Inside Outside: Vandalism, Art and Vandalism as Art

After opening with a montage of cops, street artists, their materials and ‘canvasses’, and dogs, the makers of Inside Outisde pose a seemingly simple question to one of their subjects, the Paris-based “Zevs” (or “Zeus”): “Why do I have to paint in the streets?” He doesn’t have an immediate answer, but the question informs the entirety of the documentary’s 57-minutes.

To share. To experiment. To provoke. To reclaim public space. These are the answers shown through the lives and work of the film’s central characters.

The title, “Inside Outside”, has at least two levels of meaning. The one closest to the surface is to explore what it means to be an artist on the “outside”, both in the sense of not being part of the mainstream and of doing one’s work on the street. While many of the featured personalities converge at Backjumps in Berlin, a street art festival and installation, “Swoon” and Ron English, both based in New York, best represent the tensions and interrelationships between the inside and outside art worlds.

Swoon makes intricate and beautiful posters of everyday people from all walks of life. She sees her images as responses to advertising, which, she argues, tends to reduce the human form to a limited ideal of “perfection” that most people cannot attain or live up to.

Her work has earned her access to the inside world of museums, galleries, and collectors. What does that do to the spirit and meaning of her pieces? What happens when a transient art is translated into a more permanent form? How does she navigate these transitions?

For his part, Ron English is a multi-media artist who, depending on the context, is known either for his subversive billboards or for his pop art paintings. English suggests that these two worlds, and their audiences, are largely out-of-communication with each other. His story raises question of what might happen when the two worlds collide.

What does it mean to have a fine art reputation when one is arrested for illegal “culture jamming”? What does it mean for one’s political street art to have a reputation in the “inside” world?

While the other artists in the film might flirt with mainstream acceptance, especially Zevs and the Brazilian duo “Os Gemeos”, the remaining subjects seem more singularly rooted in the outside than do Swoon or English. And as such they point to the second meaning of the title, which is that “inside” and “outside” are always relative to each other, and, specifically, the “outside” has its own “inside”.

Many of the subjects seem to know, or know of, each other. Indeed, it’s hard not to think that the selection of subjects wasn’t at least in part driven by wanting to send the right signals to those in the international world of the “outside”. Zevs and “KR”, both of whom are shown to be innovators in technique and materials, particularly appear as consummate insider outsiders.

Through the character of “Butch”, who does the actual work of putting up billboard advertisements and commercial fliers, Andreas Johnsen and Nis Boye Moller Rasmussen also suggest that the “inside” has its own “outside” in the form of low-wage workers and formal access to the streets.

The latter point is also made by the NYPD’s Steve Mona who expresses frustration at the corporate appropriation of graffiti styles, which he sees as legitimating the real thing. (Mona himself, with his bevy of tattoos, is also an interesting case in the complexities of inside and outside.)

The toughest subjects to locate in the film’s narrative are Adams and Itso, a traveling pair who work in Scandinavia, but whose medium is housing rather than more readily recognizable “art” media. The film, of course, poses the question, “what is art”, but without explicitly exploring how Adams’ and Itso’s experiments in DIY housing belong in that conversation.

The DVD includes a series of extra interviews and features including one that follows-up on the apartment that Adams and Itso created out of an empty space in the Copenhagen subway. In following and listening to Chief Subway Inspector Per Buur work his way through the mystery of the apartment, the beauty of what Adams and Itso did is more apparent than it is in the documentary proper. More broadly, these extras extend the main film in a number of ways, especially in those segments hat feature people not included in the documentary proper.

The disc also offers slideshows of works by Zevs, Swoon, KR, and Ron English. KR’s art benefits the most from this treatment. KR uses a special “Krink” marker to create patterns of drips and lines on whatever surface the ink is used. Being able to take a closer look at the patterns that emerge from the application of the marker draws attention to the intentionality and artistry of what KR does in ways that the short takes in the film itself do not. The Wooster Collective extra feature also helps to put his work into context.

The narrative in Inside Outside is not very tight or pointed, particularly not in comparison to other recent and similar works such as Bomb It (2007) and Chris Marker’s Chat perchés (Case of the Grinning Cat) (2004), but it does offer a compelling cast of characters, especially Zevs and Swoon, who together constitute the heart of the film. Perhaps the best compliment I can give this documentary is that it made me want to grab a marker and go outside.

RATING 7 / 10