The Future Of The Mural Festival: Curation

I’ve thought long and hard about how to approach this subject and the temptation is to write cynically or to focus on the negatives. I’ve chosen instead to take a more positive approach and focus on highlighting the best aspects of many of the festivals I’ve attended over the last decade. I think a lot has been made of some of the more frustrating elements and ultimately I think those things are addressed here by offering positive alternatives already put into practice by many of the festivals out there.

The balance between local and visiting/International artists

This is a majorly decisive issue for a lot of people regarding festivals and I know first hand how hard it can be to manage from an organisers standpoint. Back when I used to put on Disrupt The System which was an earlier permutation of the mural festival - the graffiti jam, finding the precarious balance between diplomacy, managing the entitlement or expectation of some artists and presenting the best program I could was always the biggest consideration. I wouldn’t exactly call it strategy - more of a byproduct of budgetary constraints but what worked out really well for our event was having a smaller number of overseas artists and having them collaborate closely with the local artists. Given that the event format was quite different in those days - it wasn’t large format solo walls for each artist but generally around 5 long standing height walls with about 8 artists on each (one international and the rest local) and the workload was manageable within the 12 hour span of each festival day. All artists were also painting at ground level in a very public space so there was additional interaction with onlookers whose numbers were in the thousands over the weekend. It wasn’t a perfect formula but there are some lessons I’ve taken from this experience both as an artist and former organiser. 

Sometimes where overseas artists are concerned, less is truly more especially when it allows for better mentorship and connection with those working locally. For us in a burgeoning scene in the remote end of the South Pacific those interactions we had with artists from abroad were so incredibly valuable. The amount of knowledge that passed directly or indirectly through observing their process literally sped up our development at such an exponential rate it was staggering. A dynamic of the current festival model is artists often find themselves in an isolated car park somewhere struggling to complete the impossible in a tight timeframe and barely interacting with anyone. I believe perfecting the ratio of local and international artists and encouraging more collaboration between them makes sense for the long term and the more immediate sense socially, economically and environmentally and we’ll get more in to that later. Murals In The Market’s 2019 program had a very strong emphasis on local artists with a smaller number of out of town and international artists compared to previous years. Given the dynamics of Detroit and the rapid gentrification of Eastern Market over the past couple of years plus the fact there is clearly no shortage of local talent this curatorial shift made sense. 

Both the Bradley Lane and Street Prints events that take place in New Zealand have integrated a youth mentoring program in to their festivals. One or more local young people with an interest in art are assigned to each visiting artists wall. This was also an aspect of the Unexpected: Fort Smith event in Arkansas that I really appreciated. Most of them in both instances were current students or already developing some type of art practice of their own. In the case of the Street Prints and Bradley Lane events young artists have emerged from the mentoring programme that have since been included in the following years line up.

Another suggestion I have which isn’t one I’ve seen put into action so much at festivals is connecting invited or more experienced locals with established older artists from the community to collaborate - especially artists not from a graffiti or street art background. The sharing of knowledge in this situation can go both ways to create a meaningful exchange between local and visiting and across divides both generational and in approach. In this era where increasingly studio based artists are feeling the lure outside and artists from the streets are developing studio practices these types of exchanges can be mutually beneficial in ways beyond the immediate festival context.

Diversity of artists included in programming

Back when I used to organise Disrupt the System, due to how multicultural our graffiti scene was our artist line up was naturally diverse. The main issue at that time was really the gender split because in the early days of the festival there were only two really visible women in the Auckland scene - Janine ‘Lady Diva’ Williams and Tanja “Misery’ McMillan. Spex from Wellington painted a number of the festivals too. It was later on, perhaps 2005 that Spex’s sister Phem and her curated a show at Disrupt Gallery that opened the night before the festival to present the work of the many other women in the scene. Ensuring that indigenous artists were represented wasn’t too hard as Māori had a huge presence in the scene although it is possible only Janine Williams was Mana Whenua (iwi and hapu (Māori tribal groups) who have these rights in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland). 

