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Art Threat: Alex Schaefer's Plein Air Protests

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Protest, Mayday 2012.
Protest, Mayday 2012 | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.

On July 30, 2011, Alex Schaefer set up an easel, placed a canvas upon it, and began painting a landscape. Plein air painting is nothing out of ordinary, but Schaefer's subject and choice of location was unique. There, in front of a Van Nuys Chase bank, he began painting bursts of flames rising from the building. Before he could even finish his work, police officers arrived on the scene, asked him for his information, and asked if he was planning to follow through on the scenes he had inscribed on canvas. Later, officers showed up at his doorstep, further inquiring on his artwork, looking for any signs that he intended to make his burning bank series, "Disaster Capitalism," come to life.

A year later, Schaefer was arrested for a chalk drawing of the word "Crime" with a Chase logo in front of a downtown L.A. bank. He spent 12 hours in jail for vandalism. Chalk has become the medium of choice of Occupy protesters who have clashed with police during recent Los Angeles artwalks, but Shaefer says that his protest is targeted; a precise indictment of institutional abuse.

As the world has evolved into a place of constant surveillance - where security cameras, cell phone photos, Facebook tags, and Instagrams document your every move - Shaffer's work examines how the act of looking, the gaze, has become a threat.

Artbound caught up with the Schaefer to discuss the genesis of his projects, his difference from the Occupy movement and whether getting arrested is a necessary part of his performance pieces.

Chase, Van Nuys | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.
Chase, Van Nuys | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.
L.A. Sheriff | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.
L.A. Sheriff | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.

Describe for us the day when you set out to paint the Chase bank.

I ate a big breakfast and drove out to Van Nuys in the morning to paint the Chase bank there. I'd seen the bank because an artist friend of mine lives around there and I'd visited. I chose the bank strictly because they had the most interesting buildings. In L.A., the Wells Fargo and B of A banks are majority really crappy ugly buildings, but Chase bought [Washington Mutual] and WAMU bought Home Savings, and all the Home Savings buildings were classic pieces of architecture designed the Millard Sheets company. I set up across the street next to the bus stop and went at it. I was a little more nervous than usual painting "plein air" because I was going to be making a public statement and not just painting a pretty urban landscape. Every passer by understood my message and I got all "likes." In fact, many people shared their stories of woe with the banks.

What did you feel as you sat in front of these banks? What was going through your mind?

With plein air painting in an urban environment, there is always a nervous feeling that comes with it because there are people watching you, talking to you, and, in essence, you are onstage performing your art with people looking at you and judging you. Like playing music live or stand-up comedy, there's always the chance of totally bombing and you're out there, on the street, with a turd on your easel. But this time, it was a little more different because I was adding a political "statement" in public. I used Google maps street view to find the nice chase branch there on Van Nuys blvd the night before.

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I was nervous driving out that morning more than usual. Once I set up at the location and started working, I got into the painting zone and started drawing out the composition.

Chase, 7th and Fig | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.
Chase, 7th and Fig | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.

Once it was sketched out I started immediately with the flames. That was the first paint that I put on the canvas. So I led with the message, which was a bold move. The reaction of everyone who commented was positive. Thumbs up. [People would say] "They suck." "they screwed my checking account," "my brother's losing his home." I could feel that the image was a catharsis for lots of people. Three hours into it the police came and the rest is history.

Write-up | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.
Write-up | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.

Describe for us the preparation for creating your chalk drawings outside the bank. How was it alike or different than preparing for the paintings?

I saw what happened with "chalk walk" at the last DTLA art walk and was bothered by what I felt was a waste of protest and a media disaster. So I felt like I wanted to "do it right:" Get arrested for the right reason and not because I wrote "Fuck the L.A.P.D." and "Kill Pigs" on the sidewalk. I was going to protest on any old day, not "art walk" or some cool day like that, do it at lunchtime and do it in front of a bank, which is the focus of my protest. I called my friend Stephen Zeigler who is familiar with protest and arrest and relayed my idea. He jumped on it, got another videographer involved, and did it. There was about four days between getting the idea and the action. While I sat in jail for 12 hours, they worked on the edit the same amount of time and then sent the file to Max Keiser and he first posted it on the internet. It's [gotten] almost 26000 views and going to keep rising, especially as my interview with Max. The preparation was becoming familiar through what Stephen knows about what is going to happen, what I'm going to go through. I gave him money ahead of time for the bail bond.

Alex Schaefer's Chalking Protest

In this age of increased surveillance, how has the mere act of looking at an object seen as a nefarious act?

It's a fact that homeland security considers drawing or photographing "sensitive" locations and buildings is suspicious activity. But my painting protest is different because it's so slow and blatant. I was not "casing" the location. I was standing on the street in full view painting for four hours, talking with people, interacting. I suspect it was someone from the bank that notified authorities that they are "threatened" by my painting. And that was the exact word the police used when first confronting me. Someone was "threatened" by my art and called them.

Van Nuys PD | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.
Van Nuys PD | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.
Van Nuys PD  | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.
Van Nuys PD | Photo: Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.

What role does a police presence play in your public works, like the bank paintings and the street chalk drawings?

I don't have a beef with the L.A.P.D. and police in general like some of those who protest do. So they don't upset me or anger me or scare me. I know my intentions are protestful but peaceful and I'm not going to be confrontational to an officer. I feel that when I'm talking with them they understand where I'm coming from and frankly agree with me, as do most Americans. But I get upset when people simply protest against the police. I like to keep my focus on the folks I consider to be the real criminals and financial terrorists: our banks. I don't want to get arrested for chalking on 5th and Spring at 9:30pm on ArtWalk, I want to get arrested exactly where and when I did, in front of a bank at lunchtime on a Monday and I'm going to bring a crew and document it and put it on YouTube and let thousands of people see it. Part of this battle and protest we are facing is a chess game, the protestors play a role, the police play a role, the media plays a role, and the goal of protest is to persuade our leaders and legal system to begin to address this serious festering cancer that is eating up the planet. Also protest is trying to change the hearts and minds of the majority of this country because if we could get the middle class of America upset, that is waking a sleeping giant and even though we've seen Occupy, it still was only a small, small percentage of people in this country. The internet is an incredible way to spread protest, to create sparks of outrage in people hearts. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there does it make a sound? And if a good protest action happens but only a few passers by and the cops see it, it dies out. The chalking was a piece of performance art, sort of like plain air painting is performance art, but to a very different end. The chalking was less 'art' more 'protest'.

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