GraFEM 2020: Reflex:ion

When we first started discussing how best to reflect on the new graffiti and street art works that would form part of the GraFEM programme, we realised that this reflection could not be saved for later but would have to be done as soon as the works had been created and presented to the public. We have therefore created a section called Reflex:ion where we will reflect on the artworks in an instantaneous, almost reflexive way. It is entirely up to individual writers how they choose to approach this reflection, and we look forward to their  interesting insights into the specific creations, oeuvres and local space, as well as into graffiti and street art creativity as a whole. In this first edition of Reflex:ion we are hosting Gregor Bulc, PhD, CEO of Urbana Vrana, communicologist and graffiti and street art researcher.

NEZ PEZ AND SPRAY-PAINT SAMPLING FOR IMPERFECTION

Near the Ljubljanica River there is a container facility. Its sliding external doors allow it to be turned into three or four squares which can be opened or closed as required on the sides facing the road and the river. Until recently it was as white as snow, except for a few graffiti. In art jargon you could say it was like an inverse white cube. It was a passable graffiti gallery whose exhibition surfaces were on the outside of the building. I say “passable” because metal is not the best surface for doing graffiti.

As is customary in this part of Ljubljana, these white surfaces were used as a canvas by political activists for their slogans and by subcultural graffiti writers for their tags and bombs, some of them more interesting than others. The public had viewed this graffiti as an eyesore, albeit a common sight in this part of what the office of the Ljubljana mayor calls  “the most beautiful city in the world”. Subcultural graffiti artists and insiders understood it better. And since the versatile visual and graffiti artist Nez Pez started spray-painting the container facility in September 2020 as part of the GraFEM project, the chances that the public will also come to understand it better have been greatly improved.

If we think of street creations in terms of aesthetic judgments such as “This is real art, but that is crap”, it is important that we also adopt John “Ways of Seeing” Berger’s approach and ask ourselves where (geography), when (history) and, especially, by whom (demographics) the thing on the wall is considered to be either real art or crap. However, if we behave like art sociologists and art anthropologists and put aesthetic judgments about Nez Pez’s work (i. e. the beauty, ugliness or other aesthetic aspects of the signifier) aside for a moment and instead read the interview with her on the GraFEM2020 website, we will be able to glimpse the context in which she works out her artistic intentions and creative expressions. It is highly likely that doing so will give us a far richer insight than merely judging whether her mural does or does not constitute real art, regardless of whether that judgment is the verdict of a local passer-by or an aesthetic evaluation of an art critic.

Let me be clear, however. I am not seeking to equate amateur impressions with analytical assessments. While I am interested in origins of both, I am more drawn to the latter. In other words, I have nothing against aesthetic and semiotic analyses of graffiti and street art, because such analyses are beneficial for research in that field and probably also for the graffiti and street art scene itself. For this reason I am always as happy to see an aesthetic analysis of graffiti as I am to see a rainbow, since – despite the fact that the contemporary graffiti subculture has been around for over fifty years now – both are quite rare. So far as I am aware, no humanist heavyweight has yet written any insightful, respected semiotic analysis of graffiti to compare with those produced by Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco for comics; nor has anyone written a book called “The Aesthetics of Graffiti”, which would be the equivalent of the philosopher David Carrier’s work on comic books, published twenty years ago. There is a chronic shortage of theoretical texts about the graffiti scene; not just in Slovenia, but around the world.

This may be why some graffiti artists now feel ready to venture into more daring creative waters, where their work will also encounter more detailed theoretical reactions. After decades of spray-painting nicknames, either as tags or as something more complex, some graffiti writers are now drawing on the history of the avant-garde and conceptual art more than on the history of hip-hop graffiti, and are gradually making their way to the forefront of the graffiti scene. Nez Pez is one of these.

