Venturing Beyond: Graffiti and the Everyday Utopias of the Street

Somerset House's latest exhibition explores the new space emerging between graffiti and contemporary art

It’s been 500 years since Thomas More wrote his seminal text Utopia, and at London culture center Somerset House, the anniversary is being celebrated by bringing together a selection of interesting artists, provocateurs, designers and thinkers to experiment with the concept of utopia throughout the year 2016. Above it all flies the Utopian Flag, a vibrant smiley against the (often) grey London skies.

Together with arts organization-and-gallery A(by)P, which Somerset has worked with on two exhibitions before, it’s just launched “Venturing Beyond: Graffiti and the Everyday Utopias of the Street.” More a contemporary art exhibition than a street art show, curator Dr Rafael Schacter explains: “These are not graffiti works; graffiti cannot be in a gallery. These are artworks by artists who come from a graffiti or street art background.” To put together the show, Schacter says: “A(by) P chose artists that we think are venturing beyond and really pushing their practice. Not just producing purely aesthetic work, but really pushing the idea of what graffiti is and what contemporary art is. We’re really interested in that boundary between graffiti practice and contemporary art, and thought there’s a new space that’s now emerging. There are a lot of people producing interesting conceptual work and a lot of their work is more difficult, but that’s where we want to sit; we’re really excited by what we feel is a new genre of art.”

Among the artists at the show are familiar names like Shepard Fairey and Swoon, as well as REVOK, Eltono and Filippo Minelli. The latter’s smokebomb performance turned the stone courtyard outside Somerset House into a riot of pink, orange and purple color, temporarily changing the surroundings and effectively demonstrating the power of disruptive art in public spaces. Minelli’s work inside the gallery includes prints of other smokebomb performances, which the artist said are inspired by a philosopher friend of his. “He’s working on theories on how emergencies, or the absence of emergencies, are framing our mindset and way of interacting with public space, and how politics is framing our daily routine,” Minelli said.

Graffiti ventures beyond architecture, beyond space, and it encourages participants to go across physical boundaries. It crosses legal boundaries and aesthetic boundaries

It’s this notion of exploring how we relate to the spaces surrounding us that makes Venturing Beyond fascinating. “It’s the perfect concept for graffiti, because graffiti ventures beyond architecture, beyond space, and it encourages participants to go across physical boundaries. It crosses legal boundaries and aesthetic boundaries,” Schacter says. For example, artist Mike Ballard’s works at the show are what he calls “anti-landscape paintings,” scaled-up representations of pavement slabs covered with marks left by utility companies. For two years, he’s been documenting the marks, which indicate networks than run under the pavement, like water, gas, electricity, CCTV, and cable TV lines. “The pavement slabs were almost like a ready-made canvas, so I scaled them up into paintings,” Ballard says. “I think the frequency with which these marks kept appearing more and more around (London area) Hackney, and all over the city, was an indication of how much the city is changing and has been regenerated.”

Ballard’s prints work well in conjunction with those by fellow Brit, graffiti artist Petro, whose high-visibility security vests have printed slogans like “Walk the Line,” “Out of Sight,” “As You Were,” and “Community Disservice.” The piece might seem simple, but you can’t overestimate the power of a high vis-jacket to street artists. “When you wear them, you become invisible in the city and you can go places you normally can’t. Somehow you’re both invisible and superhuman,” as Schacter puts it. Another standout piece, US artist Brad Downey’s “(Untitled) Dreamcatchers” is literally venturing beyond—the three site-specific installations, made from wall plugs, are hidden behind other works in the show and will only be unveiled at set times.

“Venturing Beyond” is now open at Somerset House, London, until 2 May 2016.

Images by Casja Carlson