Opinion

The Underbelly Project Wants to Create an “Underground”

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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