Brooklyn DIY: A Story of Williamsburg Art Scene 1987-2007 directed by Martin Ramocki
In Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat, the title character, exemplar of the flameout credo of the East Village, is assisting an artist-installer at the Mary Boone Gallery. This mediocrity, played by Willem Da Foe, attempts to counsel the hero about the benefits of a reliable day job. Basquiat replies that someday he would show on those very walls. He quits on the spot and never looks back. Likely Schnabel was not intending that the viewer inquire further into the Da Foe character’s pitiable existence, but let me suggest that he took the L train home to his Williamsburg sweatshop loft, stoked the woodstove with 2×4 scraps, and painted obsessively into the night, biding his time.
After the crash of ’87 (a laughable blip, in retrospect) the briefly pumped-up East Village galleries either closed or moved up the ladder to Soho. Artists who didn’t get mowed down by hard drugs or AIDS got decadently rich and left yuppies in their wake – the price of a vacant Alphabet City “studio,” not to say an actual studio, moving out of reach of Midwest college kids. A bridge and tunnel away, however, a scattered army of Da Foes popped their heads out their windows and noticed each other.
Marcin Ramocki’s new documentary Brooklyn DIY, which premiered at MoMA on February 25th, is subtitled The History of the Williamsburg Art Scene 1987-2007. The video is the first straightforward, Sundance Channel-style attempt, and one hopes not the last, to document the brief, happy life of the Williamsburg Scene – begging the question, in the process, as to the degree to which Williamsburg really was, or perhaps even still is, a coherent scene; a dissident view advanced in the video is that it’s just a bit of geography where numerous artists happened to find a place to live and work, an insignificant smattering rising to wider prominence.
One must be grateful that Ramocki, rather than some slick cultural tourist, has been the first to tackle this contested history. He knows firsthand the experimental tradition ably evoked by the 75-minute video, having founded, in 2003, the Williamsburg gallery vertexList in the vacated address of the relocated 4 Walls, the most venerable of Williamsburg artist-run clubhouses. Ramocki knows enough of the right people to interview, he covers the best of the early venues and events, and he was given access to crucial archives (in particular that of dedicated video chronicler Carleton Bright, credited as Associate Producer.)
Insider Ramocki’s do-it-yourself, laptop-edited history is thus in some sense an extension of its subject. But he has chosen to play it close to the vest, adopting a familiar format of talking heads and supplemental footage. He pretends to no innovation as a videomaker, strenuously avoiding not only the Williamsburg ethos of oddball, low-key subversion but, for that matter, vertexList’s more aggressive program of digital intervention. Brooklyn DIY is content to showcase more imaginative acts of wry self-conscience, such as Ward Shelley’sWilliamsburg Timeline, a 2004 print in which the artist has ventured a disarmingly earnest, intestinal diagram of the comings and goings of Williamsburg’s significant people, places, and events, and Matt Freedman’s live drawing lecture, in which, accompanied by Tim Spelios’s percussion, he cartoons with deadpan erudition the convergence of economic conditions which emptied acres of cheap loft space just a stop away from the burnt-out, priced-out East Village. Freedman’s performance puts us in mind that if Williamsburg is only geography, well, so was St. Louis in 1800, sited at the confluence of two mighty rivers teeming with beaver pelts.
Had Brooklyn DIY trusted its subjects more in the manner of its unhurried perusal of Freedman’s lecture, or its occasional returns to Shelley’s Timeline for close-ups of the particular node of activity under discussion, the video might have been both more entertaining and informative. That said, when the interviewees are on the ball, Freedman and Shelley among them, and we are treated to priceless, thoughtfully correlated Hi-8 tape and photos of the ancestral events in play, the formula works breezily well. Alas, Ramocki has a weakness for chopped up, artificially manipulated exchanges, which, while sometimes lively, tend to simulate debate in an all too familiar sound bite vacuum, as with the following sequence in which the much admired painter Amy Sillman, an acerb skeptic about the Williamsburg Scene, and Ebon Fisher, who was among the dedicated instigators of mass warehouse events, seem to be at odds:
Fisher: “We began to figure out what makes a warehouse party work.”
Sillman: “…and they were run by people with a sense they were doing something very important for everybody.”
Fisher: “Of course we all assumed it would be revolutionary.”
Sillman: “If you came here in 84, you didn’t necessarily party with people who came in 89.”
Fisher: “Manhattan was learning from Brookyln, an entire community and its surrounding ecosystem…”
Sillman: “East Village Two, why do we need it again?”
