In Stavanger, Norway, every September for the past 12 years, Nuart, one of the largest street art festivals in the world, transpires. Closeted in the beautiful Fijords, Stavanger is a quaint, oil-rich community with a high standard of living, sometimes making the list as most expensive in all of Europe. However, it is not easy to get to, rains 20 hours out of every day (at least in the fall) and has a zero tolerance law when it comes to tagging and graffiti. A perfect spot to host preeminent street art and its artists?
In full disclosure, I was generously invited to attend this year's fest on Nuart's dime. I was one of three American journalists present, and was eager to learn how they can pull off such an astounding opportunity for art in such a difficult place, while Los Angeles, former mural capital of the world, can't get an appropriate mural ordinance passed.
The 2012 artists invited included L.A.'s own graf artist Saber, and a few locally recognizable names and styles: Eine, HowNosm, Ron English and PublicAdvertising's Jordan Seiler, who, in addition to creating a clever ad takeover, premiered and tested his new augmented reality program at Nuart, which then launched at Miami's ArtBasel. Also included this year were British troublemakers Mobstr and SickBoy, Aakash Nihalani (New York's master of tape and perspective), Neils "Shoe" Meulman (the Netherlands' legendary calligrapher), Dolk (Stavanger's local graffiti artist) and the French environmental artist, the Wa.
The way it works is curator Martyn Reed, a former British DJ, and his skeleton crew of 30 passionate art and music fans and friends, have taken over an abandoned brewery called Tou Scene on the edge of town. While nightfall hosts the sibling Numusic electronic music festival, also curated by Reed, the days are given over to the invited street artists.
Each is given a "tunnel" (a former beer vat storage room) inside the Tou Scene complex to create an installation, and then, if time and resources allow, an outside spot in town on the side of a permissioned building, sometimes in a residential neighborhood. This produces a magical effect as you could be walking along a row of houses and come upon a mural.
On the opening weekend, which we attended, there were panels of speakers (including Paper Magazine's Carlo McCormick, and Juxtapoz's Evan Pricco), movie screenings, hands-on workshops and very wet walking tours. These events, especially the street art tours, were sold out, despite the constant downpour, attended by a very dedicated group of civic leaders, fans and local artists. Twenty thousand people are expected to have seen the art after all the numbers are in this year. Plus, most of the work from 2006 and past years are still visible, like a few David Choe and the Vils pieces. An iconic BLU piece was destroyed with the tower that it was painted on last year. Nuart is only limited by amount of funding it receives, but this year it was able to offer free admission to the tunnels and stay open six days a week for six weeks.
"The idea here is to provide a space and platform where people working with this culture have a space to meet, discuss and reflect on issues surrounding what we're all involved with," explains Reed. "It also gives the public an opportunity to find out who the artists are and why they do what they do."
What started out as a fun visual component to the Numusic fest has, over the years, expanded into a bona fide street art destination. But how do they get it sanctioned in a rich, picturesque town where everything's closed on Sundays (because of church) and there are zero-tolerance laws strictly enforced? The secret: they don't.
"It's a bit of a misconception that Nuart is permissioned," says Reed via email. "We have no legal right to do what we do in public and tend to work exclusively with the private property owners when sourcing walls, etc. Some of the urban interventions and ad takeovers couldn't possibly be allowed, mainly because we haven't a clue what the artists are going to produce. There's a huge element of trust involved.
"However, the community has decided over the years that what we create is a positive contribution to the city, and to a certain extent, this gives us the alibi (and strength in numbers) we need to justify public funding."
Reed uses that autonomy wisely by working hard to choose the artists based on what kind of work they're doing and how he thinks they'll complement each other. This leads to lively dinner conversations and feeds the competitive nature that street art thrives on, and allows outside-the-box inclusions like Akousmaflora, live musical plants that made up a fascinating installation that reacts to human touch, by French artists Scenecosme in Numusic's VIP area.
