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How This Is Modern Art brings graffiti culture to the stage
Graffiti and theatre make uneasy bedfellows. Case in point: When Jessica Burr, the artistic director of experimental physical theatre company Blessed Unrest, decided to mount This Is Modern Art at Next Door at NYTW, the venue gave her one rule: no spray painting. That posed quite the creative conundrum for a show about three Chicago street artists. How do you dramatize graffiti writing if you can't actually do it?
Written by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, This Is Modern Art is based on the true story of a group of artists who illegally painted a 50-foot mural on an exterior wall of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010, challenging curators and spectators alike to consider who gets the privilege of making modern art. In order to successfully theatricalize that central event, "it had to contain the right kind of energy and the right kind of time pressure and it needed to be really thrilling," explains Burr. That meant using projections wouldn't work. "Having the actors mime it wasn't going to cut it, it wasn't enough."
So Blessed Unrest opted to go with an analog approach. The company commissioned a large-scale work by KEO Xmen, but instead of using a concrete wall as his canvas, he painted the image on stacked-up cardboard boxes, which are scattered throughout the theatre at the top of the show. The mural is then assembled during one long athletic scene by the six-member cast.
Shakur Tolliver plays Seven, the character who comes up with the idea of tagging the museum. During their act of artivism, he runs around the stage and through the audience grabbing the adorned boxes -- he estimates he moves 20 to 30 per performance. "What it came down to was memorizing the picture, because sometimes you get the wrong box at the wrong time, and you just have to know where it goes," he says about the challenge of arranging the pieces correctly. "What kid hasn't figured out a puzzle and had that satisfaction of finishing it? I think this is kind of a grown-up version, which is really dope."
The frenzied sequence takes about five minutes and gives audiences a sense of how stressful making street art can be. Will they create the mural in time? Will it look right? Is someone going to trip and get hurt? It's a clever way of showing what real-life graffiti artists go through since they often risk imprisonment or injury in order to paint.
Working on This Is Modern Art has given Tolliver insight into why these unsanctioned artists do what they do. For marginalized youths of color growing up in cities where they are demonized and ignored, tagging serves as a method of self-expression. "If you woke up tomorrow and it seemed like you weren't getting noticed by anyone, how is that not some weird kind of hell state?" asks Tolliver. "I think for graffiti writers, in a world where they feel that all the time, them piecing a wall isn't, 'I'm gonna go out there and do some bad shit.' It's 'I'm gonna go out there and put my name on this high spot so people know I was here, people know I exist, so people can see me.'"
When the play premiered in Chicago in 2015 as part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's series for young audiences, it attracted controversy for seemingly endorsing an illegal activity. Meanwhile the recent New York Times review complained that "the debate over whether graffiti can be art seems to have been settled." (KEO Xmen shared his reactions to the show -- and the Times critique -- on Instagram).
But to Burr, the critics are missing the point. This Is Modern Art isn't about whether or not graffiti is "good" or "real art." "It's about the lives of these young people," she says. "They just want to make their art and live their lives, and it's very difficult for them. This show puts young men of color on stage in a tender way. I like that."
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Top image: The cast of This Is Modern Art. Photos by Maria Baranova.