Now, a little of this can be funny and to the point, as here perhaps, with Fisher’s utopian spin cut down to size – so the editing disposes – by Sillman’s curmudgeonly charm. But pitting isolated interview subjects against one another by proxy, intercutting words from different contexts and temperaments as if they were on the same page, is mildly sensationalistic. In fairness, we are shown glimpses during the “exchange” above of menacing, funky installations, whacked-out nudists, S&M stilt walkers and lab-coated pranksters from Organism, a 24-hour “webjam” in a disused mustard factory. In venerable documentary tradition the viewer will judge whether such events deserve their own Ward Shelleyan nodule along the spaghetti which connects the Human Be-In and the Happening to the Rave on the master timeline of American counterculture. But if Ramocki’s habit of interruption and juxtaposition can work well enough on occasion, it tends to get diminishing returns, as later when he elicits a montage of disagreements on the definition of “hipster” – an excruciating sequence with little redeeming schadenfreude. Yes, hipsters are the new yuppies, as one youngish fashion photographer has it, and he ought to know.
The “hipster” episode is part of an attempt to tie Brooklyn DIY’s historical survey of the art scene to reflections about gentrification, an important topic to be sure, but one that deserves more than lip service to “the notion of [white artists’] privilege from the very moment they moved into this neighborhood,” as artist Freedman puts it. This Solomonic admonition is unkindly dropped like a sandbag amid the usual war stories of the old days –shots in the night, muggings, stripped cars set alight – stories that pioneers like to tell with a certain pride and glamour, despite being perfectly well aware that they were in far less danger of being shot than the 14 year old Dominican kid down the block. If a documentary were serious about exploring the impact of artists on real estate values, we’d need to see interviews with artist-renovator winners and evicted loft dweller losers, as well as with Polish, Latino and Hassidic natives; statistics on development, rents, and incomes; and a wider survey of the mercantile hipster culture that came to fill every nook and cranny with professionally distressed lounges and pre-packaged trends. The video goes into needless depth about one such latter-day party scene, shot gunned into brief vogue as “Electroclash” by a DJ named Larry T. Mr. T’s mercenary, take-no-prisoners self-promotion does make for an amusing interview, and perhaps Ramocki means to illuminate, by contrast, the self-effacing sincerity of proprietors of projects like 4 Walls and Pierogi, which Joe Amrhein describes as “more like a social construct for an artwork” than a gallery. If irony is meant, a little goes a long way. But one has the feeling, instead, that Ramocki really means to suggest a continuum from the loosely anarchic DIY scene of clubs and events like El Sensorium, Keep Refrigerated, Cat’s Head and Organism to a more recent vintage of bridge and tunnel cattle pens where, as Larry T declares, “Everybody got laid!” Let’s set the record straight, then: good times Electroclash stands in relation to the more diffident Williamsburg Scene as Studio 54 does to the Pyramid Club; the antagonism is stylistic and fundamental.
Not to say that self-promotion and battles over ownership were ever entirely absent from what Shelley denotes on his timeline as the Creative Golden Age. Still, it’s substantially true that, in his words, “it was art for art’s sake, the artists were all pitching in, and they weren’t worried about the borders of what their work was.” In Shelley’s mordant analysis, this foul-weather utopianism was inextricable from the fact that no one could get a show in Manhattan. Things began to change as the art market expanded again, with opportunities for local artists to disentangle themselves not only across the river but also in their own backyard. By then there were perhaps thousands of artists living and working in close proximity in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and environs, and a parallel world of galleries emerged to show them. In an omniscient statistic Brooklyn DIY claims that 145 galleries have come and gone, but that number is generously inclusive. Only a few have had true grit, laid-back but competent DIY style, and/or staying power. And of these, a 75-minute survey can only cover a sampling, with significant players relegated to passing mention or, in some cases, insufficiently identified footage. (A Roxy Paine periscope installation at Momenta, for example, in which the artist’s upstairs studio was surveiled goes uncredited.) Seminal spaces like Brand Name Damages and Test Site get welcome remembrance (though oddly, the film never mentions that Test Site’s Annie Herron, Williamsburg’s matron saint, died tragically young in 2004) but when it comes to choosing gallerists to interview,Brooklyn DIY must resort to an attempt at cross-section: the old-time guerrilla (Aaron Namenwirth of Art Moving), the clubhouse impresario (Mike Ballou of 4 Walls), the for profit pioneer (Amrhein of Pierogi), the ambitious ship-jumper (Becky Smith of Bellwether), the bad boy Chelsea reject (Don Carroll of Jack The Pelican), and the persistent, if pragmatic idealist (Daniel Aycock of Front Room). If a few of DIY’s choices seem marginal compared to other spaces that go unmentioned despite being on the leading edge or right at the center of the alternative gallery scene – such as, for the record, Flipside, Momenta, Arcadia, Sauce, Roebling Hall, Eyewash, Parker’s Box, and maybe also Sideshow, Plus Ultra and im n Il – one can forgive Ramocki his personal skew; at least he has troubled to get the bulk of it right, and we are amply referred to Shelley’s conscientious Timeline if we want to fill in some of the blanks.
