In hip hop it is important for us not to forget those who are making movements other than the stereotypical mic. control. Individuals, such as Harlan Levy, creative director of the fantastic ModArt Magazine and No New Enemies founder; who is creating organisations which fulfil the true hip hop mindset not enough supporters bother practising. A man keen to fuse genres he refuses to judge.
When we talk about art, creativity, movements and reasons, these are the people we mean. The people the scene will always need in order to evolve and integrate. The people who deserve more of a mention and applause than they get.
So first off, introduce yourself… could we have a little bio and how you're involved with NNE?
Harlan Levey: Born 1974 Cleveland, Ohio. Living 2008 Brussels, Belgium. NNE was a brain tick I had removed and decided to share with friends.
How long have you been in the art game?
Harlan Levey: Art isn’t gaming to me. It’s playing. There’s a big difference. I’ve been playing with art longer than I can remember.
Tell us a bit about your work with ModArt…
Harlan Levey: I’ve worked as editor in chief at Modart magazine for the past two years. We’re basically a folk art magazine with added sex appeal on the sweat of the risk factor. Social activism, skateboarding, Graffiti and other forms of street art practices were the first focal points of Modart and while our slogan is Creative Action = Active Creation, community remains a key to our content. We’re interested all types of aesthetics, but need to feel some risk, vulnerability and lots of skills in the work. We tend to select work, which won’t leave readers needing to know more in order to stop that sense of ‘I must be missing something’, but rather wanting to know more, because something has hit a chord. If art is to be part of visual language, we’re using English instead of Esperanto I guess.
So what’s all this about your non profit organisation, No New Enemies?
Harlan Levey: No New Enemies is an international network of artists, activists, academics and passionate people, which began as an open minded collective who enjoyed collaborating on the streets for various reasons; one of which was to communicate with a broad and democratic public, with people ‘like us’. The network aims to place art in public spaces, encourage the exploration of media aesthetics outside of institutional settings and to support young artists with various tools and opportunities. Value is placed on responsibility, risk and process, as opposed to end product, and questions to the citizen / consumer dialect are constantly posed.
At first No New Enemies it was just a sentence in my notebook. I was sighing. I’d just finished a documentary on the Practice of Democracy in America, which had been commission by Al Arabiya. Six weeks and 60 interviews in D.C., Boston and NY and this left me completely depressed, literally weighed down with outrage and disbelief. You start to feel sort of impotent sometimes. What can you do? Protest? Vote? Write to your local government? Recycle? Put a flag sticker on your car? Cry? Cut yourself? Draw comics? Tune in and drop out?
No New Enemies was a response to this moment in time and to SNITCH and FEAR culture in particular, a way not to get sick in my mouth as I watched Bush telling us the enemy was everywhere, invisible, right next door, etc.
Looking on the brighter side, I’d been living in Europe for nearly eight years by then, and all over the continent I kept meeting this expansive community of artists who would welcome me to their homes, offer me their thoughts and share their cities. It’s a community with a very thick network and many of these people have become a sort of extended family over the years. I refer to them as artists for how they approach the world and their lives in it. Some were writers, other painters, musicians, whatever they were, somehow all were interested in sharing their work publicly, openly and on the streets. These genius warriors, pranksters and magicians were transforming and inventing and I felt like, well, if my vote isn’t an effective way to practice or effect ‘democracy’, supporting all this possibility surely was.
Figuring out how to support this practice and like any sort of union, utilizing the strengths of a community was the second step in figuring out what No New Enemies could become. Right now, the network functions with a sort of peer to peer, shareware ethic.
How would you describe No New Enemies in only three words? (don’t say no new enemies ;))
Harlan Levey: Don’t Be Scared.
Why is it called No New Enemies?
Harlan Levey: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … They never called me nigger.” – Muhammad Ali
Does being a non profit organisation set you back at all? How do you keep going?
Harlan Levey: We’re still in the process of becoming an official body. NNE is something that everybody contributes to in whatever free time they make for it. The only thing that really holds us back is the limits of our imagination and the practical priorities, like paying rent for example, the same debts or demands that can weigh down all citizens and organizations. Time isn’t on our sides.
No cash flow means we can’t pay for staff and have to find what we need or a means to pay for it over and over again. It’s a hand to mouth organization and this is at least in part a choice. At the same time, because this is a passion project with no ulterior agenda, we receive a lot of support and have never had a problem finding volunteers to help realize our activities, so it works both ways. We keep going by failing and failing better, having fun with friends and trying to shape projects that use art as a catalyst for community and provoke emotional and later critical response. In a way it’s silly, reminds me of Sunday school only nobody forces me to go.
Tell us a bit more about the other people who play a part in NNE…
Harlan Levey: Ruggero and Dherry are the two good friends who help facilitate the project. The first exhibition I ever participated in was with Rugge and his mate Galo at a place called Trader’s Pop in Maastricht (NL). Dherry is a friend in Brussels. He is a carpenter by trade and has developed into a great artist in his own right, his work on setting up installations has been key as of late.
