The poetics of Situationism are alive and everywhere at Nuart Festival, both literally in the form of banners and texts but also figuratively in the philosophies and energies of this annual urban arts festival, now in its 16th year. The Situationists, an avant-garde art movement of the 1950s and 1960s, were influential in the May 68 uprisings in France. They believed that intervening in sites of the city was instrumental in effecting major social change. ‘Beneath the paving stones the beach’ became an important slogan, one which alludes to this idea that beneath the physical structures of the city — where capitalism is made and remade — a better world could be created. Marxist through and through perhaps but an idea which resonates today in the actions of artists in the city, whether intentionally or not. Other ideas and art movements meet with Situationism at Nuart, which is why it is not all that surprising that this year’s festival, which ran from 8th September to the 11th in Stavanger, also celebrated anniversaries for Thomas More’s Utopia as well as the birth of Dada. These themes are so perfectly fitting for an event which celebrates street art in its many incarnations, an art which necessarily involves actions of creation and destruction.
Some minor controversy ensued this year when a local art critic and a local artist proclaimed that street art and Nuart Festival had become boring, linking public acceptance with lacking critical edge. Yet, what makes Nuart Festival unique is both its reflexivity and its forward-thinking. This is why the festival is so internationally renowned, why festival organisers, artists, press and bloggers, critics and scholars meet here each year, and why it has sustained itself so successfully. How appropriate that such criticisms should arise at the same time as Nuart introduces for the first time the concept of “post-street art”: a term which in its very existence acknowledges some of the inherent problematics of the institutionalising and commodification of street art.
Such criticism also falls flat because you only have to walk through the streets of Stavanger or on the site of Tou Scene to see the continued relevance of street art, to see that street art is anything but boring. And this year’s visit to Stavanger has me wondering if perhaps the ultimate subversion is the institutionalising of this art. And while artists who began their careers in the streets enter galleries and studio artists move their works into the street, one can’t help but wonder if this is what post-street art might be all about: this blurring of boundaries between elite and the everyday.
‘Beneath the paving stones, the beach’, graffiti from May 68 with the iconic photograph of the piece of French graffiti reading ‘Sous les pavés la plage’. Banner hanging above the stage for the series of Nuart Plus talks.
‘Life is elsewhere’ banner, one of the many found throughout Tou Scene and the streets of Stavanger.
At the end of the day, public acceptance or not, street art is no more institutionalised than other forms of art. And just like any other art form or art movement, artists continue to be critical, to push boundaries and push forward whether it is in the confines of the gallery, the pages of a book, or the spaces of the city. Where street art maintains its power is that the streets remain a site which is open to anyone should they choose to claim the space. The gallery becomes less relevant and perhaps that really betrays the source of these critcisms. Beauty is in the streets, in the small actions of publics taking back the city, whether in performative actions or paint on walls, poetry hung by staples on black fabric on houses, in the creation of situations and moments which can for a moment disrupt and provoke, inspire and evoke.
‘Beauty is in the streets’ banner hanging above the corridor leading to the indoor exhibition space at Tou Scene for Nuart Festival.