PRINT October 1999

Boy in the Hood

GATHER ROUND, Y’ALL, AND I’LL TELL YOU about the little village I grew up in seemingly a lifetime ago. It’s long gone now, its flavor left in traces less comforting than haunting. Sometimes in the early spring when the shit begins to thaw, or perhaps in the fall when the air gives out an unnatural early chill, memories drift into focus—the forgotten face, the bodega that turned into a gallery, then a boutique. Suddenly I’m back. A crummy day, a slight drizzle drawing out the aroma of last night’s arson, junkies lined up in the open drug markets spread out over a labyrinth of derelict tenements and vacant lots, and that daily midafternoon parade of artists, musicians, drag queens, filmmakers, writers, and like-minded souls simply too lazy or fucked up to get around to cultural production just yet, waking up to a zone of immense possibility. A small community, intimate to the point of incest, the tiny East Village I grew up in is a far remove from the neighborhood where my wife and I will begin to raise our newborn this summer. The funny thing about it is that we live only a few short blocks from the apartment we first shared some fifteen years ago.

To be honest, I don’t really remember all that much. Most of the files that might prove useful to history have been damaged in the flood of events. It is as if our insistence on living in and for the moment—a product of the romanticism of bohemia and the nihilism of late-’70s punk—had nullified all critical distance. Here’s what I do remember: the growing shadow of history; the fluid way in which rage and pleasure were continuously exchanged; the easy artistic appropriation of any and all available media and material; a tacit understanding of how identity and community were constructed out of marginality; the doubts and desires that accompanied our uneasy relationships to youth culture as well as to the poverty that surrounded us and from which many of us were scarcely removed; a pervasive, collective unwillingness to adopt a dogmatic ideology and the degree to which this compromised our ability to articulate our intentions.

Whenever I look back at what has been generalized as “East Village Art,” the best way to sort out what was particular to the moment, as opposed to all the other comic-styled, Pop, lowbrow, urban romantic, and appropriative forms art has taken then and since, is to realize the convergent and contradictory extremes of love and loathing by which this generation first came to deal with the baggage of twentieth-century America. To us, nostalgia was a tormented act of necrophilia, infantilism a perverse manifestation of no-future escapism. There was only one healthy response to our condition: transgression. Nothing epitomizes the convoluted relation between past and present that haunted and inspired those times like the dangerously overcrowded performance/party Not Andy Warhol’s Factory, presented by Mike Bidlo at P.S. 1 in the spring of ’84. A costume ball in honor of the decadence and transience of New York’s underground youth culture, it featured many of the key East Village figures transformed mockingly and lovingly into the clichéd icons of yore. With the free sense of parodic tribute that had emerged out of the drag vanguard at the seminal club Pyramid (itself part of a larger nightclub performance scene whose legacy extends to John Kelly, RuPaul, Ethyl Eichelberger, Karen Finley, and Lady Bunny), this carnivalesque farce included David Wojnarowicz playing the role of Lou Reed, Keiko Bonk as Nico, both Luis Frangella and Ena Swansea as Viva, Paul Benney as Maureen Tucker, Colin de Land as Joe Dallesandro, Dean Savard as Edie Sedgwick, Yasmin Ramirez-Harwood as Bianca Jagger, and Peter Hujar and Jimmy DeSana as Billy Name. With thousands of revelers dosed to the gills with LSD (an important factor I saw to personally) and crammed into the attic of a condemnably derelict old schoolhouse, all seeing how deeply they could make the nearly collapsing floor buckle in time to the music of a hilariously arty Velvet Underground cover band, it was an afternoon to remember (which few, no doubt, are able to). It was not simply a wake for an idealized past we already understood would never be repeated, for the past would soon almost completely blanket the art world in the chilly shadow cast by postmodernism. In many ways it was a closing party for the moment at hand, a present that was painfully slipping through our fingers as we danced to chase away the future. By the fall, with Reagan’s reelection hammering home the certainty that the AIDS crisis would remain undealt with, the party was over. In a painfully short time half of that evening’s campy superstars would be dead, leaving the rest of us as mediocre reminders of what once had been.

