Urban Play Focus 02: Madrid’s SpY

Today’s preview of an Urban Play artist brings Madrid’s SpY into the light.

The thing I’ve always liked about SpY is the width and breadth of his work and media. From anchoring glow sticks into the pavement to turn a traffic arrow into a firing spaceship (above), to simply attaching a Pac-Man shape onto a bus stop to turn it into a video game scene, SpY is particularly skilled at slipping urban easter eggs into the daily adventures of Madrid’s residents.

As the excellent street art writer Javier Abarca says of his work, “SpY’s interventions do not jump out at you, they wait until you come across them. They are not a monologue, but rather the result of a dialogue between the artist and the surroundings, between the passer by and the piece.”

On the more aggressive end of the spectrum, SpY has a great love for physically re-working the road barriers and hoardings around Madrid to spell his collective’s name. The re-design of the object, where its final state is identically functional to that of its origin, yet contains a great deal more significance and personality, is always a favourite urban intervention technique for me.

Again, as Abarca puts it:

“This work is a way of giving us back an object like the hoarding, whose ubiquity had made it virtually invisible, and, with this, it opens another small window on a certain activation of the consciousness, on a slightly sharper perception of the surroundings. Which is necessary in a city that silently contemplates how fountains, benches and, in general, the possibilities of using the public space disappear, among other outrages.”

From the aggressive to the sublime slight hits as below, it’s been a pleasure to work with SpY and get to know him in the process. You can enjoy more of his work at his website here.

And please remember to subscribe so you don’t miss the rest of this series.

 

Take 1 abandoned housing estate, add 90,000 litres of copper sulfate…

Creative re-use of existing urban areas is something of an obsession for me – I’m even moderating a dinner on the topic in a couple weeks. While my radar is tuned mostly to re-use done outside of formal cultural structures, Artangel is one organisation that always blows me away with their installations, and their latest work, Seizure by Roger Hiorns, is no exception.

Sited in an abandoned housing estate in London’s Elephant and Castle, Seizure literally transforms the mundane state of 1970s London public housing into a magical, etherial experience. Hiorns and his assistants pumped 90,000 litres of a heavily saturated copper sulfate solution into one of the units in the estate, then returned almost three weeks later to drain the unit. Once the liquid was removed, what remained was a glistening, glowing unit, lined with Yves Klein Blue crystals, outlining the walls, light fixtures, and, yes, bathtubs, as shown at top.

An exceptional project, providing an inspiring model for urban re-use, however fleetingly. After the project ends on 2 November, the estate will be demolished. In the meantime though, it is the focal point for thousands of people who will navigate through one of London’s more uncelebrated boroughs and explore the shell of a public housing estate, providing a community of experience in an area where community disappeared a long time ago. More information on the project can be found here, and my flickr photo set on the project is here.

 

Joshua Allen Harris inflatable sculptures in stop global warming ad

There’s been a buzz on the internet today about Joshua Allen Harris’s inflatable sculptures being featured in an upcoming ad for the Environmental Defense Fund and their stop global warming campaign. I’m always on guard for seeing street artists’ work being ripped off by The Man advertising agencies without due credit, so I’m very pleased to report that not only is the inspiration legit, but Josh is in fact the creator of the inflatable sculptures in the campaign. Here’s the EDA’s ad:

And here’s Josh’s previous work which it was inspired by:

I was emailing back and forth with Josh today, and he said he did an ad with Ogilvy New York, but wasn’t sure where it was going to run, so now he, and everyone, knows. Of course, I’m really happy that this is all legit, because for one, I really like Josh’s work, and also of course because I’m featuring him in my Urban Play project in Amsterdam, so it’s always good to see a worthy artist get some buzz all around.

Urban Play Focus 01: Gilberto Esparza – Urban Parasites

As part of the lead-up to the launch of the Urban Play project I am doing with Droog Design in Amsterdam, I will be writing a series of focus pieces on the urban intervention artists and designers I have selected to take part in the project, and who are working at the edge of creativity in the city. First up: Mexico City’s Gilberto Esparza.


dblt (diablito) from Scott Burnham on Vimeo.

