I don’t really get this secret “Underbelly Project” exhibition that 103 street artists from around the world have created, and which is garnering much fanfair and publicity at the moment. I mean, yeah, on the one hand certainly I get it, and I like the idea behind it, because it’s pretty romantic and I like romantic stuff. The New York Times published a big article on The Underbelly Project on October 31st, which is where I read about it first, and there’s lots of stuff all over the Internet about the exhibition now (a shall-remain-unnamed but extremely well-known aggregation website posted an article on it too, with lots of pictures, presumably without compensating the photographer for them as the article used the term “kind enough to share” when thanking her for said photographs, those bastards, if I can possibly help it I’m never gonna link to said aggregator website because of the grotesque way in which they feed on the FREElance labors of others, double-bastards – I don’t want to give them even a cent’s worth of eyeballs)…whew, where the heck was I?
Oh yeah, the Underbelly Project, anyway so as The New York Times reports (there was a NYT reporter at the exhibition’s one night only opening/closing), the exhibition takes place in an abandoned New York City subway station whose location is top secret; the exhibition was over a year in the planning/making. Lots of well-known street artists were involved, but have gone anon for their own legal protection. Makes sense. Go read the Times article for an in-depth description of the exhibition project. It’s worth reading about, for sure, since it’s unlikely that you’re going to get to see it unless you literally want to risk your life and your clean police record (assuming that you have one). But what doesn’t make sense to me, what I do not get, is why all this vaunted praise is being heaped on a show that, in truth, most people are going to see in terms of a not-all-that interesting bunch of pictures on the Internet. Through those little sidebar photographic slide shows that you click through and which makes all art look not like what it is, but like a photograph of art. The Underbelly Project, like all street art, is about context – the context in which you, in this moment, are viewing the work of art. So why create a format in which the only context for viewing the art would be a computer screen? Why didn’t those involved simply keep the entire thing a secret, without inviting press and the attendant press coverage?
They New York Times reporter actually asked this question, and the artists’ response was basically “Pride.” That also makes sense, I get that they wanted people to know that these artworks exist, that the process of their making happened. They want it historicized.
But why not also think about the end result – if you’re going to have enough forethought to invite the NYT to your exhibition opening, shouldn’t you also think about how the NYT and other media are going to cover it and, even more importantly, represent the works of art in your exhibition — works of art that cannot publicly be seen in any format by anyone other than how the media are representing it? IE, through photographic slideshows? Sure, most art shows nowadays are consumed through online images, but at least there’s a small group of people who will see the work of art in situ. That fact is still important – or at least it should be.
I’m probably being too viewer-centric about all of this, but that’s the only point of view I have. I bet the artists involved in this show had the time of their lives making it. That’s probably all that really mattered to them in the end–and that, I very much get.