Thomas: The pieces you posted in Berlin are site specific in different ways. How aware of current political discussions in Germany and Europe were you when you drew and pasted said pieces?
LNY: Well, let me start by saying that it’s impossible to leave “environment” out of the production of art. If you have a small studio the work will tend to be small, if your studio is the city then the work gets bigger and gains an outside context. Thinking this way I see the work made in Berlin as being “context specific” as opposed to “site specific”. Context specific in the way that they were made for and derive their meaning from the social and physical environment surrounding them. So If I put up the same pieces around, let’s say Tokyo, they would lose their meaning or gain one that is completely different. Either way my aim was to communicate with this specific city.
Of current German policy I didn’t know much, but I was aware of France recently banning the burqa. As far as making art I don’t necessarily try to be political, I just react to whatever moves me the most and to what the experience within the city dictates. In Berlin I didn’t do any research or asked questions until after I had decided on what to focus for the project, and this came from weeks of walking the streets, meeting people, and eating tons of kebabs and falafel.
Thomas: How important is it for you to work site specific and how do you choose the spots for your paste-ups?
LNY: Making the work site specific is the most fun I could ever have; It’s challenging, fresh and it feels right. So it usually comes down to time and planning, you can make something real quick and it could be brilliant or you could take your time with a mural or paste up and really activate a space, but it all comes down to making that decision before you start or getting a bright idea the minute you see a spot. The Berlin pieces were made for the city but not for any specific buildings so hunting down a great spot was half luck and half improvisation. Sometimes a wall is just asking for it, or the graf on it would be so bad that you have to. I pasted with Chin Chin and she would say ,”Let’s cover that toy!” and we would. Two person democracy.
More often than not I pick an interesting area then find suitable walls in said area. For this project I started in Neukölln and went on from there to other parts of the city. Its also great went I have a chance to see how the piece decays or gets covered, tagged over or sometimes even burnt, which is all part of the discussion that happens out there.
Thomas: You just finished a residency at Space Beam in Incheon, South Korea. Could you tell us a little bit about the space, your work there and how the surroundings influenced your creative process.
LNY: Well, that was an all around super positive experience for me, I loved the Space Beam community, the artists and the village. Space Beam is an art space working out of an old rice wine factory in Baedari, Incheon. They focus on working with the community as well as serving as a catalyst for activism around the area. The residency program is based on a “public studio” format, which means the artists do not have individual studios but are embedded into the town in order to create with and for the community, which needless to say was tailor made for me and every other artist picked. What ended up happening with my work was that during the incubation period I developed these relationships with people from the area just by living there, got to know the restaurant owners, the community organizers and neighbors. So all I did was photograph and sketch the hell out of anyone I came in contact with. Later on this busy work became something else, big wall drawings, paste-ups, cut-outs, whatever. The content of the pieces reflect the people from the area, their personal history and their current situation, or at least I hope that’s what they do.
The other interesting development here was the addition of a significant budget to my process. As an artists coming out of New Jersey during an economic recession there are certain ethics you develop; self-reliance, a DIY spirit, thinking big and staying small, living on the humble. So here I had some reach, an assistant, huge ladders and some great friends I could count on so the drawings got bigger, more colorful, way developed. I was able to really take my time and activate space with the drawings by placing them in a grey area where historical, personal or social context meets architecture, environment and space.
Thomas: Now you are on your way back to New Jersey where, at least for some time, you’ll have to go back to working with a considerably smaller budget than the one you’ve had at hand while you were in Korea. Do you think that having had this experience of being given a budget has changed your way of creating art, or can you always just go back to a low-budget style of handling things and making ends meet?
LNY: I see my process of making art not only as a result of a financial situation but as a reaction to the current state of the art world and therefore as a conscious choice. I believe art must be free and it needs to engage in order to communicate, that’s why the white cube is a limited platform for communication in a world where you can reach so many people out in the streets or online. Sol LeWitt said something I always think about: ”… since art is a vehicle for the transmission of ideas through form, the reproduction of the form only reinforces the concept. It is the idea that is being reproduced. Anyone who understands the work of art owns it.” To me, what LeWitt is saying really connects open source principles to art. Doing something open source software-wise basically means that the code and ideas are shared and built upon freely and collectively by a community of developers. The Berlin project cost me under 15 euros to produce – buying cheap paper, acrylic paint and two brushes plus glue. Anybody can afford to do this, just follow the code and add your ideas to the discussion. This form of art, albeit illegal, is so damn democratic. So in short, having the the extra cash did influence my work in Korea but it did not change the principles behind it, which function regardless of a low or high budget. That’s why I love it.
Thomas: How would you react if a big corporate enterprise was to offer you a huge budget to design an advertisement campaign or to paint a mural for them?
LNY: My reaction would be, ‘What the fuck? Why would they want me to do something I know nothing about?’ If it is about selling something then what I do creatively does nothing towards this goal, to some people it doesn’t even communicate! You could argue that I am selling myself but all artists do that inherently when they become part of a public discourse even if they are not trying to. For my reaction to be positive would depend on many variables. The most important one being how much respect I have for said big corporate enterprise and honestly, living in America means that the list is slim.
Thomas: But you can’t deny that a street artist’s fame and street credibility is something a company can easily exploit in order to sell products like shoes, t-shirts and what not, even if said artist knows nothing about big business.
LNY: Yes, but now we are talking about exploitation! Before I naively expected there to be a positive rapport and level of communication between the big corp and the artist, but more often than not this is not the case. Also corporations don’t really need to hire the artist anymore, they can just co-opt the art and use it in an ad like it happened with JR recently. Honestly so much of graffiti and street art is basically an attack on big corporations, rampant advertising and one sided public communication that it doesn’t organically lend itself to advertising. That is at least in its reasons for being if not in its methods of being.
Thomas: Of course we are not talking about expoitation in a literal sense, but in the sense of a willing collaboration.
LNY: Well then again it would depend on the type of corporation we are talking about and if I feel comfortable working with them and what they do. I am not against artists making money from corporate entities but you know, back in art school while being groomed to become a painter, this question would hardly ever come up. My expectations of what this means are different because I’ve never cared to think about it, doesn’t really enter the equation when I’m making something. In the end what is most important to me is the work and keeping true to my vision of it, not selling shoes and t-shirts.
Thomas: Could you actually define your vision of art?
LNY: I can’t say I have a vision of “Art” with a capital A. When I work I am thinking of ideas that add up to the project at hand, so I form a vision for each particular piece or project. Just like drawing in general, there is this immediacy to the act that I don’t quite control but ends up taking me somewhere interesting, when that happens it’s like the Death Star blowing up at the end of Return of the Jedi, brraaatttt!! So no, I don’t like to define art, not my own art or in general. Too much subterfuge and it’s something you have to experience, like live music. You ever read Pitchfork reviews and it’s all poetic and shit but you really can’t tell what the music sounds like until you hear it? That’s what art is like to me. Empirical.