It’s been very satisfying to watch 3D urban intervention come into its own in recent years due to the historically unparalleled roster of people hacking and remixing the physical city with their work. But even out of this immensely talented pool, Esparza has emerged as something of a game-changer. His Urban Parasites – small robotic creatures made from recycled consumer goods which wander, climb, crawl and explore the marginal areas of the city – bring a fresh, unexpected dimension to the city itself and to urban intervention in general.

While his early works required direct human interaction to be animated, he said in a recent conversation that he then began looking at the natural energy sources in the city, using for example “wind or water to help a shapeless sculpture move through the irregular urban geography.” His combined interest in mechanics and a frustration with the lack of an entirely self-sufficient animated object in the early stages on his interventions introduced him to the study of robotics, and “the way they can express or project their ideas, wishes, or fears.”

To hear him talk about the “ideas, wishes or fears” of robotics in the city is only the tip of the iceberg in understanding his emotional and philosophical approach to the inter-relationship of his objects and the city. Inspired by the street vendors (ambulantes) of Mexico City, who get the power for their sidewalk shops from nearby electrical posts, Esparza’s creatures also use the electric cables for power and as a means of movement, such as with diablito (little devil).  And on the ground below, his “ppndr-s” (pepenadores) intervention is Esparza at his best. Abstract, mechanical beetle-like creatures, made of recovered and recycled consumer electronics and discarded materials, pick and forage their way through piles of trash which have gathered in the corners of the city’s streets:


ppndr-s (pepenadores) from Scott Burnham on Vimeo.

I always find immense satisfaction in work which uses existing, cast-off areas of the city as opportunities for interaction and animation. But more than that, the pleasure lies in seeing the perplexed, confused and eventually amused look on the passers-by as they begin to decipher what is taking place. Which, as Esparza says when thinking about the larger picture of cities in general, is quite substantial. For him, the “micro” interventions of his work, are directly part of what is happening at the “macro” level:

“I believe that the city, as a concentration of human beings, is the epicentre of the most radical transformations in human history – it is also the materialisation of a human project that facilitates the meeting of imagination, knowledge and information. All this happens in an environment for survival, where social and economical relationships and other aspects depend on a continuous negotiation and fight for power with others. The city is a live organism, in which many life forms subsist. I also think technology is an essential part of the city. It creates trends and situations, which are influenced by and subordinated to the environment, but sometimes these make their own rules…”


clgd (colgado) from Scott Burnham on Vimeo.

From small mosquitos which fly around the inside of subway cars to the amazement of children, to odd creatures which move towards lamps and lightsources in the corners of buildings, Esparza’s work opens new areas of expression in the ongoing narrative of creative interaction with the city, and I’m honoured to be working with him. A complete overview of his work can be found at his Parasitos Urbanos website.

If you don’t want to miss any of the articles in the Urban Play Focus series, please subscribe.

Who *really* designed Beijing’s Olympic Stadium?

I was reading an article yesterday that asked this question in reference to the role of artist Ai Weiwei vs architects Herzog & de Meuron. For my money though, the original designer isn’t even one of those two. Here’s the breakdown…

Herzog & de Meuron are of course the Swiss architects credited with the building, and Ai Weiwei the Chinese artist of considerable regard who served as the design consultant on the project, and is largely credited with creating the “birds nest” design which has made the aesthetics of the Beijing National Stadium so famous.

For a long time, I’ve believed that the credit for the design goes one step back from even Ai Weiwei. So with the spirit of the Olympics in high gear, the world as one and so on, I think credit needs to be given to the ones I would argue are responsible for the origins of the design – Chinese migrant workers. They are the ones who are literally building the new Beijing, so I feel credit is due when they have a hand in actually designing an icon of the city.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Beijing over the past few years working with and exploring contemporary creativity in China, and, as is the case with much of my work, I’ve found that the most interesting aspects of what is going on are happening outside the formal channels. The design of the “birds nest” stadium being a prime example.

