Ephemeral Art's Lasting Impression: An Interview with Marc and Sara Schiller

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , interview , posters

One person's urban blight is another's sprawling canvas—or so Marc and Sara Schiller discovered seven years ago while walking their Weimaraner puppy, Hudson, in their New York City neighborhood. They became fascinated by the appearance and disappearance of hand-made, wheat-pasted posters—from the cynical and graphic (Bäst, Faile) to the delicate and lifelike (Swoon, WK Interact). What the Schillers planned to share with a few friends became the Wooster Collective—a growing archive and thriving on- and-offline community.

Art by Bäst, Faile (photos: Luna Park) and Swoon (photo: Jake Dobkin) at 11 Spring Street

Established in 2001, the website takes its name from SoHo's Wooster Street—where the couple once lived, and home to the Candy Factory, a former warehouse popular with international street artists. The blog is now a trusted news source where you can get the scoop on enigmatic figures like Banksy, as well as peruse an extensive repository of graffiti from around the world.

By day Marc runs a digital marketing agency and Sara does real estate marketing for a large hotel company, but their spare hours still revolve around Hudson and their online “celebration of street art.” Here, the Schillers discuss what makes them full-time fans, what happens when ads and street art mix, and why the work should be appreciated, whether or not it lasts.

Apfelbaum: The Wooster Collective is more than a website or a walking tour or curatorial group. How did you find yourself at the center of the street art movement? 

Marc: [Sara and I] were always around and involved in art in different ways, and we've always been really connected to New York. And we're the type of people that have always taken advantage of the city. There's a whole other layer to New York that exists, until recently, under the radar of most people—they walk right by pieces of original art that's been put up anonymously on buildings and on lamp posts and on construction sites.

Outside 11 Spring, featuring work by Faile, Bäst and JR (center) (photo: Jake Dobkin)

After a year of literally taking pictures of ephemeral art—documenting something that really doesn't last more than a day or two, maybe a week, a month if lucky—I was going to delete [them] off of my hard drive. Then I found a little piece of software where I could very quickly, easily just put them on this webpage. I emailed probably 20 of my friends—all designers or they were artists themselves or they were involved in creative work. They emailed their friends, and then after a couple of weeks, I was curious to see if anybody was looking at these photographs of all this street art, and there were tens of thousands who had.

Apfelbaum: I like that you don't just say, “Here's a cool photo,” but you interview and have access to these incognito artists, too. 

Marc: Well, it's all about communication. We're not artists ourselves, so we don't communicate visually. Artists communicate visually, and sometimes are nervous about communicating through their own voice.

At the time [2001], it was a type of art that the mainstream media wasn't writing about, that exists in every city in the world. We [became] aware that hundreds of thousands of people had been following this art form, this movement, on the web—not just through our website—and that it's just grown and evolved. As the mainstream media looks for new art forms, and as brands and advertisers look for things, there's been this crest of a movement [and] we've found ourselves at the center of documenting it.

Apfelbaum: When did you realize that you werenot onlyfilling a niche but actually mobilizing a creative, cultural force? 

Swoon at 11 Spring (photo: Jake Dobkin)

Sara: The whole thing has been by accident. Marc put up some images, and a woman named Ange Taggart reached out to him [to use an image]. She was coming to New York City to lecture, and he said, “Well, you sound really interesting, why don't you come over to our loft and you can give a talk?” We sent out an email to a bunch of people we know from the business world, marketing, and a bunch of our artist friends that we know, and a bunch of people who'd been emailing us, that we had an email relationship with, like Swoon, who we'd never met face to face. And Ange was such an amazing first salon to have. Then we got to know Christina Ray from Glowlab, and she's the one who asked us to do the first walking tour.

For Ange's event we thought we'd have 20 people come, and there were 80 people who crammed into the apartment. For the walking tour, I literally photocopied 10 maps to hand out, and we had 75 people. And subsequent walking tours we've had hundreds of people. I don't think we knew even then what we were really tapping into.

Apfelbaum: You started out locally, but the Wooster site covers the international scene, too. How did it evolve? 

Marc: What Shepard Fairey was able to do before the web was really have his street art in every city in the world—there's not a city [where] if you look up at the lamppost, you'll [not] see the Andre the Giant sticker.

A lot is happening here, but we started realizing it was cities like Barcelona—and London, Sao Paulo— that were really driving the creative spirit. In Melbourne, the stencil stuff; and South America, the incredible vibrancy of Buenos Aires. Once you start to put up a few things from a certain city, then other people from that city see it and it starts to grow. We get around 500 emails a day now from every place: from China, India, Iraq and Iran.

Sara: But not as much [from] Japan, which we want more of.

Apfelbaum: Since you began, so much has changed in both technology and urban development. The face of SoHo is almost unrecognizable. I mean, there's still the outdoor gallery on the Candy Factory, which you introduced me to...  

Marc: Which is now going away.

WK Interact (photo: Luna Park)

Apfelbaum: It's being torn down? I guess I shouldn't be shocked.  

