Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Back in the USSA
I've been snuffling around the old neighborhood these days – the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Yes, of course, it's a zone of young corporate stiffs now. Some streets are solid with bars pouring cheap beer at perpetual happy hours. I made a weekend pub crawl, just to smell the crowds. They were all in rut. Outside the famous art bar Max Fish was a rope and two really big guys in black suits controlling entrance. They took my state ID and put it into a scanner device which recorded it. Then I could go inside. These are cops hired to protect the business from the cops. Max Fish was recently closed for serving and under-21. The building Max Fish is in was until recently owned by the Elliots, old school LES landlords. Then it went to a son of them, who is a global wheeler-dealer type. This schlub tried to get the place, lock stock and liquor license – in a kind of “primitive appropriation” of the cultural capital of artists that is revealing of the true state of creatives in the super-heated global cities today. When he was thwarted, the schlub sold it to the owner of American Apparel – a clothing company which people mistakenly believe is somehow a fair labor practice operation. (The company has “greenwashed” itself on that issue from the get-go, basing their advertising on a softcore update of the labor unions' own historical “Union Maid” [i.e., “made”] campaigns of the '30s. This new owner is really rich, not just a little rich, and he looks to have an in with the cops. Because the old-school bully tactics of the Elliot son have been replaced by continuous official harrassment of Max Fish. (Although the Fish is not alone in this; other places that serve a non-bourgeois clientele are also under pressure.) The kind of giant klieg lights you see being used on the main drug dealing streets of ghettos in Baltimore are set up to shine in the windows of Max Fish for no apparent reason. (They ought to flash “get out!”) And somehow it is nearly impossible to register a complaint about this via the city's 311 municipal help line. No city agency seems to be responsible for the lights which bear NYPD logos. For the artists who made this neighborhood cool, “The future's so bright I've got to wear shades.”
Around the corner on Houston Street in the new skyscraper built with German capital, the No Longer Empty group has installed an actually decent art show in a large vacant storefront. I told them they were the enemy, because in Europe their kind of group forestalls occupations by temporarily filling a prominent vacant property with cultural content. (Kind of like Max Fish, although there the illusion was that it was a business with some hope of continuous tenancy. “Don't worry, boss. We can fix that.”) The chipper young gals sitting the place were a little baffled by that. But that's the way in NYC, artists and their presence manipulated like quicksilver, flowing rapidly around the city's vacant spots like some kind of flouride treatment for the epidemic of caries infecting the commercial real estate market. The technique was pioneered by the daughter of Durst, a major developer of Times Square. She started Chashama to fill the vacated storefronts along 42nd Street before they were demolished. Chashama programs continue today. They just closed a street art exhibition in the vacant NY Public Library building across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. Chashama is intelligent, and fearless in their embrace of edgy (read “non-commodity”) art. They even hosted an early anarchist convergence. NL Empty is a lot more timid. And they certainly don't understand themselves as being essentially a volunteer-run version of the kind of companies that will fill your vacant building in Amsterdam and London with short-term tenants who sign away their rights to stay – the “squatter-proofing” companies. At the Berlin SQEK meeting, Hans Pruijt told us that representatives of these companies were working with him to lobby against the recent Dutch anti-squatter laws. Of course, like the CIA funding the Taliban... keeping a good thing going.
With its heavy security cordon, Max Fish was pretty sedate inside. Nowadays most East Village bars play such loud music that social intercourse is reduced to gulping drinks and smelling each others' behinds. So I could relax, among the other controlled, amidst the gloriously painted walls and lavish art displays. I chatted with bartender and painter Harry Druzd – all the employees there are artists – and then walked on, to the Bowery Poetry Club. Nearby another empty newly renovated storefront has been spraypainted “Private Property.” (Duh.) Inside, a sort-of art show seems to be in progress, evidenced by a Samo-style graffito on the wall to the effect that “I am my own person...” The two graffiti read together make a kind of odious continuity between individuality and ownership. I was philosophically disgusted. I walked into the Yippie Museum. “This place smells like cat piss,” I told the barista. He wanted me to leave. So I told my story, and the only other people in the place, a young man and his friend, told me, “That's a case of predicate logic.” Even so, it's dangerous. As the great Reverend Billy told us at “service” that Sunday, our freedoms are being commodified, and sold to us as products. Billy entertains to liberate. For the neo-culture industry, it is as the French journal Offensive puts it, “Divertir pour dominer.”
Max Fish, Lower East Side "original" art bar
Yippie Museum Cafe and Gift shop and the Lenny Bruce Academy of Sick Comedy
Bowery Poetry Club, with "digital poet in residence" (??)
Chashama -- group of theaters, gallery spaces, and studios
Reverend Billy & The Church of Earthalujah!