Driving around Beijing, the first thing you notice is of course the yellow air the staggering amount of building works taking place. New builds are everywhere, mostly built on top of razed Hutongs, but for the buildings being gutted and renovated, a deeper story begins taking place for me.

What I began to notice in almost every building is that, in the absence of formal safety equipment and structures, workers created intricate dense weaves in the upper story windows of the buildings they were working in to primarily, well, keep from falling out while they were working. These wooden weaves were always constructed with the same type of slats, and their assembly in a seemingly random fashion, yet after seeing dozens of them you begin to find a pattern in the repetition of assembly and structure.

Of particular note is that a secondary function of these wooden structures is to discourage birds from flying in and nesting in disused buildings. The stadium’s design nickname of the “birds nest” takes on an even more interesting hue now.

When the 3D visualisations of the Olympic Stadium began circulating, the inspiration of these incidental designs of the migrant workers became more than a coincidence for me. To theorise that Ai Weiwei gained inspiration from the incidental designs of the migrant workers isn’t that far a stretch if you are familiar with his work. From his famed restaurant’s design and the fare it serves to his installations and videos, a great deal of his inspiration and material comes from the traditional and everyday aesthetic, particularly the lives and culture of the working class Chinese. (Class, of course is in itself a recent development in China, but we’ll go with it here for the sake of a common reference.)

Beyond the inspiration derived from the protective structures built by the workers in the buildings, there is credit due to the functional creativity of the migrant workers elsewhere. During an early exploration around the building site of Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building when work was first getting underway, I noticed that the tools the workers were using were almost entirely self-made. Pieces of iron from the building’s raw materials would be welded together to create a crow-bar, or bolts would be welded side-to-side at their head to create a hexagonal wrench for tightening the same bolt in its original state. Thus, the building materials themselves were being re-purposed to create custom tools to continue building. A self-generating building site was taking shape.

I often find that these moments of incidental aesthetic and functional creativity often trumps the formal by leaps and bounds, yet go largely uncelebrated when the contributions enter mainstream focus. The CCTV building owes a great deal to the creativity of its workers, and the Olympic Stadium to its original designers.

So – a tip of the hat to the unsung inspiration for its design, IMHO.

Mark Jenkins in Barcelona: the story

Mark Jenkins new work in Barcelona

photo by Mark Jenkins

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of Mark Jenkins‘ work. What always impresses me about his body of work is not only the quality of the finished pieces, but the way in which he integrates them into the urban fabric. His storkers can often be found playing with and in the cast-off areas of the city, creating both a sense of delight and tension in their innocence bordering on misadventure, while his embeds turn the otherwise anonymous areas of the city into theatrical arenas of intrigue and almost discomfort for the passers-by. But with his latest work in Barcelona, he has hit a new stride.

The piece shown above is The Golden Ass – one of his embeds, this time hacking the world of street theatre and people masquerading as “living sculptures”. For those who aren’t familiar with Mark’s work, his “embeds” are hauntingly realistic sculptures he creates out of tightly rolled newspaper, then shapes, clothes and installs accordingly. So, yes, there isn’t actually anyone inside the donkey costume – a fact delightfully lost on the spectators. Being particularly impressed with the piece, I had a conversation with him today about it. As Mark explains:

“I see a lot of performance artists trying to become sculptures or playing dead/frozen these days and so it’s nice to meet them half-way on this one.

“Part of the camouflage was to put a coin bucket in front of the piece, and surprisingly the piece earned over 200 euros that day (before diasspearing in the night) so i think the commerce of street art in the gallery… while interesting, to me it’s as interesting pimping a street piece like this direct, and it makes a point in itself.”

As he says, it is the direct nature, even the direct funding, of this piece that really brings it home. While the whole people making money by standing really still for long periods of time Living Sculpture phenomenon has become a ubiquitous part of the urban tourist experience, the tips offered forth by the public are always for their roles as performers (or pity – it’s a sliding scale). Yet here, even unbeknownst to the public, the money put forth is for the performance of the piece of art itself. It’s a brilliant urban hack on Mark’s part.

