Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The City as a Work of Art: From MoRUS to Petit Versailles, and Goodbyes to Marshall Berman

Our bottle wall.

When I lived in Italy studying art history, I first heard this expression.  The point of was that through art, architecture, and civic monuments, the city could transcend itself as a work of art.  The expression implies a degree of mutability, that the city is a created, constructed space, not a  staid force.  This thinking was on my mind walking though the Queens Museum Art and MoRUS, riding with Right of Way, reading obituaries about Marshall Berman and making a wall for our home with old wine and beer bottles.

 “It was thrilling,” mused Berman, recalling the simultaneous coming together and falling apart of the city.  This is the parable of our city, he explained.  I converse with that parable every day I walk out my doors into this lovely and viscous, soulful and sometimes sterilized, abundant and chaotic, delirious and delicious, train wreck of a city.  

Number two and I toured the ever changing panorama of the City of New York on Tuesday, surveying neighborhoods, and perspectives on our city.  The cartography of the city is ever changing, as is the 1963 panorama, whose last makeover was 1992. We reviewed neighborhoods where we’ve journeyed, including the Bronx, where we hiked last weekend.

City Panorama at Queens Museum of Art. 

The kids fashioned city blocks of their own designs.

“That’s one of the most dangerous men in the history of New York,” I noted to one of the seven year olds, pointing at a portrait of Robert Moses, who was responsible for the rampage of the Cross Bronx expressway. 

I always think of Marshall Berman, the CUNY theorist of modernity, who wrote with such care about his life and experience, literature and history, especially when I see a picture of Moses.  He wrote blurbs for two of our books, and more importantly, penned All That’s Solid that Melts into Air. Corey Robin notes:

Interconnecting personal narrative with social history, he devoted some of his best lines to Moses:

Robert Moses is the man who made all this possible. When I heard Allen Gisnberg ask [in Howl] at the end of the 1950s, “Who was that sphinx of cement and aluminum,” I felt sure at once that, even if the poet didn’t know it, Moses was his man. Like Ginsberg’s “Moloch, who entered my soul early,” Robert Moses and his public works had come into my life just before my Bar Mitzvah, and helped bring my childhood to an end.
For ten years, through the late 1950s and early 1960s, the center of the Bronx was pounded and blasted and smashed. My friends and I would stand on the parapet of the Grand Concourse, where 174th Street had been, and survey the work’s progress—the intense steam shovels and bulldozers and timber and steel beams, the hundreds of workers in their variously colored hats, the giant cranes reaching far above the Bronx’s tallest roofs, the dynamite blasts and tremors, the wild, jagged crags of rock newly torn, the vistas of devastation stretching for miles to the east and west as far as the eye could see—and marvel to see our ordinary nice neighborhood transformed into sublime, spectacular ruins.
In college, when I discovered Piranesi, I felt instantly at home. Or I would return from the Columbia library to the construction site and feel myself in the midst of the last act of Goethe’s Faust. (You had to hand it to Moses: his works gave you ideas.)

Berman’s musing on a dancing young Marx forever inspired me. His love for his students and the love which grew out of those “spectacular ruins” it inspired me.  His writings helped me make sense of my life and experience.  Take this passage from my 2011 work, Play, Creativity and Social Movements:

