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Stovington23 - The Story of Making Art in 'Placeless' Places

03/06/2014 09:26 BST | Updated 02/08/2014 10:59 BST

We live in an ever changing, dynamic cityscape, where the balance between public and privately own space, illicit creative practices and authorised recreational activities, is a controversial, fragile matter.

The notion of public spaces itself is a contradictory one, as if you ask the rather simple question 'who owns the public urban space' and who has the right to leave visual 'marks' in it, you would be surprised of the answer. Many of us do not realise the fact that public space boundaries have shrunk significantly in favour of private landownership, leaving very few opportunities for local communities to actively interact and socially engage, becoming instead subjects of control and surveillance.

Take for example retailers parks or shopping city centres.

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Retail park in Swansea, image via Barberry.

While they might appear spaces designed for public leisure, they are in fact heavily guarded privately owned 'placeless' places. Often, they fail to be 'successful', convivial places and connect with the local environment and communities, despite their initial dedication to bring delight to those who use them.

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Is this Really the Promised Land? Stovington23 corporate retail park takeover.

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They Make You Build Your Own Prison, Stovington23

These black and white images are nor a result of some Photoshop manipulation, nor just some random ''graffiti''. It is the clever clear visual response (superimposition) that the art collective Stovington23 gives to the problematical concepts of public space and art within it. You might ask who are Stovington23, but I think the more important question should be what is Stovington23 the mission of and why writings on the city walls...

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Make Trouble Instead, Stovington23

Placing uncommissioned street art in the public domain is problematic, contradictory and often referred to as an act of vandalism, but street art is not that straightforward at all. There is a depth to it, multi- layers and paradoxes within the whole notion of art, property and value. To quote the collective:

Many of the walls we want to write on are publicly visible but privately owned. They are the walls of shopping malls, banks and corporations. They are secured, monitored, gated off and enclosed. That does not stop them from being covered in offensive messages. These sites can assault our hearts and minds, but we are not allowed to fight back or write back. For us, this is a fundamental issue, an issue of spatial justice.

When I first encountered the work of Stovington23, I was overwhelmed. Not because I have not seen agitprop stencils that reflect issues and opinions of the grassroots communities before (in fact, street art has deep roots in political and social actions, with John Fekner as a pioneer). But it was the bluntness and closeness of the message itself and the location - stencilled on an unknown wall in a heavily policed retail park that provoked an immediate reaction. I suddenly became not so much a passive spectator but a more active participant, feeling more involved and questioning my own choices because I was 'gifted' this art to experience.

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Believe in Nothing, Stovington23

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Corporate Crime Pays Best, Stovington23

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All Merchandise Guaranteed Obsolete, Stovington23

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This is Slavery, Stovington23, Notting Hill

And while some might have called Stovington23 interventions vandalism, others saw as a welcoming statement, and as a clear sign that things need to change in the city.

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No Rioting 8AM - 8PM, Stovington23 (intervention in response to the London Riots 2011)

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Create A System or be Enslaved by Another Man's, Stovington23

I became curious to look further into the 'not- art because it is illicit and done on private property' concept and contacted Stovington23. Here is their view on what art and what vandalism is...

Vandalism is purely destructive, whereas what we do is creative and requires a lot of thought and planning. A colossal amount of effort, actually, and it doesn't always work. It's about having a dialogue with the environment, expressing an agency in how we live, rather than just passively consuming (as shoppers, or as viewers). In fact most people who've seen our work have laughed...it's put a smile on their face, which makes us very pleased. Perhaps it makes some people think a bit about the world we have created, and in which we are all complicit.

We are about drawing attention to the everyday dross-scape that people don't really look at. Hence we went for the most miserable of places. And yes, it's about having a reply to the endless pollution of advertising. I suppose there is a question of testing the limits of the public/private debate...it's all temporary anyway, the slogans don't last long, so it's just a very brief moment of dissent. A tiny voice saying 'no thanks'. Spatial justice is a great phrase, and a way to sum up what we are about.

It is very easy such a controversial and pushing boundaries work to be seen as 'vandalism' because it conceptual, provocative and illicit. However, it can be also seen as a genuine creative response to the visual pollution we are all surrounded by in the urban cityscape, and attempt to reconnect local communities with their own environment.

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Beauty's Only Street Deep, John Fekner, NYC. Image via the artist.

All images, unless stated otherwise, are courtesy of Stovington23