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By: Caroline Cummings

Flowers on lamp post in New York
Michael deFeo

The Wooster Collective was started in 2003 by Sara and Marc Schiller. The website features street and urban art from all over the world.  I met the Schillers in 2006 when we collaborated on the Wooster on Spring Street show-a celebration of street and urban art in New York City.

Thirsty: How and what made you want to start the Wooster Collective?

Marc Schiller: A lot of things happened at the same time to bring the Wooster Collective project to life. In 2001, we took a new flat in the West Village and got a new puppy, which allowed us to explore our neighborhood. I had also just gone to Japan not too long before and bought a digital camera, which, at the time, was a new and expensive technology. Sara and I used to look at all the different aspects of where we were living while we explored the streets. One day, we were on the sidewalk and found a wheatpaste, or sticker, which really opened our eyes to start to see that the neighborhood we were living in was exploding with uncommissioned art that people were putting up illegally. When you look at the diversity and volume, it was pretty amazing.

Sara Schiller: It was a time when street art was really exploding and we documented every day all the new pieces that were put up. So, essentially we had a visual library of a movement for a year in downtown Manhattan. When Marc’s computer got too big to hold the images anymore, we brainstormed and said lets just throw these up online. We put them up and the next thing you know, tens of thousands of people had viewed very simple images. At the same time, blogging technology had just started to emerge and we thought we would explore that. We decided to call the site Wooster Collective because we were living on Wooster Street at that time. From that point, artists started sending their own images and it just took off from there.

Thirsty: What year was this?

SS: The blog launched in 2003, but we began taking photos in 2001.

Light pole from World Trade Center Shrine-Fulton Street and Broadway
Dan Witz (click to enlarge)

Thirsty: Do you remember who put up the first wheatpaste that you saw?

MS: I don’t remember the first one, but I do remember specific cases that really blew us away in the first couple of weeks. Following September 11, Dan Witz put up a shrine, that he painted, near a fire station where a number of the firemen were killed. He painted lit candles around the lamppost and people began to put real candles and flowers around his work. It was very striking. That for us was very powerful and really got us obsessed. Certainly Swoon and Michael deFeo were doing a lot of work back then. DeFeo was putting up flowers on the bases of lampposts all over SoHo.

SS: There was also a series of simple white stickers, called the Fats, which read “The Fats have feelings too,” or “Fats have friends.”  They were making their own social commentary very simply, but you noticed it and stopped to think about what these stickers were saying. At this point stickers were hand made and very meaningful.
There were also a lot of sculptures going up, Darius and Downey were bringing 3D pieces to the street. But, there was an explosion of everything from stickers to wheatpaste to sculptures.

Thirsty: As opposed to graffiti, which was so popular in the 80s and 90s, have you thought about why there was this explosion of street art at this time?

MS: A few things came together at this time. I think the internet was certainly a big part of it because people were able to share what they were doing. Street art is an ephemeral art so it only lasts so long, sometimes for only an hour or two. People started documenting it through the Wooster site, in addition to a few other sites at the time, and could see what was happening. This fuelled other artists and inspired them to put up their own stuff. You could share ephemeral art for the first time.

SS: Technology, the sense of the ability to photocopy pretty cheaply and make things bigger. Artists could make stickers and screen-printings quickly and cheaply, and this added to the nexus.

Thirsty: I’ve always found it interesting that this art form found its validation on the internet.

The Fats (click to enlarge)

MS: Validation is the right word because it is basically illegal. In the past, the discussion of street art, graffiti, or any type of urban art, immediately led to the discussion of vandalism and the illegality of the art. With the internet, because it is not owned by any one media conglomerate, or controlled by spectrum sales, you had a situation where people could celebrate the art form and create an audience around that celebration. We found that the Wooster site influenced media that was offline because it was one of the first places with a huge audience that actually accepted the art as art. This led to an opening of more people, journalists and magazines accepting it for what it is. Now with and the ability to share photos, the street art movement has exploded. The New York Times, and similar institutions, which were negative about the work in the past, have come full circle. Now they talk about it as one of the reasons to come to New York. 

