Just as I had decided that Brooklyn street art might not really be up my alley, I happened to see a photo of Imminent Disaster's installation at Thinkspace's current "From the Streets of Brooklyn" show, and I realized how wrong I was.
(Thinkspace photos are courtesy of Arrested Motion's very dedicated photographer Stephen Wong. All other photos are from Imminent Disaster.)
That strange hand – like a 19th-century woodcut caressed by a wisp of ghostly vapor – reached out over the internet and clasped me in its eerie grip... so I had to rush over immediately and investigate the show. I was not disappointed – Imminent Disaster completely transformed the Thinkspace Project Room with "One Day We Will Part," turning it into a dilapidated Victorian drawing room, with exposed lath, disintegrating wallpaper and shredded drapery only a paper-thin disguise for the sewer behind it, just beginning to break through the decaying surfaces of propriety.
Disaster's graceful, flowing work combines the concept of impermanence, disintegration and the cruelty of time with political themes about power, poverty and the position of women in society. "For some reason I’ve always been drawn to a macabre and cynical view of the world," she admits. Yet her work, despite its gravity, isn't depressing. Rather, it has a haunting, ethereal quality that's quite rare in street art.
Many of Disaster's pieces are inspired by the sort of history recounted in books like Luc Sante's Low Life, a fascinating exploration of New York's underbelly between 1840 and 1920, but she also blends in Latin influences gathered during her extensive travels in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. "I am really fascinated by the whole South American continent and want to continue to get to know it better," she explained in an interview with NY Art Beat. "There’s a certain authenticity in their lifestyle that I think our culture has lost in its quest for commodities."
"Cargando Dinamita" ("Carrying Dynamite")
At the age of 17, Imminent Disaster emanated from South Florida and moved to New York City. She enrolled in a design program and specialized in printmaking, which she has put to good use in her work. About two and a half years ago, she began leaving art on the street, starting out "culture jamming" with stickers and small wheatpastes and swiftly developing some really original work using woodblock prints, stencils and silkscreens. Since then, she has gone on to work in a number of other media, sometimes combining more than one method in a single piece.
Many of the pieces she wheatpastes on the streets of Brooklyn have also been exhibited a gallery setting, where her combination of printing, painting and intricate paper-cuts – such as this rug, for example – can be quite compelling.
Nonetheless, she has mixed feelings about selling her art. "The commodification of artwork is something that really concerns me," she said. "I am definitely grateful for the opportunity to sell my work right now, but I also don’t want to rely on it, or think of it as a career, or as a source of income. I feel like that will taint my artistic drive and my ability to make pieces that are really coming from a genuine source inside of me. I have some plans for the summer that involve clandestine art installations in hard-to-get-to places. I think at least for the short term, I’ll still be making street art. As a reaction to doing installations in galleries or selling work in private spaces, I’ll be focusing on doing really time-intensive things in public spaces for more or less nobody."
Her paper-cut pieces are astonishingly delicate-looking, despite the fact that they seem to survive being wheatpasted in the roughest of urban environments. They are "cut out of paper, the same way as a stencil – except the paper that remains is your positive, not the open space, like a stencil would be," she explained.
"Zodiac" (at Thinkspace)
At her first gallery show at Ad Hoc Art last summer, Disaster told NY Art Beat, "I am inspired by 18th- and 19th-century oil paintings, specifically Caravaggio and the way he used light. The piece that I am working on right now is all about light, and that’s something I’m really trying to develop."
"Time Will Slip Through Your Fingers"
"I’ve been drawing a lot of my inspiration and imagery in a looser way from a certain period in the late 19th century. I did a project at the end of my college career which involved a lot of historical research. Reading all the history about New York City sparked my imagination. You can see it everywhere. It’s visible in bits of cobblestone and defunct tramlines peeking through asphalt, in old warehouses gutted and resold as hip condos."
"The city is old, but constantly being torn down and rebuilt. There are all these things that are buried below modern structures and many on them are now invisible. The modern has obliterated it, and now it lies forgotten. In some ways I am trying to reveal what has been lost. All of this is partially a commentary on gentrification."
"The Organist" (at Ad Hoc Art)
Disaster's first gallery show at Ad Hoc Art last summer, "Poets of the Paste," was quite a success. To her surprise, she sold several large pieces, including "The Organist," an 8'x8' one-of-a-kind combination of block printing, stencil, silkscreen and hand-painting on recycled plywood. "'The Organist' is based on historical facts," she told NY Art Beat. "Herbert Asbury, who wrote The Gangs of New York, also wrote a compilation of different weird mayhem stories that happened in New York over a 50-year period (All Around the Town: Murder, Scandal, Riot and Mayhem in Old New York). One of the stories is “The Great Fire of 1835,” which almost decimated New York. They didn’t think the city would come back. It affected the area that is now the Financial District."
"In the essay there was a little blip about a warehouse burning and organ music mysteriously coming out of it and ceasing when the building collapsed. That blip is not necessarily history – it’s pretty subjective and may not even have happened. It’s merely somebody’s memory of this event. And so the story is somewhere between history and legend, and that’s maybe what captured my imagination."
Hope and Disaster collaboration in Richmond, Virginia
Imminent Disaster was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions for me after we met at her Thinkspace show.
Erratic Phenomena: Have you known you would be an artist since you were a child? Were there any particular events or influences which motivated you to make creating art your occupation?
