. Somehow the protection of these public pieces seems false, and people profiting from them seems unfair. That said, the Last Supper was painted on a wall made, in part, of beaten earth, and if that hadn’t been protected and maintained, we would be missing one of the worlds great artworks.

So what’s best? Protect and preserve the works artificially? or let them fade, be defaced, and lose them to the rigors of the public realm?

Now, in addition to stealth bombing works, there seems to be growing opportunity for artists to partner with local governments, business associations and developers to place artworks in public open air galleries and sanctioned spaces.

The Brisbane City Council Electricity Box program has been running since the late 90’s/early 2000's (?) and is a great example of local government providing a public gallery space for artists that has been a launching pad for many rising Australian art stars.

Mentioned above, in Summer 08, London’s Tate Modern partnered with Nissan Quashqai to host a group of international street artists in an exhibition that extended beyond the gallery to the facade of the building and the surrounding streets. Like the current Fairey exhibition, the artists extended their reach even further out into the city with pieces located all over the city.

A short film by one of the featured artists: Muto by Blu

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

Quashqai Ad

The Quashqai campaign claimed the urban environment as its playground – an increasingly common theme in advertising – see anything by Sony Bravia, or just about anybody working in mobile. As mobile and locative applications increase in usability, the extension of new and interesting urban applications is enormous.

As an urban designer and community builder, I am super positive about any message that challenges people to more meaningfully engage in the world around them, that challenges citizens to use the public spaces of our cities, and that engages in active political discussion about how our urban environments grow and evolve.

With ongoing cooperation between artists and designers, big business, local governments and business associations there is great opportunity to implement exciting collaborations that challenge people to adventure and exploration. The chance for artists to access meaningful funding opportunities is also an added and often overlooked necessity.

With creative visionaries like Sheppard Fairey exploring new ways of working across industries and funding platforms he is leading a charge of artistic enterprise and political dialogue. By engaging artistically, politically and publicly he is reaching out to a more engaged world. Lets hope he can sort out his legal issues asap!

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