It seems Workhorse and PAC, the curators behind the art exhibit the Underbelly Project, are trying to keep a low profile as of late which you might not expect given the bomb they dropped a few weeks ago. Authorities, along with pretty much everyone else, learned of the show slash gallery created in an abandoned subway station via the article in the Sunday Times Magazine the weekend of Halloween written by Jasper Rees, freelance writer and co-founding contributor of theartsdesk.com. It was later revealed, not by Rees, that the “secret” location is, in fact, the abandoned station under the G Broadway stop near South Fourth Street in Williamsburg.
The story exposes an underground wonderland of artworks made by well-known street artists, art maybe no one will see again in person, ever, and that’s part of the appeal. Not because the curators, or artists for that matter, are elitist or sadistic, but partially—and pretty simply—because they wanted to take back their scene. Ever since street art hit the masses, it hasn’t been the same. People are tearing down walls to own a piece of Banksy’s art, and Rees quotes Workhorse in his piece in The National saying: “Banksy pieces that were selling for $600 one year were suddenly selling for $100,000 a few years later. It was commercialism at its worst.” Let’s face it—it’s hard to reclaim your culture or scene once it goes mainstream—skateboarders couldn’t do it in the eighties, riot grrrls couldn’t do it in the nineties and most recently, “sissy” bounce artists have said goodbye to their covert underground world—the list is impossibly long.
Like B—— Magazine took back the five-letter word by using it to title their publication, and Inga Muscio wrote the book C—-, thus reclaiming the C word, the curators of the UP wanted to “take back the night” and create an art show free of proper white-walled galleries, investors, buyers, publicists and the like. “The two curators seemed to me to be messianically eager to purge themselves of the market, if only to make a point, if only just this once,” Rees said in an email interview. To think you can create something that would be impossible to pull off above ground given so many varying circumstances such as gallery representation and space issues, (to name a few), but feasible to make happen by placing it in a cavernous tunnel many feet below ground, is pretty fantastic.
The endless world of magic they created underground was clearly a stark contrast to the space they created it in. Around one hundred artists, as stated above, many distinguished street art stars like Swoon, Ron English, Jeff Soto, TrustoCorp and so many more were escorted over the course of a year and a half down to the Underbelly Project to create. Each artist was allotted only four hours and they were not allowed to leave to restock materials. “The works which stuck out for me were the ones which had a creepy kind of correlation with the space. I particularly liked the rats, the skull with antlers, “We Own the Night,” Faile’s US flag, the creepy leering face by Jim Darling, a tag by SheOne that looked like something out of the caves at Lascaux. And obviously I also liked the work by Workhorse and PAC. They both had taken advantage of their own particular space in an organic way—PAC’s trompe-l’oeil monochrome intersections; Workhorse’s self-portrait in a lonely subway car,” Rees said.
After contacting Rees to write the story, Workhorse and PAC said goodbye to the Underbelly Project, destroying the equipment they had used to get down there. There has since been a lot of controversy around the whole thing—obvious backlash like “that the entire venture has been a stunt to enhance the commercial value of the artists’ future work,” and why create a clandestine space and then tell everyone about it? “I can put my hand on my heart and say that nothing could be further from the truth, at least in my perception,” Rees said.
Besides, just because the artworks are in a place where people can’t see them or physically visit with them, doesn’t automatically define the curators’ mission to keep said place a secret. Rees made a key point that essentially closes the lid on the other popular quam that if they really wanted to purify themselves, they would never have revealed the existence of the Underbelly. “They thought about that,” he said. “But they wanted to get their message out. And they had no problem with the work winging its way around the Internet itself, which is the secondary platform where almost all street art gets viewed anyway.”
Graffiti happens all the time. This particular display of graffiti or street art is only different because of the number and prominence of the artists, and so in turn the vast amount of work; the length of time this show took to put together and the danger the location poses, both legally and physically. If you were to try to check out the show, now that its location has been publicized, not only could you be arrested for trespassing, but abandoned subway stations in the dark of the night aren’t exactly the safest places to be.
The MTA would tend to agree. “We obviously remind the public that any such encouragement into unauthorized areas of the transit system is considered trespassing, not to mention it’s also dark and dangerous in there,” MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz said. He added that since this story went viral, about twenty or so people have been arrested for trespassing as they’ve tried to enter that station. The MTA or the NYPD won’t be doing anything to the walls though, so hopefully, no matter what the controversy, the Underbelly Project has a shot at becoming a legend over time.
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