A Venice street art mural about Prop 37, artists Werc and Vyal One. (ZS Grant )
Filmmakers Z.S. Grant and John Carr have spent the better part of the past year ricocheting around the country, capturing the stories of politically minded street artists for their documentary series, "Voice of Art." Their eight-episode Web series — currently airing on rapper Pharrell Williams' YouTube channel, i am OTHER — is as cutting edge and iconoclastic as the neon bright cast of characters featured in it.
Each 34-minute episode is divided into online-appropriate shorts of about 10 to 12 minutes apiece; collectively, they cover art activism of all stripes, including political performance, graffiti muralists and digital tagging, among other topics. The series, which just aired its fifth episode, has featured more than 30 indie and underground artists so far; interviewees run the spectrum of street fame, from internationally known graffiti muralists such as Mear One and Vyal to the new-to-Oakland street artists Griffin One and Ernest Doty.
Web traffic on the "V.O.A." shorts has varied, from about 2,000 to 27,000 hits per video; but its stories are equally rich. One episode profiles the New York-based, multi-genre artist Gan Golan and his fake baseball team, the Tax Dodgers. Golan had the "team" perform baseball-themed songs about corporate corruption in the streets of Manhattan. In another episode, the anonymous graffiti artist Gats — who appears masked and whose voice was digitally altered — discusses a collaboration with Roberto Miguel, who wrote a poem about and around the city of Oakland as a way to broach the nation's unemployment crisis as well as other economic issues.
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"['V.O.A.'] is about art as a way to bring attention and conversation to important issues, from local to national to international," says Grant, who got the idea for the series after attending an Occupy L.A. protest last year. "[YouTube] is the perfect place to see this type of media. Mainstream media is not gonna put us on a network station. We're a bit too radical."
Grant, who previously directed commercials and music videos and is now directing "V.O.A.," partnered with co-producer Carr, an independent art curator who is connected to the world of political art. Carr created the 2003 anti-war poster art show, "Yo! What Happened To Peace?," which traveled internationally and featured the works of Shepard Fairey and Robbie Conal, among others.
Williams, also a record producer and fashion designer, says "V.O.A." is perfectly in step with his now 6-month-old YouTube channel's mission: "My goal ... is to provide a home to those who live outside the box," Williams wrote in an email. "'Voice of Art' helps give artists a platform to share their activism with a fresh perspective on issues everyone should be aware of. Provocative art is often the best way to get people's attention."
Covering street artists, says Grant, has come with its share of drama. Grant and Carr, who have been on the road for up to a month at a time in New York, Chicago, Tucson, Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C., among other cities, were robbed at gunpoint in Oakland.
They were shooting in a sketchy part of the city when a kid in a black T-shirt climbed out of a Honda Accord and wedged a gun into their camerawoman's stomach, Grant recalls. The thief grabbed their camera equipment, iPhone and iPad; but when he went for their computer bag, which Grant assumed held the film footage, Grant instinctively resisted: "I stuck out my arm and yelled 'nooo, not this!'" The computer was stolen anyway; but thankfully, he says, they'd just switched out the memory card and no footage was lost.
It would be redundant, then, to say "V.O.A." is a passion project for Grant and Carr.
"I don't think I've ever been more devoted to something," Grant says. "Street art is [the artists'] way to let people know they're there and alive. This show is voicing our expression of their expression."
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