Friday, July 25, 2014

NYC Art '80s: Space, Permission, Aspiration; Part Two

This is the second part of my talk at the Reina Sofia museum on New York art in the 1980s as part of the educational program for the “Playgrounds” exhibition.

Now I am going to talk about the specifically political organization among NYC artists of the 1980s, and the market-friendly self-organization that supported the new populist ways of making art.
The Colab artists' group formed in 1978. It was a big group, some 40 artists meeting regularly, and we soon became visible in the artworld even before the big shows. We made exhibitions and film screenings and performances in rented loft spaces in the Soho and Tribeca districts downtown. Shortly after Colab came together, two groups of more political artists formed – Political Art Documentation and Distribution (PAD/D) and Group Material. PAD/D was formed by initiative of Lucy Lippard, a radical art critic and writer. The intention was to create an archive of international political art, and to hold discussions on political topics and support political demonstrations. Lucy was closely involved in previous organizations, Art Workers Coalition (AWC) in 1970 and Artists Meeting for Cultural Change (AMCC). (I discuss these organizations in my book, Art Gangs.) Both AWC and AMCC were primarily directed to a critique of the operations of the NYC artworld. AWC demonstrated against the museums, and AMCC demonstrated against the museums and also the capitalist system of the commercial artworld, that is, the galleries.
PAD/D published a magazine, produced political exhibitions in left venues like union [sindicatos] buildings, and supported big social movement demonstrations. They produced monthly discussion events at a Tribeca performance art venue called Franklin Furnace. One of these events expanded into a show in 1984 – an exhibition and series of performances – called “Carnival Knowledge.” (It is a play on the words “carnal knowledge,” a euphemism for sexual relations, and the “carnival” associated with circus.) It was produced by a collective that included artists, feminist politicos, and “porn stars” – women who acted in pornographic movies. It was an important moment in the development of “sex positive” feminist positions, and a feminist approach to the sex work industry. (This continues to be a strong dispute among feminists.)
The second initiative among political artists arising at this time was Group Material. This was a group of students of the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. (He had been active with AWC ten years before.) Group Material opened a storefront gallery in the East Village and started to make political art shows. There was a loose relationship between them and ABC No Rio during the earliest years. Soon the collective broke apart and left the storefront. Their manifesto, “Caution! Alternative Space” reflected on the tremendous energy required to maintain a storefront which had taken away from their creative and political agenda. The smaller group began to do projects in public space. One of the first was in the Union Square area, where many buildings were vacant awaiting redevelopment. DA ZI BAOS (1982) was based on the Chinese “big character posters” which member Tim Rollins had seen during his trip to China. The texts were taken from on-the-street interviews with people in the area about the political and economic situation. The words were hand lettered to resemble big commercial signs, and installed by the artists wearing suits resembling city workers.
With this work Group Material showed their focussed interest in the function art could play in stimulating public dialogue, and also their use of normative commercial forms of display. They weren't trying to be artistic. They wanted to be effective.
All of us – ABC No Rio, Group Material and PAD/D – collaborated in 1984 for the Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America. Ronald Reagan's government was then supporting right wing death squads in El Salvador. Artists Call was, in the words of Group Material member Doug Ashford, “a nationwide mobilization of writers, artists, activists, artists organizations, and solidarity groups that began in New York in 1983. Quickly mobilizing artists and their organizations across the country, Artists Call collectively produced over 200 exhibitions, concerts and other public events over a period of 12 months. These events increased awareness of our government’s involvement in state terrorism across the hemisphere, linked the notion of aesthetic emancipation to revolutionary politics and provided concrete resources for the cultural workers and public intellectuals in the region and in exile.” [REF Doug Ashford website]
(This SLIDE shows an Artists Call Meeting at Nancy Spero & Leon Golub's studio. Nancy Spero was an important feminist artist who was recently exhibited at the Reina Sofia, and Leon Golub was a realist expressionist painter who dedicated his work to anti-war themes, especially images of torture. Both these artists were organizers involved in the earlier activism of AWC and AMCC.)
