PRINT December 2004


New York

THERE WAS A KIND OF INTELLIGENCE IN THE WAY 2003 BLACKED out midstream. Some things thrive better in darkness; some things go to sleep. But this year was halogen lit, smooth as safety glass, and punctuated by ever-peaking terror alerts, no doubt manufactured by the Bush people in anticipation of their show of force at Madison Square Garden. The year may go down as the most managed in the history of New York, the year that so many potential and imaginary explosions were defused or diverted, the year that the wartime climate served as a consistent and dependable stabilizing device. It’s tempting to consider all the ways that 2004 almost happened, or could have happened, yet didn’t. But whether it did or not, the year had a certain managerial logic, a logic that applied to daily life as well as to cultural production, guiding the movement of money, people, and art into and out of New York.

There were some brief moments in the streets on the occasion of the Republican National Convention. Critical Mass, a roving party of five thousand bicycles, circled Manhattan two days before the event. During two minutes of mayhem on the steps of the New York Public Library, a battalion of riot police manhandled some overlively kids and ensnared many less lively ones in orange plastic netting. And as the sun came up on the last morning of the RNC, all of the city’s major fountains flowed blood red (until the cleaning crews quickly corrected the anomaly). Later, Andre 3000 appeared downtown to support the more than one thousand illegally detained, bureaucratically “lost” protestors. But nothing was broken; nothing really got out of hand or exploded during the convention.

As if the ’80s might be possible all over again, in 2004 money and art once again decided to quit fooling around and shack up: Their many children suddenly filled Chelsea from end to end. These well-educated artists proved to be experts at manipulating today’s second and third appearances of ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s countercultures, but could do nothing either to disrupt an insanely policed Republicanizing of their own city or to resist or refuse their own instrumentalization by an art market increasingly fine-tuned to the momentary whims of young collectors and curators. It seems that nowadays, we will appropriate everything but our own time and place, and yet appropriation will always feel a little too cool and vague if it doesn’t take that extra, possibly criminal, step toward misappropriation, or a theft that actually takes something. In 2004, insider-outsider, faux-rebel art appeared as the rising sign of the ambitious post-MFA artist-monkey. Every pretty picture and scrappy drawing hanging on a gallery wall seemed to stand for a defused desire, a wallpapered-over possibility, a patch in the sails of the happy ship that carried us smoothly into another cold, bright winter.

So, as the election loomed closer, a remarkable amount of pictures were shown, a lot were sold, and some will say it’s going too far to claim that this apparently contagious phenomenon was the result of so many galleries catering to the Judith Rothschild Foundation’s desire to invest several million dollars in contemporary drawings as part of a proposed gift to MoMA. They will say it’s going too far to claim that in 2004 the New York art world was dominated by private collectors and their easily predictable spending habits. That this is why so many galleries presented show after show of loveable little works you could slip into your briefcase. That these same galleries are increasingly connected to a sturdy yet flexible feeding tube: the Columbia University MFA program. That art students are now trained, above all, to manipulate this tube from their end, too. That museums offered no viable antidote to this epidemic. That this year, young artists even helped create the decor for the Whitney Museum’s annual fundraising gala. That everyone (except every single artist I know) seemed to agree that assume vivid astro focus was the hottest thing since Wendy Airhole (because they dared to create retro-poppy, theme park–like environments rather than small, handmade things?). That things have suddenly become so amazingly transparent as far as art and money go, as well as in terms of a generalized libidinal investment in the smooth functioning of the high-speed, art school–collector connection. We all see it, and the fact that it’s so easy to see is precisely what makes for a stable market, a steady production, a safe and manageable art.

An autopsy of a year requires sharp tools. But at the time of this writing in October (with the second presidential debate droning in the background), 2004 reveals its particular and extreme amnesia. All the things missed or forgotten in New York, all the shows we knew didn’t matter but went to anyway. We forgot drawing. We forgot goth. We forgot our Biennial. We tried to remember Minimalism. After three years without it, we almost forgot the absence of MoMA in Manhattan (will we still recognize her when she unveils her extreme makeover in November?). But 2004 also produced its own particular life forms, and the following words are addressed to these other New Yorks, the ones you can actually live in. Because a few things do stick.

I remember the Downtown for Democracy Liberty Fair on Twenty-second Street in mid-September. Although the word “democracy” has recently taken on a distinctly empty and pornographic flavor, and although voting—or voting Kerry—became the be-all and end-all of political engagement for most New Yorkers, the street fair was remarkable for the momentary shock of a festive afternoon it unleashed on a normally battened-down Chelsea block. A spontaneous, collectively produced feeling exposed the ordinarily antifestive, low-intensity character of this zone—an open window, a stopped clock, a sudden joyful critique of the normal situation. Contributions to this rare carnivalesque atmosphere included Rachel Harrison’s pay-to-enter/pay-to-exit “jail,” samba lessons by Andrea Fraser, a kissing booth starring Emily Speers Mears, boxing with Cecily Brown, some disorderly conduct with trash bags and whipped cream, and an open bar in broad daylight. And for many of those involved, the feeling hasn’t faded.