Ultimately what I’m saying is I can’t take too much credit for who was represented in the event. It was merely reflective of those that were active at the time mixed with a little bit of diplomacy to counter the way the different crews and generations viewed their own position. It was mostly about balancing the friction that existed in graffiti outside of the context of the event more than it was about ensuring diverse representation. Generally though, I think we did pretty well (whether or not it was haphazardly) and nowadays I’m seeing diversity in festival curation being considered more thoughtfully. New Zealand festivals like Street Prints and Bradley Lane have done a good job in this regard. It’s worth noting that Street Prints has operated in 4 different regions of the country and brings international artists in whereas Bradley Lane is very focused in the Auckland suburb of Glen Innes and has worked with local and national artists only. Each have done a great job in balancing their line ups in respect to the space they are working. 

In the US, Murals in the Market have given plenty of consideration to this and it is also a key focus of Sea Walls strategy as well. Pow Wow Hawai’i has a very diverse line up and include a lot of local artists too. The Australian festivals have a relatively even split between men and women artists but aren’t often the most culturally diverse. I’m not too sure how well festivals are doing in including more LGTBQIA artists but I’m assuming that this is improving and a curatorial consideration for at least a few.

When a festival is done right it is an incredible apex of all these things: It is a cultural exchange between local community and its practitioners with their experience meeting with outside artists in turn bringing their knowledge and skill base. It’s a moment where many different perspectives can be shared and from that tolerance and understanding can grow. It should be an opportunity for transformative and truly positive change that will ripple out and touch a locality way beyond the duration of the festival. This is why diversity is vitally important, to mix those voices up as much as possible and allow ideas and influence to cross-pollinate. I personally owe so much of my own growth over the last decade to the range of experience and different people I’ve met and especially those that have challenged the more rigid aspects of my mind set. Being exposed to people who have experienced the world differently to me whether from the community or those that express their truth through their art has given me the ability to appreciate things beyond the insular graffiti mentality. It makes me strive to be better.

Genuine cultural engagement

I think Janine ‘Lady Diva’ Williams addressed this topic well in this comment on my Instagram post: “I’m very passionate about the responsibility of art on large scale. Sure it’s about self expression as a creative but I strongly believe that when you fly into someone’s space/land/whenua & leave a visual work that they will see for years to come on such a huge scale there should be some kind of consideration for the content & narrative. I obviously have a biased framework of thinking as an indigenous person but how different is an advertising billboard to a mural in the simplest sense? Both advertise a product - a make up line or an artists career yet we look down upon advertising companies. Art in the public space on scale and permanent needs some consideration both for the process & the content imo. On the flip side is a ‘I couldn’t care less’ attitude and for the people left to look at it everyday and hate it that sits on the artists shoulders.”

Also Karin Du Maire put these questions forward in her comment: “What are the best ways to involve the community in a mural festival? What responsibility do artists have towards the community in terms of design and aesthetics of the work that they leave behind and that people have to look at on a daily basis for years to come?”

Within this realm the festivals in the Pacific region are head and shoulders above the rest. Street Prints and Pow Wow Hawai’i most notably do the best to acclimate people to the local region, history and culture. Both put a decent amount of emphasis on this within their programming and begin their festival with a welcoming or pōwhiri. With Street Prints there is usually more than one stay on a local marae (the communal and sacred meeting ground which provides everything from eating, sleeping, religious and educational facilities) within the region. Ono’u in Tahiti (and also the islands of Ra'iātea and Pora Pora) couldn’t avoid cultural engagement if they tried due to the location of it but still the onus for artists to reflect that in their work is very much on them. Street Prints does provide guidance in the way of a theme for each event. The recent Street Prints Papaioea event in Palmerston North had the theme 'Kua Kakahutia te Rangimarie' or 'Under the Cloak of Peace'. It’s not necessarily compulsory but it’s a strong suggestion and most artists tried their best to incorporate this concept in their work. Obviously where trying to reflect local culture as an outsider is concerned it’s a fine line between achieving this respectfully and not. Taking the time to receive guidance from those in the community and in the know is essential but hard to do as a visiting artist. It’s really the festival organisers responsibility to set up these channels and make them available to those prepared to take the time to do this right. Furthermore it’s important for them to keep an eye on the direction that murals are going because making an innocent Faux Pas is super easy for visiting artists especially when trying to incorporate imagery and stories they’re barely familiar with. As Janine and Karin both mentioned there are people that have to live with these murals after the festival. While I definitely believe that nothing good is universally popular it takes a certain tact and intelligence to navigate this space - I believe in free speech but I also believe in diplomacy and that great things come from having patience, respect and listening. As a graffiti writer I never cared about the impact of what my peers and I did beyond how it was received by other graffiti writers. As a muralist I feel a huge responsibility to do more than create a massive monument to my own ego. I want the entire experience to be dense in positivity - that’s from the start and how I approach the work, how I engage with the community, festival organisers, their team and volunteers. I believe that approach will vibrate through the work after I leave. Sometimes I think the free speech argument gets used as a cover for not being thoroughly researched or thoughtful to the space you are working. It’s easy to be offended as an artist when your work upsets someone and you’ve been taken by surprise - especially if you’re skilled and used to getting praised most of the time. Making the most of the opportunity to have genuine dialogue with the community is a huge part of what makes working in public such an enriching thing to do.

