Popping In (Again)

The website for Juanele AR, the bilingual online arts magazine to which I contributed a bunch of stuff last year, went down yesterday afternoon. I worried it was gone forever — and not unreasonably; the project’s been bankrupt for months. But my fears were premature; as of this morning, it’s back.

I’ve already cross-posted most of what I wrote for Juanele on my blog, with one notable exception: a 3500-word narrative feature about a multi-day open-studio-cum-intervention in an abandoned mansion in Las Cañitas that I wanted to call “Popping In” (Juanele called it “The Energy of Open Art”). It’s long, and I already posted the opening paragraphs more than a year ago. But Juanele’s day off was an unexpectedly sharp reminder that online doesn’t mean forever, especially when it refers to the vast stretches of the interwebs beyond my control. So I hope you’ll indulge my posting the whole thing here, punctuated by a few of Andy Donohoe’s pitch-perfect photos.

[Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

Popping In
A Weekend with Poeta and the Red Bull Crew

The original idea was to blow it all up. FInd a crumbling building, assemble a group of artists, give them 72 hours to transform it — and then, kaboom.

“I wanted to remove the idea of possession,” Christian Riffel explained to me, casting his explosive fantasy in a more intellectual hue. Yet the long-disused 1930s Las Cañitas mansion doubling as backdrop for our conversation — a space suddenly teeming with a dozen artists launching into three days of creation — wasn’t going to be detonating any time soon. It was going to become a boutique hotel.

Riffel — a Buenos Aires street artist better known as Poeta — had put his initial plan on hold to organize Pop Up Galleries, the first in a series of artistic “interventions” in “unconventional” spaces. It was to be, he told me, “something very new” in a “very old house.”

Bringing together young creatives from across the visual arts spectrum — street muralists, gallery painters, a photographer, a performance artist — Pop Up Galleries gave its participants a theme (“the passage of time”), three days to work, free supplies, and their own rooms. For two of those three days, Pop Up would invite the public in to watch it all unfold. And then, after one final afternoon of public viewing, it would close its doors, leaving the art to be preserved or destroyed according to the future hotelier’s whims.

Poeta and I were standing in what felt like an impromptu supply room — a gorgeous wood-paneled salon that had weathered its years of abandonment remarkably well, and that the Pop Up crew wasn’t allowed to touch. There, sharing space with paint-splattered tarps, brushes, and a full spectrum of spray paint cans, was a small army’s worth of Red Bull promotional products waiting not to be appropriated (as street artists are wont to do) but deployed. The company’s House of Art campaign — already responsible for a two-year-old artists’ residency in Sao Paulo — was going to make its Buenos Aires debut by bringing Poeta’s vision to life.

Red Bull had given Pop Up its wings. I had come to see if it could fly.

* * *

I visited Pop Up Galleries for the first time on Thursday, the day before the project was to open to the public — a time for the artists to lay the groundwork for their pieces, to do the kind of stuff that wouldn’t be practical once dozens of visitors started traipsing through the house. The scene I encountered just beyond the front door — artists on ladders running roller brushes across soaring walls, artists at the paint stash grabbing cans and darting upstairs, artists with cameras photographing the other artists at work — was so picturesque it could have been stock film footage filed under “creative chaos.” I lingered for a minute, taking it all in as I chatted with Andy, a freelance photographer also on assignment for Juanele. Then I set off in search of artists to pester.

[Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

I had a lot to ask about. Poeta had let his enthusiasm for the Pop Up project show not in his demeanor (he spoke evenly and maintained a serious expression throughout our conversation) but in the breadth of his hopes. “There’s a huge breach between urban and gallery artists,” he had told me, and “the important thing” about Pop Up was the opportunity it offered to bridge that gap.

Promoting interaction — between street and gallery artists, and between artists of all sorts and the general public — was his first objective. It would be An invitation for artists of all sorts to watch each other in action, and a chance “to bring the public close to the work process.” The goal was as generous as it was ambitious. I wanted to know how widely it was shared.

A tall, slim 20-something man wearing a focused expression stepped into the supply room. I approached him smiling, notepad at the ready. His name was Pedro, one third of the muralist trio Triángulo Dorado.  Although the group (which also includes brother Santiago and cousin Francisco) is known for its wall-sized Arabesque villages dotting Buenos Aires’ streets, Pedro told me that isn’t satisfied with the label “street artist.” He studied painting in a traditional art school, and his idea “has always been to mix everything.” He’s naturally drawn to things that seek to smash disciplinary bounds, he told me, but he and his partners accepted Poeta’s invitation to participate in Pop Up for one simple reason: “so that the art can be seen.” And not just the final product, but the messiness behind it — something to shatter the “myth” of the finished work.

