From Mexico City and Bogotá to Melbourne, Bristol, and Orgosolo, people whose voices would otherwise remain unheard use art to protest subjugation, corruption, exploitation, hypocrisy, segregation, and despair. They choose for their canvases the walls of the city. Street art has long been an act of protest that transforms its backdrop into a place of protest. French street artist JR was even given the 2011 TED prize for his work highlighting the humanity of the residents of Brazilian favelas and other marginalized communities.
The stylistic and narrative traditions of street art are as varied as the artists who create them and the cities in which they are found. Some have crossed over into the commercial art realm and some have strayed from their historically critical underpinnings, yet street art retains its spirit of protest. Cash, Cans, and Candy, the largest street art exhibition ever held in Vienna, features works for sale by a mix of local and international street artists in Galerie HILGER NEXT while also setting their makers loose on the city. TEDxVienna recently spoke with the exhibition’s curator, Katrin-Sophie Dworczak.
Why do an exhibition on street art?
Vienna has always thought of graffiti and street art as vandalism and street artists as criminals. I wanted to show the Viennese people that it isn’t like that. Just because street art is often illegal doesn’t mean it isn’t art. The perception is changing, though, mostly through the efforts of Inoperable Gallery and Black River Festival. There’s also Rabbit Eye Movement, a gallery owned by Nychos. The local scene still isn’t where it should be, though. You think about Berlin and New York and street art has been part of the city for a long time. But that’s also what’s cool about it. Vienna is such a classical city. We’re known for classical music, for classical literature, and when it comes to contemporary art and culture we’re not really part of the conversation.
Why has street art been slow to develop here?
First of all, the rules are really strict. It’s hard to get a wall to paint legally. Also, Vienna’s a beautiful city. The people here have a lot of respect for the architecture. Vienna’s slowly becoming more cosmopolitan, though. I respect our history, I respect our traditions, but I also want something new for our generation. Something made by our generation.
Street art and graffiti have long been associated with urban decay, either as proof of it or increasingly as a lever for neighborhood regeneration. How do you make the argument that street art can improve an already beautiful building or street? That it can add to Vienna’s urban fabric, which is generally in quite good condition, rather than subtract?
The hardliners you probably can’t convince of anything. But there are always people who don’t like something you’re doing. You can’t please everyone. Which is okay, actually. It’s what makes it interesting. My argument would be that art is so often something only for rich people. Street art is accessible and visible for everyone.
The heads of the districts where we’ve done projects for Cash, Cans, and Candy have been really supportive. They see how art can bring people together. All kinds of people have gathered to watch our artists work. They end up mingling and talking to each other, people who might never speak to each other normally on the street or in the supermarket or wherever. There’s this great energy that the art inspires.
How much street art in Vienna is done legally?
Most of it is still being done illegally. If you want to paint legally you have to apply for a permit, you have to talk to the head of the district, the owner of the building. There are a lot of steps. The process can take months.
I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I’m of the opinion that people should work in the streets. It should be spontaneous and responsive. Artists should be responsible. Don’t vandalize, don’t take something beautiful and make it ugly. But if the opportunity presents itself to improve a neighborhood or to make a statement that needs to be heard, artists shouldn’t wait for a permit to be issued.
People are usually so worried when we start a project. They think it’s going to be ugly and it’s going to lead to crime or whatever, they think it’s going to ruin the neighborhood. And the exact opposite happens. Like with the silo (see photo below). People were scared and now they love it. It’s already becoming a landmark. And the local residents have a renewed sense of pride that they live someplace special.
If street art becomes more common in Vienna, how will it change the city?
My generation travels a lot. We see other places, other cultures, how people live and do things. And when we come back home we bring pieces of those places and cultures with us. We’re not represented by one place, one style. I guess as we make our mark on the city it will change by becoming more diverse, especially aesthetically. Some people see Vienna as this perfect finished city, but we see how it’s evolving and including the present along with the past. That’s exciting, and it’s beginning to attract more young people from all over who want to be part of the process.
As it gains popularity, is street art becoming more about aesthetics and less about protest or political commentary?
No, I think political messages are still a huge part of street art. They’re becoming more international, though. Dealing with global issues more than maybe local issues. But protest is still a big part.
Vienna supposedly has the highest quality of life in the world, so what is there to protest?
There are still right wing politics in Vienna that street art tries to protest. The city is still conservative and there’s a feeling of restriction, that certain types of lifestyles aren’t fully accepted. There’s always something to protest and street artists are sensitive to those things.
What building in Vienna would you most like to see street art on?
The Flakturm in Augarten. Imagine that huge structure and how different it would feel if it became essentially a giant canvas. That would be incredible. But any huge wall, really. Like at the Theresianum. Sonke, our Greek artist, was given a wall there to paint legally. Nobody thought that was possible. I mean, it’s a Catholic school. But the wall was horrible before and now it looks great. Instead of seeing a wall that’s neglected and falling apart you see an amazing work of art.
Now that street artists exhibit their work in galleries and are featured in modern art museums, can street art be considered misbehavior anymore?
Look at all the most famous street artists. Shepard Fairey, Retna, Faile, they all still work in the street. Street art isn’t leaving the streets for the gallery, it’s just adding the gallery to the street. There will always be illegal works because free speech, public art, spontaneous engagement with the city…that’s the soul of street art. That’s the spirit of the whole movement.