SDM crew are painting a mural for the NGV Studio space in the Atrium of Federation Square. It’s a public endeavour: 20 metres of spray paint fuelled graffiti tagging in a public area with a lot of foot traffic on the weekend. In this instance, the street art is legal and condoned by a state institution and everyone is noticing.
The creative, and often illegal act, is made public and is housed safely behind an extensive glass wall, protected like a curio in a cabinet and guarded from would be vandals. The NGV Studio space is at one of the entrances to the Atrium and the public walking past are restaurant and bar goers, families with young children from the NGV Kids Corner, Gallery hoppers and attendees to events for both the L’Oreal Fashion week and Multicultural Arts Victoria which are also being hosted on Federation Square; a mass of the general public are being made privy to a usually secret practice that would ordinarily be carried out under under the dark cover of night and, by our current laws, illegally.
The public creative act is intriguing to the general public and they come forward to comment on the skill and technique of the artists as it occurs live in front of them. The public witness images and colours coming forward out of the void of a blank wall. The artists purposeful actions and deft movements become a form of calligraphic magic, an aesthetic alchemy and the audience in turn turns the creative act into a performative one. (1)
The creative act also becomes one of unintentional performance, especially in such a public space. A crowd grows and they admire a silent visual song with their eyes, completely unknown to the performers who have their backs to the viewing public as they work, however their unseeing 2D creation, no longer an abyss, stares back. (2)
The SDM crew are subtly educating the viewer about graffiti history by a painting all the pieces with a set colour scheme in their own individual styles, a technique utilised by the first crews in New York during the modern birth of graffiti in the 1970’s so that allegiances could be identified regardless of where, geographically in the city, a piece was sprayed. The traditional uniformity is a nod to the both the American and Australian grandfathers of aerosol.
For many members of the public, graffiti is associated with illegal vandalism, so for those rubbernecking as they walk by, there is an interest in the illegal and suggested excitement and danger that is implied within graffiti culture. Within the gallery context however, all elements of danger are removed: OHS is adhered to, a guard sits watch over the graffiti artists and protects them as gallery contractors while they work, there isn’t even the risk or aerosol or paint fume inhalation thanks to multiple industrial exhaust fans. The dichotomies and contradictions of a traditional subversive art form within the framework of the state gallery are evident, and I think that this fact is half of the appeal. I can’t decide out if this is a house pet posing as a predator or vice versa. (3)
In many ways this is also the performance of postmodernity sandwiching historically high and low brow art forms together and as Debord predicted, like any spectacle, the public are eating it up. (4)
(1) “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” –Marcel Duchamp
(2) “If you stare into the Abyss long enough the Abyss stares back at you.” - Friedrich Nietzsche.
(3) "Forget her, she's a predator posing as a house pet." - Chuck Palahniuk, ‘Fight Club’.
(4) The Society of the Spectacle (La Société du spectacle), Guy Debord, 1967
Note: no apologies for the appalling lack of order among the citations and thankyou to David Hurlston for the conversation.