Imminent Disaster: My first grade teacher told my mom she thought I would become a famous artist. I don't know if that has come true, but I've been doing creative things since I was a kid. I've tried everything from ballet, to piano, to playing Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but making things with my hands was the thing that stuck.
"Biofuel" with "Time Will Slip Through Your Fingers"
EP: People always seem to be surprised when they discover that a street artist is female – perhaps because it's considered a somewhat dangerous pursuit. Obviously, secretly creating art in difficult situations and inaccessible locations has its own rewards which outweigh the considerations of legality and self-preservation. Why do you find it so compelling?
ID: I find the streets compelling for a number of reasons, from the aesthetic of urban decay to the political act of reclaiming public space. Marx said that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism will always have the abolition of private property as one of its characteristics. I think graffiti and street art fundamentally confront the idea of who has control of public space, although it's difficult to talk about street art as a political act without simultaneously considering the fact that most of the works on the street have been absorbed into the gallery circuit and are being sold as commodities, diluting some of their purity as counter-capitalist acts.
I also think that the embrace of the ephemerality of the street has the potential to confront the ephemerality that pervades our culture. But these are just ideas that float around to help me understand why doing this seems so necessary. I think there are many reasons, and they go beyond just being a political act.
EP: How did you come to choose "Imminent Disaster" as your street name?
ID: Something like an apocalyptic vision, a statement about current socio-economic conditions, and a little bit of badass.
EP: Your large paper-cut pieces are amazingly graceful and detailed – they really feel like they're hand-painted with a very dextrous brush. They must require a tremendous amount of very precise cutting. Could you tell me a little about how an intricate paper-cut such as the one I think of as the "skeleton lovers" is created?
ID: The process of making art that I was taught during college was very design driven – study a market, identify problems, and solve them through carefully planned and tested iterations with a clear and focused intent. Now I've adopted pretty much the opposite process. I act very intuitively, and without much "planning." I sketch on a white layer in pencil, I reference images for things I can't draw from my imagination, and then cut over the lines I sketch. My sketch lines aren't my final lines... I leave a lot up to the knife.
"The Divine Fluids"
EP: There is a strong historical element in your work, which you've spoken of elsewhere, but you also convey a sense of emotion, character and narrative which seems quite literary to me. I am reminded of Dickens, penny dreadfuls and other Victorian-era tales. What do you think are your major influences?
ID: I think, on all levels, my influences are pretty easy to read. They span the spectrum from contemporaries, to friends, to masters – Swoon, Kara Walker, Abandonview, Caravaggio, Dürer, Dali. Sometimes I think my work is a weird fondue pot of everything I've ever seen or admired.
"Copper On Duty"
EP: The sense of history in your work – such as the dilapidated bolt-up collages you did in Red Hook with vintage newspaper clippings about housing issues – often works as social commentary, perhaps even political protest. Brooklyn is becoming quite trendy, and I know artists who lived there for decades who've had to leave the city altogether due to development and rising rents. Do you deliberately evoke memories of New York as it once was in order to engender second thoughts about the gentrification of the old neighborhoods and the obliteration of their storied – if somewhat seedy – past? Or are you simply attempting to inject a sense of history into a rapidly changing urban landscape?
ID: I think one of my initial desires was to reveal things that had been lost or forgotten. Seeing or reading about the history of a place makes it possible to imagine how it once was, and perhaps reconsider its current condition. I found Red Hook a particularly good place for historic imagery because its history is still so visible... cobblestones peeking through the asphalt with defunct train lines going into the sides of buildings, beautiful old factories still intact although mostly renovated as lofts, the old piers rotting on the waterfront.
I think history is a valuable thing to know as a tool for greater understanding, as a point of reference to mark how we've changed and how we haven't, to reveal how things we thought were new have happened before, and how some things really are new, and what that all might mean for us.
"The Current Carried Us"
EP: Your recent collage work incorporates old sepia-toned snapshots. Susan Sontag wrote, "Photographs are, of course, artifacts. But their appeal is that they also seem, in a world littered with photographic relics, to have the status of found objects – unpremeditated slices of the world. Thus, they trade simultaneously on the prestige of art and the magic of the real. They are clouds of fantasy and pellets of information."
Your embellishments – swirls of ghostly vapor, wistful snippets of text that could have been lifted from yellowed love-letters, swooping paper-cuts that resemble wind, water, spiderwebs – seem to be evoking another dimension of meaning in these bits of other people's memories that have been left behind. What is your intention in altering these old snapshots?
ID: I've been captivated by old family photos for a few years and have been collecting them rather compulsively. I think aesthetically the high-contrast images and the yellowing of age appeals to me. I've often been impressed at the beauty of the compositions that everyday people were able to capture. I also think that they reveal glimpses into lives very distant to my own that produce a very visceral and intimate emotional reaction – almost as if I could imagine they were people I once knew – and I want to invent stories to describe the passions of their everyday lives.
EP: Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
ID: To keep my hands moving. The next one, and the next one.
EP: Thanks, Disaster!
Imminent Disaster currently has a solo show and an amazing installation as part of Thinkspace's "From the Streets of Brooklyn" exhibition, curated by Andrew Michael Ford of Ad Hoc Art. If you're in the area, make sure to drop by and see it before it's too late!
In 2010, she and Armsrock will be hitting L.A. again for a two-person show in the main gallery at Thinkspace. In the meantime, keep an eye out for her work on the streets of Brooklyn.