Loud and Alive
By Andrew Naymark
The cycle of displacement and reemergence is common in New York City. This is true for the artistic community as much as it is for minority enclaves or marginalized industries. But the underground art spaces of North Brooklyn are experiencing a particularly harsh backlash from various authorities, as well as a hyperactive gentrification process that is not only pushing them out of the neighborhoods they inhabit, but throwing into question the future of Brooklyn’s artistic vitality.
Todd P., the founder of Llano Estacado, an art space near the Williamsburg waterfront, makes the urgency of the situation clear: “The spirit of New York is dying. The same thing that is happening in Williamsburg now was happening in Manhattan 15 years ago. I’m telling you, if the trends continue, you will see this city completely losing its creative edge.”
The histories of earlier art scenes shed light on the current predicament. New York University is hosting “The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984” at its Grey Art Gallery. The exhibition’s curators make the argument that the key ingredient for that decade’s artistic fermentation, and consequent breakthroughs, was something deceptively simple: space.
“The Downtown scene [was] energized by the enactment of the Loft Law, which made it legal for artists to live in SoHo’s industrial spaces. Downtown’s desolate industrial landscape also yielded not-for-profit exhibition spaces for artists seeking alternatives to traditional galleries and museums.”
The lesson is more vital today than ever: for a burgeoning art movement to realize its full potential of innovation, it requires a stable, enduring locus where artists can freely interact and create. New York City, it seems, has yet to learn this lesson.
Jump cut to exactly three miles east of the “’74-‘84” exhibit. The underground art spaces of North Brooklyn—those unofficial, unauthorized epicenters of the artistic vanguard— are struggling to maintain their existence against mounting odds. Their warehouses, industrial spaces, and lofts are being increasingly threatened and, in some cases, shut down completely.
Back to Warhol’s Factory
The ancestry of the underground art space stretches back through the ‘70s SoHo scene, to Warhol’s Factory in the early ‘60s, and beyond. These “collectivities” pushed at the boundaries of what was considered legitimate art. They repeatedly redefined the trajectory of the avant garde, irreverently fusing “high art” and the “trash” of street culture. They deconstructed the artist/audience duality, engaged controversial political issues, and broke down the barriers between art forms. In this process of innovation, there were, of course, other important players in the New York art world—galleries, music venues, theaters, dance companies, and more. But underground art spaces hold a unique and vital position: they are of, for and by a community of artists. Galleries and other art-related businesses must, to some extent, cater to the buying public. But the art spaces’ sole modus operandi is to incite radical collective creativity through their work and events.
The emergence of art spaces in Brooklyn was a key step in the survival of the art movements that were foundering in Manhattan. Todd P. recalls, “People said, ‘I’m not going to pay that much money [in Manhattan], because it’s not fair.’ It was just becoming impossible for vibrant art that isn’t making money yet to have its genesis in Manhattan. So people discovered, ‘Hey wait, it’s not so lame to live in Brooklyn.’ Brooklyn used to have the same taint as living in Jersey. Obviously, it doesn’t anymore. And the fact that people changed their prejudices against [Brooklyn] has kept the possibility of starving artists—which is where all new ideas begin in the arts—it kept that possible.”
North Brooklyn became a “starving artist” hotbed, ruled by a DIY paradigm of artistic cross-pollination. Eric Zajaleskowski, who founded Secret Project Robot, the new incarnation of Mighty Robot, a first generation art space in Williamsburg, explains, “The Brooklyn underground art scene is where everything happens. Art spaces are so much more important than any gallery or bar or club. People put their blood and sweat into them. But they’re also really casual and fun. It was never a business venture really, and I think people sensed that. It became very much like a family. These art spaces should get some credit. Like Rubulad, for instance, they’re such an institution.”
Rubulad was started in the early ‘90s by four rock bands who teamed up to rent a communal rehearsal space. Soon they began staging events at which friends could perform and exhibit their art. Since then, the events have only escalated in scope, and are today some of the most compelling events in Brooklyn.
Sari Rubenstein has been the driving force of Rubulad since its inception: “What was really special and important to me is that people could do all this different kind of stuff in the same place. At a certain point, New York had these giant discos, and then bars where bands would play, and galleries where people would go to see art. None of these people ever intermingled again. I felt like everyone should get to be together. The thing about Rubulad is that it’s our house. It’s a home, and it always was a home.”
Group Experience vs. Product
The process of creation in art spaces is often more about group experience than it is about producing a saleable product. The Glass House, on South 1st and Kent, throws all manner of interactive art events. Brooke Baxter, the co-founder, discusses the impetus for The Glass House: “We wanted to start a space for the community where people could come together, and not just sit and watch, but actually participate. So that’s what this space is: a huge participation.” They also brought their program of interactive creation to public spaces.
“The goal was to go throughout New York City and get people involved in experiential art, which is art created for the experience and not for the final product. Experiential art is about creating without judgment. We did the Howl Festival. We did shows at PS1. [Glass House co-founder] Leviticus would dress up in paint suits, and people would paint all over them. I would be a poetry canvas, and people would write poems all over my body. Once at the Howl Festival, we counted and I had sixteen different languages on me.”
Some of the earliest art spaces in North Brooklyn, along with Rubulad and Mighty Robot, were Free103Point9, the Good/Bad Art Collective, Flux Factory, Madagascar, and BPM. They have been joined by a slew of others, often situated farther east, in the East Williamsburg Industrial Park and Bushwick. Among them are Monster Island—a warehouse which houses three distinct spaces: Llano Estacado, Secret Project Robot, and Live With Animals—Asterisk, Issue Project Room, The Syrup Room, Empty Vessel Project, 3rd Ward, Union Docs, and many more.
