Urban Alchemy

Martyn Reed

In 1995, Stavanger, one of the Norway’s oldest city, was a blank slate, no real history of engagement with subcultures, clubbing or graffiti and street art. Small pockets of it as there are everywhere but nothing major, it felt like a blank canvas. The positive side of this, was that there was little resistance to new ideas and in particular to street art. In addition to this, Nuart Festival was possible because passion, a good idealistic crew, a strong sense of ethics and a desire to get art into the hearts of those not usually exposed to it. If you have all of this, the rest will surely follow.

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Thomas Kitchin: A New Map of the Northern States [detail], 1794. Laurie&Whittle, London

I’m originally from Leeds in the north of England, a lower working class background in a poor industrial city—my mother married a Jamaican and I have 3 mixed race brothers, father married an Indian women and I have a mixed race sister—. Think of a trailer trash advert for Benetton, during the heydays of the National Front and you’ll be half way there. Teen years were the usual life of football gangs and petty crime sound-tracked by a postmodern mash-up of Afrika Bambaataa, Calle Sounds Electro, the Happy Mondays, Madchester, The Smiths and Yellowman.

I had a natural affinity with drawing and after what seemed like a lifetime of gangs, crime and poverty, it became my retreat and eventual saving grace. I’d become politicized and activist based at a very early age, after experiencing a decade of institutional racism towards my brothers as well as being wrongfully convicted and beaten by the police on more than one occasion.

This set in place a lifelong passion for advocating for the rights of outsiders, the dispossessed and the underclass. Eventually, after escaping to London and university to study Fine Arts, the two interests, activism and art, began to merge.

Poll Tax Demostration, 1990. Leeds, UK

The Smiths band, 1985. Salford, UK

Whilst at university in London I’d become involved in the burgeoning club scene of the time. I was promoting nights, DJ’ing and bringing artists and young electronic music producers together. This led to a monthly residency at London’s ICA~Institute of Contemporary Art where we presented emerging electronic musicians with contemporary artists. I was invited to curate a show in Stavanger along the same lines in 1995, took a residency as a DJ in Oslo and starting commuting between London and Norway. A year later I made the move permanent and in 2000 set up the Numusic Festival, one of the worlds first festivals dedicated to electronic music. In 2001 I established Nuart Festival as a sister festival to Numusic.

Initially a new media and digital arts based festival, the Internet at the time being a new unpoliced frontier and platform for activist based work. Over time the form of new media became more engaged with style and technology over content and in 2005 I shifted focus on to street art, which at the time was a radical new form of protest based art. I had DJ’ed at Cargo in London during Banksy’s first show back in 2001 and had developed a passion for the form but had yet to consider it ‘Art’ in the sense I’d learned at university. It took a few years to unlearn the prejudices I’d picked up at art school.

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Club Cargo entrance, London

In 1995, Stavanger, one of the Norway’s oldest city, was a blank slate, no real history of engagement with subcultures, clubbing or graffiti and street art. Small pockets of it as there are everywhere but nothing major, it felt like a blank canvas. The positive side of this, was that there was little resistance to new ideas and in particular to street art. New York’s Broken Window theory wasn’t prevalent here and the standard of living and support for the arts was something I hadn’t experienced before. The public didn’t relate street art and graffiti to tagging and ‘broken windows’—there weren’t any, and so their first exposure to it really was a huge Blu mural, so what’s not to like? The public support since then has been 100%. And if the public are behind you, the politicians follow.

In addition to this, Nuart Festival was possible because passion, a good idealistic crew, a strong sense of ethics and a desire to get art into the hearts of those not usually exposed to it. If you have all of this, the rest will surely follow.

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Stavanger, Noruega

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Mural by Blu in Nuart Festival, 2014

Basically all we do is provide a platform for their ambitions and expressions. We always said we would never try and ‘curate’ with a specific agenda and that we’d try to reflect rather than attempt to define what the culture was. This perhaps need to change as the dominant form being promoted by organizations and city councils now seems to be tourist or gentrification friendly murals. These are just a small, though of course not insignificant, part of our culture, but no more important than a small stencil, sticker, throw-up or urban intervention. What Nuart Festival hopes to present and focus on, is the breadth and depth of unsanctioned street creativity, the power behind a sticker or small stencil down a side street that actually communicates something is often more necessary and relevant than a huge decorative mural. If we do anything for the artists and scene in general, then it’s to give them the opportunity and freedom to consider this.

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Mural by DOTDOTDOT in Nuart Festival, 2014

I’ve always said that we will have reached our goals not when people notice that we place work on the streets, but when they notice it’s not there anymore. There’s a huge wave coming where it will hopefully be the norm for citizens to use their public spaces for their own unsanctioned and unbridled creativity, much the same way kids do with chalk on the pavement and adults do on-line. The encroaching privatization and control of public space—both physical and digital, should be fought on all fronts, and rather than being complicit with this through the production of state sanctioned muralism, we should be actively fighting it through the careful placement of dissenting voices through a mush broader presentation of street art.

I think after 10 years of placing works on the streets of Stavanger, there would be outrage if suddenly it was decided we could no longer access the walls and minds of the city. I guess that could be considered a change, certainly towards public art, which is generally considered a waste of tax payers money.