Blu, an Argentine-born street artist based in Italy and active across the world, is one of the best-known and most inventive artists to emerge from this country’s thriving street scene. (Hell, he even has his own in-depth Wikipedia page.) He’s done lots of cool stuff, but to my mind, none of it is more impressive than his stop motion animation. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s Muto, a gargantuan effort undertaken here in Buenos Aires in 2008-09. (If you like it, you’ll find much more to love on the video page of his website.)
A few weeks ago, a crew of some of BA’s top local street artists turned one of the Centro’s blandest bank branches into a colorful fantasyscape, the opening event in a city-wide urban art competition. For a gallery of much better photos by Andy Donohoe, check out my original post on Juanele’s blog.
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Scaffolding and supplies had arrived late, so Buenos Aires street artists Poeta, Corona, Gone, and Roma acutely felt the pressure to finish before Tuesday afternoon’s press opening. Told they’d be given two full days to complete the giant collaborative mural for Fundación Itaú’s unremarkable bank branch at the corner of Bartolomé Mitre and Suipacha, the team found they would have closer to half that time.
When 5 PM rolled around, three of the four — Corona, Gone, and Roma — were still at work. Only Poeta had finished his part. As artists frantically sprayed and shaded the façade, inside the bank officials from sponsor Fundación Itaú, a new street art NGO called Estilo Libre (Free Style), and Buenos Aires City celebrated the results of their still-unfolding efforts.
More than a face lift for a building in need, this project was Estilo Libre’s introduction to the city, and a high-profile way for it to announce its first major project: an Itaú-sponsored competition that will assign prime city wall space to 70 aspiring painters, with big cash awards for the murals judged to be best. The group, a collaboration between eleven artists and a bunch of professional types, has high hopes for strengthening urban artistic expression in Buenos Aires, with plans to host a local Meeting of Styles event in October and dreams of an eventual BA street academy.
It’s not hard to understand why Itaú chose this particular branch to make over — prior to Tuesday, it was a giant, bland white cube, unadorned except for the orange-and-blue Itaú signage on both street-facing facades–a terribly unimpressive companion to the delightful, mosaic-laced Iglesia de San Miguel just across Bartolomé Mitre. Now, thanks to Corona, Gone, Poeta, and Roma, it’s the liveliest building on the block. The four street artists made excellent work of the few hours they were given.
Poeta’s jazzy tropicalia monster, visible along Suipacha, is undoubtedly one of his coolest creations. (“I’m a person that likes time pressure,” he told me, and I believe him.) At its edge, Poeta’s cool palate welcomes the orange and brown accents of Corona’s multicolored vertical village, a departure from the artist’s usual twisty, interlocking forms and long-faced figures. On Bartolomé Mitre, Gone’s grey lizard faces down a bionic explosion of geometric patterns and scaly tentacles a la Roma. Overall, the mural is surprisingly coherent without feeling forced or homogenized. Its common palate of colors and a shared fluidity of forms suggest four distinct hands working in something close to one rhythm.
Unlike some of the city’s more tenuous street art, this mural has an air of permanence. Its colors seem almost richer for it, though that’s probably just in my head. Either way, the project is the best thing to happen to Suipacha since peatonalización.
A few weeks ago, Juanele invited Pol Corona–an up-and-comer in BA’s street art scene with a first name equal to mine in the Argentine pronunciation–to paint a mural in San Telmo. Alejandro Armaleo and the ever-impressive Axel Byrfors capture him at work in this excellent video:
For more about Corona, check out Rick Powell’s recent profile of an artist in action.
The last two weeks have been very busy–I’d been rushing to finish up a revision of one of my DAIA articles, due this past Friday–and I’ve let the blog slip a bit. But with the article submitted, I’m back in the game! I’ll try to post a few new things this week, hopefully another entry in the Pa’l Norte series about my trip to northwestern Argentina and something about Bartolme Mitre of two-peso-note fame, to launch the History by the Bill series I’ve been excited to write for a few weeks now.
But first, some catch-up. An interview I did with Federico Vazquez Villarino, aka comic and street artist Bla Bla Buto, went up on Juanele last week. I’ve pulled a few questions and responses and posted them below; you can read the full interview here.
Fede: The truth is pretty boring. I needed to have a mask, like an excuse. Sometimes I get tired of myself and I invent new characters. And sometimes I get tired of the new characters and I come up with other new ones. Bla Bla Buto came off a wall, actually. I drew a shape and above the shape I drew a line that ended up being a nose, then some glasses, a bald oval, and I said, What is this? Why is this there? He wants to come out more often, many of them, I’ve made a ton of them, they want to invade everything.
Really it was a mark, like the majority of graffiti artists write their name, with changed letters, and for me, it was eliminating the letters and putting up a character, a face.
F: Eh, ha ha. I don’t know…
J: For example, “Don Pepe,” or “Can I take a piss in the street?”
F: What happens is that the littlest things sometimes become very important depending on how you look at them. I’m passing through a stage when I like the more insignificant things and, like, yeah, absurd stories, where nothing happens. But I think it’s a stage.
J: The art that you make seems to have very little to do with the commercial art world. Did you reject it deliberately?
F: I have a marked tendency to make comics and in a very caricatured style, and this doesn’t fit so well with the formal market. Lamentably I think the fault is Argentina’s, that there isn’t more room for cartoonists. In Japan, people who draw comics are accepted as workers just as much as carpenters are. The craft is basically at the same level. And me, I do it because I don’t have any other option. Also it’s a little bit of an ideological posture, I don’t worry about the things that the market values. I do my own thing, I do what I know how to do and what my craft is and it hasn’t worked out too badly.