Most important however, is everyone else. This network can be as strong or silent as its members choose to make it. We have no business model. So far we’ve been watching opportunities get in our range, grabbing at them and making it up as we go along. That respected artists like the London Police, Bo130, Microbo, D*Face, Jeremy Fish and many others felt engaged with the aims and idea behind NNE and offered their instant support, well for a long time it was on the sweat of their names that anybody ended up finding the No New Enemies network.
What was it that made you decide to get into action and make NNE happen?
Harlan Levey: With regards to what I’m doing now, I had a few friends who did a show with Modart in Munich and got a copy of the first issue of the magazine. At the time I was 30, and was washing dishes, doing whatever sort of freelance copy writing jobs I could, and hanging around with my friends on the streets late at night. I wrote to the publisher, told him his magazine was all right, but that it all felt like advertising. I squeezed a column out of him, then a few more pages each issue and eventually was working full time for the magazine. Stroke of luck, little help from my friends, a boss with a similar attitude problem, one day leads to another, that’s the gist of it.
At the same time, I was invited to speak at the Pictoplasma conference in Berlin. It was a joke at first. My friend Chaz brought me onboard, because he didn’t fancy public speaking. I didn’t know what the conference was about at all and spent three days huffing around on my crutches drinking too much and scribbling notes.
This community I was talking about was even more present. Hundreds of people gathered together from hundreds of places, for workshops, lectures and parties; for learning and laughing and a love of aesthetics. Art at this point became like therapy and I wanted to create a festival of sorts merging what I saw at Pictoplasma with more gears grinding at media theory, community relevance and political ideologies. I felt that while philosophy and culture diddled with deconstructionism and babbled about post modernism, there could be a strong position based on militant play.
The creatures of the Pictoplasma universe gave me an ecstatic sense of hope that without discussing it, artists were naturally taking guard for the public, that what seemed to have no political orientation, was perhaps the most political voice of all. I know this sounds naïve, but hanging around in Berlin those three days is when I decided to get ‘in on the action’.
What are NNE events like?
Harlan Levey: They vary a lot. General ingredients are paint, people, music and free drinks. Sometimes they are pure street actions. The event might be as simple as something involving two of us outside at night. Events we promote have been funded by a mix of sponsor interaction, private support and people’s willingness to participate for the sake of participating. After a few small shows, street installations and a live painting, we were offered to set up shop in a local independent fashion store called the Mr. Ego. We built a White Cube (haha) where we sell artist based products, have a small library of resources (thanks to Die Gestalten) and hold bi-monthly exhibitions, which encourage two visiting artists to collaborate with a local artist for one week. We are not a gallery. We have no staff or rent. The aim is collaborative experimentation, which is shared with a broad public. With 500 visitors a week there to shop, after the actual event we end up surprising even more people. In the past two years we’ve shown with Logan Hicks, Lucy Mclauchlan, Victor Castillo, Ephameron, Nico Stumpo, The Boghe, San, Btoy, SatOne, YO! What happened to peace, Friends With You, Will Barras, Mr. Jago at this venue and held other events like free concerts or a special Xmas market with two dozen local artists who received 100% on all sales.
We’ve also done skateboard retrospectives in the skate park, events at the Wangl Tangl Mountain Jam in Tyrol, live paintings to accompany music and the last event was a massive show at a museum in Brussels and were invited to curate a space at the Scope Art Fair at Art Basel, Miami.
What kind of artists do you work with, and who should we check out?
Harlan Levey: We work with nice people. Take a look at the site and check out whatever interests you.
What are the plans for NNE in the future?
Harlan Levey: To let it keep growing organically, though we definitely have some hope to be offered big walls in Brussels and will continue to focus on public actions. A dozen or so of those walls would be just fine. We also hope to develop new branches like NNE Research, NNE Underwater Scuba Sector, The NNE Wormhole Tequila department, and the NNE Honeybee Safe Zone Squad. Right now we’re working on a T-Shirt with a small US label and a book with Drago press. We’re also wondering where to relocate our HQ as we’re thinking that Israel will attack Iran just before the next US election, again creating a state of exception where fear allows everything and cowboys ride stealths and dish out terminal toxins. Somehow Sweden is suddenly attractive. Then again, so is NY. Maybe we can become an application on the new Google phone.
Would you ever, say, bring NNE over to the UK, perhaps to showcase talent you work with or to pick up, and give some opportunities to talent over here?
Harlan Levey: With pleasure. Actually, we’ve recently been talking with Joe from Cargo about doing something over there during the past week. Besides bringing NNE, many of our members are in the UK and most months there’s likely to be at least something on. Will Barras, Dave the Chimp, Mr. Jago, CopyRight, Hush, Lucy Mclauchlan, Beat13, and talent there, like anywhere… all good… NNE doesn’t ask you for your passport or care about your predicate until we encounter each other.
I’d love to do something on a football pitch in England. I was fascinated to read the UEFA cup winning side’s trainer explain to the English press why he would never sign a black player while working in St. Petersburg and at the same time seeing the Kick Out Racism signs from UEFA behind him. What kind of example have the champions set? Kick Out Racism, unless you don’t want to kick out your racist fans? In fact it is probably a good example of this thing we call tolerance, but I was hoping to be surprised by some discussion over the perversion. Maybe NNE could decorate the pitch if any UK clubs cross them in next year’s UEFA. Anybody got connections?