Doug Ashford's 2006 painting is on the cover of my book Art Gangs. It is an abstraction reflecting on collective cultural work, entitled: Some of the people who worked together to make artists call in 1983/84, the beauty that was embodied by their work.
Group Material produced a large and innovative work of curation for the Artists Call, a “Timeline Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America.” It was installed in the halls of P.S.1, an old public school in the borough of Queens which was being slowly converted into an exhibition center for contemporary art. The “Timeline” installation combined artwork, propaganda posters, and commodities like bunches of bananas and piles of coal in a visually and materially dramatic illustration of U.S. dominance over the Central American countries. They used the enormous space of the emerging P.S. 1 museum to give a potent material dimension to U.S. foreign policy over time.
Group Material's successful and influential engagement with the P.S. 1 art center also marked the beginning of their close relation with art institutions. They were in the Whitney Biennial exhibition in 1984 with an installation called “Americana” which mixed art, commercial art, consumer product packages, and video. It was like a natural history museum of American images. They continued working on commissioned work in art institutions, including Documenta in 1987. They applied the timeline format to the AIDS epidemic in 1989, organizing research and artworks to visualize the emergence of the epidemic as a national crisis. The group developed a new and influential form of installation which deploys multiple media, arranged in a “dialectical” manner, to activate the gallery space as an arena for discourse – discussion and social encounter. Their curatorial strategy was criticized as “doing the laundry,” that is, an artists' group performing political exhibitionary functions which the art institution itself could not. (Andrea Fraser and others developed this critique in the 1990s as a theory of the natural “parasitism” between artist and museum.) Even so, Group Material's work is the foundation of what is called in the academy “institutional critique.” They succeeded in folding real political issues inside a fritata of high and low cultural products.
Group Material's strategies were embraced by Martha Rosler in her production of the exhibition “If You Lived Here” in 1989, an exhibition centered on the city's homeless crisis. This had just claimed headlines in 1988, with a brutal riot around the hundreds of homeless people encamped in Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side. Rosler's installation, in the capacious Dia Foundation space in Soho, mixed artwork with information like books and videos, and included desks for representatives of activist housing groups to talk with visitors, and beds for homeless people to spend the night. A series of town meetings engaged housing issues. Partial transcripts were later published in a book. The archive of the exhibition has recently been circulated by the e-flux group as “If You Lived Here Still,” with Martha speaking out about the same old worsening problems of shrinking public housing and urban displacement, and the painful neoliberal ideology of the “creative city.”
Group Material was emphatically leftist in their political orientation and intentions. They worked mostly with established art institutions. Group Material undertook what 68er Rudi Dutschke called the “long march through the institutions,” while the equally political PAD/D group remained committed to counterpower, that is, building alternative political circuits for culture in the USA. Gregory Sholette, the author of Dark Matter, who spoke here at the Reina Sofia museum not long ago, quotes PAD/D's mission on his website:
It was “to provide artists with an organized relationship to society, to demonstrate the political effectiveness of image making, and to provide a framework within which progressive artists can discuss and develop alternatives to the mainstream art system.”
They tried to do that, working with other national artists' and political organizations. It's a long story, and not well enough known, involving unions [sindicatos] like 1199 with their Bread and Roses program. But the attempt to set up an extra-institutional circuit of politicized cultural venues did not succeed. Finally, in 1994, with the group moribund, their substantial archive of political materials from the 1980s was donated to the Museum of Modern Art library. There it was dispersed into the general collection.
PAD/D also had a commitment to visual work on the street. They collected political graphic art and ephemera in their archive, and they also organized to make it. PAD/D artists supported demonstrations with signs and props. At one point, a clandestine stencil brigade was organized. This group injected strong political messages, many about gentrification, into the mix of posters, mostly cultural announcements that then plastered the streets of lower Manhattan. (This practice of grassroots publicity was ended – criminalized and relentlessly enforced by Mayor Giuliani in the 1990s.)
One participant in the stencil brigade was the writer and artist David Wojnarowicz. David later went on to work with Mike Bidlo to organize a clandestine art show of wall paintings in one of the abandoned piers on the west side. These piers were gay cruising zones, and a lot of the art reflected that experience.
