A Weekend With the Street Art Set

I’ve grown quite fond of Buenos Aires’ street art scene–it’s young, energetic, and ever-welcoming, and many of its members have developed critical but sophisticated approaches to the encroaching commercial art world. Two weekends ago, I made several trips to an old oxygen factory to watch a group of artists transform it. I recorded some first impressions in an earlier post; here’s a longer take on the event, published on Juanele’s site this morning.

* * *

“But you have to eat it,” Katrin Richter insisted as she lifted the last slice of pizza toward me. I had refused once before; I felt awkward eating the pizza that I had watched the heavily pregnant event organizer labor over for a half hour as we chatted about her latest invention, Street ArteBA 2011. The pizza wasn’t really meant for me, the random writer who had parachuted in to this teeming former oxygen factory a few hours before. It was for the more than 40 street artists gathered there to paint.

But Kat insisted, and I gave in, taking a big bite. As pizza, it was pretty good; as a symbol of the generosity and openness of the street art community here in Buenos Aires, impeccable.

I spent a good five hours at Oxygena (as the old factory is called) this past weekend, taking in the sights, sounds, and—occasionally—tastes of BA’s latest public street art venture. Having already put together five successful events, including an outdoor 100-artist Puerto Madero paint-in that the group claims to have attracted more than a thousand visitors, Kat and her artist friends partnered with the BA-based Fundación Rozeblum to bring Street ArteBA’s 2011 open studio to life.

A semi-official companion to arteBA a few neighborhoods away, Street ArteBA was both a chance for muralists and graffiti artists from Argentina and beyond to collaborate on the transformation of a fantastic industrial space, and an opportunity to “play” intelligently on the conventions of the Buenos Aires gallery world at perhaps its most ebullient moment of the year. For the past three years, Fundación Rosenblum has held a high-profile arteBA-timed open studio in the towering building that once housed the oxygen factory’s offices. The open house shows off the work produced by the international group of gallery artists in its affiliated URRA Residency program. This past weekend, for a second consecutive year, Street ArteBA has brought arte callejero into the mix by inviting a diverse group of artists to adorn the other, more industrial half of the building with colorful tags, caricatured historical scenes, and everything in between. After a week of painting punctuated by occasional public visits (the entire process was open to anyone who wanted to drop by), the Street ArteBA space was opened to the VIP invitados to this past Saturday’s Fundación Rozenblum event.

Artists who paint in vivo, muralists who bridge the street-gallery gap, graffiti artists who tag in bold, unconventional colors — all were invited to participate in an event that elevated collaboration to a core value. Participants came from all over — beyond porteños, there were artists from Mendoza, Mar del Plata, Rosario, Paraguay, Brazil, Ecuador, and France. When I asked the artists I came across why they wanted to participate, every response included some variation on this themes of diversity and joint effort. “I think it’s good to share with others,” one told me. “It seemed cool to bring together 20 or 30 street artists and talk with people from other countries,” another said.

The goal of artistic community was at the forefront of the week’s events. Little details like homemade pizza, participants told me, made Street ArteBA more than just a place to paint. They fed a vibe that facilitated joint projects, like a wall shared between La Wife (Marianela Leguizamon) and Matias Nose that “came out of nowhere” (or more accurately, as Matias explained, out of a space-allocation-misunderstanding-turned-partnership). There was nothing but earnestness, I could tell, in this post-event congratulatory note posted to Facebook: “It doesn’t matter what name the event or the show has, the names of all of you guys. What matters to us is that we could do this together and have fun.”

Fun and togetherness aside, though, titles matter as much in the art world as anywhere — something evident in Street ArteBA’s very own name. “It’s very cheeky,” Kat told me, and I agree. It’s an ever-so-slightly self-satirizing play on the Argentine art scene’s most orthodox annual event and a clever move for an open studio aiming, according to its press release, “to build a bridge between the world of the artist and that of the museum, gallerist, and collector.”

As much in its name as in the attitudes of its contributors, Street ArteBA struck me as a considered response to the rapid “mainstreaming” of urban art. No doubt, commercialization is transforming street art, in Buenos Aires and globally. In 2011, no one is surprised to find street art on the walls of high-end galleries or major museums — or, as this past weekend’s Puma Urban Art Fest indicates, important Recoleta cultural centers. A gallery show, Kat explained to me, is a new goal for many artists who work in the street.

Though this may imply a change of form for the street art community, it need not imply a loss. “Gallery culture can be used intelligently,” La Wife told me, “it can change people’s perspectives on street art, show it’s not vandalism.”

Street ArteBA’s tagline is “Art in the Street vs. the Street in Art.” It reminds us that, at its best, street art can embody a set of values — the inclusion of marginalized voices, openness to public participation, a commitment to process as much as product — deeply needed in the commercial art world.

Ambitious as this vision is, the gulf that separates the “indoor” and street spheres remains — something I could see firsthand even at Fundación Rozenblum’s “bridge-building” open studio on Saturday night. Street and gallery artists and their admirers may have been sharing a building, but they weren’t really sharing an opening. The street set kept largely to their half of the building, the VIP-opening clique to theirs. Surprised to see a favorite street muralist on the gallery side, I asked him for his thoughts about the evening. “There isn’t much mixing,” he said. “But you’re here on this side,” I replied. He pointed to the bar — there wasn’t one in the street-art half — and clarified: “I’m just here to get a drink.”

When I asked Kat what would happen to the works of these 40-some artists after Saturday night’s gala, she told me she wasn’t sure, but that the group might try to use the space for a series of public art events. I certainly hope they do. Urban art has a lot to offer the gallery world — and the Street ArteBA crew has its work cut out for it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s