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Expectation, Fabrication and Reality: Spectacle, Preservation, Tourism, and Street Art

In 2015, what many Amsterdammers saw as the countercultural heartbeat of the city was

destroyed. Following on the heels of new anti-squatting legislation passed in 2010, and despite public backlash, after nearly a quarter century at Spuistraat 199, the Snake House was evicted, and with it went one of the last free spaces for creativity, free public art, and existence outside capitalism left in Amsterdam – replaced by roughly sixty-nine luxury condos in the tourism-saturated city center.

But that was in 2015 before “street art” had become the catchall term and tool that it is today, used to justify, accelerate, and legitimize the displacement of precarious and vulnerable populations through culturewashing gentrification initiatives, led by civic governments and the private sector. In 2015, there was local public support to leave the Snake House as it was, but no investment opportunity to convince real estate developers or the private sector to do so, ahead of street art’s current surge in mainstream popularity as “alternative” tourist attraction.

Had these events happened in 2019, however, the outcome may have been otherwise. Recognizing the façade of alternative cool and subversive, grassroots legitimacy that some big budget street art generates, cities, tourism, investors and the cultural sector around the world are scrambling to preserve or otherwise fabricate street art districts, often with little understanding of the true genesis of the movement, its ethics, ideologies, production methods, or markers of authenticity. The result of this appropriation – besides a breakneck commodification of an art movement which is meant to be anti-fame and anti-commercial – is a manipulation of its aesthetics into what is now a homogenized expectation of experiences, spectacle and sensational monumental walls which have supplanted the reality of what street art is truly meant to be. In many people’s minds, expectation of what street art should be or should look like has now effectively surpassed what it actually is, while cities and businesses race to reproduce sensationalist tropes and imagery to capitalize on this demand from mass tourism and mainstream consumption.

Through November, Imagine IC and Noha directly contacted Street Art Museum Amsterdam, requesting consultation on how, why and when to preserve graffiti and street art, and how to meaningfully engage with public stakeholders at a grassroots level. They are the most recent of many high-level heritage and culture organizations to do so. And so, surely, this newly found acceptance and support for a still criminal art form, and urge to protect and preserve it must be good, right? Could these types of initiatives not have saved things like the old Spuistraat and the Snake House?

Well…. Sort of. Yes and no.

Street art is by nature ephemeral, and not all is equal. Some is high quality, some is poorly done or unoriginal, some is done from purely commercial motivation, and some is valuable for its novelty, historical legacy, heritage value, or contributions to graffiti and street art as art movements. Street Art Museum Amsterdam only works with artists of the latter – individuals who have developed their skill through years of painting on the street at personal expense and risk, running from police, developing a distinctive style and contributing to the heritage of the movement through living in it and making it what it has become over the last thirty years through direct action. None of them ever expected their work to last forever, just as none of them began their careers painting tourist attractions in freshly gentrified inner cities.

Preserving or fabricating graffiti and street art haphazardly and without a coherent policy, whether for tourism, gentrification, or heritage purposes, risks contradicting the basic defining characteristics of the art form itself. Street art never has been about wealth, fame, or covering every possible surface in photorealist faces or cheap surrealism for Instagram; street art is not big-budget bronze sculptures of violin players bursting through the floor or headless men running to catch the tram, and neither is it blown-up stock images of Greta Thunberg or Anne Frank hung on scaffolding and vinyl canvas. Rather, it is about creativity, reclaiming privatized public space for public use through art, and saying what you want whenever and however you want without waiting for funding, canvases, or collectors. Like Banksy, street art truly means anonymously creating the right work at the right time to make an impactful statement. No true street artist started painting because they wanted their work to sit in a museum for centuries; they started because, one way or another, they wanted to make a statement and take public space back. With six months being considered a long life for most street art, indefinite preservation without clear intent risks pushing street art further away from the participatory, urgent, social interventionist, politically engaged art movement that it is supposed to be, toward urban decoration created for profit and passive consumption.

Thus, created from the original ethic just described, it is very difficult to imagine that the Snake House and the pre-2015 Spuistraat could genuinely exist amid the neoliberal urban renewal drive and eruption of “alternative tourism” in recent years. A collection of squats, radical left politics, anti-commercial altruistic art spaces, music venues and urban walls covered in chaos cannot coexist with the mainstream tourist’s expectations of picturesque settings for Instagram, or passive, consumption of predictable tourist attractions. Originally created by and for marginalized people, graffiti and street art are in many ways inseparable from these characteristics, and will always be in conflict with mass consumptive tourism and commercialism. Haphazard preservation of any and all street art and efforts to “curate” it or artificially create it, however, risks turning it into the very tourist commodity which precipitated the demolition of the Snake House, and likewise all street art, into a domesticated consumable, divorced from its original ethics.

