Ghosts In The Walls
Originally published in Huck
“You mustn’t go there,” says the amiable Timid, his face clouding with concern. “We can’t advertise it, or tell anyone where it is, because it’s such a dangerous place. There are maybe fifteen different ways to die – broken glass everywhere, 15-foot potholes, dead sheep and asbestos and metal poles that will poke your eye out.”
A quick Google search reveals much of what the Agents themselves won’t or can’t reveal about the deserted Scottish town of Polphail. Once a fishing village and minor holiday destination, the area changed beyond all recognition in the 1970s with the construction of a series of concrete housing blocks to accommodate 500 workers from the planned oil rig at nearby Portavadie. The rig never materialised, the workers never arrived, and the brutalist, half completed structures of Polphail were left to the whims of wild animals, the eroding powers of weeds and offshore winds and the loathing of locals, who saw it as little more than a grand eyesore.
Such attitudes weighed heavily on the minds of the Agents when they first came up with the idea of turning the derelict village into an enormous art installation. They travelled to Polphail in October 2009 armed with little more than ladders and helmets, spray cans and spotlights, and over the course of three days blasted surfaces with a wealth of crazed characters and abstract designs. What they left behind them was an ephemeral art gallery on a site that finally existed with a purpose, albeit not the one first intended.
Without meaning to, Agents Of Change had created the work that best defined their beliefs regarding the transformative power of temporary art. A loose group of artists based everywhere from Brighton and Birmingham to Paris, Perth and Portland Oregon, the Agents evolved from graffiti crew Iconoclast in the early ’90s, and their street roots still clearly influence the way they approach a project.
“What we bring from graffiti,” says the thoughtful, softly spoken System, “apart from aesthetics and the notion of strength in numbers, is the idea that you have to learn to adapt immediately, that art has to be reactive. You might plan a piece only to come across the wall and find it’s the wrong shape or texture, or that there’s a guard dog chained to a nearby fence. As Agents Of Change we spend a lot of time coming up with plans, only to then alter them at the last minute, and I think our background in graffiti helps make that a lot easier.”
At the same time, there’s been a conscious evolution within Agents Of Change from the fundamental laws that founding member Remi sees as limiting graffiti’s ability to expand.
“A lot of graffiti culture is steeped in nostalgia, and for a rebellious art form there are a huge number of rules. Most people get into graffiti in the first place because they hate rules, because they wanted to step outside the bounds of society and make a creative statement about modern culture. Then the graffiti artists start telling each other what they can and can’t do. We quickly got bored of conforming to other people’s preconceived ideas, so we started experimenting with approaches to art that didn’t fit into that whole plan, and that’s as true of the canvases we choose as the technology we use to cover them.”
As such, Agents Of Change are a long way from the traditional image of hooded teenagers stalking along suburban rail tracks under cover of dark, backpacks clinking with spray cans. None seem keen to define what it is that they stand for – a fear, perhaps, of creating a set of rules like those they spent so long escaping – but all agree that if there’s a formula at work, then it’s one as fluid and flexible as the art itself, constantly changing and adapting to the surfaces and situations that present themselves.
“We’re still learning,” says Timid. “Every new piece is a part of understanding what it is that we’re capable of as a group. But at the end of the day we abide by a sense of democracy among our members, and a respect for art above individual identities. We strive to create work that elevates the form above our egos, and that’s a giant leap from the graffiti world.”
Yet one element of graffiti culture the group remains guided by is an innate sense of mischief, and their faces light up with boyish glee when asked to describe their perfect projects. For Remi it would be a pop-up Soho art gallery, with road markings leading pedestrians on a walking tour between walls bombed with overnight artworks. Timid has a series of increasingly fantastic ideas, from painting the Australian salt flats or the tunnels under Las Vegas to a derelict island off Japan once used to house immigrants. And System, arguably the Agent most at the mercy of his graffiti background, giggles as he lays out a dream to turn Buckingham Palace into one giant artwork – a subject that soon draws the others into a discussion on the possibility of painting the queen’s London residence with beams of coloured light. And so another potential project is born, offering an insight into a creative process that is equal parts democracy, determination and cojones the size of demolition balls.
“That’s another thing you learn from graffiti,” says Remi. “You ask, they say no, and you wrangle a way of doing it anyway: mock up a letter from the council saying that you’ve got permission, or stick on a yellow jacket to make it look legal. At the end of the day, confidence will get you anywhere in this game. You just need to have the ideas to back it up.”