Interview with Brooklyn Street Art

  • by Team Urban Nation
The new exhibition “Martha Cooper: Taking Pictures” is on view at the URBAN NATION Museum – a six-decade retrospective of Martha Cooper’s photographic work. Through photographs and personal objects, artifacts and ephemera, the exhibition traces Cooper’s life, from her first camera in 1946 to her current reputation as a world-famous photographer. (more…)

When and why did you decide to become involved as curators and at the same time create your now very popular blog?

It’s all been organic, really. We both have knowledge of art history and have worked in corporate and professional art and design professions that sincerely fine-tuned our focus and our selection processes. Jaime for example worked for over a decade with Warhol Factory alum Jed Johnson as an interior designer to high-end clients in their homes and businesses. Steve had been a national creative director for a global advertising firm and an art director at The New York Times. We’ve both been in artist collectives and done gigs in nightlife, theater, fashion… Curating events and exhibitions comes as second nature actually – educating ourselves about street art and its predecessor graffiti have become our full-time acts of self-education. This is an ongoing study of a living art practice that takes many routes, forms and practices under its wing – with us under its tutelage.

What do you think defines a good curator?

Good question! That could be a relatively open-ended topic for us – even if institutional scholars have tried to define its features and codify its practices over the decades. For us it is about honoring the work, its evolution, – and allowing it to communicate in an unobstructed, authentic manner. We think that a curator should be completely passionate about the work they are showing and the scene that they are in, so that they can summon and present the most salient aspects of the work that communicate to the expert and the uninitiated just exactly why the work deserves attention. They should have a healthy sense of curiosity about the contextual features that inform the work and give it agency. It’s like being an intuitive conductor who listens well, who leads foreword and allows subtleties to emerge beyond the obvious, leaving room for surprise or even revelation.

When and where did you first come into contact with Martha’s photos or when did you meet her in person?

When we each arrived in New York in the 1980s, graffiti was the skin of the city, tattooing our trains and jumping off of walls. Seriously “all city” graffiti had become part of the New York Uptown and Downtown scene that was bridging racial and class barriers, along with house parties, clubs, hip-hop, punk, art-rock, experimental performance, and ever-wilder fashion. Every graffiti fan or follower whom you met would eventually mention Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfants’ book Subway Art and Charlie Ahearn’s movie Wild Style and a handful of recurring figures whose names were crossing barriers into the gallery scene like Keith Haring, Basquiat, Futura, and Kenny Scharf. But our creative circles were not focused precisely at that vortex in this city that had so many scenes emerging at once – and we didn’t meet Marty until the 2000s at an opening when our own focus had honed on shooting and studying the subcultures that birthed graffiti and street art. We kept running into Martha at events and we found that we three liked each other socially. In addition we had common interests of documenting these organically grown street-based art scenes. As a friendship developed, we also discovered that we had a baseline set of shared values and ethics that transcended our individual study of any of the scenes that we each document and preserve in our own ways.

Copyright: Leah Levin Houston | Bowery Wall | NYC | 2013

Which quality about Martha Cooper as a photographer inspires you the most?

We’re inspired by her relentless quest to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and her track record doing so. We admire Martha’s drive to preserve and stand as a witness, to honor peoples’ lives and work through a masterfully framed and technically superb photo with a straight-forward and unpretentious approach to shooting. She’s recording us as we live.

What were the two biggest challenges in planning the new exhibition, how did you handle the distance New York – Berlin?

We had a “perfect” plan to execute this show prior to the pandemic, but eventually Covid-19 left its mark so forcefully and indelibly upon us and Martha and the UN team. All at once we felt like everything we did was in relation to this sudden and mysterious illness that was killing 20,000+ New Yorkers throughout the spring and summer while we worked on the exhibition. Our planned trips to Berlin at regular intervals to check on progress and direct development of the exhibition and to discuss how to mount and display the show with the UN team – were all cancelled one after another. We had to collectively and individually re-arrange our brains – and our schedules – to communicate with each other. We re-imagined how to fulfill our goals when most of the team was calling from their homes, some with sounds of babies or dogs or ambulance sirens in the background.

We transitioned to a digital/virtual installation of the entire exhibition in the museum, acclimated ourselves to 7 am NYC meetings via Whatsapp and Skype with the Berlin team, planned an entire catalog without ever meeting the Berlin book designer Barbara Krimm and her team in person. We were in quarantine in Brooklyn for 9 weeks straight, scared to go outside as our neighborhood was in the “red zone” area of the city with the highest infection rates – and for a few weeks we heard the sound of hospital ambulances shrieking by the window all day and night. Martha was likewise stuck inside of her Manhattan apartment and studio and was similarly fearful to go outside – shooting a new series of photographs out of her window actually – which was a complete and startling change for someone who travels to 8-10 cities internationally during a typical year.

The original opening date of the museum exhibition was in June but all these sudden changes caused the debut to be pushed back a few months. Our meetings with Martha in her studio and archives were suddenly restricted as we went in complete “lock down”. Luckily we had already reviewed and examined a lot of the archives with her in the months previous, and with Martha’s dedication to the project, her hard work putting in long days, and with the patience and fortitude of our team, we were able to see the show and catalog evolving and coming into actuality. Our team is exemplary and absolutely unflappable.

You were already working as curators for URBAN NATION before this exhibition. How does the curation of the projects at that time differ from the new exhibition?