With a lively exhibition scene, then, centered first and foremost around Pierogi since 1995, it’s inevitable that the completely fatuous question is going to be asked, is there a Williamsburg “look?” Perhaps this sort of thing is an inherent folly of mental anatomy, like the tendency to map parents’ faces onto an adopted child’s. The East Village or Downtown “look” is a historical grain of sand around which layer upon layer of commentary has accrued, a pearl of conventional wisdom. But in fact, no obvious common factor denominates between Basquiat and Koons, Wojnarowicz and Holzer, Coe and Scharf, et al. Without the fiction of revolutionary alignment, a fiction that was artificially inseminated into the media slipstream by narcissistic gallerists, artists, and writers with a chip on the shoulder (and two in the pot), the East Village would have been just a loose, vibrant locus of activity. Against this Machiavellian fait accompli, poor, innocent Williamsburg is forever held to a double standard in which it fails to achieve EV-level scenedom because its “paradigm” – to borrow from the title of a prescient 1993 show in far-off Illinois curated by trend-spotter Jonathan Fineberg – is either too predictable or else not predictable enough. BrooklynDIYperks up when, in its patchwork fashion, talking heads weigh in on the question of aesthetic alignment, yes or no, good or bad.
Mike Ballou: “One of the dangers is that it becomes a little incestuous. It does become a clique and a club.”
Amy Sillman: “[…] If you said something bad about someone’s art, they’d hear about it and it would be awful and so you’d refrain. […] The Williamsburg thing, at least its deep roots, I think it does not have any particular aesthetic position, nor was anyone going to really argue about it, and without that you can’t have any kind of strong aesthetic platform.”
Joe Amrhein: “I don’t think Williamsburg has that regional look [as with Bay Area or Liepzig School art] and I like it that way.”
Becky Smith: “My friend calls it the International Williamsburg Style, a certain kind of painting it looks like Joe would show, out of this certain time.”
Sillman: “I don’t think my work has any kind of aesthetic relationship to Williamsburg at all. It wasn’t really an aesthetic community, it was really a geographic community.”
I’ve heard Pierogi criticized for favoring dense, handmade, graphic imagism (disclosure: the present writer has shown there), but gallerist Smith’s cavil, given Bellweather’s heavy rotation of off-kilter academic realism, is a stone cast from a glass McMansion. If ever there was a Williamsburg aesthetic it probably had more to do with the sort of electro-mechanical “bricolage” shown in footage from 1991’s multi-space show, Tweaking The Human and exemplified by hybrid instrument sculptor/musician Ken Butler, whose opinions and AK47-cello riffs are agreeably laced throughout Brooklyn DIY. Pierogi, for that matter, has often showcased absurdist sci-fi spectacle, and has now rededicated its program to large constructions with its cavernous new Boiler space (an act of typical Williamsburg optimism so out of step with reality that it might single-handedly turn the economy around).
Where Smith sees tired parochialism, Sillman sees the opposite, the blobby incoherence that arises in a vacuum. Can there be an aesthetics, she asks, without a bit of tough-minded dialectics? Sillman picks at the wound of the larger question about Williamsburg: Was low-key, inclusive niceness a deliberate and characteristic virtue, or was it a symptom of artistic mediocrity? If the former, street events, clubs, anonymous and borderless artworks should be taken seriously in appraising Williamsburg’s historical importance, andBrooklyn DIY makes a down payment on video-logging the wealth of crazy stuff that went on, from Gene Pool’s unicycling Can Man, to a panel at 4 Walls on jokes, to barely contained pyromania in the cavernous Mustard club.
But in Sillman’s terms Williamsburg would only matter if its islands of individual artistic achievement were connected underwater, as it were, by an “ecosystem.” Critic Sarah Schmerler further articulates this rather pitiless view, asserting that Williamsburg art won’t make it into books aside from a few success stories – and here she names Sillman, Bruce Pearson, Fred Tomaselli, and Roxy Paine. (Interviews with the last three, by the way, would be essential to any comprehensive reckoning.) “How many hands do we need?” Schmerler asks dismissively.