Thirsty: I find it interesting that even though it is illegal, for whatever reason, a lot of the art is feel good art. You read it and it makes your feel happy, or it points out something you maybe couldn’t put into words before. It validates your emotions as a person living in the city and walking down the street. But, it is illegal and the focus has shifted away from that. The artist could get arrested. It seems as though people can appreciate the art even if they might not want it on their building.

MS: There's a lot of contradictions and complexity and that's what actually what makes it interesting. Things that are black and white, or things that people want to put into black or white, don’t really have much depth or context to them because it's just so obvious. Things like street art confuse people and it has a lot of contradictions. If you are open to those contradictions as benefits, it’s fantastic. The fact that it is illegal makes it even more interesting because you do feel that once you tap into it, it adds a level to the city that is very humanizing, is very creative and is very inspiring. At the same time, it's completely illegal, it's completely acquiring space that you don’t own, but so necessary and so needed that it creates a lot of interesting discussions.

SS: I think people are also attracted to it because it proves that cities can’t be controlled. Advertising is taking over every piece of public space and people are fed up with the zillionth Gap add, or even the zillionth Gap store. They are also reacting to the exploding gallery scene in Chelsea, where people don’t feel welcome. You walk in and aren’t treated like a person. Well you know what, why not go out on the streets and find amazing art to celebrate and see there? So, I think another reason why people started to accept it was a reaction to those two forces, which have really come into play in the last three or four years.

Spring Street (click to enlarge)

MS: Street art is thinking about the city as a collaborator, thinking about the way that the art, artist and city collaborate and interact together. That is very different from being in a gallery or painting illustrations for a magazine. It actually became its own art form and there are practitioners that are absolutely brilliant at it. People are inspired to go out and create art, get exposure and access, without feeling that they need to conform to the gallery system.

SS: That is also the challenge of viewing street art over the internet. Many of the pictures are usually just of the image itself and the work needs to be put in the context of the building or street that it is next to. A lot of the work is a reaction to specific elements of a site.

Thirsty: I think that is one of the contradictions too, you see them reclaiming the ad space.

MS: Or, you take down one ad and put up another because the art adds to the notoriety or fame of that artist. I love Ron English, but there are contradictions there. He is liberating these billboards with work that is so much his brand style that he is getting recognition for it. So, where do you draw the line? Where do you say that you are reclaiming public space, but at the same time not putting up the same thing that you are trying to react against and make a statement against? These types of contradictions, if you don’t judge it  and polarize it all, are actually fascinating. Things don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be celebrated and enjoyed. If you focus on the contradictions, I think it is absolutely fascinating.

Thirsty: It appears that in this ever-evolving art form, artists are actually coming off the streets and moving into the galleries.

MS: A lot of the artists are doing it on their own terms. For example, artists like deFaile are doing it in their own spaces in warehouses rather than the white-walled environment of Chelsea. He owns the control over it. Other artists are experimenting with the Chelsea gallery, it just depends. We find it all compelling and interesting, it is just a question of finding the right balance.

Thirsty: Sarah and I have been talking about the exhibit in the 11 Spring Street building. One of the reasons that I wanted to do it is because it felt so right, it just clicked. The question is how do you find a place where it doesn’t feel contrived to show this kind of artwork? When we first began, I was expecting a bunch of  hoodlums, but they all had families and could have been teachers or lawyers. They are dedicated individuals who have a sophisticated aesthetic sense.

Spring Street (click to enlarge)

MS: I think it is an energy, for me, not to sound too ethereal, but you can walk into an environment and there is an energy. When there is a great energy you can feel it, when you stood outside 11 Spring, there was an incredible energy of people that were attracted to the art and wanted to participate. You can’t intellectualize the space too much, if it is right, you just know.

