Fine Lines

Thomas de Monchaux on The High Line Block Party

New York

Left: Wingdale Community Singers (left-to-right: Hannah Marcus, Rick Moody, and David Grubbs). Right: Painter Ann Craven's caricature portrait booth .

If you believe that the sudden simultaneous vending of gyros, unicorn-based jewelry, and Santa-Fe-or-Trenchtown-appropriate schmattes goes beyond the purview of mere “craft,” then every Manhattan street fair is, in its own insidious way, a work of fine art. This was perhaps especially true of The Kitchen High Line Block Party, a festival staged last Saturday on Nineteenth Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues by the eponymous exhibition-and-performance space to celebrate the eponymous elevated railway viaduct in West Chelsea—soon to be, after years of advocacy by Friends of the High Line, a public park and boardwalk designed by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. (Overheard in the crowd: “This whole area is going to be very different in 2009.”)

This was not only because of the artsy hippie-meets-hipster tendencies of the photo-booth (“We do a lot of, like, biographical work, so this is part of it”); the collaborative reading room; the do-it-yourself Byzantine icon table; the flag-making stand; the juggling workshops; the superhero face-painting stall; and the main stage (“Feel free to dance, folks”). The Deitch Projects-meets-Childrens’-Television-Workshop vibe of the crowd added a certain seriousness about the arts as well. (“Can you feed the dog not from the water bottle, honey?”;“Is that Mumia as in ‘Free’?”)

But this street fair, unlike many, led the casual observer inexorably into a genuine high-end artwork. Sunset Island, 2005, a droll new video installation by Dara Friedman, was easy to find in The Kitchen’s gallery after a few wrong turns behind the main stage and the mask-making parlor. Friedman’s work confronts you with twin screens featuring a photogenic woman and man. Drifting through separate apartments, these two intone a set of relationship-based questions that range from banal to sublime. For instance: Why are we together? Are we alone? Did you leave the light on? What’s that smell? How often have I almost died? The work is at first glance superficially charming, then cloying, then fascinating, then chilling; and, like the archetypical Manhattan street fair, it acquires through repetition and transience a surprising permanence in the mind.

Left: Fan-making booth with artists Kayrock and Wolfy. (Photo: Cody Trepte) Right: Artist Jennifer McCoy and The Kitchen director Deb Singer (dressed as Kevin McCoy).

What strikes you as you stumble out of the second-floor gallery, outside, and back past the main stage (“Can we have a round of applause for the walk-on breakdancer?”) and puppet-making seminar, is that perhaps one reason Friedman’s skittish couple fit in so well at the Block Party is that they are on the cusp of its two essential demographics. Perhaps finding the answers to their many questions will transform these two mod thirty-somethings from the oldest, angstiest kids in school into young mortgage-slave parents with strong ideas about both Ritalin and the White Stripes; both Danish stroller-buggies and Imitation of Christ; both street fairs and The High Line. Are you better looking than me? (“Do you want to look like the Incredible Hulk?”) Is this as good as it gets? (“No, it’s only Thai iced tea.”) What will become of us? (“We’re heading over to Mulberry Street for the Feast of San Gennaro.”)