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Vexta, Welcome to Australia, 2010. Stencil on paper, black aerosol paint, 262 x 300 cm. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Australia.

SPACE INVADERS

Essay for Space Invaders: Australian Street Stencils publication

Published by the National Gallery of Australia with Thames & Hudson
Hardback, 128pp, 2010
Curated and edited by Jaklyn Babington
Designed by Monster Children
Image: Vexta, Welcome to Australia, 2010, stencil on paper, 262 x 300 cm.
ISBN: 9780642334114

Drawn entirely from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, the first Australian institution to have collected this type of work, Space invaders surveys the past 10 years of Australian street art. Featuring 150 works by over 40 Australian artists, this exhibition celebrates the energy of street-based creativity and recognises street stencils, posters, paste-ups, zines and stickers as comprising a recent chapter in the development of Australian prints and drawings. Space Invaders looks at artists and their iconic street-based works at the point of their transition from the ephemeral to the collectable and from the street to the gallery.

Visit the NGA Space Invaders website.

The Rise (and Fall) of Street Stencils

Back in the early 2000s, a small group of highly active street artists were at work in the more unloved alleyways of Melbourne. Many of them were using the same walls for years, without ever having met one another. Their contemporary, and very temporary, ‘galleries’ were full of postmodern connotations with hybrid forms, styles and techniques.

Subject matter inspired by living, fictional and legendary figures of popular culture—especially the appropriation of news media photography—imbued these works with the passing familiarity needed for political stencils to function. The timeliness of many of the political works in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection date from the middle of the Howard years, a post-9/11 world of fear campaigns from both an invisible enemy and the international players whose faces dominated news media.

Stencils became a highly contagious form of subversive street art in Australia from the start of the century, with an explosion of political humour and artistic skill, particularly in the laneways and alleys of Melbourne. It mostly came down to the work of a handful of sneaky young artists who used visual irony to create an ongoing commentary with each other and anyone who cared to look. Over the next five years, it became an infamous art meme that spread wildly through underground and popular culture.

The response from the commercial sector was swift—adopting the renegade art form, or at least its aesthetics, to market everything from shoes to tampons. Government meanwhile did all it could to stamp out all forms of graffiti and street art, with zero tolerance policies popping up around the country. This short range policy thinking, combined with the corporate swipe for ‘cool’, effectively kneecapped the first great political art movement of the new millennium.

Stencil art in the early 2000s was largely political. It gave rise to sardonic slogans and altered imagery, heavily referencing the signifiers and appropriating the techniques of corporate communications to question political corruption, crime, and class economies. Many styles were based on iconic photographic and illustrative works co opted from the news media and deliberately corrupted from their original visual meaning.

This technique of stencil art—subverting the meaning of an image, icon or brand, then placing it back into the same public space as the original source—is a key element of its popular success. The works of art create an opposition and a necessary opportunity for people to question the meaning of image and its place in public space. It also has an immediacy that can be replicated and distributed infinitely by more than one person, allowing it to exist in different cultural spaces.

Ultimately, stencil art operates as an intervention in the mass saturation of advertising and infotainment on the street. David Robinson, a New York based curator, considers stencil art as a subculture itself. Once considered to be an addition or mere decorative element of modern graffiti writing, stencil art was reclassified through its evolving use of appropriation, technique, placement, contextual referencing and graphic styles—what Robinson terms ‘pictographs dealing with issues of contemporary urban life’. American writer Sarah Giller noted as early as 1997 that street art operates by ‘transgressing dominant notions of aesthetics, commodity, and property … a successful hegemonic strategy used by a marginalized culture to establish a voice’.

Placement is perhaps one of the most vital aspects of successful stencil art; it is what caused the movement to be noticed and celebrated so quickly, but it is also the very thing that caused the burgeoning scene to be robbed of its momentum. In clear contrast to the full colour billboards that leer over public space, stencil artists seek obscure but highly visible locations to place a work. It is often the surprise of finding a hidden work of art that gives stencils their popular twist and accounts for the millions of stencil fan photographs on websites like Flickr.

Stencil art is decidedly different from the codified visual language of graffiti writing. It is openly legible and text is printed in typographic, rather than calligraphic, letterform. The signs and iconography of stencil art are universal and bound up with popular culture. Images are often appropriated from media and advertising where their familiarity triggers an immediate response in the viewer. Styles are much more akin to screenprinting and graphic design than the more painterly and textual qualities of graffiti writing. Stencil aficionado and author Tristan Manco notes in his popular book Street Logos: ‘In twenty first century graffiti there has been a shift from the typographic to the iconographic … Icons predate words, using the more emotive visual language of symbols’. This relationship to the popular icon has created something of a feedback loop between street art, which seeks an audience and level of engagement, and corporate advertising, which seeks only new ways to capture the consumer eye for profit.

The danger of this kind of aesthetic feedback loop is that it enables culture jammers, whether independent stencil artists or major corporates, to be jammed themselves. Guerrilla marketing is now mainstream, and companies employ graphic artists to stencil logos and images on busy walls and footpaths—essentially a form of underground appropriation. Street art now informs corporate branding and marketing in ways that we are only beginning to understand in cultural terms.

In urban cultures around the world, corporate use of public space is reaching saturation point—community facilities such as bus shelters and public transport are now funded by media companies who trade the amenity for advertising space. This practice reinforces the lack of independent ideas being communicated through the broader community. Privatisation has allowed a demarcation of public space that is then sold back to the very people who pay for it in the first place.

By 2004, street stencilling as an accepted art practice began to dissipate while the commercial applications continued to grow. There was partly disillusionment on the part of some artists, as stencil works gained popularity with mostly inept novices who skipped the steps of skill and practice in the pursuit of fame. Imitating form rather than function, many popular street art sites became visual dumping grounds for sloppy and badly executed can work, which turned many artists off the practice.

At the same time, the hungry eye of fashion and advertising began their own appropriation, with local labels releasing street art lines. The political operative was quickly obscured in misplaced or simply stolen hip hop imagery. But fashion, as much as art, relies on the ongoing churn and burn of popular culture for its bread and butter—whether it be celebrity or irony, or both.

Like many popular art forms, stencil art risked, and largely lost to, mass commodification and a decline into the irrelevance of cool from appropriation in the form of guerrilla marketing. This use of graffiti by advertising companies, including Young & Rubican, Mediaedgecia and Spin, involved adopting graffiti styles and even employing established artists to write up promotional tags for everything from computer games to energy drinks.

While these companies adopted graffiti as a marketing tool to capture the highly prized youth market, other corporates were looking to retaliate against increasing commercial backlash from culture jamming. One of the more infamous examples of reverse jamming came from Nike—the brunt of many anti advertising campaigns by groups like Adbusters. When Nike purchased 900 billboards around Australia, its marketing company pre jammed them with a mock activist group URL. But the campaign bit Nike back when real activists bombed over the billboards with a real jam. Ogilvy & Mather ran a similar street campaign for IBM in the United States of America. The advertising group stencilled symbols for peace and love on buildings around the country, apparently in response to the US led invasion of Iraq. In an economically dominated world, the setting of street based moral and social agendas by global corporations, regardless of intention, is a frightening prospect.

Despite the illegal nature of these campaigns, the companies usually escaped prosecution by agreeing to pay the clean up bills. The fist of the law is clenched considerably tighter for artists working with anti-commercial material, and so the struggle of subversion entered a new phase in our increasingly consumerist and shrinking public space.

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This is an extract from a longer chapter.