Syeus Mottel

SITUATIONS
127 Henry St
August 4, 2017–August 26, 2017

Syeus Mottel, Untitled, 1972/73, silver gelatin print, 5 x 7". From left: Matty Small, James Echevarria, unknown child, Roberta Fulton, Roy Battiste.

Syeus Mottel, freelance photographer and media consultant for Buckminster Fuller, spent the months between September 1972 and January 1973 documenting and interviewing the community of CHARAS, a grassroots organization made up of ex–gang members in the Lower East Side. After creating a storefront school for themselves and supporting local businesses, they wanted to tackle issues of affordable housing. They asked Fuller to give a talk to the group and, after deliberations, agreed to consider the geodesic dome as a model to challenge their community’s lack of agency over their urban space.

The photographs here, all Untitled, 1972/73, show CHARAS members watching television in their loft headquarters at 303 Cherry Street, a dome’s rain-protective polyethylene sheet inflating in the wind, and children and women holding 3-D tessellated models. One picture depicts an unlikely family-style portrait taken after the group constructed a sixty-foot dome on an empty lot—only two blocks from this gallery’s location—on a day when a jovial Bucky came to visit. Fuller is shown lovingly grasping a bored-looking child, flanked by his assistant, his wife, and the protagonists of the project; the dome in the background sinks into the earth like an asteroid.

Unlike the Southwestern dome communities born out of a hippie “turn on, tune in, drop out” ethos, the adoption of the dome by CHARAS can be read as more radical. The narrative, however, doesn’t account for what happened after Mottel’s part public relations, part documentarian stint. On the ultimate failure of the domes, Stewart Brand—publisher of the countercultural periodical Whole Earth Catalog—wrote that his generation left the domes behind like “hatchlings leaving their eggshells.” As the group watched Bucky climb into the back of a cab to leave the site, did they feel left behind, or led forward?

— Nolan Boomer