Art Basel take two: Street art in Wynwood, it's complicated
Such was the mood in which I find Buenos Aires street artist Ever, who along with an assistant is completing a massive wall featuring two disembodied heads emitting his signature riotously colorful cognitive mapping hives, which in the past he's painted emerging from the brains of Mao Tse-Tung and his own younger brother. Ever was flown up by a community-based Atlanta street art festival, Living Walls, to paint a Second Avenue parking lot wall as part of the festival's first project outside of Georgia.
It's not his first international street art festival, but Ever is among the artists under-impressed with the Basel-time scene in Wynwood.
"It's like the alcohol. I hate the shit — but one drink more!" We talk when the dust of Basel has long settled; Ever, fellow street and gallery artist Apex, and I perched around Apex's studio in a Market and Sixth Street garment factory building.
Apex, who has been to Miami during Basel week four times, and twice to paint the crystallized, color-saturated "super burner" murals he is known for, explains that for him, the problem is exploitation. Street artists typically paint walls for a pittance or for free, in a neighborhood where businesses are making boatloads of money off spectators that come to marvel.
"You have, like, Tony Goldman, he gives a certain amount of money, property owners make money, but artists, a few make money," Apex explains. "The rest, no. Artists get caught in the excitement of it. But who is getting paid off of it?"
"Who wins," Ever adds.
"If someone is making money off of it, you should know who that is," concludes Apex.
But the two artists agree that Art Basel week is an excellent education in the workings of the high art world for aspiring professionals, and that the camaraderie that flourishes between street artists can be important, inspirational.
And of course, the parties. Basel is known for them — 2011 featured everything from the $200-a-ticket "Fuck Me I'm Famous" David Guetta show to surprise kudos for the partykids from Pharrell onstage at Yelawolf's Saturday night gig at a castle-shaped outdoor club in Wynwood. On my first night in town, the whole Living Walls gang — organizers, artists, errant alternative journalist from San Francisco — pile into cars and hit the Design District to check out the opening of the group show of Primary Flight, a local collective that got its start commissioning murals wall-by-wall in Wynwood.
"We started noticing we weren't the breadwinners of the galleries," Primary Flight founder Books Bischof tells me in a phone interview. "It was like fuck you, we're going to take to the streets. We're all curators in a sense, so we might as well get up and be seen." Bischof logged time connecting with local graffiti crews and Wynwood's homeless population to make sure he had community support for bringing the art crowd into the neighborhood during Basel week. He somewhat resents Goldman's "just buy it" approach. "When we learned about [his Wynwood building purchases] we were like, well that's kind of fucked." (Though officially the two camps exist amicably, Goldman told me he upon arriving in the neighborhood he found Primary Flight's piecemeal approach to its murals "helter-skelter.")
But along with Wynwood's art scene, Primary Flight has grown. In addition to its mural program — through which Apex painted his 2011 Miami wall — attendees at the collective's gallery space could take in traditional paintings and sculptures, but also Mira Kum's "I Pig, Therefore I Am" installation featuring the artist in the nude, living with two pigs in a small enclosure for 104 hours. "We represent artists with a street art, fuck you swagger," comments Bischof.