Lastly, what resonates with me is of course the title of the work, The Golden Ass. One of the great fantasy stories of literature, it is the tale of how the main character, Lucius, falls victim to his over-enthusiasm to witness a magic act, and accidentally gets transformed into an ass. As such, he is put to work and is forced to witness and share the misfortunes and hardships of the other slaves and workers who are exploited at the hands of the wealthy. Anyone else feeling the analogy here?

Harkening back to University literature classes here, I was also drawn by the significance that The Golden Ass begins with a charge to the reader: “intende”. Literally translated, it means “be attentive”. But it is a conditional phrase also, meaning that if you are attentive, then you will take pleasure in this experience. So, as parable, for those who see merely a Living Sculpture on the streets of Barcelona and offer a few coins to it, there is a certain level of appreciation. But for those that pay a greater degree of attention to what is taking place in the macro of the piece, there is an enormous amount of enjoyment within the work.

Lisbon Street Art Tribute to Pessoa

Photo Credit: Joao Pina for The New York Times

Photo Credit: Joao Pina for The New York Times

The New York Times just published a fine article about the dilemma facing Portugal that a collection of the famed Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s papers might be sold and leave the country. What drew me to the article was the fact that it was on Pessoa, for whose work I have a great appreciation, but what brings me to write about the article here is of course the stencil graffiti illustration used in the piece and its larger significance.

I remember seeing this stencil the last time I was in Lisbon. It made a great impression on me then for the same reasons that bring me to write about it now, but the fact that it is the illustration for this particular article brings it to a new light.

There is a quality in Pessoa’s image being painted on the streets of Lisbon that anchors him to the city in a tactile, visceral way – the same way that he himself is so strongly anchored to the city. He was born in Lisbon in 1888, and lived there for most of life, a virtually unknown writer publishing little of his immense body of work before ultimately dying there in obscurity in 1935. Certain authors have always had an inseparable connection to specific cities. I think of Miller’s writings of Paris, or Hemingway’s fondness for Madrid, and of course Kafka’s embodiment of Prague. To think of these authors and their respective cities is to imagine their image cast against the physical streets of the city. In Lisbon, someone has literally done just that, and The Times acknowledges this testimony of individual action with their illustration.

As always, I find much larger meaning within this intervention than what is seen the surface. Let’s frame this stencil in the perspective of creating a public tribute to Pessoa in his home city. Imagine the individual who created this stencil decided that he was going to petition the city to create a new public monument to the poet apart from the rather uninspiring one which exists in front of A Brasileira. First, of course – would they have access to the city officials to get the proposal, or letter, even past the first filter given to public correspondence? And, if so, then think of the immense amount of bureaucracy, competitions, commissions… we are now looking at several years of process. And even in an alternate take – if the individual petitioned the local authorities with the desire that not only a public portrait be created, but that the artist put themselves forward as the one that would then create it? Mega-million lotteries hold better odds.

So, instead, in the course of a few hours, the stencil was made, and, most likely, in a few seconds in the middle of the night, the tribute was created – by the people, for the people in a direct creative action. No permissions, no commissions, no waiting.

But what is more, the image itself holds a tragic beauty beyond that of Pessoa himself which resonates with Lisbon. One of my favourite cities by far, Lisbon holds a beautiful if at times sad reminder of its past empirical grandeur. This is found within the portrait of Pessoa himself – his immaculate, stately attire, taken so much for granted at the time, but now a symbol for a past prominence in himself, in his home city, that is more reminder than reality.

Of course Lisbon has found a new confidence in recent years, a renewed vitality that brings the warmth, romance and brilliance it holds within the beauty of its stone-filled city to the surface. And in the stenciled portrait of Pessoa, I find that hope of renewal as well. His gaze looks literally to the street itself, in contemplation. In anticipation.

A staggering beautiful tribute to Pessoa, done fitting tribute by The Times.