The funny thing is, New York has always seemed to retreat reluctantly into its future with a weepy regret for the history receding at every step. Today, whenever I am tempted to tell the young ’uns about the glory days of yore, it suddenly feels ridiculous and redundant in the shivah this town has always sat for its ever-accumulating ghosts. Part of the immense appeal of the East Village was in fact the historical vestiges of its former function as human warehouse for successive waves of immigrants. The social complexities and peculiar juxtapositions wrought by continuous resettlement and abandonment left the Lower East Side a particularly rich field for all manner of creative endeavor. The sheer quantity and variety of urban detritus underfoot turned most everyone around into some sort of rabidly scavenging pack rat. Having the haunted, burned-out quality of some postwar European capital, the neigborhood posed real dangers, but it also pushed those of limited financial means to foment a riot of spontaneous invention. Perhaps we can be somewhat forgiven for steeping our little slum in an antiquated, self-indulgently romantic ideal.

Bearing witness to the ingenious capacity for recycling and adaptation within the local community—a necessity for those of us stuck in apartments so run-down as to require almost nonstop super-low-budget interventions—many would inevitably try similarly to transform the surrounding funk through aesthetic alchemy. Few had the funds for enough pristine canvases to satisfy their manic creative compulsions, and the free adaptation of recovered trash as an objet trouvé store of unorthodox painting surfaces certainly fit the budgets of most. Just as much, however, there was the sincere effort to grasp and interact with the collapsing old world order about us and to mimic the heavy, fertile degeneration of the social fabric. It became a cliché—take any old piece of crap lying about, paint all over it, and sell it back at some commensurably inflated price to those whose very sense of value is predicated on refusal. Within the context of street art, and the impact that the concurrent rise of graffiti had on our imaginations, the work in the studio was hardly regarded as all that different from the work in the street. As more and more surfaces were subjected to an array of personal and social expression—facades as well as interiors of abandoned structures subjected to graffitied muralisms, sidewalks to stencils, and just about everything to the ongoing accumulation of wheat-pasted flyers—the poetics of urban decay became inextricably linked with the politics of subversion.

’Scuse me if I get misty-eyed, but there really was a kind of infectious creative euphoria afoot then. The output of ideas and raw energy manifested itself everywhere. It could happen in any diner at any hour. No one had a functioning kitchen, and if you ran into the perpetually hungry Wojnarowicz, there was no option but food. Or Martin Wong, who ate the better half of a mold-covered desert once before sending it back, not for a refund but to get another piece with less mold. In the early days, the only place east of A was Life Café on Avenue B, but the menu at the time consisted of little more than pot brownies. That place was a work of art in itself, but at others it was up to the clientele, and I can only fondly recall all the crayon drawings done by the likes of Keiko Bonk, Luis Frangella, Judy Glantzman, Richard Hofmann, Stephen Lack, Walter Robinson, and David West on the paper tablecloths at the Pharmacy. On the streets, meanwhile, an afternoon smoke might lead into some meandering debate or a peek at the latest artistic endeavor. And on the sidewalks, wisdom was encountered: in Miguel Pinero selling heroin, in the stencils of Michael Roman, Anton Van Dalen, and Wojnarowicz, or in Futura 2000, outside the 51X Gallery on St. Marks, painting over magnificent old discarded windows, tilting them so the sunlight would blaze them into radiant stained glass evocations of some protocyber sublime inspired by the new movie Tron.

It was also certainly to be found in the clubs like Club 57, where Ann Magnusen curated a miniature golf course and Rockets Redglare installed his Taxi Cabaret with Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone Jr. The night promised a carnival of bizarre burlesque, a primal sexpressionism in the performances of John Sex, Karen Finley, or Kembra Pfahler. And of course it was everywhere in the galleries. But even then it was as much a matter of attitude as object. With such names as Fun, Gracie Mansion, New Math, and Civilian Warfare, galleries were reminiscent of an idiomatic vernacular of mutant brands. Even the ’50s-prim-sounding Executive Gallery was in fact named after a brand of heroin once sold out of the building. And pity the self-important collector who might walk into Nature Morte expecting the red-carpet treatment only to be greeted by artist-directors Alan Belcher and Peter Nagy blowing pot. The only place more extreme in this regard was Mo David Gallery, where the “dealer,” Conceptual artist Mike Osterhout, could be found glued to the cartoons on the TV he had installed to show videos by Tony Oursler, Tony Labat, and Stelarc. Nothing escaped the broader manifestations of art-making and its lifestyle, not even the rodents that became raw material for Tommy Turner, who sewed their pelts together in blood-red-satin-lined purses. Wherever you went, this much could be said: Everything was unique but nothing precious; everything was personal but nothing private.