SS: That’s the thing, Marc and I don’t think about the space so much, as want to encourage and support the artists. I think that any artist, who goes out to the street and puts up art, which is dangerous to create, has to be driven. They are different in their soul, whatever makes them up. As they move to the galleries, they bring a new sensibility with them. It doesn’t feel like what they’ve come from and this is why they sometimes have reactions to the white glove gallery. They are losing many of the things that are fundamental to their work. Something that was site-specific and was on a wall now has to be on something that can be sold. Some of the things that you see changing now are: scale, works are getting much smaller, and durability. Much of their work is produced at the photocopier in Kinkos and then wheatpasted, rather than on archival paper.

MS: But, also the high of the illegality of it adds something to the action too. There is something about the thrill of knowing that somebody could be around the corner to arrest you. So, every artist is on a different path, or doing it differently, and that is what we are excited about. We see it as art first. If it is moving into the galleries, there are no bigger supporters than Sara and I. We’re excited to see how the artists make the transitions, some will make it well and others won’t, it can’t accept everybody. It won’t accept everybody. The street accepts everybody, the fine art world does not.

Thirsty: The fact that they worked on the street doesn’t mean that they can’t do something else and not still be part of the street world. It is sort of an indoctrination, they understand what it is like to really drive and feel the energy of the city. Maybe they can bring those lessons with them. They don’t necessarily have to be on the street to do that.

MS: I think that is something, Sara and I found, fascinating in the intelligence of those artists. They are thinking about the work as being more than just about technique. One artist who we spoke with, Swoon, talked about art school and how great it is for teaching you about technique. She talks about talent and photorealism as the ultimate in terms of technique. For her, she found it unsatisfying the better she got. Which is weird, right? The more talented she got, the more fearful she got. She didn’t want to lose her soul. Something about being out on the street gives you that connection to real people, real life, that you don’t have on canvas. That is something that we learned and gravitated towards. It is very infectious.

Thirsty: I think another thing that makes it very popular is the sense that you discover it. I didn’t really know that it existed, but once I discovered its accessibility, I caught the bug. The more I talk to people, I realize that everybody likes it. What I find so refreshing is that I don’t have to be in a museum, I can look at it on my own and have my own thoughts.

Swoon (click to enlarge)

SS: I think that what has added to it, and we saw this with 11 Spring, is that today’s society interacts with things using their digital cameras. Everyone has a digital camera, or a camera phone, and the way they experience things now is very different from ten years ago. When you go to a museum, every sign says that photography isn’t allowed and that you can’t touch. The street is very liberating in that sense. There is something very fulfilling about knowing that you went and found that Swoon piece and now have a picture of it.

MS: Art itself is very intimidating and we define art by being accepted into a museum or a gallery. It is art if it is accepted by the establishment. Street art, on the other hand, was accepted by the people before the establishment and I think that is very appealing.

Thirsty: This art has not been canonized.

MS: Right. Or, if it is in a book it is suddenly art. And we use that as a way to understand what art is. And for a lot of people, they accept that, it is fine for them. But then they realize, through artists like Banksy and others, that art can be much more accessible. Art can be more democratic and much more universal. Once you tap into that, through Banksy, the Wooster site or walking down the street, it completely changes your idea of what art is. The other universal truth about art is that we all want to show that we are on this planet, that we are alive and exist. By writing your name on a wall, or by putting up a wheatpaste, it confirms that we are here and have value. I think that is what we saw at 11 Spring. People felt that they wanted to write on that building and you (Caroline) gave them the opportunity to do so. They could confirm that they were human and that they would be accepted. When you say that you can’t write on a wall, it is a monument, it is very controlling. A lot of people don’t really want to accept that level of control and so street art gives them the ability to make a statement against that control. That is never going to go away because we don’t want to live in Disneyland, there is something too clean about a lot of what we experience. It is too sanitized.


All opinions expressed by Caroline Cummings are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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