I WANT TO BREAK FREE…

I seem to have been involved with “walls” all of my life — both literal and metaphorical. How I ended up curating them instead of behind them I’m not quite sure — they always seemed to represent a challenge, and I like a challenge. This is a little story about a few of those walls and how they’ve impacted on my life so far.

I’ve been working on a theory recently about how the professional cultural class employed in “nonprofit” institutions have, like cultural bureaucrats in public art before them, started stripping visual art of any of its subversive potential, filing down its fangs — primarily and possibly unconsciously, in the fear that it may get hungry and turn on them one day. Can there be any other reason for the art establishment waiting until our uncouth heroes, critical of the establishment, are dead before granting them access to the hallowed halls of fame? Basquiat’s debut London show, Boom for Real, took place just last year, and only this year will we see a significant expo on urban philosopher and proto afrofuturist Rammellzee, courtesy of his estate and Red Bull, the Medici’s of cool. Do we have to wait for the likes of Futura, Saber and John Fekner to shuffle from this mortal coil before gaining rightful institutional recognition?

Here in Norway, curator and head of the art fund for the Norwegian Arts council, Geir Haraldseth, went out hard in Art in America (of all places) against Nuart’s practice and street art in general — situating it sneeringly alongside developments in “urban fashion” and demographically alongside local Porsche Cayanne devotees. He presented a carefully crafted comic book caricature of Frankfurt School thinking, a spectacle of bad taste was washing through the city and you better watch out less it affects the city’s cultural capital. The article won him plaudits amongst the local art set and led shortly after to the announcement that Nuart’s government funding was to be “phased out”. Quelle surprise.

It took me a while to process where the attack was coming from, what was driving it, and why would an otherwise powerful and privileged cultural bureaucrat working in visual art use his platform to undermine the enormous upsurge of interest in art that street and urban contemporary art has driven. Surely this would lead to increased attendance from a broader demographic at museums and institutions. And then it clicked. I’ve forgotten my Bordieu of course, but they don’t really want diversity and broader access. They build and inhabit walls to keep the riffraff out, not bridges to invite them in. The unfettered expansion of the neo liberal art institution has created a middle class monoculture that they’re now very comfortable in, one where a too black face, a too loud voice, or an unscripted dance disrupts the white walled safe space like a glass of cheap wine dropped during the opening speech. They have created an exclusionary zone away from food stamps and frozen chips and dirty fingernails and booze and bad sex and even greater sex and motor oil and cheap speed and kebabs and dirty basement techno and those champions of the ordinary such as Vermeer and Duchamp and Caravaggio and yes, a space away from art, away from life. Ordinary heroic, getting up on a wall, dodging the third rail life. Contemporary Art has been sterilised. Artists unconsciously neutered by state funded career curators. We know little of curators, of the exhibitions midwives, of what lives they lead and needs they have, but it would seem they are now determined to use their accrued cultural capital, to curtail the challenge of street art, of art in the streets. In a time when mediocrity, conformity and safety rules, when everybody is going to the artfair, we need to look to the margins to discover, paraphrasing critic Gregory Sholette, the “delirium and resistance” that unsanctioned public expression brings.

I saw a short promotional video on the BBC of artist Ciaren Globel, a Scottish Steve Powers if you will. He mentioned the difficulty he had in calling himself an artist. Calling yourself an artist was, “a bit wanky” he said, adding, but “possibly not as wanky as artisan.” Needless to say, I booked him immediately. But still, it was this typical use of humour that in reality masks an issue that if resolved, I thought could potentially solve many of the world’s problems, and possibly prevent the march of the right, and if the evening news is to be believed, pending nuclear annihilation. The solution? The simple broadening of the terms art and artist, the expanding of our definitions — thus removing the sense of working class white collar shame that comes with repeating the words outside of the comfort of your own home. Diluting that “imposter syndrome” we feel when class jumping.

Now I’m not saying that there is a secret cabal of cultural elites that are dedicated to delegitimizing the cultural contribution of the working class to contemporary art, that exist in opposition to the vernacular (ok, there is), but there is certainly a set of predetermined art historical and cultural biases attached to the terms “art” and “artist” that make it difficult for ordinary people to employ them, to speak them, let alone engage with them. In order to retain their position within the cultural hierarchy, these prejudices are of course maintained by the art establishment. These guardians of the canon perpetuate the myth that only a select few adherents with special talents and understanding can participate in the making of art, and that vast bureaucracies are required to fund, police and administrate it. The truth, as you know, is quite different. Artists and curators are not “special” people, are not in fact closer to god the creator or even John the Revelator for that matter. Most artists are just like you and me — working class people with working class concerns, who worry about paying the bills, who get up at 7 and work til 5, and like a drink or two on the weekend.