So, trying to collect and exhibit graffiti and street art – anti-commercial, anonymous, impermanent, meant to be freely accessible to everybody – is in an awkward place, without a clear answer going forward, especially regarding preservation, compensation for artists, and tourism.

On one hand, there are efforts like that of Imagine IC to assess and evaluate preservation of graffiti at the Kempering garage in Amsterdam zuid-oost, which, as explained above, despite certainly good intentions, are incidentally contradictory to street art as an ephemeral social art movement. On the other, are initiatives such as Moco Museum or Street Art Today at NDSM, which either collect, steal, or reproduce work without authorization from the artist (as is the case with Moco’s “Banksy” collection), in a singularly for-profit model, from which living artists themselves do not receive proceeds or royalties. Beyond operating on an exploitative model, these businesses contradict every principle defining graffiti and street art: taking a wild, dynamic, freely-accessible resistance art form that does not wait for canvases or collectors, and freezing it time, eliminating the work of finding it and the grit that makes it special by compartmentalizing it in a box and charging admission to see it. They have answered to spiking demand by turning street art into a tourist attraction, but in so doing, represent the antithesis of what street art is meant to be.

There is no easy solution to the contradictory intersections between street art, tourism, mass consumption, and preservation. True street art ethics and capitalism are essentially mutually exclusive. Street art is meant to be public and freely accessible, but on the other hand, there is no such thing as a free meal. Asking an artist to work for free is to exploit their talent and labour. Conversely, to fence it off or put it in a museum and charge admission to pay the artist ongoing royalties destroys the ethic of creating open-access art, and thus the very ethics street art is created from.

Street Art Museum Amsterdam is not a perfect solution, but has done its best to walk the line between street art’s altruism and ethics, keeping the art wild, integrating community stakeholders in creative processes, and compensating artists for their work. Each of the artists in our collection does come from the original, illegal graffiti grassroots and still live their lives and practice their art following those ethics. For example, El Pez is one of the progenitors of contemporary street art, and his practice still adheres to the original practicality of only producing what you can paint quickly with your own body and a can of spray paint. Bastardilla lives 'anonymously' and only works for socially conscious initiatives, and never for-profit commission. Likewise, although limited, we have done what we can to recreate the free art space that was the old Spuistraat on the walls of our office. It may only be two walls, but we do what we can with the little we have to provide space for artists to freely express themselves. Finally, because our ethics are informed by ongoing collaboration and consultation with artists like Pez, Bastardilla, Ericailcane, Stinkfish, and Btoy, we know our collection and display practices are as close to ethically sound as possible: we pay world class artists who have come from marginalized communities, to create freely accessible art in our marginalized community. Far from the hype of sterilized, profit- and fame-driven spaces like Shoreditch, Brick Lane, or Art Basel Miami, or the mass tourist appeal of Street Art Today or Moco Museum, our art is created to be freely enjoyed by those who are othered by the cultural mainstream, and those who feel excluded by, or who cannot afford to pay entry to a traditional museum. Finally, unlike the mass tourism that has turned the center of Amsterdam into an unaffordable, hedonistic Disneyland, SAMA’s collection, which shows the entire breadth of street art production (not just monumental crowd-pleasers), brings visitors to Amsterdam Nieuw-West every day, who contribute to the regional economy and see a side of the city they otherwise wouldn’t.

With graffiti and street art continually trending away from activism and increasingly toward commercialized spectacle and sensationalism, it will only become more important for cultural organizations which are integrated within the movement itself to work as consultants to the cultural and private sectors. Art and culture are, of course, in continuous flux, but unlike other art movements, street art has never been motivated by profit or enabled by patronage and collectors; thus, rather than freezing it in time or allowing it be appropriated as a commodity by private sector culturewashing, it is critical to study and document this movement while some traces of its original character exist, while the original artists are still alive. From there, decisions can be made as to what is truly street art, what is graffiti, what is imitation or urban decoration, when to preserve it, for how long, and by what criteria, without either killing it prematurely as with the Snake House, or freezing ephemerality in time as with the Kempering garage – exactly as museums follow collection policy plans to build and maintain their collections for continual study and education.

As an institution dedicated to interviewing and researching living artists and their practice, SAMA can and does perform that role with its collection; with stronger support, furthermore, it will be able to expand its abilities to do so throughout Amsterdam more broadly. Similar to CoBrA, short-lived and localized to Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, the snapshot of street art’s evolution which SAMA’s collection documents has immense cultural heritage and art historical value as a distinct time in this art form’s evolution between subversive graffiti and mass-consumptive trend, the short span of less than thirty years in which it was defined by altruism, activism, and democratizing art for everyone. Despite its impermanence, and despite the inevitable change, there is, likewise, immense value in capturing this art movement in a state still true to its original intent and ethics so that it may be documented, studied and remembered before it is entirely supplanted by tourists’ assumptions, expectations, and corporate appropriation.

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