Street legal: unmediated exchange

Eco-architect Paul Downton gets down with street artist Peter Drew who endorses Adelaide's mayor Stephen Yarwood's statement: “Art isn’t just for art galleries… Cities are the best art galleries you could possibly have.” Yet Drew also thinks that street art will maintain its authenticity “because there’s always going to be an illegal aspect to it…"

Peter Drew with one of 42 enlarged poster facsimiles he produced from 1920s State Library archived mugshots from the penal system, complete with original inscriptions of their crimes. Pasting them up anonymously but in broad daylight around the city of Adelaide in October 2011, the artist eventually admitted his role to the Council in return for their agreement to stop removing the posters. Courtesy the artist.

Peter Drew believes that the gallery system has been made "impotent by conceptualism", that modernism has failed to develop with any meaning since its assimilation by mainstream culture-mongering and “the tired spectre of postmodernism” is an irrelevance (Melbourne Review, 5 June 2012 []). If art has a laboratory it's not in galleries, it’s in the streets where, says Drew, we can find “an open access art form that is, practically but also, philosophically linked to the online world.” []

Drew’s early experiments pursued a kind of logically absurd minimalism of pixellated images, playing with ideas rather than their aesthetic presentation. His paintings “were diagrams of love... death, parodies of a materialist explanation for emotions.” By his own admission, he later realised that dealing with aesthetics could be more sophisticated “than just sticking to the ideas.”

Drew remains ambivalent about contemporary art, which he believes has lost people’s trust and is burdened by esotericism. He is drawn to the street where “…you just get around all of that” and it’s “empowering to not need to ask somebody to show your work.” It’s democratic “…open for everybody in the city and everybody who uses that place.” It challenges commercial and artistic élitism “You go out and give the work to them… I like trying to speak to people who don’t go out of their way to think about art… You can get around people’s defences.”

The way Drew sees it, conventional 'avant-garde’ art has become dependent on the galleries where the frameworks and filters of its showing are quite different from the street where art immediately acquires “an anti-institutional sense.” He quotes Duchamp approvingly, "I don’t believe in art, I just believe in artists". Noting “It’s ironic that his ideas helped make things the way they are in terms of contemporary art,” Drew recognises that a similar fate may await his own work but is certain that street art will maintain its authenticity “because there’s always going to be an illegal aspect to it… It’s a conflict between two great principles of Western democracy - the sanctity of private property and freedom of expression. Those two principles clash in street art, and they will always be at odds in some way.” As public space is eroded and shopping malls usurp the streets and squares of free public space, it’s impossible not to wonder if street art can make any real difference.

Despite (and because of) the separation of grubby street life from the art captured and displayed by galleries, Drew has been experimenting with a mode of practice that exploits and critiques the promise of both. “I found ways of crossing over, the ideas moved back and forth, it wasn’t just street art coming to the gallery, it was an exchange.”

There are those who revolutionise, those who defend the ramparts of conservatism, and those who use the energy of change to refashion the status quo. Drew is dancing in that space and knows that as “kitsch becomes cool” it is bound to be challenged, but the dance will continue. The eternal quandary of all revolutionaries is that if you succeed in changing the status quo, new conventions restore the complacency you fought against.

Meanwhile, he’s part of a vigorous new movement that is born of consumer culture but sufficiently conscious of its purpose to make a difference. His experiments go beyond pasting evidence of human life onto dead city walls and tackle the means – and the meaning – of the production and distribution of creative expression in the 21st century.

Peter Drew’s version of the Colonel Light self-portrait, from Unfinished: South Australia Illustrated: From the Street, his curated exhibition of responses by 13 contemporary Adelaide artists to colonial art, Art Gallery of South Australia June - August 2012.

Drew studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Adelaide and demonstrates a practical understanding of psychology – wearing a fluoro jacket and setting up safety cones to provide his outlaw activity with a camouflage of legitimacy, double-bluffing the gallery with its own expectations of creative behaviour. He has a facility for using the media, reiterating his script for radio, documentary and magazine interviewers – and it’s integral to his practice and focus of experimentation which is all about communication, distribution and delivery.

Magazines were an essential part of taking modernism to its audience and, says Drew, “the whole history of art is the process of distribution”. Social networking and the internet are essential to a new revolution that connects artists directly with their audience. They are “completely linked. You have graffiti in the 1980s and the internet in 2000 and you get street art.”

Both the internet and street provide a kind of commons where people can be exposed to art. They are public domains of open access and experimentation where, in the vision of this artist, ideas adaptively and rapidly reproduce with ‘virality’ and memes spread with ease.

Street art provides an unmediated medium for dissent and Drew speaks powerfully in its support. Speaking on Radio Adelaide he was adamant that it needs to be treated as a legitimate form of expression, not as a problem. The street art graffiti community, he says, are respectful of each other’s work and personal property – they graffiti miserable old buildings and railyards, not private garage doors.

As an architect, I can’t help wondering whether street art would ever have happened if we hadn’t made such ugly cities. In the video Painted Walls, Adelaide’s Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood, sees street art as a game-changer for the 21st century city – making blank walls a thing of the past. He’s walking his talk, assisting approvals processes and helping legalise the work of Drew and other artists saying “Art isn’t just for art galleries… Cities are the best art galleries you could possibly have.” []

Drew’s cultural theory doesn’t preclude a pragmatic approach to capitalism. Discussing innovation and entrepreneurism, he said “Like the word ‘brand’ or ‘marketing’ I don’t see why they should be off-limits to artists just because corporations use them. After all, artists like Rembrandt virtually invented branding through the use of his workshop… Rembrandt, Picasso, Warhol, Banksy, Shepard Fairy were all creatively entrepreneurial.” He adds “Of course, there have also been plenty of artists who were uncreatively entrepreneurial!

He recently undertook an entrepreneurial experiment with the Art Gallery of South Australia. “They invited me to come into the gallery based on my street art and of course I was flattered, but also immediately uncomfortable because it’s problematic having street artists in a gallery. I wanted to turn the hierarchy on its head by being curatorial – choosing some artists and bringing them into the gallery. Rather than the work staying in the gallery, it’s just resting before it ends up on the street. It puts the street above the gallery in terms of hierarchy. The gallery is fine with that… supporting the artist’s choice.”

The thirteen artists all did a response to the portrait of Colonel Light and their works were released onto the street from 6th June at the rate of one a week until the end of the exhibition. In a kind of critique of commodification, begging the question whether their worth was defined by their gallery status or their street value, there were no price tickets, people were free to take the works. To the best of Drew’s knowledge, no other gallery has done quite the same.

Dr Paul Downton is the architect of Christie Walk and author of Ecopolis: Architecture and cities for a changing climate.