Gay art historian Jonathan Weinberg has recently made an exhibition about this history. Long forgotten, the show became a mythical event among artists. It may well have been one of the hidden sources of the global street art movement.
Mike Bidlo, who worked with David Wojnarowicz on the pier show, was generally known as the most direct appropriation artist during the 1980s. He poked fun at Julian Schnabel, the neo-expressionist painter, by faking one of his paintings and exhibiting it flanked by armed guards – an allusion to Schnabel's meteoric financial success. Bidlo also copied Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, and staged the performative ambience of his work as well. He continued this practice, imitating Yves Klein's performative production of his “Anthropometries” series, and, finally, Andy Warhol's Silver Factory. Bidlo made imitative modern art products, but his most striking appropriations were of the production processes themselves of famous artists.
PLAY “NOT A. WARHOL FACTORY” VIDEO – not enough time
NOT ANDY WARHOL’S FACTORY – An Imitation from Mike Bidlo with David Blair (7:50)
video posted at:
Andy Warhol, the theorist and practitioner of “business art,” died prematurely after a botched operation two years later.
In the production at P.S. 1 in 1984, Mike Bidlo portrayed Andy Warhol, while David Wojnarowicz played Lou Reed. Other principals in the party cum performance included participants in the East Village art gallery movement, a broad front of self-organized art galleries. (One of a series of photographs of East Village gallery movement artists shows Mike and David together.)
This important period of mercantile self-organization on the Lower East Side began with the Fun Gallery in 1980. It was run by Patti Astor, the blonde white female lead in the movie Wild Style, and represented Keith Haring, Jean-Michael Basquiat, and many of the major graffiti artists of the subway trains, like Lee, Futura, Fab Five Freddy, etc. Just as Group Material engaged the institutions of art, so these galleries engaged the market.
I participated in this, since I was working with the East Village Eye magazine throughout these years. I was art editor for one year. The art editors who came before me were Walter Robinson, one of the Colab group, and Carlo McCormick, the acknowledged voice of the East Village gallery movement. Carlo continued his close engagement with artists of the street art movement. He curated the important historical show at New York University called the “Downtown Show” (1974-1984), and wrote the essay for the Taschen picture book Trespass: A History of Urban Art.
But I want now to return to that obscure PAD/D stencil brigade. Two other members were Steven Englander and Seth Tobocman. Steven was studying filmmaking. He was an anarchist activist. In the early 1990s he would become involved with ABC No Rio as a militant squatter organizing building defense. He became the director, a position he holds today as the legalized institution plans to rebuild its delapidated building.
Seth Tobocman is an artist. He and others started World War 3 Illustrated in 1979. This magazine featured political graphic art, much of it concerned with the issue of gentrification on the Lower East Side. As the squatter movement gained momentum in the 1990s, Seth became intimately involved. His didactic poster and graphic work in support of that movement was very effective in its stark line, reminiscent of Mayakovsky's agitprop posters of 1919.
Many years later, in 1998, Seth released a book – a graphic novel – reflecting on his years in the movement. War in the Neighborhood is a signal accomplishment, a self-reflexive work of propaganda for direct action occupation, and a sensitive critique of the collective formation within the movement itself.
Important cadres of the squatter movement came from cultural occupations. The shock troops were punks, artists, musicians, and latter-day hippie wanderers. They concentrated in the 1980s in two areas of squatted land side by side and dialectically opposed in their intentions. The squatted buildings and land run by Adam Purple were ecological. Purple and his group built an elaborate beautiful garden, largely through years of refusing plumbing, and composting their own human waste. They were vegetarians.
Not long before the final eviction of the Purple squats and the bulldozing of the “Garden of Eden” by the city, an exhibition of alternative plans drafted by architects around the world was exhibited at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. All of these designs would have preserved the extraordinary garden.
Next door to the Garden of Eden, and disdained by them was the vacant land squat of the Rivington Skool artists. This was the machine in the garden – a macho band of hard drinking and drugging artists headed by sculptor Ray Kelly. They roasted pigs. Cowboy Ray was from Texas. He did his drinking at the next door social club called No Se No, which turned into a lively venue of music and performance. The Rivington Skool artists included a number of Japanese and welcomed other international artists. Together they filled the vacant lot with a towering welded metal sculpture.
