Street Art, Ownership and Authenticity


Early in October, SAMA collaborated with famed Spanish street artist Kenor on a project with Train Lodge Amsterdam. This project – a continuation of previous projects in which Kenor remodeled an ordinary train car into a technicolour dreamland-turned-hotel – saw Kenor translate his characteristic electronic music influences into an abstract living artwork. Though the piece was finished in early October and Kenor has long since returned to Barcelona, the saga continues for Kenor’s most recent train car. Questions are now arising as to the car’s fate, it’s ownership and, arguably, the future of commissioned street art projects in Amsterdam.

Following the train’s completion, the train car has fallen into what can only be described as ‘limbo’ in terms of its legality. Long before the start of this particular project, it has been conveyed to SAMA that Train Lodge had entered into an agreement with ‘The Powers That Be'. Though SAMA is not privy to the exact specificities, it has been suggested that an agreement was made regarding a set span of train cars without possibility of further extension; making the addition of Kenor’s most recent train a breach of said agreement. However, Train Lodge has suggested that the terms of the agreement are, in fact, much more nuanced than have been suggested, and that there is a grey area insofar as extension is concerned. Nevertheless, it has recently been indicated that these terms are far more concrete in terms of the function that this latest train car is able to assume. It cannot be used for further accommodation or profit, essentially rendering its intended function – traveller accommodation – void.

Currently, Kenor’s latest work awaits its fate, acting as a supplementary storage vehicle for Train Lodge.

While the future of the train car is up for debate, the complexities surrounding this discourse have spurred further discussions regarding the site-specific nature of street art, and the distinct role that context lends to the authenticity of certain pieces.

Over the last twenty or so years, Amsterdam Sloterdijk station has undergone rapid transformation. In contrast to Amsterdam Centraal’s historic brick façade designed by architect Pierre Cuypers in the late nineteenth century, Sloterdijk, since its very creation, has characterized a much more futuristic vision for Amsterdam, heavily utilizing glass, steel and plastic to reflect values of transparency and openness.[i] Kenor’s pieces on the train cars at Sloterdijk have always been informed by these very distinct features; one who gazes upon his pieces at Train Lodge can quite easily identify the ways in which the unique architectural qualities present within Sloterdijk have been mimicked with a prevalent usage of lines and angles.

However, with these new developments with respect to the legality of the train car, it has been suggested that the Train Lodge might have no other choice but to re-locate to another city in the Netherlands such as Rotterdam or Den Haag, begging the question of whether street art can, or should, be removed from the context in which it was created and transplanted into a new environment. Can an artwork retain the cultural and social significance that the artist has imbued within it in the event of such interventions?

This predicament represents the conflict of two elements that have been built in to the very foundations of the street art movement – ephemerality and context. Street art’s cultural heritage significance can at times seem paradoxical in regard to such concepts. Alongside being a practice that leaves behind a significantly tangible end product, it is also a practice that embraces the temporary, and is complexly woven into intangible social practices. Herein lies the dilemma. Cultural heritage scholars have suggested that intangible heritage differs from tangible heritage in that it is far less concerned with “rootedness, faithfulness or fixedness;”[ii] that an essential facet of intangible heritage is its transformative nature. In essence, if we were to view this particular case study solely through the lens of intangible heritage, moving Kenor’s train car to a different city would not inherently diminish the piece’s authenticity.

And yet, while street art is intended to be ephemeral and ever-changing throughout the passage of time – thus embodying the transformative characteristic of intangible heritage, it’s authenticity is often additionally assessed by its physicality and the intangible values assigned to it in a certain place, a certain wall. Exemplary of this are the many headlines surrounding the internationally acclaimed king of street art, Banksy. Many of Banksy’s original works have been removed, or intervened upon in one way or another, in the name of preservation and economic gain, particularly in recent years; however, at the end of the day, Banksy himself refuses to authenticate works detached from the original location on which they were created.[iii] While many of these Banksy stories are inevitably tied to the artist’s loyalty to the democratization of street art in contrast to its rising monetary value for the privileged few, the fact remains that street art has never been regarded as, or intended to be, ‘moveable heritage’ in the academic sense.

“The removal of street art – Banksy’s or otherwise – from the street can have negative consequences for its integrity, erode the cultural significance attached to its particular setting.”[iv]

There is a perhaps a tragic irony in this ongoing dilemma given the illegal origins of the movement itself, which brings yet another nuanced perspective to these discussions. One might argue that the demographic that frequents places such as Train Lodge are not entirely dissimilar to the street artists themselves; travellers and bohemians, misfits and ‘others’, artists and adventurers. This highlights a certain authenticity to this collaborative street art project between SAMA, Kenor and Train Lodge, in which underdogs have collided from several directions to create a haven for other underdogs, inevitably, but unintentionally, in resistance to ‘the man’ – for lack of a better word. And yet, we have entered into a bizarre era in which the societal and cultural acceptance of street art as a genre and medium of modern art has created an environment in which governments and similar organizational bodies have themselves been given the opportunity to assess and evaluate street art, thus assuming a role of identifying those pieces deemed worthy of preservation.[v] The potential departure of Kenor’s piece from Amsterdam therefore also illuminates significant and influential questions of ownership.

At the end of the day, who owns this artwork? Who has license to decide its future – the Gemeente, Train Lodge, SAMA, or Kenor himself?

[i] “Sloterdijk Station,” Architectuur Centrum Amsterdam, accessed November 9 2019, https://www.arcam.nl/en/station-sloterdijk/

[ii] Samuel Merrill, “Keeping it real? Subcultural graffiti, street art, heritage and authenticity,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 21:4 (2014), 381.

[iii] Alice Noguiera Alves, “Emerging issues of Street Art valuation as Cultural Heritage,” Lisbon Street Art & Urban Creativity 2014 International Conference (2014), 23.

[iv] Merrill, “Keeping it real? Subcultural graffiti, street art, heritage and authenticity,” 376.

[v] Noguiera Alves, “Emerging issues of Street Art valuation as Cultural Heritage,” 25.

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