Marc: What you find with most street art is that the artists are putting up their art in buildings that need repair. Gentrification affects street art a lot because an artist isn't motivated to destroy a beautiful building just to put up artwork. The artist is motivated to take a factory that is being run down and put their art up there for people to see it. There is still artwork on the streets in SoHo, but a lot less because the buildings that really attracted street artists are now disappearing. And those are the buildings that are older and need a little bit of life added to them.

Apfelbaum: Eleven Spring Street is an amazing example. Last December you curated a weekend-long exhibition, Wooster on Spring, where the entire building was occupied by street artists' original work. I heard the lines to get in went around the block! How did it come about? 

Lines at 11 Spring Street (photo: Michael Simon)

Marc: One of those once in a lifetime opportunities. When we started dating, Sara lived on Mott Street, and we'd been fascinated with that building for years, and then documented a lot on the Wooster site. It's one of the few buildings that have become kind of outdoor galleries, outdoor museums for street art.

One day we got a phone call from the woman [Caroline Cummings] who had just bought it. And she became interested in all the art on the outside of the building...

Sara: She's a young developer who had her master's in art history and fell in love with the building, and researching the art [on it] she kept coming back to our site.

She reached out to us [and] said she wanted to honor the history of the building before they cleaned up. Marc and I have this laundry list of ideas of things we want to do, and one of them has always been to get a building and have artists paint on the inside walls. We mentioned it to her—and to her credit, she agreed to take the risk and do it. Then we began a seven-week journey to paint 30,000 square feet of interior space and pull together that weekend show, where we were open for three days and about 6,000 people came through the building.

Apfelbaum: You certainly tapped into something special there. 

11 Spring Street “Behind the scenes”

Sara: Besides just how beautiful the art was and the level the artists took it to, I don't think we would have known before it started that we would be so impacted by spending so much time with the artists and watching them create and seeing them interact with each other and just the whole creative process and being able to have this sneak preview into that was pretty amazing.

And the impact it had on New York City—no one could have guessed that people came in and saw the show and started crying. People were moved. They thought it brought back the heart and soul of the city, that it reminded people of why they lived here. It had such a profound impact specifically on the neighborhood. And then the greater New York City community, who was really proud that their city could do something so amazing for free. Being able to enable that is a reward that Marc and I will never forget.

Apfelbaum: Oh, now I'm really sad that I missed it. 

Sara: I feel sorry we couldn't keep it open for more days. But that's how those things go. It's just a fleeting moment and then it's gone, just like street art. In all senses, it represents [street] art itself.

Marc: There will be a book. It was a great experience.

Apfelbaum: A book would be amazing. 

Sara: Ah, we're not going to commit to anything!

Apfelbaum: Good thing there's the web, in the meantime. 

Marc: It's extremely well documented on the web.

Sara: One of the things I liked about the impact of technology is, when you Googled “11 Spring” and went to all the blogs that covered it, every single blog picked a different image that to them represented the show. It was neat just to see what people gravitated towards to put at the top of what they'd written about it, besides the hundreds of photos that were on Flickr.

Apfelbaum: It's impressive that the building owner's intentions were so pure—and yours, too. Not everybody sees urban art that idealistically, though. Aside from the people who see it as vandalism, there are those who want to co-opt its credibility for their branding purposes. Do you have a position on the commercialization of this art form? 

Marc and Sara (photo: Dan Bergeron)

Sara: Artists can evolve and change over time, and people need to do what they think is right in order to live their lives.

Marc: As long as they're doing art, though... The idea of “selling out” is really stupid, in the sense that I think it's a really personal thing, if you want to get involved in a brand. At the same time I don't believe that an artist should do anything that comes their way. There's a lot of jobs that somebody could take. Everybody has a different threshold.

Apfelbaum: But do you think its authenticity gets compromised? 

Marc: I get excited when artists move into the fine art world, when artists start working with brands—if they're challenging themselves. There is only so long that you can go out on the street and get arrested, or risk that. So you have to evolve it. If that means you have the ability to make it in the fine art world or you have the ability to do some interesting work with brands, I think it's great.

Apfelbaum: How about when advertisers use the stealth methods of street artists to their advantage? Marc, you work in branding ... 

Marc: But I have very strong feelings about—I think an ad should stay an ad, and a piece of art should stay a piece of art. And you should realize where the lines are drawn. I don't believe in guerrilla marketing or stealth marketing, or ads that generally want to have it both ways and be credible in kind of an underground way.

Sara: People will consume good advertising, knowing that it's advertising. I happen to love the Apple iPod ads, I love how they're evolving them. I like consuming those ads because, I don't know, they make me feel good. People hate consuming bad ads.

Gore.b at 11 Spring

Apfelbaum: Since you're admittedly fans, who are some of your favorites? 

Sara: We have always loved Swoon. We like Gore.b, Elbow Toe... we like so many artists!

Marc: Every week there's a new artist that inspires us that we start to really like. The good thing about “favorite artists” is that you don't have to limit it.

About the Author:

Sue Apfelbaum is a freelance writer and editor with a focus on design, art, music, film and culture. From 2006 to 2012 Sue was the editorial director for AIGA, publishing critical, inspirational and educational content about design on the AIGA website and developing programming for AIGA's webinars. Visit http://about.me/sueapfelbaum