A group of Rivington Skool artists went uptown a few blocks to squat a building in 1986. They called it Bullet, after a type of heroin – a “brand” being sold by a gang on that block. Andrew Castrucci, who had run an East Village art gallery with his brother during that movement, opened a gallery in the storefront of the squat called Bullet Space. Several years ago, they produced an exhibition of their history called “The Perfect Crime.” The objects in it were like a timeline of the Lower East Side squatting movement, and the art that accompanied it.
Only very recently, in 2011, the Lower East Side squatting movement opened their own museum, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces.
All of what I have been talking about concerns cultural interventions in real space – institutional space which was opened to political art initiatives and the open, urban waste lands of deindustrialization which have increasingly been diminishing as capital returned to New York City.
What I have not discussed so much has been the virtual space which opened up during the years of the 1970s and '80s, the mediatic space of the screen and the page.
I have led you a ramble through actual historic spaces. But what linked them all in their time, and brings them back now in forceful presence was their mediatization through a greatly expanded, demotic, artist-managed spectacle of print and video.
I have mentioned the East Village Eye magazine I worked for. The Eye was a cooperative, owned by its managers. It was a successor to a series of underground newspapers, also independently owned, which have largely vanished in the U.S.A. today.
There was also the artists' book, an entirely authorial product that emerged with the availability of new printing technology. The artists' book was understood as an alternative space, a kind of metaphorical extension of the 1970s movement of self-organized physical artists' spaces. During the 1970s, a small international network of artists' bookstores sprang up to exhibit, sell and enable production of a new wave of individually conceived artists' books. In NYC this store was called Printed Matter, and it opened in 1979. As the years have gone by, Printed Matter has served as an important public repository and site for historical exhibitions about artists' self-organized activity. In 2005, artist AA Bronson, a member of the Canadian collective General Idea, took over as director. He launched the New York Art Book Fair on almost no budget. It has grown into a major event.
During the 1970s and '80s it was also possible to post bills on the street advertising small art and music events. We would put our posters around the places where we knew artists lived, so they would see what we were doing when they walked on the street. That same system works today in Madrid, for political and cultural poster distribution on the streets of Lavapies.
Today internet and portable devices have totally changed the landscape of promotion and distribution. Subcultural and political events have become almost entirely invisible to the larger public as information is circulated directly among coteries. Their distribution has become immaterial. There is something about a poster, its address to the person standing in front of it on the street, which makes an impact very different from a flashing image on a tiny screen.
Flashing images were becoming ubiquitous in downtown NYC in the '80s as video monitors brought mediatic space into the real space of bars, nightclubs, and cable TV. Danceteria, Hurrah's, Palladium and many other big clubs hired VJs – “video jockies,” like “disc jockies” or DJs – to shows artists' video in their spaces. The great enlargement of what we might call mediatic space in downtown NYC had both populist and political dimensions.
The academies of art still valorized film, especially the experimental art film. These were shown around the USA in small cinemas called “art houses” which also showed foreign movies. Academically trained NYC artist filmmakers were purists. In the 1970s and '80s, the Filmmakers Coop distribution project in NYC refused to handle video, and the Collective for Living Cinema refused to show it. The dominant genre of narrative feature film was forbiddingly expensive. Colab artists in the late '70s tried to break into film using the cheaper technology of Super 8 synchronized sound film edited in video. Eric Mitchell rented a storefront and opened a theater called the New Cinema to show feature film narratives in popular genres. New Cinema used a video projector which was then a rare and expensive machine. Many of the films they showed were shot in public space without permission, like James Nares' Rome '78, which made use of NYC's many classical architectural settings.
Video production equipment first became widely available in 1969, and collectives formed immediately to document the revolutionary movements of the 1970s. Third World Newsreel had begun with film in the 1960s, and TVTV and the Videofreex continued their documentary work using Sony Portapak equipment. Media activists successfully agitated for the inclusion of public access television as part of the contract obligations for the emerging cable television companies. Manhattan Cable was one of these. They were required to provide access, but not production facilities. By the late 1970s, some studios went on line to the cable system, and Colab artists started to use them, producing artists' television in both live and prerecorded formats.
