Painting on an abandoned building is becoming about as commonplace these days as outdoor painting must have been for the Impressionist Painters about 150 years ago. Artists like Banksy (one could hardly avoid the non-stop daily coverage of his latest graffiti tour across NYC), Favela Painting artists Haas and Hahn, and countless other lesser-known street-artists are using brick walls, bridges, highway underpasses, apartment complexes, historic monuments, and street blocks as their canvas for discreet and in-your-face artwork. Members of a relatively new genre of public street-art are getting arguably more visibility than much of the Art (with a capital A) that is still being neatly hung, installed, and displayed inside galleries and museums around the world.
A recent invitation from the Galerie Itinerrance in Paris has welcomed the contribution of over 100 street artists to turn a soon-to-be demolished apartment building into a 9-story work of art - every room being transformed by graffiti art, murals, and even full-blow installations. The temporary nature of the Paris 13 project is what makes it particularly spectacular. Most street artists create work as a public and often political statement, less concerned with the permanence of their art than with the impact it will have on those that see it and engage with it.
Many will be fortunate enough to see this social housing project before it is reduced to a pile of rubble. Glance through the pictures of room upon room – a maze of empty and once-habitable space again brought to life from the artistic vision of an international collective of artists. This really seems to be a project that was as much about giving artists a playground for their creativity as it is a public art piece.
We could read the transformation of buildings into life-sized artworks as a form of public defiance – a middle finger to the destructive and wasteful manner in which cities are often thoughtlessly built, leveled, and re-built; little concern is given to the history of a facade or the many histories residing in it’s walls. Some street artists will also site their work as a form of subversive and subliminal politics – responding to the “big brother” propaganda machine or making an ironic statement about the impact of branding, iconography, and the graphic image.
But in Paris, the Galerie Itinerrance (while allowing artists to make whatever statement they want on the building) leaves the overwhelming impression that cities can be re-imagined, owing much of their potential to the vibrant artistic output that is housed within them. Though art critics might see it as “passe” to make this type of anti-white-box statement, the more common it becomes, the more we come to expect and even delight in the artistic re-imagining of abandoned and under-utilized urban spaces. Whether street art loses it’s political edge or is invited and even publicly funded, I think deep down many revel in this harmless demonstration of “free” artistic expression – the forbidden fruit of a public building just begging to be “defaced.”