For his tunnel installation at Tou Scene, Saber chose to create one of his signature purple graf pieces, on a Palomino Beige wall. S-A-B-E-R was spelled out in crafted, pointy and complex letterforms that took two days to complete. However, the crux of the piece was its actual destruction, as he performed an elaborate buff for the opening night audience (a clue perhaps provided in the taupe colored background -- Palamino Beige is the paint color professional graffiti removers use) in protest to Stavanger's zero tolerance tagging laws and nodding towards his hometown of Los Angeles at the same time.
Ron English added his characters to the space in another interesting collaboration between the two artists, adding some humor to the otherwise serious political concept. English's outdoor piece for Nuart was done on the street side of the Radisson hotel: large, painterly, three-eyed, three-eared neon rabbits, which was a favorite of the kids in the neighborhood.
Courtesy of Nuart, How and Nosm (who painted the L.A. Weekly building) have moved closer to their goal of 100 murals for 2012 with an installation at Tou Scene meant to make you feel as if you were lying in a grave with your life story passing before you. A black, white and red storyline accentuated by stalagmite-like forms protruding from the floor, the piece is made even more interesting as onlookers can stand inside it. Their outdoor piece, not far from the tunnels, enlivens the side of a coastal office building, the theme in keeping with the town's other livelihood -- fishing.
Ben Eine, another of L.A.'s favorite artists by way of England, knocked out a stunning piece on the façade of Stavanger's H+M store. Eine's usually thick, black "vandalism" font made bright by neon red and pink accents, stands out against Stavanger's shopping district's dark grey sky to brilliant effect. One of his most well-done and passionate pieces to date, the 77- character message of love is monumental.
Jordan Seiler is not so much an artist as an opportunist. Always trying to find a way to replace intrusive street advertising with art, Seiler has figured out the technology to replace a buffed wall or a replaced billboard with the original graffiti or mural. We got a preview of it at Nuart, and it's fascinating. Seiler even had a chance to use it on his own work, as his installations for this year's festival were almost immediately removed, via a very diligent Norwegian outdoor ad company.
How does it work? Seiler's project is a augmented reality app for a smartphone, triggered by a particular building or space. It will read the building and then show the blank spot on the building your device, but it'll look as if the artwork still existed within it. It's a bit like art-ghost hunting and unimaginable how Seiler will have the time to find all the photos. Sensibly, he started with street art hubs, like Stavanger, then launched the project at Wynwood Walls as part of Art Basel.
As a successful international festival like Nuart sets an example and helps to focus on the future of what street art and it's artists are becoming, we have to ask Mr. Reed, can an event like it be accomplished in Los Angeles? And should it?
"Find us the walls and finance and Nuart LA is on," exclaims Reed. "A nation brainwashed into equating creativity and art (graffiti) with violence and murder via bad Hollywood movies (Charles Bronson's Death Wish for example) is possibly not a good place to start, but L.A. should be enormously proud of its contribution to what is a global phenomena in how the public engages with the visual arts. It's a shame that home-grown talent and world renowned artists like Saber have to fly across the Atlantic to fine the time and space to create work in public."
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On the last day of our stay in Stavanger, after a futile search for a proper lunch is thwarted (remember, everything's closed on Sunday), a long walk back to our hotel room brings us down from the art high provided by the amazing artwork achieved over the past week, as suddenly there is an expensive can of Montana Gold Flat Black paint set formally in the middle of the sidewalk. Hmm. Not randomly dropped or discarded in haste. Knowing that all the Nuart artists left for home hours earlier, an awkward glance to the right reveals a local tagger with a tell-tale streak of paint on the left side of his face, pleading his case in Norwegian with two very serious uniformed Politi. He managed to get the letters "M-A" up before being stopped. It's not looking good for him. The zero tolerance law in full effect. No use sticking around to see what happens. Tag bombing in an eye-level spot at 4 in the afternoon is hard to get away with anywhere, even if it is raining.
Plus, if you're looking for an alternative way to ring in the new year (and you're in or near Norway), there's a "Fuck Art, Lets Dance" party at Tou Scene in Stavanger Dec. 29, celebrating the end of the world. Produced by Numusic, it'll feature 5 hours of deep house and techno as well as a vinyl only 3 hour DJ set from the master himself, Martyn Reed. The art tunnels may be closed, but most of the public pieces will still be up to view. Dress warm!