20 Years of “Public Discourse”: The Film That Changed the Way We Saw Illegal Street Art

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Juxtapoz Presents takes a look back at Public Discourse on its 20-year anniversary. The groundbreaking film, one of the first to take an in-depth look at the illegal installation art movement that would become internationally known as “Street Art,” was shot in the classic cinema verité style using compact mini-dv and video 8 cameras. Directed by Brad Downey and featuring the likes of Swoon, OZE 108, Ian Vanek, Quenell Jones, Ellen Harvey and Tim Hansberry, the film originally screened in winter of 2003. Together, with Downey, Juxtapoz Presents Public Discourse with insights and conversations with the directors and artists who made it, and a special presentation of the full film above.  

Brad Downey (director) 

Our mantra, Quenell’s and mine, was “if you’re gonna be stupid, don’t be half stupid, be all the way stupid.” This basically meant, if you want to do something, do it, regardless of rules or conventions, or what other people think, and carry it through to the end.

We were both 18 in 1998 when we embarked on our first collaboration, Public Discourse. It was a time when Quenell and I, along with our friends – musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, and more – were all striving to master our respective crafts, blending our talents and influencing one another. Quenell and I were squatting in a Hasidic housing block in Bed-Stuy, allocating all our funds towards super 8 tapes, Chinese fried chicken, and breakfast fry-ups. We lived rent-free and were both enrolled, respectively with our future debt collectors: Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts. Our days and nights were spent walking and filming. I learned a lot by conducting and fumbling through video interviews. The film gathered all these diverse characters together into a kind of art movement. I called it “Illegal Installation Art.” As awkward as the term was, it aimed to encompass a diverse range of artists working illegally in New York.

Verbs and I were partners in mischief, embarking on countless adventures together. We managed to achieve a sense of invisibility by acquiring high-vis vests from various community service spots. Desa had recently been released from jail, and Nato’s voice carried a poignant question, “how is it the right thing.. to rat on myself?” Japanther repurposed phones from booths as makeshift microphones, staging gritty-lowfi performances on street corners and rooftops. Ellen Harvey’s work was both surprising and demanding, encapsulated by her own description as being “totally protected by her demographic.”  Bob Dombrowsky was recognized for renting limousines and playing bagpipes, referring to his strategy as an “undercover of wealth”.

Eric Elms, who honed his design skills alongside Shepard Fairey, taught me how to wheat-paste. I shared this knowledge with Swoon, whom I met in a printmaking class. Swoon possessed a remarkable ability to effortlessly unite people towards common goals. JJ Veronis possessed vandal-proof bolts and portable DIY staircases. OZE 108 and Rate stood out as the most creative typographers, while Pac-Man pioneered the creation of fire extinguisher drawings that are now so commonplace. Espo’s generous sharing of “get over” tips helped us out of a few tight spots.

Swatch emerged as a street art thief after we captured footage of him selling artwork by Kaws, Bast, and Verbs on the streets. He went so far as to threaten us with physical harm if we dared to use the footage, prompting us not to include it.

It’s intriguing to note that the film’s duration is less than an hour, even though we shot around 160 hours of footage—stacks upon stacks of tapes. Someday, I will revisit the footage. Needless to say, we left much on the cutting room floor.

Swoon aka Caledonia Curry (featured artist)

Was I embarrassed re-watching myself as a little college kid just figuring it out? You bet I was! But how wonderful that Brad Downey and Quenell Jones had the vision to capture that moment in time with such an imaginative group of rebellious by nature artists. I remember like it was yesterday how hard they worked to get all those interviews, chasing down elusive graffiti writers, trying to make a portrait that was historical and also current; specific to illegal public art while keeping an eye on the breadth of what that could mean, and the imagination that people have been putting into unsanctioned art in public spaces since time immemorial. 

For me the real star of the show was an is Leon Reid, who was going by the name Verbs at the time. His presence is the beating heart of the film. So many late nights and early mornings going out on missions with Brad, Leon and Quenell had a huge influence on me. In some ways their camaraderie and encouragement were what kept me going in those early days when I was just finding my voice. This is such a joyful document of a ragtag optimistic time.

OZE 108 from Kill Your TV and 907 (featured artist)

The year 2003 saw a lot of outsiders to the graffiti vandalism game start to really put in work. “Street Art” was blooming and the work by its nature wilts fast to the elements of buff, thieves, other vandals, encroaching capitalism and worse. We barely had cellphones and only a few people carried cameras daily… the best way to see this work was aptly simple, on the streets. Thankfully Public Discourse was there to catch a last blip of this fleeting history before social media obliterated its temporary personal experience based landscape.

Ian Vanek from Japanther and Howardian (soundtrack)

Public Discourse documents a time period in New York City that’s vibrance echoes well past its physical form. Street artists and graffiti writers taking a new approach to city walls is what attracted me to New York as a teenager. I count myself as lucky to have been a part of this moment in urban art history and to know a few of the featured artists personally. Twenty years after its creation the film now lives as a time capsule filmed from the inside looking out. 

Quenell Jones (cinematographer)

Photographed in the classic cinema vérité style using compact mini-DV and Video 8 cameras, we followed the art-making process from initial ideas in the studios to the streets, cinematically capturing both the artists’ private and personal moments of exuberance and regret. Through cinema, our aim was to portray the profound passion of artists on screen. Using the camera, I intended to present this film as an in-depth study of the utilization of subversive messages, the mimicry of advertising methods, and the introduction of unsanctioned three-dimensional sculptures to the public.

Ellen Harvey (featured artist) 

An alternately funny and serious love letter to a moment in street art history that raises still relevant questions about who gets to be a public artist in our society. See it for all the amazing artists (myself excluded). 

Tim Hansberry (editor)

In the summer of 2002, I was home in Boston on break from SVA (School of Visual Arts), when I got a call from my adviser suggesting I meet with Quenell Jones and Brad Downey about editing a documentary for my thesis. Up until that time I was more of a student of the city than an academic, who’s Irish Catholic guilt was eating away at him for his lack of interest in school. I found the underbelly of NYC life so much more interesting and spent most of my time walking the streets, listening to records, experiencing the nightlife, and taking in the essence of the city. A bit of a lost soul who had found his home but not his purpose. Graffiti and street art was everywhere at the time and very much part of what I loved about being out in the streets. When Quenell and Brad explained the premise of the film and what they had been working on for years to capture, I knew I had stumbled not only into something very special, but something that resonated with where I was in my life, and who I am. I found a way to take part in a culture that I both admired and wished to be a part of. I jumped at the opportunity and the challenge of combing through this treasure trove of footage to help bring their vision to life and in the process discovered my love of film, street art, and the art of telling stories.

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