Speaking of the changing terrain of Twenty-second Street, 2004 was the year Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts, Inc., finally closed its doors. The most adventurous art gallery of the ’90s, AFA pioneered a critical-collaborative enterprise that kept its doors and its agenda wide open to alternative practices. It offered a humorously dysfunctional model of what a New York gallery could or should be—a willfully difficult model that now no longer exists in Chelsea. And in characteristic fashion, AFA went out with a string of excellent shows. There was Andrea Fraser’s Official Welcome, 2001–2003, an Oscar-worthy thank you speech (in conjunction with an exhibition across the street at Friedrich Petzel Gallery that documented her literal consummation of a deal with a collector). There was “Get Real Estate,” Gareth James’s exhibition of conceptual origami. There was Patterson Beckwith’s transformation of the gallery into a free schoolhouse, with a monthlong program of events and artist collaborations. There was Lutz Bacher’s excellent, mordant “Jokes.” And finally, “Election,” a group exhibition organized by James Meyer. As if in hysterical reaction to the loss of AFA, a bumper crop of new Chelsea galleries mushroomed overnight this fall. We can only hope these young galleries and their artists will put as much energy into redefining something that resembles a local New York art as they will put into churning out product for NADA-Scope-Liste-Frieze. This was, after all, the year that art forgot New York, which every month shipped another part of itself to Miami, Basel, London, or a Utopia Station near you.

In 2004 we witnessed the unexpected return-with-a-vengeance of Alex Bag at Elizabeth Dee Gallery. Many have felt her influence, but few can match her comic genius when it comes to exposing the insidious links between contemporary lifestyle culture, the global economy, and our latest wars. Another unexpected return was David Wojnarowicz, who haunted Roth Horowitz gallery in October with his freshly unearthed “Rimbaud in New York” series, shot in 1978 and 1979. Whoever ventured up to Seventieth Street to encounter these images couldn’t help but feel the frisson of a now-extinct life form that once stalked the East Village: obsessed, poetic, committed, addicted, out of control, a community of exiles, a long-gone bohemia, not that long ago. And more untimely still: Dieter Roth, Lee Lozano, and Lee Bontecou.

There were some noteworthy visits from Europe. German painters Albert Oehlen and Michael Krebber both presented New York shows in 2004 and demonstrated, each in his own way, that if painting’s old endgame isn’t over yet, it’s because fresh art can still be made by inhabiting this paradoxical living death in a robust way, and by using it as a point from which to question all the other forms and media whose vitality are taken for granted today. This is very close to what Londoners Oliver Payne and Nick Relph proposed regarding urban life in their faux-experimental film Gentlemen, 2003, which was one of the first shows at Gavin Brown’s new space on Greenwich Street. How can we inhabit a dying city in a lively way? The first shot is of an out-of-focus urinal in Starbucks. What poetic revolutions might be lying dormant in a post-post-revolutionary, totally streamlined metropolis?

I also remember Gary Indiana’s slapped-together, freestyle cabaret nights at Passerby and, at the same venue, Stephan Dillemuth’s video/performance People of Light in the Slush of the Sun. The latter, based on the artist’s research project about how the Third Reich absorbed previously thriving lifestyle cultures into its own machine, was in fact an explicit and hilarious critique of the present. That same night, Dillemuth reappeared down on the Lower East Side at Reena Spaulings Fine Art (a gallery admittedly close to my heart), where he presented an hourlong exhibition consisting of sculpted spaghetti, photographs of anuses, and a single flashing lightbulb.

I remember music: a No-Neck Blues Band/White Magic concert on the steps of P.S. 1 and the very first live show of Rita Ackermann’s Hungarian New Wave band (Dis)functionixs at Tonic. Also, the mysterious rise of Animal Collective and Gang Gang Dance, the persistent, meandering trajectory of Black Dice, and the discovery of Early Man, the local metal band whose impromptu concert at The Hole goes down as one of the most deliriously fun nights of the year. Each of them—whether by noise, collage, détournement, chance, contagious rhythms, guitars or no guitars, abstracted song structures, or theatrics—added another facet to what might be called a downtown sound, which isn’t really a sound so much as a collective commitment to keeping our music here but just out of reach, so we’re kept guessing and wanting more. I also remember food: Agathe Snow’s guerilla catering concept “Feed The Troops” reinvented eating in 2004 with its Dada-esque culinary interventions at various parties, picnics, and art openings. And, thanks to the young women of LTTR—the radical feminist and transgender journal, whose three-week downtown performance and lecture series unleashed a dense cannonball of otherness into the heart of the same—I remember that I am not a man, no longer a bio-boy, but, as of this year, a “non-trans-man.”

It seems appropriate to conclude this murky memoir of a stillunfinished year with two big shows this month that deserve mention, only because they serve as warnings: The JetBlue-sponsored group show in Terminal 5 at JFK airport, which was closed down by the Port Authority immediately after its opening, and the Guggenheim’s Rirkrit Tiravanija event (bankrolled by American Express at the former Ace Gallery), which met a similar fate during a Dead Meadow concert. That art can be arrested today for a little vomit, broken glass, or noise is bad enough. Worse is that artists and musicians felt the need to apply their talents to such cynical, crassly promoted, high-security, bogus utopias in order to do their thing and were shut down anyway. So I’ll leave the year in midstride with the example of these two forgettable un-happenings, and all my votes for a less stabilized and neutralized 2005. Next year we’ll all blow up.

John Kelsey is a member of the artist’s collective Bernadette Corporation and codirector of Reena Spaulings Fine Art.