Before Pedro returned to his painting, he pointed me toward Santiago, who wanted to talk about myth, too. Making art, Santiago claimed, “isn’t an act of magic,” but when spectators look at a finished wall or canvas, they have little to point them backward down the road to finished work. So they create legends of inspiration and temperament to explain the artistic process. For Santiago, Pop Up represented a chance to replace myth with understanding, to “educate the spectator a bit.”

Triángulo at work. [Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

And the spectator, he argued, is ripe to be educated. “Many people,” he told me, pointing to Triángulo’s far-from-finished space, “want to know how these things are done.” The black-walled room would become an “atemporal environment,” creating a “climate of reflection” where visitors could watch Triángulo build a universe while contemplating their own. I glanced at the still-blank walls and made a mental note to come back.

Heading upstairs, I found Jaz (Franco Fasoli) — another traditional art student turned reluctant-to-pigeonhole-himself-as-street artist — at work on a giant multi-color spray paint elephant. He was excited to be able to work in such a “nontraditional place,” he told me, and he was eager for visitors to arrive the next day, because “contact with people is fun to me.” It’s why he’s (basically) a street artist. But I wasn’t processing his words quite like I should have been. The smell of spray paint so dominated Jaz’ poorly ventilated room that I was getting dizzy, and I was trying to decide whether I liked it or not. I guess Jaz must’ve; he wasn’t wearing a mask.

As Jaz turned back to his elephant, I walked through the side door and into a room thick with paint odors of the non-aerosol kind. There, Maximiliano Aduki and John McCam were busy at work, painting the salon’s high walls a crisp white. These two didn’t have any trouble labeling themselves; they’re gallery artists, they told me, and two months ago they joined forces under the banner of Mar del Plata, the city of their birth.

Max and John have an easy rapport, and talking to them I quickly realized not just that they’re unusually articulate, but that their verbal and artistic lexicon is of exactly the kind that four years in a U.S. art museum trained me to understand. They told me they wanted to “generate a counterpoint” to the much more modern, “urban” aesthetic taking hold of the rest of the house. By doing the room up in high Mar del Plata style — emulating the rich aesthetic of the seaside city’s heyday as beach resort for the Argentine elite — John and Max would “return to the original house,” “revaluing” it in all of its “ostentation.” Yet more than a simple return, the space would also be “a bit of a parody of a gallery,” a sterile white-walled room optimized for the critical and dignified consideration of capital-A Art. I was thinking clearly again.

I stepped out and climbed a winding set of tight, violently colorful stairs to the top floor, the only part of the house I had yet to see. The doors to the two upstairs rooms were closed, and as I turned to pass back through the stairway’s unruly swathes of blue, red, and yellow on my way to the front door, Dardo Malatesta (Dario Suarez) came up the stairs. Co-founder of the influential street art gallery Hollywood in Cambodia and a familiar face at Juanele, he has the sort of commanding presence that suggests he’s about to say something definitive.

Malatesta told me he signed onto the project because “I just like to paint with friends”, and he’d been given the most awkward space in the house (the stairway I had just ascended). Challenged by the tight corners and sloped ceiling, he furloughed his sense of discipline, streaking the golden-yellow-base walls with broad, wild brushstrokes of color. He was going to fill some of this space with stencils (of a man mowing the lawn, for example) and posters (like one pleading for the return of a lost dog), almost randomly. It would be appropriate, he told me, because “time doesn’t exist as a line.” It’s a collection of distinct scenes and moments, and it’s different for every person. He hoped visitors would ask him about it as he worked over the weekend. He was sure they’d be excited; “the painting process,” he says, “is magic.” (His room wasn’t going to look much like Santiago’s, I figured).

I thanked Malatesta for his thoughts and headed back downstairs. Most of the house was sitting momentarily idle; the artists were hanging out in the supply room, smoking and watching Poeta, in blue overalls, balancing at the top of a ladder as he painted the ceiling of his room dark brown. I waved goodbye and stepped outside, taking a deep breath. I could hardly smell anything toxic anymore.

Jaz. [Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

I thought back to Jaz’ elephant, to the aerosol fumes emanating from it in waves, and I couldn’t help but be struck by just how deeply I had been invited into the weekend’s process of creation. And it wasn’t just me. Sure, Jaz told me he was going to finish his spraypainting Thursday night and spend the rest of the weekend pasting watercolor elephants to the other walls. But while subsequent visitors might not go woozy, they’d still be watching something the general public isn’t ordinarily invited to see. It’s an uncommon sort of generousness, I thought, and it left me feeling good.

* * *

Sitting on the 152, idling at a red light, I turned from the seat I’d been lucky enough to snag and looked out the window. My mind was 30 minutes behind me, still in Pop Up Galleries, and I was hardly paying attention to the bustling street scene beyond the bus. Then something caught my eye. The gigantic flat-screen TV in Frávega’s front window was broadcasting a flight competition taking place over the River Douro in Porto, and all the competing planes were branded with two red bulls facing off before a bright yellow sun. It was footage from one of the Red Bull Air Races held in Portugal between 2007 and 2009. I had seen clips of these before. Maybe it’d sell some TVs.

