For over a year, more than 100 street artists from around the world have crept into an abandoned subway station four stories below New York City. They would come late at night during the beginning of the week, when the platform was emptiest. Some painted murals, others stenciled graffiti, a few created installations. They worked in four-hour shifts, only able to see by the light of camping lanterns. Sometimes, the Transit Authority would shut down nearby subway lines, causing the artists to scramble away before being seen by workers. Each artist would come one at a time and only once.
An underground street art exhibition unlike any other, The Underbelly Project began in 2009 and opened this summer. Though blog speculations link the project to the South 4th Street Station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, authorities are not confirming any information. The exhibition is not open to the public — only to those who happen to chance upon it or hear about it from an insider. But for those hoping to glimpse the project, take caution: the New York City police has arrested twenty would-be-viewers, mostly for trespassing, as The New York Times reported Thursday.
The exhibition, after all, is illegal. But more than that, it’s a rejection — a rejection of the gallery setting and of the public. A rejection of art as commodity, of buying and selling art. A rejection, above all, of the art market itself. But such rejections and denunciations are commonplace and reactionary at best. What’s so compelling about The Underbelly Project is that it doesn’t merely reject current models of the art world. It uses their dysfunctions to its own advantage.
In critiquing the art market and the larger market from which it stems, The Underbelly Project ironically relies on the very failures to which it draws attention. Originally, the subway station where the project is located was intended as a transfer point for subway lines that would have stretched from Lower Manhattan and Queens, but the plans were abandoned during the Great Depression due to lack of finances. The market’s dysfunction — in this case, the events precipitating the Great Depression — created the space necessary for the project. Moreover, the project uses the current economic recession to its advantage. Officials have said the project will remain in place, not because they want it to but because the Transit Authority lacks the funds to tear it down.
The Underbelly Project has drawn lots of valid criticisms. It’s illegal. It’s dangerous. “If you go in there and break your neck, nobody’s going to hear you scream,” one of the anonymous curators behind the project told a New York Times reporter. “You’re just going to have to hope that someone is going to find you before you die.”
But in a sense, the project has turned those criticisms on their sides. Since the project wouldn’t exist without the dysfunction of what it critiques, the criticisms of the project do not diminish but further its critique. Think the project is irresponsible? Blame the conditions that brought it into being. Blame the conditions that keep it from being torn down. Blame, above all, the art market. It is a critique unlike any other, one where its own criticisms further its objections.
Even though authorities have acknowledged the exhibition will not be taken down, The Underbelly Project’s days are still numbered. Already, the damp air of the underground station is causing paint to peel, and some paintings never dried to begin with. No one knows how long the work will last, how soon it will be no more than a memory or concept. But in a sense, it already is. Most will never see the project in person, but this hasn’t stopped an ensuing vigorous debate or halted police intervention. Likewise, those who have ventured to see the project did so on nothing more than hearsay. They were prompted to action — risking arrest and personal injury — on the basis of an idea.
As one of the artists behind the project told The New York Times, something is lost when street art becomes commercialized, ripped off the walls and sold. The Underbelly Project was an attempt to recapture the sense of adventure and energy and to escape the commodification and “whims” of the market, he said. Certainly, the project has achieved these goals — along with some unintended results. What resulted is an art built on dysfunction, an art that has moved beyond the art object and the viewer, an art that exists conceptually more so than materially, an irresponsible art that endangers would-be-viewers. Since the project wants nothing to do with the art market, artists themselves must decide: Is such an art — freed from the art object, from the public, from the dollar and from moral responsibility to its viewers — a valid alternative?