In your opinion is art the best way to influence the youth?
Harlan Levey: Aesthetics without consumer agendas are clearly important to our sense of visual language and reality. So yeah, I think art is an important thing to share, inspire and eventually influence all of us. As far as youth, getting them to turn off the TV, to take the news and the Bible as plausible fiction and let them find whatever they love in order to learn; to teach them to work, to shout at them sometimes… these things might be better than art, but again, better and worse, black and white, so much is made up of that grey matter, anybody who clings to one or the other is an idiot. It’s not nature or nurture. It’s never one or the other, it’s the impact of a series of relationships and encounters. Love would probably be the best way to influence youth. Brutal honesty wouldn’t be a bad start either. But I don’t have a kid.
Do you think that the importance of art is not stressed enough in the education system?
Harlan Levey: I don’t know much about ‘the education system’, but in general I do believe there is too little support of the arts, because there is no formula to allow for its benefits to be measured in monetary terms. In terms of measure, art is low on the priority scale for many politicians. Most people will agree that as a society we need artists, not as many will believe that this is a skill vital for surviving and surviving better.
I am a big advocate of education, and also agree with the Sex Pistols that schools are prisons. Learn to learn and do it everywhere you go. Education. Empathy. Organization, these are keys to any sort of union. If they need to be stressed its by parents, teachers and other community role models.
Does it bother you that some people don’t recognise that there are different types of intellect and put down art as something which requires little effort?
Harlan Levey: It bothers me how quick people are to judge. Judgment is futile. Then again, we need to have ideas, opinions and convictions so what can you do? Whatever you can do I don’t think wasting time trying to cheap shot to cover your insecurity in somebody else’s bloodsweat is a very useful exertion. There are stupid people everywhere. For any question like this I remind myself of Harlem’s sidewalk poet Delavega and his line: Don’t let idiots ruin your day.
Most things we say will one day be wrong anyway. Don’t worry if others don’t notice your effort. Just keep going. You got to believe in something. And you have to question that as well.
When a lot of people think of folk, there are common stereotypes and ideas which I know you don’t agree with. How would you describe folk to the less aware?
Harlan Levey: DIY, community based creative practice, socially engaged, cultural commentary with concern. Unpretentious. Open. Uninterested in naming itself.
Do you think there is too much genre division within folk itself?
Harlan Levey: Forget genres. Who needs them? Folk. Anti Folk. Punk. Activists. Lets forget all the names and just let things be as they were before that: pure subjects with pure potential.
Do different genres need to pull together more in order to reach their full potentials?
Harlan Levey: I think that every sort of evolution comes from collision, collaboration and if this works for our cells and our forests, why not for our creative languages?
Do you think art is the best communication method we’ve got? Are there any particular works of art (could be music / graf / film… whatever) which you feel helped you gain insight into an unfamiliar culture or lifestyle?
Harlan Levey: Dunno. Yes. And no.
Is there too much of a cliquey ‘in or out’ attitude within art these days?
Harlan Levey: Can I be ‘in’? If there is, somebody is wasting their time (or earning lots of money).
Do you think underground art is stronger and purer?
Harlan Levey: I think the idea of being underground, out of view, off the radar, outside the establishment, however you want to call it, surely avoids the compromise of consumer friendly tweaks and is often about the love and what you do with you life as opposed to how you pay to do that. There’s nothing to lose. Failure is embraced instead of met with a beheading. So yeah, somehow I would say stronger and purer. I guess it depends, which underground you’re feeling.
Most of the time I’m more interested in what hasn’t seeded on the surface, but then again, I still find those things amazing once they do a lot of the time. I still appreciate say Banksy, or Radiohead and in my eyes on several levels once they were above ground things have just gotten better.
High, Low, Up, Down, Underground, great shit and horrible turds on all sides. I like my art in all forms. When I like it. Doesn’t matter in what community it is created as long as it doesn’t suck.
What is in your stereo at the moment?
Harlan Levey: iTunes, not stereo as I type. Now Jeffrey Lewis, before that Malmus, Aesop Rock, Immortal Technique, Willie Nelson, Hermann Dune, Bad Religion and Saul Williams.
Which works of art – in any field – do you consider timeless masterpieces?
Harlan Levey: There’s this church in Brussels, it sits just off of the fish market. Today it is a Romanian Orthodox church. On one side of it there is an elaborate porcelain row of urinals built against an external wall. I guess as far as objects go this church will test what timeless means, and I think great art makes the sacred profane, in other words, human again, and how better to say that than by encouraging the public to piss on a church?
Thanks a lot for talking to BHH, we wish you the best of luck in your future work and applaud you for working to create something so positive and inspiring – could you give us any final words to people wanting to follow your own footsteps into non-profit organisations, or artists wanting to get in the right of scene – or just get their passions felt?
Harlan Levey: Find out about Bill Hicks.
Stop talking and start doing.
Be serious about the silly and silly about the serious.