The too-well-timed-to-be-fiction Air Race was at the forefront of my mind as I approached Pop Up Galleries’ Red Bull-sponsored party on Saturday night. Poeta had mentioned it offhand on Thursday afternoon, and I’d shamelessly invited myself, sensing a chance to observe the Pop Up crew with its guard down.

Inside the house, the party was like a high-end gallery opening, but cooler and more relaxed. Groups of pretty, well-dressed 20- and 30-somethings circulated through the freshly painted rooms, talking loudly and occasionally pausing to take in the art. Upstairs, on the first-floor deck, Maximilian held court as young women with big cameras snapped Page Six-style photos. The top floor, closed on Thursday afternoon, had been totally transformed, with a Mart-installed room chock full of childhood artifacts at the back and a dark-room performance by Estudio Tokyo off to the side.

Mart’s room. [Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

As Pop Up started to fill, its tight stairways and narrow doorframes became bottlenecks, and the house began to feel more and more like the beer-soaked parties in crowded old houses I had known so well back in Boston. Except this one was classier, and there wasn’t any beer.

Instead, there was Red Bull. Lots and lots — veritable mountains, as they say here — of Red Bull. Inside the house, Red Bull had a clear presence. A few Red Bull promoters were circulating to offer guests a can, and two small glass-fronted refrigerators invited visitors to grab one themselves. But it was the sort of brand promotion that one could tune out easily enough.

The house’s exterior, however, was another story altogether. A silver and blue VW Beetle mounted with an oversize Red Bull can had been parked in front of the house, and at the door, red logo-adorned bracelets were gratuitously slapped on all party-going wrists.

In the backyard garden, the place where the party was really happening, the marketing reached fever pitch. Framing cocktail-sipping fashionistas and casually dressed, cigarette-smoking artists was an entire universe of corporate promotion. Celebrity DJ Zeta Bosio (bassist for Soda Stereo) spun from behind a Red Bull DJ table. Blue Red Bull umbrellas sheltered chest-high tables in the slender cylindrical shape of Red Bull cans. Beneath a giant metal Red Bull logo, Red-Bull shirted women served Red Bull cocktails. (“Red Bull con vodka o Campari?” they’d ask; the Italian bitters manufacturer was another sponsor.) Copies of The Red Bulletin (yes, The Red Bulletin) lay scattered about. The fantastical, swirling tree that the artist Roma had painted on the back of the house was illuminated, like the rest of the garden, by lights the color of which can only be described as Red Bull Red.

“It’s a sort of necessary evil,” Jaz said of all this marketing, and I knew what he meant. After all, he explained, the company’s sponsorship “hasn’t influenced me at all,” beyond providing the financial support that enabled him to spend the past three days painting elephants. Red Bull didn’t require any of these artists to change anything about their work. And without the company’s support, as large-scale an event as Pop Up Galleries almost certainly wouldn’t have taken place.

Corporate sponsorship of the arts is hardly a new phenomenon, as anyone who has ever visited an art museum knows. Enter a major cultural institution and you’ll be hard pressed to find a water fountain without a sponsor’s name attached. This dynamic has clearly benefited arts groups as well as corporations — a Google search for “corporate sponsorship of the arts” turns up just as many museum solicitations for corporate dollars as it does criticisms of our money-soaked cultural climate.

This same eagerness to solicit corporate contributions was evident among many of the Pop Up contributors, too. “To me it seems like a positive thing to have Red Bull’s support,” John (of Mar del Plata) told me. “It’s good for the brand,” and anyway, he observed, works of art are already products. “We want more sponsors!” Max added, his tone of voice somewhere between self-satirizing and earnest.

And it’s not an unsophisticated position to take. Poeta — who has long had a relationship with Red Bull — told me frankly that he recognized two advantages in partnering with the beverage manufacturer: its financial support made organizing the event possible, and the company’s reputation as a sponsor of “unconventional” things had the potential to draw a wider public to the event. Poeta wasn’t content to serve as a passive promotional tool; he was, in fact, putting Red Bull to use in service of his own artistic ends.

Poeta. [Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

But watching Red Bull use Pop Up Galleries’ non-traditional artistic cred to polish its own corporate image still made me wince. It’s not that I have anything against Red Bull. Unquestionably, building an unconventional brand is something the Austria-based beverage maker — sponsor of scores of off-beat Flugtags and Air Races — does extraordinarily well. I didn’t have to travel far to see the Red Bull’s reputation in action. When I had asked Dario whether he objected to the company’s sponsorship, he told me no, it’s not like it was McDonalds or Coca Cola writing the check. “What’s the difference?” I pressed. “My friends hate McDonalds,” he answered. Red Bull is cooler.