Colab's video work was artistic – it included artists engaged with the formal strain of video art, the processed and syntheisized electronic signal in which image and sound share identity. Nam June Paik used this technique in his techno-utopian avant-gardist engagement with “global groove” of international broadcast television. The giant Palladium nightclub matched the movie experience with their a huge rack of massed tube TVs which descended and rotated, and sharing a signal so they each became a “pixel” in the larger image. Maybe Nam June made it onto that screen, but while the nightclubs supported many artists' experimentation, basically the trend was towards professionally produced music videos in service of that industry. MTV launched in 1981, and the handwriting was on the wall.
In an effort to stay alive, Lower East Side filmmakers turned to the subaltern popular genres of porn and horror. Nick Zedd worked in the horror genre. He made They Eat Scum about a cannibalistic punk rock cult. He was proud when a critic denounced it as absolutely worthless trash. Zedd wrote the manifesto for the Cinema of Transgression in 1985. Speaking for a group of roughly aligned filmmakers, “We who have violated the laws, commands and duties of the avant-garde; i.e. to bore, tranquilize and obfuscate... stand guilty as charged.” He proposed to “break all the taboos of our age by sinning as much as possible. There will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy.” (Zedd was a closet artist – he had studied at Pratt Institute and worked with the legendary Jack Smith.)
For some years Zedd and friends were able to make money showing their horror and porn films in small clubs. One of them, Richard Kern, made a classic music video for the band Sonic Youth – “Death Valley 69” – which featured a performance installation of slaughter victims (among them David Wojnarowicz) in the underground art gallery Ground Zero. The short uses performance and appropriated video to critique 1960s hippie culture, and link American gun loving with the government's cruise missile program.
PLAY VIDEO “DEATH VALLEY 69” not enough time– 5:45
Sonic Youth - Death Valley 69
Artists working in the documentary film tradition also made work for the public access cable networks. Paper Tiger Television, and Deep Dish TV are two political programs produced from offices in the War Resisters League building. These projects are didactic and documentary, and have had a longer life than the popular art effusions of the '80s era.
During that decade, the low-cost consumer video camera became available. As we saw with Nelson Sullivan's video of the Club Kids outlaw party, art, music and performance activity was continuously documented in the analogue video medium.
In 1986, I tried to climb on the commercial bandwagon by starting a distribution project intended to put artists' video into some of the many video rental stores opening up nationwide. The MWF Video Club – for Monday/Wednesday/Friday, which is when we worked on it – actually stayed alive economically with minimal subsidy until around 2000, when the VHS video format died out, and we could not afford to convert our collection to digital media.
It was an open-door distribution project. We distributed in four categories – Video Art and Art Film, Documentary, Narrative and Feature Film, and Artists Television. The project was never very successful, but MWF Video had a pretty unique collection.
Last summer the New Museum in NYC invited me to collaborate on a project I proposed called XFR STN. It was an open-door archival quality transfer station for analogue video material. NYC artists were invited to sign up for sessions, and numerous public events around the MWF Video Club's artists were held.
There is clearly a great wealth of cultural and artistic information locked up on analogue video sitting in closets and storage lockers. The XFR STN project excited the U.S. archival community – it won an obscure award, and a group of activist archivists at NYU have come together to continue this work.
There is too much more to tell. NYC 80s art and culture was tremendously varied. It was driven by a huge demographic explosion in the number of artists and audience, a plethora of new cheap art-making tools – (I didn't even mention the spray can and felt marker) – and above all, a vast reservoir of urban space which had not yet been repurposed or redeveloped. It was a period when artists were unafraid to be popular, happy to work outside sclerotic and inflexible systems, and realistically expecting that they could make enough money to live without giving up all their time.
There was a vast amount of permission extended, both economic and political, which made what Steve Hager in his book called “Art After Midnight” an expression of a citywide urban playground.

“Playgrounds: Reinventar la plaza,” is at the Reina Sofia museum until 22 September, 2014

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