In addition to multi-layered illustration and sound art, the aesthetics of her graffiti also need to incorporate the conceptualist and postmodernist aspect of her oeuvre if it is to flow as smoothly as possible from keyboard to paper to Kindle. All the same, for me the most important aspect of her work is her deconstruction of established graffiti practices and conventions.

Looking at the work the artist has created for the walls of RogLab, there is no way we can avoid confronting these issues. Nez Pez is indisputably an artist. Undoubtedly she is also a subcultural graffiti writer. I would be so bold as to say that she is actually a synthesis of the two: a graffiti artist. In a sense, she is also a highly political artist. Her visual artworks often find themselves at intersections, either formal and technological or substantive and ideological, so it is a pleasure to follow the evolution of her oeuvre through a whole host of different conflicts with convention. Whichever box we may try to put Nez Pez into, it will never really be the right one.

Even though she has all the necessary qualifications for a contemporary visual artist, from an academic education to gallery exhibitions of her works, it is obvious that she is drawn to conceptual transgressions and seeks to transcend both the art education and art presentation systems. And even though she has all the experience required for a subcultural graffiti writer, she is much more than that: a totally unique subcultural political animal. She is not into letter design, but would definitely use spray paint rather than a paint brush for her murals, such as the one on RogLab. Yet she is not trying to be a perfectionist with the spray can: she lets the lines drip and the surfaces flow over each other. As if it were a work painted in a hurry, somewhere in the street, and not in the safe environment of an institution where no one is hounding the graffiti writer.

Her mural is therefore imprecise on purpose, it is loose on purpose, the mistakes are made on purpose. Nez Pez’s political stance is a rebellious one, and she refuses to view subcultural graffiti as a rigid and conventional form. To use a musical analogy, she would not be able to identify with a band that called itself rebellious and punk but was still playing in the style of the Ramones. No, if you are a rebel and a punk, you have to break with punk convention. Nez Pez will not be forced into the straitjacket of a familiar creative stance against ‘the system’. Her graffiti creations display a rebellious attitude par excellence. Her rebellion is not just against the aesthetic conventions of the general public – you would expect that from a graffiti writer in any case; it is also against the aesthetic conventions of the graffiti subculture itself. And so her political commentary can be found in her consistent rejection of established patterns, even if this incurs criticism and results in the gradual reshaping of the graffiti subculture she grew up in.

At first it seemed that spray-painting would not change the RogLab container much in terms of colour and shape. It would be difficult to change its shape in any case, but that large white surface was no doubt just waiting to be filled with colour. It was the artist’s choice of colour palette that surprised me most. And not in a good way at first, but having seen it a couple of times now, it has grown on me. Her choice of colour combination really comes into its own when you see the building against the backdrop of the high-rise apartment blocks on the Poljanski Nasip embankment, especially on a clear day just before sunset. Nez Pez created her mural in an obvious dialogue with the residential buildings on the other side of the river, the vegetation in the immediate vicinity of RogLab, and the tree-lined streets on both river banks.

This reminds me that site specificity is one of the most interesting concepts used by some graffiti and street artists. It is certainly a feature of Nez Pez’s RogLab mural. Even though the urban areas where graffiti is most often found tend to be characterised by architectural standardisation and rigid urban forms, somehow there are always also a few recognisable creations breathing some soul into them. Repetitive buildings and walls often host spray-painted works as “temporary users” and “revitalisers”. RogLab was already an architecturally distinctive element on the Ljubljanica river bank but now, in its new guise, it has become a wholly site-specific work of art.

The artist has incorporated the location into her design, by which I do not mean only the landscaped embankment but everything else about the area too. Nez Pez has not turned RogLab into an aesthetic gem that sparkles, like a flashy alien, at the throat of the local community; rather, she has dynamically reinforced RogLab’s embeddedness in its diverse and often paradoxical microcosm. This tiny location is a place of multiple intertwinings and collisions: a fancy bar, an old low-rise house, a hair salon, tree-lined riverside walks, some of the tallest buildings in the city centre, numerous parking lots overflowing with cars, a road junction, the brand new Prekmurski Trg square, the infamous and decaying Rog factory and – inevitably – tags and other types of graffiti. It is a space full of contradictions, adjustments, compromises and tiny, miraculous harmonies, and Nez Pez’s mural fits into it like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. It’s as if it had been there for ever.

