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In summer 2011, American artist Shepard Fairey, famous for his Barack Obama “HOPE” poster, traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to work on a series of urban murals. One of his chosen canvasses, however, was particularly controversial. The wall was the only remaining part of the iconic underground leftist venue, “Youth House.” The surrounding building had been demolished in 2007 after a series of property disputes and major riots, leaving the lone wall.
During his stay in Copenhagen, Fairey painted a six-story mural of a dove flying above the word “Peace.” Immediately after its completion, former Youth House inhabitants tagged over it, “NO PEACE” and “GO HOME YANKEE HIPSTER.” A few days later, activists assaulted a surprised Fairey at his Copenhagen gallery opening. Fairey went back home to Los Angeles with a bruised rib and black eye.
For those connected to Copenhagen’s activist community, the reaction Fairey provoked was predictable. First, he had encroached on their territory without permission and with the air of authority, something always resented by the community. Second, his background as a wealthy American triggered the community’s anti-imperialist sentiments. Finally, his message of peace was not well received. But none of this was obvious to Fairey. How could it be, when even his sponsoring gallery had no idea how much of an insult painting the wall would be?
Artists who work internationally, particularly those like Fairey, who incorporate physical settings into their art, inevitably enter into to the politics and culture of the communities in which they create and exhibit their work. Fairey is an example of a common problem in the international art circuit. When Fairey goes abroad, he stays in sterile, unfamiliar hotel rooms. He misses the cultural idiosyncrasies that come with sharing a dinner table, or even a coffee, with a local. Fairey’s case was a lost opportunity for artistic engagement, and it was among the inspirations for us at Wooloo to found Human Hotel, a residency program where households volunteer to host artists in need of short-term accommodation.
Human Hotel aims to expose traveling artists to local knowledge and encourage them to work with, rather than apart from, local residents. The idea is often more practical than ideological. Sometimes local residents simply provide “hotel rooms” that visiting artists or curators could not otherwise afford, making it feasible for visitors to realize or present their work. Most of Human Hotel’s visitors, however, are artists coming to work on site-outside a the traditional gallery.
With Human Hotel, Fairey would’ve been hosted in a local’s home, instead of wasting his money in another bland hotel and would have had the chance to interact with his audience. His piece would have reflected his improved cultural understanding, perhaps through allusion to local folklore or history. Further, he would have had access to various, sometimes antagonistic, insider perspectives on the site of his project. Had he still painted on the last vestiges of the Copenhagen Youth House, he would have made that choice consciously. Copenhagen and Fairey’s eye would have both benefitted.
Martin Rosengaard is a founding member and artist at Wooloo. Human Hotel is a Wooloo project.
If you are interested in becoming one of the first hosts for Human Hotel’s New York City program, email [email protected] with “Human Hotel” in the subject line. Wooloo is participating in the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY Festival this May as well as the 55th Venice Biennale.
Together with Sixten Kai Nielsen, Martin Rosengaard has run the Wooloo.org artists network since 2002. The duo has exhibited their work at a wealth of international venues — including Manifesta 8 and the 55th Venice Biennial — but these days they focus all their time on Human Hotel, a curated travel community.