So how did we get here, and how do we get from the old to the new?

My older brother modeled himself on a cross between Magnum P.I and Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of Queen. The shadow of a moustache growing on his top lip gave him the confidence of a bully on coke, my brother that is, not Freddy. I was 13 and already a prodigious shoplifter — the road to juvenile detention center and eventually jail was already lit up like some hyper-real runway, vast neon arrows flashing “prison this way” down the center. I bought Tommy Boy 12 inch singles and practiced body popping in front of a broken cupboard mirror. I hated Queen — if I was going to jail I was taking the future with me.

Freddie Mercury was dressed in drag doing the housework in a pop video, “I want to breeeeeak free” he crooned, “I want to breeeeeeak free”. And then he gave a saucy wink. Something snapped, I twigged, there was a literal and liberal tear in the fabric of society — Freddie was gay. The moustache wasn’t a symbol of masculine virility after all, not at least as recognised on working class council estates. It was in fact a radical piss take. A challenge to a generation taught that art and culture were somehow effeminate, that you had to grow a moustache to be a man. That my burgeoning interest in dancing and art, through break dancing and graffiti, was somehow a lesser form of being than wearing a leather jacket and riding a motorbike. Rockers. I hated rockers. My rocker brother was looking at me in that “knowing what was coming” way. I rolled off the sofa laughing, cackled “you’re a homo” whilst doing a little dance in my stockinged feet. His face flushed with anger, “come er you, you little fucker.” But I was too quick for him. Out the door, around the back and over the wall before he’d made the kitchen. I peeked over the wall to see him look around and go back inside. Click. I heard the door lock. He’d be clean-shaven the next day and a little less authoritarian. Out with the old, in with the new. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

I climbed up onto the wall. I spent a lot of time as an adolescent sitting on walls, hiding behind them, playing football or cricket against them, writing on them, making out against them, eventually marking the days off on them. Dasein. Shortly I’d be arrested for putting paint on them. Like a Maasai warrior face painting his way into adulthood on the Kenyan plains, the arrest would demark a point of no return. A transition from the “childhood mistakes” of earlier court appearances to wilful and serious criminal damage. It would be a while yet before a passion for destruction became a creative joy.

The arrest was also the first time a full grown adult man, a policeman no less, had punched me full in the face, confirming an already slow-burning-from-birth distrust of authority. It didn’t help that the wall my schoolmate (R.I.P) and I had just drunkenly covered in 50 foot of handprints in white emulsion was on a Government building overlooking the police station. It probably also didn’t help that we inadvertently caused thousands of pounds of damage to the police car that had quietly rolled up whilst we were busy with our handiwork. Granted, BMW Artcar it was not, and our laughable attempt to evade capture by crawling as quickly as he could through upturned buckets of white paint didn’t help matters. Six months later, a disproportionate fine plus damages to remove the paint, in addition to 12 months probation would be the result of said artwork. The non-payment of the fine and the lack of attendance at the probation office would inevitably lead, some months later, to my first spell behind bars. The walls, like the prison guards, were Victorian and huge. I’d just turned 15. You could see the faded handprints on that wall for almost a decade after, like ghostly melancholic signs from another time signalling, this is where childhood ends.

Art critic Dave Hickey has split the world into pirates and farmers. He tells how farmers build walls and control territory, how pirates rip down fences and cross borders. Many pirates recognise the good work that farmers do, but farmers always hate pirates. I don’t really remember the blow from the policeman that was delivered in the elevator whilst going to be booked in — how it actually felt — but what struck me, apart from his fist of course, was the sheer look of fury on his face as he delivered it. A farmer, a shoot your dog and burn the horses in their stalls, pirate hating farmer. I began to slowly realise they were EVERYWHERE, and they were quick to prosecute when boundaries were transgressed by marauding hustlers of culture. The punch now replaced by a “phasing out” of funds.

Street Art is now being challenged — shut down by the persuasive architectures of institutional authoritarianism, undermined by the cultural elite, sidelined as a hipster pastime, and presented as Williamsburg wallpaper used instrumentally to gentrify vast swathes of run down real estate. But dig a little deeper. If you’re now questioning the validity of Street Art, of its power to build communities that celebrate the true expanse of creative possibilities, ask yourself why? Who wants you to think this way?

The most direct route between art and the public, unmediated by government funded institutions or career ladder curators with a stake in the game and a finger in the pie, is the wall in public space. They build them, we paint them. Together. There’s a radical commonality to recognizing and accepting street art as part of everyday life, of not separating and managing the wonder of art, but accepting and exulting the very ordinariness of it, those ordinary creations exploring our extraordinary lives.

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