The hardest bit of topography to navigate in the ’80s, certainly a hurdle within the East Village as elsewhere, was that of ideology. No one wanted to concede an incapacity for a more radical agenda, but the alternatives reeked of hypocrisy. True, in the period of, say, 1980 to 1984, after which things in New York got so dark and ugly that many expressed their rage in more politicized terms (tenants’ rights, homelessness, squatting, police brutality, and AIDS being primary local issues), attitudes of apathy and avoidance were as common as they were troubling. In retrospect it is a lot easier to reconstruct the East Village as a particularly social rather than political expression. Unwilling to go the route of either the ruling gallery system or the preexistent alternative-space/public-funding structures, a systematic antiestablishment spirit forced the scene so far to the margins of political discourse that it found itself outside the nurturing bounds of right and left alike. And as angry as we got when Jesse Helms and Reverend Wildman pissed on our parade, nothing pissed us off more than the bullshit attacks from the left—from which we may have been alienated but with which we certainly felt a kinship. The fact that Craig Owens’s scathing Art in America critique of our unwilling, or at least unwitting, role in the gentrification not only of the neighborhood but of the avant-garde as such came from one far more empowered than any of us hurt and offended in ways I’d like to think the author never intended. But they also furthered our intuitive disgust with the institutional left presiding from the ivory tower.

To conjure the currents of thinking from which our cruelly untenable mind-set evolved, it’s important to realize the slippery position youth culture has always taken with regard to political activism. In 1982, the time by which I believe the scene had reached its underground zenith before being rapidly co-opted, I was a whopping twenty-one years old. If the culture of youth proves anything, it’s that the party is paramount—the more reckless the better. All of us had witnessed the industry horror of ’70s rock and the brilliant crash-and-burn resurrection of music’s vitality at the hands of the punks, and knew well how even the upheavals of ’68 ossified into the bounded pruderies of political correctness we were hell-bent on defying, so can we be blamed for believing that the key ingredient was fun? Next time you’re at a gallery opening, sipping your wine spritzer amid the kiss-kiss chatter, imagine for a moment the typical openings we enjoyed: unruly throngs of artists, musicians, and the like, slammed against a most democratic cross-section of street life lured by wanton quantities of free hard liquor and music just loud enough to make you forget that anyone could possibly intend to buy or sell art.

Perhaps I’m deluding myself, but at least on an individual level, the ’80s East Village was one of the instances when New York City’s magical but elusive capacity to mix youth culture and the culture of poverty briefly happened. When the hippies descended on this same neighborhood a decade earlier, it had resulted in tensions and treasons that had culminated in the endlessly publicized parable of the nice misguided lad from Connecticut slaughtered in his communal crash pad by an angry Latino gang. For the same purely pragmatic, proletarian reasons that led this community to acquiesce to the forces of the emerging (yuppie) collector, we really did try to make our integration into the slum work. No doubt the narcotic and sexual proclivities shared by many helped facilitate this, but so too did all those other not-very-tidy identities of otherness, disenfranchisement, and disillusion. The moment didn’t last long, but it probably never does. There’s really no other way for me to describe the East Village art scene than as a dismal failure. But it was our failure, and I for one take a lot of pride in it. I’m sorry that so many of the biggest freaks aren’t around to see how shitty this island of conspicuous entitlement and sanitized tourism has become—to know once and for all how fucking great we had it in this most incredible little village I grew up in. I’m sorry that a lot of socially, economically, and psychologically marginal people have been forced out and replaced by a lot of respectably boring twinkies. I’m sorry that I’m sorry, knowing full well that to be a happy New Yorker you have to accept constant change.