Perhaps my discomfort stems from a sense that more than most artistic production, street art has often sought to challenge existing power dynamics, to provide an alternative to hyper-commercialized gallery culture. Its long tradition of co-opting and debasing symbols of corporate power seems ill-at-ease with the whole concept of corporate sponsorship, with the idea that a work of art can brandish corporate reputations at the same time that it advances a cultural critique. In the age of the street-art celebrity, of hit Banksy movies and of US$1350 Shepard Fairey prints, perhaps the Red Bull garden party extravaganza shouldn’t have surprised me. But still it did.

Surely Pop Up Galleries’ expansive premise sits somewhere near the core of my unease. Tracing it back, I’m drawn to Max’s observation that the work of art is already a commodity. The work may be, yes, but the very act of working? Pop Up promised an intimate window into the creative process, revealing a remarkable faith in the power of artistic creation as an act rather than an outcome. It was an opportunity to see “magic” unfold. And, of course, to watch a multinational beverage company try to translate that magic into a bounce for its brand.

Of course, none of this is meant to imply that the Pop Up team in any way betrayed themselves or their ideals by teaming up with Red Bull. Maybe the company’s sponsorship is nothing more than a testament to the “mainstreaming” of street art, of its movement from marginal form to artistic commodity. And anyway, if presented with a similar opening, I’m sure that I, too, would push right on through. But that doesn’t make it any less deflating to find a corporate flag planted in yet another corner of our cultural map.

* * *

One a.m., and the party was far from over. With my notebook nearly full and the music still pounding, I went in search of a second drink. The small Campari kiosk at the front of the garden had closed for the night, but the much larger bar at the back was still serving. I asked for a screwdriver; I could see the bottles of vodka and orange juice off to the side. But it was not a valid choice.

“Sólo con Red Bull,” the woman in the tight logo-breasted T-shirt told me. I wasn’t happy — caffeine gets me going, and I hadn’t been planning to stay out too long — but I smiled anyway as I signaled my assent. It was a beautiful night and, hell — I’d just have to take what I could get.

* * *

I returned on Sunday, two hours before Pop Up Galleries was to close for good, to find to find the house calm but still in action. A group of young gallery-goers was relaxing out front, while another dozen or so were milling around inside, scattered among the spaces. In what had previously been the supply room, photos of the past days’ events shot by Whiskii (Juan Zevallos) flashed across a large projector screen as bongo-heavy tropical music thumped in the background. The only light in the room came from the late afternoon sun just barely illuminating the half-open stained-glass window onto the garden. The cumulative effect was a mood both pensive and charged — an odd combination that seemed right for Pop Up.

Whiskii, at the top of Malatesta’s stairs. [Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]

Eager to see how one of the most promising installations had turned out, I crossed the threshold into Triángulo Dorado’s space. It had assumed a form I couldn’t have anticipated three days before. As religious as it was spatial and contemplative, the room had become — above all else — strikingly beautiful. One black wall was now home to a crowded village of colorful, nearly windowless buildings, evoking medieval European depictions of Middle Eastern cities. Another was dominated by a cloud-like mass of white dots and a third by planet-esque spheres connected by zig-zagging lines. Arabic-style gold lettering punctuated the remaining wall space. Off to the side was a knee-high table with six stylized heads straight from Easter Island. Around the edge of this altar lay small stacks of cards marked Triángulo Dorado — the gods of their own miniature universe.

Upstairs, Mar del Plata’s installation — among my favorites from the start — had also come into its own. The space itself was beautiful in its crisp blue-and-white simplicity; it had indeed been, as the duo had promised, “revalued.” A tall fern spouted from an open drawer in one wall’s built-in chest, and in the center of the room, a gorgeously textural fungus-infested piece of wood sat, smelly and rotting, on a gold spray-painted table marked off from the rest of the room by a thin rectangle of masking tape stuck to the floor. Many visitors, Max told me, had been unable to figure out the installation’s exact barriers; many thought it included only the tape-bounded table, while others wanted to know whether specific elements (The fern? The chandelier?) were “part of the work.” Max delighted in these conversations, and for good reason — they’re a testament to just how expertly the piece played Pop Up Galleries’ unusual format. Mar del Plata is a pair to watch.

I stepped out of their room and peered through Malatesta’s stairway to Triángulo’s space below. For the first time, there were no energy drinks in sight.

[Photo by Andy Donohoe for Juanele AR.]


1 thought on “Popping In (Again)

  1. Dear Sir,
    Some weeks ago – on 03.04.2012 – I left comment on your blog and I would very much appreciate a quick status update.

    I’m looking forward to your response.
    Kind regards,
    Malte Zeeck

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