J: Does it make sense to talk about a “community” of cartoonists here in Buenos Aires?
F: Yeah, there are lots of cartoonists, and they’re very good, but there aren’t comic books, there aren’t publishers, and it’s a shame because everyone’s afraid except the illustrators, who keep doing what they do, and very well. There are many fanzines and they’re very good, but the majority of illustrators that I like do more small-scale work, they publish their stuff online and the circle of people who like this stuff stays pretty closed. I think the big crash is going to come and a comic strip is going to come out that brings everyone together and blows our minds, it’s already developing, it’s a monster that’s going to break everything.
I’ve been quite busy these past few days, so I hadn’t had the chance to post a quick piece I wrote for Juanele about the Puma Urban Art Fest, a pretty-high-profile, Puma-sponsored festival held in Argentina’s most prestigious cultural space, the Centro Cultural Recoleta, the weekend before last. There was some decent art and a few good bands played, but the event, I think, was more marketing than substance. Anyway, here’s the post, a week late.
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It would have been hard not to be intimidated by the VIP factor of this past Friday’s Puma Urban Art Fest opening at Centro Cultural Recoleta. Though the conferences, roundtables, and screenings held Saturday and Sunday were all free and open to the public, Friday evening’s launch was pure veep. The press list was dominated by names like C5N and Pagina/12, the television cameras were rolling, and hell, even Charly Garcia dropped by.
I felt totally out of my league — that is, until I saw the art. Or more appropriately, until I found it. Because amid the cameras and the café tables, the bands and the $14 beers, it took some effort to get to the art itself. A few dozen works by local and international artists filled a gallery and a half at the rear of the giant cultural center. Some of these pieces — a photo of an office building all but exploded by Mark Dean Veca; a set of crisp, threatening geometric works by Joaquin Croxatto; and Clara Muslera’s tight Xul Solar-inspired sketches — were very good. But they took all of 10 minutes to see.
This isn’t to say that the festival failed to deliver on the cool front. In one of the galleries half-filled with art, DJs spun bass-heavy tunes as London-based D*Face painted live and skateboarders tried their luck on a custom-built ramp. On a nearby outdoor stage, more than 20 bands from Argentina and around the world kept Fest-goers entertained. Along the center’s main passageway, edgy magazines and spunky toy manufacturers manned display booths. Screenings of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop and some D*Face shorts shared the Centro’s newly restored auditorium with the presenters of a six-part, two-day conference on urban art.
There’s nothing surprising or particularly disappointing about this dynamic — I understand how these things work; I knew what I was getting before I walked through the door. Still, though, when Puma comes to a town with as rich a street art scene as Buenos Aires’, touting their headline-grabbing urban art festival, shouldn’t they bring along more than a gallery and a half of art?
I guess it depends on whether they can get Charly Garcia or not.
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.
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“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.
ArteBA is Latin America’s largest art fair, an extravagant (and extravagantly priced) five-day showcase of Latin American art held at the iconic La Rural exhibition center. My Juanele press pass got me into last night’s not-actually-from-Champagne-drenched preview party. It was, predictably, more a see-and-be-seen social affair than an opportunity to take in the tens of thousands of square meters of art on offer. Arriving late, I spent most of what little time I had in “Barrio Joven,” the “young” part of ArteBA where, Juanele editor Rick tells me, booths still rent for US$10,000 apiece. It was all pretty glamorous, but not really my scene. Juanele’s Axel Byrfors captures the opening night onda perfectly in this video shot mostly in Barrio Joven (I’d watch it full screen, and don’t worry, the Spanish ends around 0:50):
Street ArteBA is an almost-sort-of-official street art spinoff/open studio, through Saturday in an old oxygen tank factory in never-going-to-be-glamorous Once. I liked it an awful lot more. I’ll be heading back to both (and writing more about them for Juanele) in the coming days, but in the meantime, below is a quick first impression I posted on Juanele’s blog.
A study in contrasts:
Yesterday night, the ArteBA preview at La Rural. Champagne flutes, jeans with blazers, a few artists and journalists among hoards of overdressed socialites more interested in the free-flowing Chandon than in the art around them.
This evening, a bunch of street artists at work transforming an old oxygen tank factory in Once. Homemade pizza, paint-stained T-shirts, some thirty art makers laying stencils, crafting murals, and dropping graffiti. All of them eager to explain and debate their visions for their own few square feet of this amazing space.
It shouldn’t be hard to figure out which I preferred.
As ArteBA gulps down media attention like it’s imitation champagne, across town, Street ArteBA is bringing together street artists of all sorts and from all over, to share in the transformation of a space crying to be spraypainted. It’s sort of connected to ArteBA—it’s mentioned in the official program—but it’s very much its own thing. Katrin Richter came up with the idea for this large-scale open studio, brought Fundación Rozenblum on board, and together with her boyfriend Fede (also known as Bla Bla Buto) put together a slate of 36 street artists, some established, others hardly known, and invited them to stake out some space and do with it what they would.
Though my initial impression was that Street ArteBA was less a public event than an opportunity to build bonds and promote exchange among the street artists themselves, a few hours talking with Kat and some other artists convinced me that this old factory’s doors really are open to anyone. The artists will be working from 11am until 6pm on Friday, May 20 and from 11am until 5pm Saturday, May 21; they’re a fascinating and friendly bunch, as much fun to talk to as to watch. Truck on over to Once and check it out for yourself!