Faile’s contribution to the Underbelly Project. Image by Luna Park (rwkstreetspot.blogspot.com)

Unbeknown to the vast majority of New Yorkers, a street art project has quietly been taking place under the streets of our fair city, artist by artist and flashlight by flashlight. The Underbelly Project is a reaction against the overwhelming commercialization of street art. Project organizers Workhorse and PAC called the fad for ripping off street objects “commercialism at its worst.” To rectify this supposed “commercial” situation being faced by street artists, Underbelly “safeguards” street art’s “integrity” by placing it where only the select few can get at it: in an abandoned, unused subway stations somewhere underneath the teeming pavement.

Underbelly’s organizers invited street artists to accompany them down to the site of the massive installation space and let them loose on the walls of the subway station. “Unobstructed by the pressure of commercial sales, email or daily routines, each artist painted for one full night,” the project’s so-far bare bones website recounts. Participants include such street art lights as Swoon, Faile, Michael DeFeo, and WK Interact. The results are undeniably incredible. Murals crowd decrepit stairways and platforms that haven’t seen human feet in ages. Photos of the works, lit by camera flash or flashlight, feature a necessary spotlight on each artist’s contribution. Elsewhere, the subway infrastructure still reigns.

A contribution to Underbelly by Revok and Ceaze (image by Luna Park)

Photos and tales of visiting the project have been trickling out lately. Ian Cox took a trip underground and reported back on Wallkandy, he describes the journey,

The air in the station was hot and humid and thick with dust, as I shone my torch around I was confronted with a huge space littered with art from many people I know and some I didn’t.

Street art photographer extraordinaire Luna Park also got to check out the Underbelly Project, and posted her results at TheStreetSpot. The photos are terrific, but the experience sounds as harrowing as it was exciting:

Stepping into the station was like stepping into a space outside of time. Utterly devoid of light, there was no way to mark the passage of time except for the occasional dull roar of a train in the distance. I had only a flashlight to light my way, yet it only barely cut into the inky blackness of the station. The air was cool and damp. My every step kicked up swirls of the rail dust that blanketed every surface. If it hadn’t been for the reassuring presence of familiar art adorning the walls, I might have quickly succumb to the illusion that I’d arrived amidst the remnants of a forgotten city.

Gothamist takes a guess at the project’s location:

According to a subway graffiti expert we spoke with, it could be the abandoned station under the South 4th Street stop in Williamsburg, or possibly under the Shell station at Utica Ave. and Fulton Street.

I don’t think I’d like to try and find it myself, though the art is quite a temptation.

Ironically, while the Underbelly Project rejects the commercialization of street art, they still embrace the popular tactics of commercial brands: they have created an insider project, allowing only those they believe to be friends to document and tour the site, and then allowing their fellow insiders to release images and “report” on the project as a cool new thing. The street art world in 2010 is surprisingly becoming more and more like the mainstream contemporary art world, with its love of insider projects fueled by ironic double-talk. The Underbelly Project is never going to be public, and while that means that collectors won’t be able to grab anything, it also reneges on one of the principal tenets of street art: Underbelly is by no means art for all.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

10 replies on “The Underbelly Project Wants to Create an “Underground””

  1. An elitist publicity trip that has single handedly destroyed the future of urban exploration on the NYC subway.

    1. Yeah, it seems like after this there will be a little more awareness of how easy it is to sneak in to these places. Though this project is largely harmless (except for the risk involved) others less well-meaning or less careful could seriously do some damage.

  2. Is hyperallergic trying to be ironic about exclusivity after hoping for more private apartment art shows? Sorry, it just had to be said.

  3. It would be art for all except “I don’t think I’d like to find it myself…”? But if you did feel like finding it, then its for everyone, and street art fulfills its central tenet.

    Actually, I’m not sure street art made tenets, and I’m not sure the artists most admired for “street art” even enjoy that name describing themselves.

    You do have a point however, that there is a website and it is branded heavily, (perhaps recklessly), with consistent-feel audio, animation, and font styles. But these are art decisions: how to style your website. Like in making an independent film, one might create a nice flyer/poster/announcement. Or a pure punk band might create a nice record sleeve. Since the web experience is the means for people to get something out of this project, I guess the organizers wanted more than a plain “blogger” template. `

    There are more critical things to explore here, like what do “street art” and “urbex” have in common, this project seems to marry the two. Notions of art “in-situ”, the work changing or being what it is for where it is, versus the the magical importance we give places, and the art is just an excuse. The idea that there’s a mainstream audience for adventure photos, stories, concepts, while the mainstream works to make the world and city ostensibly safer. And whats wrong with this public that “public space artists” would want to hide from them.

    The usual hype of a “movement”, pumped up or in this case deflated, is the same thing, boring. If however we’d like to say that rebel artists have come around to the same methods as the established artworld because (due to contemporary circumstances hinted at above: in-situ concerns, value of place, growing need for adventure belief while adventure reality diminishes, the public sucks and ruins everything) a private experience works. Then I think you have something. Because just as artists abhor the term “street artists”, and the artworld tries to present itself in myriad uncommercial guises, the two really do meet in the middle, and that may just be the most challenging and relevant place.

  4. No, it’s neither challenging or relevant, it’s a group of people who are marginal mostly because their work isn’t very good trying to force their way into the mainstream with a gimmick.

    Nobody abhors the term ‘street artist’, I think you made that part up, and as for the statement “But if you did feel like finding it, then its for everyone, and street art fulfils its central tenet” I’m afraid that’s not possible due to the place now being on heavy security lockdown after the organisers decided to expose what was a cherished urbex venue in the NY Times, etc.

    1. Whether its challenging or relevant is up for debate. But its sounds challenging to usher over 100 artists into the space a few at a time, and keep that a secret over the course of a year. And it sounds like two of the most respected newspapers in the world found the story relevant. The artwork isn’t all marginalized, Faile (see first photo at the top) have a solo show currently at Perry Rubenstein http://www.perryrubenstein.com/exhibitions/2010-11-04_faile/ , for example, Swoon has work in MoMA.

      That “street artist” is a shunned term is true, but you don’t have to take my word for it. There’s no mention of street artist on the underbelly site for example. It is possible to find as some kids already all ready did so. http://www.buygraffiti.net/blog/2010/11/the-underbelly-project-getting-trashed/

      And as for you opening comment and this closing one; that Underbelly will ruin Urban Exploration with publicity… That’s silly because urban explorers do just the same thing. See Steve Duncan’s excellent site for photos http://www.undercity.org/ and a list publicity here http://undercitywebsite.blogspot.com/

      1. You first used the term ‘challenging’ in an entirely different sense to the logistical one you are now stating.

        A couple of the artists have had limited mainstream success, yes. But the overwhelming majority fall into the category I described.

        Who exactly is shunning the term ‘street art’ though? Just because it isn’t mentioned on one website provides no evidence of your claim. I think you just came up with that entire premise to try to justify a spurious hypothesis.

        Urban explorers generally don’t reveal locations, and certainly not in the NY Times…which is tantamount to taunting the authorities.

        People are already being arrested for trying to visit the site http://ltvsquad.com/Blog/?p=1720 and the transit authority has vowed to seal it completely (and all other similar sites across the network) So the publicity given to this project HAS already ruined urban exploration on the subway.

        1. Point taken. I think finally agree with you. The amount of publicity is a mistake. If it had been kept “underground”, it would have been better for everyone.

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