As a follow-up to our surprise visit from Spenser Little at the beginning of September, I went to Rotterdam on September 10, 2019 to catch up with Little, one of the featured interventionists at Pow! Wow! Festival Rotterdam, about life, art, ethics, and everything in between. Making the day more than an interview, and always seeking to learn, grow, and build new connections, I took the day to investigate Pow! Wow! to find out how other cities and organizations do street art and street art festivals.
First arriving in the Afrikanderwijk district of Rotterdam where Pow! Wow! was located, I was struck by the similarities it has with Amsterdam Nieuw-West. Originally a working-class neighbourhood which sprung up around the docklands newly built around 1900 in south Rotterdam, the neighbourhood’s demographics are now primarily composed of migrants from the Middle East, Caribbean, and to a smaller extent, southern Africa. Pow! Wow! Festival’s organizers intentionally located their headquarters within the neighbourhood, with doors open for anybody to walk in and ask questions, offer opinions or voice concerns. With no charge for visitors to enter the festival, a limited number of indoor walls for local painters, a food program, basketball and hip hop competition targeted towards locals and visitors equally, Pow! Wow! Rotterdam appeared to be self-aware, striving to maintain a community-oriented, open-access and grassroots stance.
A highlight of exploring the festival was getting to chat with Niffo project space, a grassroots, open-source interdisciplinary venue and gallery focused on sustainability, providing a platform for marginalized voices, and educational outreach for marginalized youth. Founder Zoe Cochia’s focus on providing outreach and community space, particularly for young Rotterdammers vulnerable to falling through cracks in the rapidly gentrifying Afrikaanderwijk, comes from a distinctly anti-commercialist altruism similar to the old school graffiti ethics SAMA strives to work from. Despite our conversation being interrupted by a revolving door of stunned university students seeking answers for their assignments, Cochia explained that her connection to street art comes from seeking to create any kind of community space that can strengthen the social fabric to support those who do not fit the image of a middle-class Dutch nuclear family. When asked by long-time connection and sometimes collaborators, now affiliated with Pow! Wow! to provide an exhibition space for Dutch multidisciplinary artist, Perishable Rush, she jumped at the chance to, in her words, “bring outside in” and provide a venue for an artist who upcycles and repurposes garbage into art.
After exploring the works-in-progress, talking with festival organizers and Niffo, I finally met up with Spenser Little, who was hidden in the botanic garden at Afrikaanderplein, discussing artistic ethics with UK interventionist, Slinkachu, and bending a sculpture of the groundskeeper who has spent the last several decades quietly tending the garden. Raised in San Diego, USA, Little grew up skateboarding, listening to punk rock, hanging out with two of San Diego’s biggest graffiti crews and learning how to build literally everything from doorknobs to chandeliers to rebuilding cars, from his engineer father who preferred to build or fix things than buy them new. After a skateboarding accident which broke both of his knees at the age of 24, Spenser turned to bending wire into sculptures as a form of catharsis and a way to pass the boredom during recovery. From his childhood spent immersed in tactile crafts, wire felt like a more natural and organic artistic outlet than painting, for example, which also became his escape from a monotonous career in biotechnology – his previous life before becoming a full-time bohemian. Working only in wire, Little is also proud to say that his art is zero-waste: all he needs is pliers and wire.
Little’s practice and subjects cover anything and everything. Although he will reproduce
certain designs, he mostly focuses on producing new pieces as inspiration arises – portraits, social and political commentary, kinetic games, sculptures which explore the absurdity of certain social rituals and conventions, critique of smartphone-based apathy and disconnect, as well as what he refers to as “existentialist banter” and “ten-year-old boy humor.” Taking a humble and realistic perspective to himself and his work, Little has no delusions that his art will change the world; as such, he prefers working quickly and spontaneously to “overanalyzing” his intent and objectives, but striving to only work for socially ethical initiatives, and hoping that his work inspires at least some small act of altruism or positivity from those who see it.
Despite not taking himself too seriously, there is intent, intellect and deliberate methodology in Little’s work. He still strives for it to have some meaning and impact. Believing that producing socially and politically engaged art is often an act of preaching to the proverbial choir, Little produces sculptures with subtle, cheeky critique and commentary that may confuse or cause observers to stop and think – rather than overtly preachy works which he says have the opposite effect. With a more subtle approach, Little hopes his work may push people who see it to reflect on their impacts on the planet, themselves, others, and society.
As my conversation with Spenser Little and Slinkachu meandered between artistic ethics, the politics of street art and festivals, inspirations, aspirations and motivations, we continually found ourselves confronting the question of how an artist can position themselves to remain altruistic, ethical and authentic, but also pay rent – especially as a street artist whose practice is fundamentally anti-commercial and illegal. Obviously, there is no objective solution to this question, only gradations of better or worse, of more or less ethically sound. As two artists who fully acknowledge their privilege and positionality as white men from the global north, and who have the luxury of being flown around the world to create art, the issue of sound ethics for them fundamentally came down to the conflict between capitalist accumulation and art for art’s sake, while trying to survive as artists who began making art for themselves, but saw a demand for it follow.
Relevant to all forms of art, but particularly pertinent to street art, are questions of ownership, the nature of access to art, and compensation for the artist. Street art is meant to be publicly accessible and the art is supposed to be created from altruism, not a profit motive. However, if art is made for consumption, but is meant to be freely accessible, where does the money come from to pay the artist for their work? If the art is institutionalized and monetized to compensate artists for their work and skill developed through years of perfecting their craft without compensation, is it still street art? Is it still legitimate, or has it become a domesticated sellout reproduction of what was once subversive and othered?
From a museological and art historical perspective, this murkiness and uncertainty is part of what makes the study of street art fascinating. From the perspective of an artist trying to maintain authenticity and integrity within a fundamentally illegal, public, anti-commercial medium, reconciling these conflicts and still finding money to eat might not have the same novelty. For both Little and Slinkachu, however, the closest thing to a solution seems to be: using our passions to unlock what Little calls “a deep mental power” to inspire positive change (while also, obviously, striving to be a good human in the broadest sense and not taking commissions from unethical sources). Although different contexts require different solutions, at Street Art Museum Amsterdam, we are incredibly grateful to draw from the support of arts and culture funding in Amsterdam, allowing us to both fairly compensate the artists we work with, while also keeping their work freely accessible to anybody who passes by.
After walking and talking for hours, the last stop of the day was to Den Haag to meet SAMA’s
new VR coach, Gabriele Romagnoli, to pick up his VR camera and learn how to use it. This was a big step for SAMA towards learning how to use our own equipment rather than relying on others. It also enabled us to create our third, and newest, virtual reality experience, a time-lapse movie of SAMA’s latest acquisition, Spanish artist E-1000’s “Hit the Floor,” located at Plein ‘40-45 in Amsterdam Nieuw-West, which you can view on VR headset, smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop at this link.
Pow! Wow! Rotterdam was a huge day of questions, learning, new connections and perspectives. It showed us that at least in some corners, art, artists, and festivals are still romantic, idealistic and motivated by altruism. Always feeling a bit excluded and overlooked by Amsterdam due to our location in Nieuw-West, visiting Rotterdam was a refreshing feeling of support and camaraderie from others facing the same struggles and chasing the same romantic delusions that we do here at Street Art Museum Amsterdam.
Thanks to everybody in Rotterdam and beyond who took the time to educate me and help this little Amsterdam museum learn a tiny bit more.
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