For those who are aware that RogLab is a space for learning about pattern reproduction, modularity and new technologies, as well as for building a community of creative and often highly diverse users, it soon becomes apparent that the mural has been masterfully and deliberately placed in just the right context. RogLab and Nez Pez share an enthusiasm for low-fi technologies, an analogue approach and creative experimentation. The mural makes this abundantly clear.

It is no coincidence that the artist has depicted a dragon (inevitably making us think of Ljubljana and its traditions, since the dragon is the symbol of the Slovenian capital) juxtaposed to modular sound technology (evoking a multitude and innovation). Nor is it coincidence that she combines organic and inorganic, animate and inanimate, nature and tech, folklore and electronic music. And finally, it is no coincidence that she has not hesitated to borrow fragments that were already present in the locale and has used them to create distinctive phrases in her mural.

For example, she has selectively painted over a black tag that had been languishing on the side of RogLab for several months, so that the final image includes a fragment of black line. Moreover, because this tag fragment is an obvious reference both to graffiti as a whole and a specific piece of on-site graffiti in particular, and is also an appropriation of a creative snippet belonging to another writer, she reproduces it several times over, making the cheerful appropriation complete. As a result, an inattentive observer can miss the original detail altogether, since the repeated reproduction transforms it into a repetitive pattern. And since the mural invites us into the world of synthesisers, it is easy to make the connection between this process and the practice of sampling in electronic music. But beware: the repetitiveness here is non-sequential, non-standardised, more like painting than graphics, more like graffiti than a stencil. This all demonstrates that, in Nez Pez’s art, humanism and culture combine with corporality, flesh and blood to ultimately prevail over technology; human error prevails over machine-made perfection.

Even though the artist’s dragon clambers around circuits, cables, buttons and wires (all elements of modular analogue synthesisers), it is first and foremost a creature with a beating heart. This can be seen as an homage to the local creative environment, and the Ljubljana graffiti scene in particular, since that has always teemed with animal motifs, from horses, sheep, foxes and tigers to cats and birds. On the one hand, an observer might be prompted to think about cyborgs, part human, part machine: the various body parts of the dragon (or perhaps there is more than one dragon?) are sufficiently stylistically diverse that they do not necessarily belong to the same historical timeframe and could be the product of high-tech body modification. On the other, this is clearly not about full-on technocentric science fiction or the creation of sophisticated terminators. Nez Pez softens the technology as though it were playdough and puts it to heartfelt and naïve analogue use. The result has more in common – for me, at least – with a live act in a club, or an Electro Pioneer kit from our socialist past, than with robotic surgical arms, spaceships or the speed of light.

Nez Pez practices exuberant sampling, the type of sampling that avoids the 100 per cent reproduction, respects the uniqueness of graffiti and is not bothered by any amateurism in the original. To use another musical analogy, we could say that she is constantly sampling but that every time she uses a particular sample, she adds extra effects in line with her current inspiration. This process – the continual creation of a new reality from an old one – seems infinitely more important than the end result. Despite (or possibly because of) the fact that reproduction has become so straightforward now that any smartphone can make a perfect copy, Nez Pez opts for freehand spray-painting, illustration and playing with technology at the level of concept and motif, rather than using (or perhaps even abusing) it by reproducing whole images.

Nez Pez is not aiming to make things easy for herself: to some extent she is a kind of Luddite who finds “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” rather frightening. Even when she samples herself, her fear is tangible. Indeed, when she samples herself, the goal of sampling seems perfectly clear: imperfection.

Gregor Bulc

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