MATT WHITMAN & MARK JOHN SMITH talk North Brooklyn, Graffiti & Limits

Matt Whitman: So Mark tell me about the duvets that were selected for the exhibition?

Mark John Smith: First of all let me just say how exciting it is to have work featured in a show such as this. It’s wonderful to see all of the MFA fine art programmes represented under the roof of one show. Its funny how each programme seems to have a unique arty DNA running through the work represented. The opportunity to have works on view to the public in an alternative space such as this really is an asset to the North Brooklyn community and arts scene as a whole. Pop-up exhibitions such as this are valuable tools in reinvigorating what was once dead space left in the wake of the 2008 world financial market downturn. I love the fact that people pop in who would not normally engage in a white cube art show. The work, when curated and engaged in community in this way makes public the act of art viewing – an experience that I believe should always be 100% free and fully accessible to all.

Speaking of a move to making things public and in consideration regarding your initial question, I see the Duvet works/sculptures as symbols of the divide between public and private today. While investigating the disappearance of the body in contemporary culture – the removal of the physical self in largely electronic contact and communication – I wanted to look into object-body relationships.

The site of the bed has long been a site for a unique blending of personal and public narrative. I see the Duvet as key to the activity of the bed. We are afterall with these items for long durations each day. Using the language of protest and urgency, via spray paint, I transcribe confessional statements and symbols onto the fabric. These messages and codes are then hidden in the crumpling up of the work on the floor. The bed is a site for many things, its a little nasty/dirty, sexy and also a space of safety and great comfort. Upon viewing, people have commented that they are drawn into this narrative. To some it’s overtly sexual and to others the sculptures resemble candy kisses, meringues or individuals hiding. The works are deeply personal and make me vulnerable yet manage to remain detached, hidden behind formality in the process of display. Public and yet very Private – a little, regrettably, like much of the art world today. What are these invisible barriers that limit?

MJS: Matt you love spaces such as these too. What is it do you think that is so engaging about a non-site?

MW: I do. In fact, the first time that I walked into the space to install, I felt as though I should have my camera with me for filming (I may still go back and film later). What makes a non-site so engaging, I think, is precisely our inclination to refer to it as a non-site. It’s use and function within this current economic moment and system is unclear and yet to be defined. This muddy ontology, for me, is not unlike the formation of an argument or a theory or an artwork. It is precarious and its status as a site of ‘becoming’ is so urgent and clear. And yet, it is a space with a history and an identity which has been shifted and amended decade after decade. For instance, in the restrooms, there is the presence of the site’s former occupants via employee notices and scratched graffiti. One of the notices was posted in the Spring of 2001 – when the World Trade Center’s twin towers still existed. Spaces like this storefront are locations of micro-archeology (not sure if that’s a term) – but a kind of humbler archeology, more along the lines of a family history than a great excavation. But it is this type of petite archeology that actually foregrounds the larger, more visible fabric of our own public and private histories, more so I would say than the well-funded and well-publicized ones that we come to expect.

MW: Do you ever read the notes and graffiti scratched into bathroom stalls? It seems in a similar space of semi-private, semi-public. We don’t know who the author is necessarily or their biography, and yet we get a look at these (often) incredibly intimate and urgent statements.

MJS: Never [smiling]. I do however love it when graffiti is ‘covered up’ by the authorities or in official acts of ‘removal’. It’s really odd the way they do it. Take a walk over the Manhattan bridge and you will see what I mean. Lots of off-white and light blue blocks and patches of paint creating a strange tapestry of censorship and intervention. More often than not the blocks form the shape of the text they are replacing. In my mind this is a failing of our time. The desire to continually reset or erase the appearance of history and that of the individual. The MTA are a fans of this too – they have a special little sticker set printed to resemble the subway car wall. They will stick these over marks and scratches. A little touch up. These patches in my mind point more to graffiti then if it were just to exist. It’s neurotic and obsessive, opaque and driven by fear. Like the redacted pages of a classified document. I remember at school being taught to put a single line through a mistake and rather than blocking it out with whiteout- this was key to learning. We should celebrate and disclose mistakes rather than hoping that they never existed. It’s only in the process of realizing that something is incorrect that we are able to see why it is incorrect – the limit at which correctness has broken. Without recordings of these limits we are lost and continually looping.

MW: They form a kind of unintentional abstract painting simply in the act of censorship – akin to the wonderful (mock) documentary The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal. One could argue that what we have in place – the vinyl wrap ads covering entire subway cars – are far more visually detrimental.

The Manhattan Bridge is, fortunately, one place where graffiti actually seems to thrive. As soon as one painting is covered up, another replaces it almost overnight. I used to walk across the bridge as a commute almost every evening and the sheer amount of work on view across the span of the bridge is incredible. It contrasts so much from the Brooklyn Bridge, which is more or less nothing but a tourist attraction and an NYPD substation at this point. The Manhattan Bridge still has a little grit to it.

MJS: Grit is good. What’s refreshing about this show is that so much of the work is in tune with the notion of delimiting itself. Do you have a couple of works in mind that do this Matt?

MW: Without doubt, Shellyne Rodriguez’s Incandescence. She sets up two distinct bodies – both in conversation with notions of manufacture. On the ground, we find the mass of pennies – ie the coin, sort of the ultimate pre-fab. And above this, the copper-plated milk crate. When one plates an item in metal, its hard not to think of finish and veneer, with the effect of creating an appearance not of coating but that an item is itself comprised fully of the coating material or that it somehow maintains the essence of that material. With a little knowledge of coins, one can determine that pennies, however, are also not fully copper, but merely coated with copper themselves. And so by placing these two bodies in the same vertical space – one plastic, coated in metal – the other cheap metal coated in a slightly more expensive metal – we see how the identity of the inner material itself becomes irrelevant. The veneer is the identity. Like Instagram filters.

MJS: Exactly Matt – Why do we give such precedence to that of the facade and historical space? Art in the community is a tool for positive social change. I believe now is the time to foster community and look to ones peers for answers and collaboration. Space is ours.

MW: I think what’s most remarkable about the exhibition is the unique opportunity that it affords the public as well as the local community – to see this particular generation of artists, all in the same space, engaging with concerns contemporaneous to their respective practices. Moreover, I think, to be in this particular community is crucial at this moment in the city’s history. It is not breaking news that North Brooklyn has seen considerable economic and demographic changes – both of which have a major impact on the viability of maintaining an art practice in this particular set of neighborhoods. What St. Nick’s Alliance reiterates and ensures with this initiative and others like it, is the potential for maintaining a sustainable community of artists here in the future. Consequently, what this exhibition shows is that it is already happening – we are still here.

http://www.markjohnsmith.co.uk

http://www.mawhitman.com

Author: The Greenline

Your monthly source for North Brooklyn community news covering Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick. Currently 13,000 copies are distributed throughout the community free of charge.

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