Perceived ownership of public space

This relates to both of the earlier topics. I was speaking on a panel at a festival in Sacramento in 2017 and there was this obvious tension in the room. The panel was made up of mostly outside voices - the festival curator who’s from LA and a few visiting artists including myself. The venue was a community art space and local artists made up the bulk of the audience. Once the floor was opened up for questions the frustration from the locals became apparent. The word ‘community’ was thrown around a lot that night and then I asked the question of everyone present - although it was mostly directed at the organisers - Is it fair to say that ‘community’ as a catch all term for everyone in a locality can at times diminish the reality that there are many micro communities that exist within any city, town or neighbourhood? Which communities interest in this situation are we really representing? In the area I was painting there were obvious conflicts of want and need between the local business owners, local home owners and the huge homeless community that lived there. All of these groups had a combination of conflicting or aligned interests and being sensitive to them requires more than a blanket approach. For the local artists their interest was about recognition and opportunity. For the local business owners it was about reinvigorating their area. Their disdain towards the homeless was something that made me uncomfortable because in my eyes they deserved acknowledgement too. Ultimately though there were a good number of people that wanted them gone and it was becoming clearer to me that my mural was apiece off that plan - the first stage of gentrification. Public space is that - it’s public and everyone has a stake in it. Everybody whether they literally own houses, business or sleep on the street feels a deeps sense of ownership and entitlement in the localities they live or spend their time. Graffiti writers feel they own ‘the street’ as their stage or realm and assert that position to the street artists, illustrators and fine artists now working within the large mural context. The answer to how you navigate all of this is in the two aforementioned topics. It’s about engaging with an open mind. It’s about including local people. It’s about recognising the dynamics at work and working with them instead of against them - allowing them to in turn work for you. Having a confrontational or closed approach to working in public space is the wrong strategy.

Recognition and balance of graffiti/street art and other large scale mural artists

This is just my own personal opinion but I’ve seen it come up enough in my comments that I figure it’s a relatively broadly shared sentiment. Within the large mural festival circuit there are a good number of us that come from a graffiti background that aren’t necessarily making work reflective of that. The mural festivals definitely favour figurative work and that’s most likely because it’s an easier sell to the public. Without contradicting my earlier points too much I do believe that graffiti and graffiti writers have a place in these festivals. I feel they deserve the opportunity to elevate and expand on that style of painting without changing or conforming to what’s more public pleasing. Although a lot of people don’t always like graffiti in it’s usual context, sometimes a small shift in scale or painting it enlarged beyond the frame of the wall can allow for a different type of appreciation. These festivals evolved from the graffiti jam concept and I’d love to see that acknowledged more. A Festival that has done this well recently is Rust Magic in Edmonton, Alberta. The murals that Wane, Kwest and Take5 produced are faithful to their graffiti but a step beyond. 

So this concludes my first instalment on this huge topic. I’d love to have way more feedback from people out there from the public, artists and organisers. The more perspectives the better.

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