Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Underbelly 8: How Teach the Mystery and the Beauty?

I continue to read the web about and to think about The Underbelly Project. Basically, I don’t know what to make of it, and perhaps that’s the point. I don’t know.

My initial reaction, on reading the NYTimes article and seeing the photos was: COOL! I wanna see it! The article made it clear, of course, that I couldn’t see it – not for me the adventure of sneaking into a hidden space likely to be guarded by police by the time I get there. The article also indicated the contradiction inherent in framing the project as a protest against the absorption of the street into the gallery and then broadcasting the hidden art to the world. I read about that, nodded OK and moved on, propelled by the basic coolness of what Workhorse, PAC, and all the others had done.

And my sense of that coolness was rooted in the time and effort I’ve put into photographing graffiti over the past four years, mostly in a small area in Jersey City. As I said in an earlier post, I know what it’s like to encounter graffiti in a dark enclosed space. That experience is very real, very compelling to me. I felt like I was an explorer in an exotic land, perhaps the first ever to visit those ruins. And the experience certainly was real and compelling to the curators, Workhorse and PAC, and, I would imagine, to all the artists who participated.

The problem, of course, is that The Underbelly Project doesn’t make that experience available to others. It is hidden and inaccessible. It is in accessible mostly because it is illegal to go onto the property and, secondarily, because access is physically awkward. To be sure, Workhorse and PAC took steps to see that no one actually knew where the place was, but, as we’ve seen, that didn’t last long – a matter I’ll return to at the end.

Let’s set that aside for a moment and imagine, instead, that Workhorse and PAC were funded by a billionaire – make it a mysterious billionaire – who’d arranged to buy the site and to fit it out so access was easier. Now what? It all depends. But much of the mystery would be gone, even if the interior space remained much as it is. And if twenty or thirty or more people go in there at a time, well then, still more mystery is gone. Now it’s become a somewhat funky museum, or, horror of horrors! a sophisticated fun house.

It would seem, then, that the experience can’t be domesticated. It has to be wild. Not guns blazing in Afghanistan wild, or even let’s go rafting down the Colorado River wild, but somehow wild. The thing is, that’s how art itself is supposed to be, no? Wouldn’t the art on the walls do that? I don’t know, I’ve not seen it, only photos.

And now you’re beginning to see how and why I’m tying my brain in knots when I try think through this. No matter how I start thinking it through, I always end up stepping all over myself.

Out on the web I find various reactions. Some people just think it’s cool. A few of those have even made their way there. Some have come back with photos. Others have gotten arrested.

There are others for whom the only thing that matters is that the project involved a lot of trespassing over a long period of time. It’s trash. Lock ‘em up.

And then there’s the graffiti writers who are pissed at the so-called hipsters invading their turf. This particular beef is not new. It’s been around as long as street art has been getting up on walls next to graffiti. So The Underbelly Project is just another occasion to exercise this particular resentment.

One thought the writers have is that the curators shouldn’t have blabbed. They should have just done it and kept quiet. After all, the writers have their secret spots, and they don’t broadcast the locations to the world. Why can’t these hipsters do likewise?

But: could this project have been done on this basis? 

I have no idea. I imagine some would have signed up knowing that the world would never be told. But all of them? Would people have flown in from Europe, Japan, and Australia for the privilege of doing something few would ever know about and even fewer would see? I don’t know. Just as the act of painting in a Secret Cave has its own inherent attraction, so does the act telling the world: I’ve Seen Something That You Haven’t!

But those are very different pleasures. And the second one is rather unattractive. It’s rather like the pleasure of a rich money-bags who buys up Old Masters at auction – or pickled sharks and diamond encrusted skulls – only to hide them away in his Swiss chalet or his Caribbean bungalow. But is that what Workhorse and PAC are doing? Could they have gotten all those artists to sign on if this is what they were up to?

I doubt it.


And could they have gotten The New York Times and The Sunday Times to write stories if they didn’t have some ‘name’ artists, such as Ron English, Revok, Swoon, and Faile? Sure, they could have gotten my interest without those names. After all, the places I’ve gone in Jersey City haven’t been painted by those names – though I have seen a REVS-HOPE roller. And I can imagine that many of the folks on the web who’re into the Underbelly don’t really need name artists to appreciate the beauty and the mystery. But we don’t ride the assignment desk at international news rags. Those who do need more than mere beauty and mystery to justify a story. They need Something Else to assure them that what’s hidden away down there is important (in some way) and will be interesting to their readers. NAMES give them that Something Else.

That abandoned subway station over there in Brooklyn was available ten, twenty, thirty or more years ago. It would have been possible to put art down there at any time. But would it have been possible to interest those newspapers in it 10 years ago? Maybe. But not 20, 25, or 30 years ago. Not then. The conditions weren’t right.

What’s made the conditions right? Perhaps it’s the internet, which has made photos of graffiti and street art available to all. I’m sure that’s part of it. What about those galleries that have been commoditizing graffiti and street art? Have they played a role as well? I think so. And the Underbelly is supposed to somehow get us away from them. How?

And so it goes, round and round. The Underbelly website tells us: “The original entrance has since been removed and darkness has reclaimed the station. It has become an elusive pirate treasure of contemporary art.” They wrote that before word got out. I wonder what they’re thinking now? Are they going to change that ridiculous last line?

They did do it. Props to them for doing it. But they didn’t understand what they were doing. Do they now realize that? If so, how will they make use of that knowledge?

They've got our attention. Do they know how to teach the mystery and the beauty?

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