These art spaces form a sort of family tree, in which one generation of art collectivities inspires the next to set up shop and expand the community. There is a familial camaraderie in the way they collaborate with and support each other. If one space gets temporarily closed down, another steps in to host the events that had been scheduled. Often, one space will host a benefit party to aid another space that’s running dangerously low on funds.
Underground art spaces have a symbiotic relationship with the neighborhoods they inhabit. The surrounding environment provides them with the raw materials they require to foster a community: industrial or other marginalized space, a buffer of (relatively) lower rent prices, and artists who are searching for a community.
But the art spaces affect the neighborhood in turn. They increase foot traffic in the industrial areas, making them safer. They increase business for local shops. “And [our art spaces] only help to increase that process [of gentrification], because people are going to these underground parties in the neighborhood—even people from Manhattan are coming over here. Then it becomes a hip neighborhood, partially because of these underground parties. And a scene starts to develop. Then people with more money want to move out here, because it’s cool. And so on,” explains Zajaleskowski.
As the neighborhood’s reputation as a hotbed of independent art and music events solidifies, businesses start pouring in to take advantage of the ready-made customer base. This includes arts-related businesses like conventional galleries and music venues. This in turn attracts people who prefer a more commercially developed, homogenized environment.
This process of gentrification is largely responsible for the difficulties art spaces face. “As the neighborhood was changing over, the neighbors were changing too. The new people are paying higher rents, and they expect quiet at all hours. It became a constant negotiation, talking to neighbors nonstop. It was taking a lot of work to throw a party.”
Baxter, from The Glass House, is also worried about the demographic shifts in North Brooklyn. “If people want to move here because they want to be around art and be supportive of it, then I’m all for it. But if people move into the neighborhood and start complaining about noise and try to get places shut down that have existed in the neighborhood for years and years—because they have children and they don’t like noise—I say move somewhere that’s quiet. Williamsburg is not quiet. It’s loud and alive.”
The other force pushing against the arts community is the police. Though many art spaces possess dubious legal status, most have attempted to become “legitimate.” The complicating factor is that there is no absolute defining line between legality and illegality. In the quest to become legitimate, many of the art spaces discovered that there is an unending series of hoops to jump through in order to secure a legal status.
“The laws are very complex. Legal or illegal is really an imprecise subject,” explains Todd P. “It’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s a matter of different degrees of police enforcement. It’s really dependent on what you look like, as much as what precinct you’re in, and whether what you’re doing appears to be innocuous to them. I don’t ascribe any kind of bad motivations [to the police]. But even with places that appear to be professional, like theatres or art galleries, if they were pressed to follow the law to the degree that Monster Island was forced to, most of them would not survive.”
The near impossibility of being “up to code” has frustrated many art space organizers. Zajaleskowski recalls, “After Monster Island got temporarily shut down, I went to every gallery owner in Williamsburg, every bar and restaurant. Ninety percent of them are not even close to code. No exit signs, no anything. So it’s not like there’s a law that’s consistently followed by the police. It’s very pick-and-choose. The thing is that every business can be busted for hundreds of reasons. You just can’t help it.”
Baxter explains why she has had a less difficult experience with the police: “The Glass House is on the border between two police precincts. Monster Island is in the Greenpoint precinct. And I have the Williamsburg precinct, two totally different situations. If I were three blocks over, Glass House wouldn’t exist. I think it’s because the Greenpoint precinct doesn’t have as much crime. But the [Williamsburg precinct] has bigger fish to fry than just me.”
Facing the Tide
In organizing Rubulad, Rubenstein has participated in the Brooklyn art scene from its incubation through to its current dilemmas. “I think it’s really tragic the way [New York] is being sterilized, the way it’s become very Singapore-like. You can get in trouble for anything; you get arrested for putting a sticker on a mailbox. They’re turning New York into this nice clean city for rich people that nothing ever happens in. There’s so much of the world that’s already like that, why do they have to make New York like that? It’s a whole different place from the one I grew up in. And then when something does come out of New York that’s homespun and grows and gets famous and makes money, they’re so proud of it. But they try to stomp on all the little sprouts before they can grow.”
“If Brooklyn were to become the way Manhattan is, I guess everyone would move to the Bronx,” says Rubenstein. “I don’t think the spirit wants to die. I hope this is not the way New York will always work, or else we’re going to end up in the Rockaways.”
“I think there’s always been a weird underground art space scene. Always. It just moves. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was huge in the East Village,” says Zajaleskowski. “Then they slowly got pushed out here to Brooklyn. And I think people are going to get pushed out of here too.”
“I think a lot of cities are much easier, a lot more arts-friendly,” adds Rubenstein. “Those places actually want their artists, and here artists are treated like they’re bad people, undesirable in some way. What’s the iron fist thing about? Isn’t life supposed to be about this stuff? You shouldn’t have to go to court to defend having seventeen people over to hear experimental music.”
“I feel kind of responsible to keep doing Rubulad until more stuff happens. I guess we’re lucky for what we have, because what we have is actually special. I mean; I wish there were more. I wish it were easier. But what we have is kind of a miracle. I think that’s maybe the best thing that’s come out of this really repressive environment—that everyone bands together more. You have to in order to survive.”