We were happy to be on the curatorial board of the museum since 2015 when we brought 12 artists from Brooklyn to Berlin for our cultural exchange exhibition called PM-7/Persons of Interest with the museum’s director at the time Yasha Young. This was a unique opportunity for us to curate a show with stunningly talented street artists through the lens of historical and cultural connections between our two “sister” cities. Brooklyn and Berlin have been fertile ground for incredible artists communities for decades – and we’ve been sharing and trading our artists and influencing one another’s creative culture as well. Of course immigration had already tied us together far earlier; for example Brooklyn was inhabited at one time by 60% German immigrants in the middle of the 19th century. In our own experience we had already had a physical cultural exchange with artists from the Berlin neighborhood of Wedding. In 2005 we had been a part of an artist collective in Brooklyn that sent artists to do a show in Berlin and they sent artists to show in our communal gallery space – dual shows called “Williamsburg Wedding”.

And of course we were members of the curatorial team who worked together for two years for the opening exhibition of the museum in September of 2017, where we invited 165 artists spanning 5 decades and multiple continents to help us blast open the doors of this institution that was so full of promise. With less of a strictly educational or academic focus, this was a partial but wide survey of graffiti and street artists who had commercial or institutional successes, and whose work collectively represented a snapshot of a “moment” in the ongoing evolution of art on the street.

There are certainly moments when you have different views on an exhibit or the content of a new exhibition. How do you deal with this as a team?

Yes, you’re right. We are very different in many ways. We both bring our skills to the game and care a lot about what we do and how we do it, so we prefer to concentrate on our common goals and give each other leeway for personal expression. Ultimately we have found ways to complement each other’s vision and since our common goals are the same we believe that the result is far stronger than either of us could have imagined.

Working together for so long, not much gets lost in translation between the two of us. We know what we want, we have a very clear philosophy of what we stand for and we are in agreement about how to move forward with any given project, sometimes determining whose skill set is better suited to meeting the challenge. This exhibition is no different from many projects we’ve done together. We take risks, do our research, compromise when prudent. But Martha and the team, our UN team, brought their own experience, education, and ingenious problem-solving to the process and we saw individuals summon their personal best to meet the needs of the project in ways that felt most natural. We have high standards and we know our team and Martha do as well.

What is your favorite piece, which represents Martha’s multifaceted work as a photographer?

This is a difficult question as we are exhibiting 60 years of Martha’s career, and we are in love with so many of her photographs. There are photos from each section that speak personally to each of us, but we can’t really mention one as a favorite. However, from the perspective of the narrative in this exhibition, we both feel very strongly that Martha’s photo of the graffiti writer and ‘style master’ Dondi straddling two trains, which appears at the very entrance of the show at UN, is emblematic of so much of her career. She is showing the process of an artist at work, revealing a part of the ordinary world that is extraordinary, she’s breaking rules and making her own path to get the shot, and the subject is determined to create his own world.

Not to mention that there is a dramatic tension in the physical pose and the fact that the painting of the piece on the train is being done illegally at night time on city property and he’s creating something under lighting conditions that are hard to ameliorate. But he is absolutely determined to get his creative voice out there and to be seen by his peers, and Martha was determined to get the perfect shots and document the process despite the lack of natural light and the dangerous environment in the yards, which is why this is the first large scale photograph that welcomes visitors to the museum and exhibition.

What can visitors look forward to most in the new exhibition? Are there possibly different highlights for different age groups?

It’s been our goal to speak to as many audiences as possible with this exhibition – hard-core graffiti writers and more recent fans of street art and muralism, parents and children who get to witness other kids being playful and imaginative in environments that are quite varied yet they show a universality in the creative spirit. We also wanted to reach Hip Hop heads who appreciate Martha’s earliest photos of breakers free-styling and in competition, and DJs and MCs and bboys and bgirlz and writers who are coalescing around a central scene. Finally we wanted to let the photographs have ample opportunity to speak to those who cherish this form of expression and documentation.

In the show we have approximately 250 personal artifacts, approximately 500 printed photos, 1400 digital photos, 10 personal black books, 35 original artworks by artists inspired by Martha and her work, the original dummy for “Subway Art”, a two-story mural by Seth, 10 audio recordings, a site-specific multi-screen multi-channel video installation by film director Selina Miles, a timeline of Martha’s life and career from 1943-2020, a sticker board with new stickers from around the city and world added weekly, and a collection of all the books Martha has authored or co-authored. And more.

While this is primarily a photographic exhibition, the show reaches graffiti writers, street artists, tattoo fans, Hip Hop fans, collectors, those with an appreciation for documentary photography as well as film and video, sticker-heads, artists who appreciate re-interpretation through applied technique, free-spirits, students, academics, anthropologists, ethnographers and historians. We have visual, audio, text-based deep-dives, background stories, her personal journals, photos of Martha as a baby and child with her parents and her holding her first baby brownie camera… We think we have created a powerful testimony to Martha’s heart, brain, and her overwhelming wanderlust that sincerely reaches out and engages visitors in many ways. We also believe we have also convincingly made the argument for her inclusion among the great photographers in modern times – which is one of the reasons we are so proud that the European Month of Photography featured this exhibition this year in their selections.

With what feeling, or insight do you hope the visitors will go home after visiting the new exhibition?

Elation and inspiration. If the public leaves the exhibition feeling joyful and in high spirits for what they learned and experienced we’ll consider our job well done. You can be focused or casual about this show, but you are going away enriched. There is so much to learn, not just about Martha and her career but about photography, graffiti, Hip Hop, street art, and the creative spirit that is expressed through all kinds of people in many societies. Her wealth of work in this show, her hundreds of photos on display, her stories, her interactions with the artists and the cities that she visited are all in here – but so is the visitor who will find themselves reflected in these offerings. If the public leaves the exhibition inspired about photography and jolted about the possibilities of their own artistic leanings and it leads them to some kind of expression of them, then we’ll consider our job well done.