Quite a few, actually. Here’s a very short additional list of internationally respected artists who can be said to have more than passed through – who lived, worked, curated, showed, partied and did it themselves in Williamsburg: interviewees Amrhein, Ballou, and Shelley; Michael Ashkin, Francis Cape, Diana Cooper, Charles Currier, James Esber, Jane Fine, Su Friederich, Joe Fyfe, Rachel Harrison, Perry Hoberman, Byron Kim, Mark Lombardi, Chris Martin, David Opdike, Joyce Pensato, David Scher, James Siena, Mike Smith, Eve Sussman, Dan Zeller, and Brenda Zlamany. Among these, a number have been in Biennials, had solo museum shows and, pace Schmerler, made it into art history books. Dozens of impressive artists might be added to that list. The real question is, how densely interwoven is the network that connects them? Is it like loose seaweed floating among the waves, or more like a coral reef, anchored in place and bristling with exotic life?
Schmerler, to her credit, was the first mainstream critic to novelty-shop in the neighborhood, covering the Crest Hardware Show, a stealth art extravaganza, for Time Out as a harbinger of new energy. And in Brooklyn DIY she extols the value of having artists still congregate within the precincts of New York, “like gold backing the dollar,” though this hardheaded choice of simile comes off as grudging. She’s right that a sea of artists, writers, and musicians are required to buoy up the few celebrities, and maybe a materialistic headcount of the famous is the only objective way to judge the vitality of a scene, in toto. Schmerler, however, draws the waterline so high as to make her verdict seem truculent, as if wishing to repudiate her early association with Williamsburg amateurism in order to avoid being tarred by the same brush. But given the recent mid-career emergence of formidable forces such as Martin, Pensato, and Sussman I would suggest that it’s still too early for a final assessment, in any case, of what may turn out to have been a singularly slow-ripening phenomenon. (Full disclosure: the present writer would like to think there is still room for a generation of under-known mid-career artists to emerge from local notoriety into the light of wider recognition.)
For all the hand wringing about gentrification (and the dark jokes about artists mixing paint on the marble countertops of abandoned luxury condos), what if, instead, the most salient characteristic of Williamsburg was its longevity? Yes, things change fast in New York, but maybe a little more slowly in Brooklyn, and that opulence of time in many cases allowed for a different studio approach. Could Martin, Pensato, and Sussman have matured in the pressure cooker of Avenue C in the ‘80s? Maybe there’s a particular flavor to the Williamsburg Scene, a rare terroir that connects the DIY attitude to a kind of work that takes years to ferment.
In the end, what Brooklyn DIY does best is to resuscitate the energy of a time of underground events and wacky street theater that may have begun as a footnote to the East Village Scene but flourished on its own gleeful terms, innocent of the sort of fashion despotism and lust for fame and fortune that came to rule the EV. Of that earlier scene Gary Indiana has written, “Many artists made no objects but did things that were art, like keeping dull people out of the Mudd Club.” To be sure, Williamsburg was duller, partly because the scene was too small to afford to be exclusive, but also by design, in reaction to the psychic price of snobbery. No guardians kept clueless artists from bringing their work to Crest or hanging it at the Salon of Mating Spiders. Anyone was welcome to cobble together a pile of junk at Cat’s Head or read bad poetry at The Ship’s Mast or pontificate at 4 Walls, if they were thick skinned and shameless. The only gatekeeping mechanism against dolts and poseurs, effective enough at low densities, was negative word-of-mouth.
Scenes come and go according to cyclic factors as dry as real estate values, as mysterious as the wheel of kharma. A notable few persist in memory. You have the feeling of needing to be alone, so as to give yourself over in deeper peace of mind to this ambiguous wink from nirvana; and at the same time, you need the presence of others, like gently-shifting relief figures on the plinth of your own throne. Walter Benjamin was writing about hashish intoxication, but the sentiments might equally apply to the condition of making art within a community. Time has begun to tell, and the Williamsburg paradigm, in which artists might explore the nirvana of solitude without loneliness, may someday turn out to have produced as much lasting art-market value as certain louder, more spectacular, and shorter-lived bubbles. With a new age of stagnation upon us, such a combination of amateurism, communalism, and elbow room will take root again, whether in the looming forest of bankrupt waterfront condos planted in the asbestos of warehouse parties past; in Bushwick or Bed Stuy; or someplace neither yuppies nor hipsters nor Barbara Corcoran have yet heard of – someplace plain wrong, and thus exactly right.