Throughout the mid-2000’s, I worked in a syringe exchange program across the street from the Lincoln Hospital the Young Lords took over in 1970.  Panama served on our board of directors.  Three decades after the Lincoln Hospital takeover, the neighborhood included the highest rates of homeless people coping with HIV and chemical dependency in the city.  We used to play drums and read poetry during our advisory meetings or memorials after one of the program members had passed.  Group members knew they could make it through the grief when a chuckle or smile crept onto the faced of those experiencing  the somber moment. And members knew they had faced the negative, moved through it, and come out the other side.  The tenacity of those in the circle made the scene one of the most pulsing space I have seen.  In their daily transforming of the negative into a new way of living, those in those in the program achieved a kind of magical power (Berman, 2007).  Play and resiliency meander in any number of directions  throughout social movements.
Berman’s musings on Hegel helped me come to understand that moment for myself.  He also reminded me of a festive brand of Marxist humanism, open to those who liked to dance as well as grapple with the myriad of crises of historical materialism.  Again in Play, Creativity and Social Movements, I referred to his work:
In 1999, Marshall Berman, who taught several of LESC’s members at the City University Graduate Center, described his fondness for a Marxist Humanism which influenced activism.  “Some people think Marxist Humanism got its whole meaning as an alternative to Stalinism,” wrote Berman (1999).  “My own view is that its real dynamic force is as an alternative to the nihilistic, market-driven capitalism that envelops the whole world today,” (p. 16).  Rather than a fixed ideology, “Marxist  humanism can help people feel at home in history, even a history that hurts them.  It can show them how even those who are broken by power can have the power to fight the power; how even survivors of tragedy can make history,” (p.17).  Conjuring up images of festive Marx puppets at a parade, Berman suggested that a century after the Communist Manifesto readers could imagine the different voices of Marx, the young and the old, dancing rather than sparring. “Finally, they are coming together in an activity that’s expressive, playful, even a little vulgar – an activity that would have been considered most un-Marxian not long ago.” Berman’s musings seem hint at an ‘if I can’t dance’ Emma Goldman like sentiment, which so inspired LESC.  “We always were quoting Emma Goldman,” explained LESC’s David Crane.  “Almost everyone held her up in the pantheon.”  “Today’s Marxes have kept in touch with their youthful romantic visions of politics as dancing,” Berman continued (p. 20).  In many ways, Berman could have been speaking of the direct action group of his former graduate students, who linked dancing and pleasure within their praxis.  Their dance was a celebration of caring social relations and pleasures.  For LESC, play was part of the ends and the means.  It was also a critique of a militant approach to politics, a Bolshevism, which had extended over a bloody century.  Here, play was part of an embodied approach to politics which rejected rationalist dead ends in favor of a politics which combined dreaming and fantasy, with a highly creative, humanist attitude to organizing (Duncombe, 2007).

            Most of all, his writings invited me into a conversation about dialectical urbanism which continues everyday I walk out of my home, riding my bike into the streets, where I must contend with the conflicts and carnival at every corner of this naked city.  “We have to merge with the cars…” he famously moaned. “…the flow that would never end…kill the street.”  He corresponded freely about writing blurbs for our books.  I met him at brother Ron’s wedding.  But most of all I enjoyed his stories and books throughout the years, opening a space for a conversation about the city could be.

I think I have tried to rip this line off in every book I have written.  Berman celebrated what New York could be, amidst the ruins, what the people could be, amidst the cruelty.  It was a way of being he celebrated, the survival and resiliency of people.  This conversation helps make the city a work of art. 

Jack and Peter and their garden in time.  Bottom Peter Cramer at MoRUS opening December 8 2013

It was also a conversation which was on my mind last Thursday at MoRUS with Peter Cramer and Jack Waters, two artists who have helped create a city garden as a work of art on their own block on Second street, transforming a rubble filled lot next door into a playground for performance, green activism, and queer political performance.  The event would take place that Thursday night at MoRUS. I introduced the two friends to begin our event Public space public lives/   a tour through le petit versailles and conversation Jack Waters and Peter Cramer.

Please join us in welcoming East Village artists Jack Waters and Peter Cramer. In 1996 they started Le Petit Versailles, a New York City LGBTQ community garden located at 346 East Houston St. Petit Versailles is internationally known as an art space of cultural significance that presents year round public events including exhibitions, music, film/video, performance, theater, workshops and community projects. 

Tonight they will share some of this story with us at Morus.

MoRUS is a space for conversations, dialogs about projects, and encounters between past and present practices. 
With this in mind, we are delighted to have the opportunity to hear Cramer and Waters reflect on their lives and history as green gardeners, AIDS/ queer activists, and artists as well as showing clips from LPVTV, a 13 part Manhattan Neighborhood Network public access cable series documenting Le Petit Versailles events and history.

Throughout the years, Petit Versailles has collaborated with LES Harm Reduction Center,Visual AIDS, MIX NYC, FRISE (Hamburg), the Daffodil Project sponsored by New Yorkers for Parks and thousands of artists and audiences. The space is also featured in the books On Guerilla Gardening, Temporary Urban Spaces, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by East Village writer Sarah Schulman and Queer Political Performance and Protest by Benjamin Heim Shepard. 

The space can be relied upon as a welcoming spot for roving garden tours or a place to dress for dress before a drag march or just to enjoy a little green in our concrete jungle. 
This event is an extension of a conversation I had with Cramer and Waters at the international aids conference last year when we talked about their lives as gardeners, queer artists, and aids activists.  That afternoon our conversation was interrupted by the civil disobedience.  Today, it continues.

Welcome Jack Waters and Peter Cramer.

Peter Cramer, who is a zelig of sorts for MoRUS, appearing in the corners of pictures throughout the museum, suggesting it was apropos to see so many pictures and pieces of history in an otherwise mean, hard world.  Our space is an ABC No Rio out of doors, referring to their days at ABC No Rio in the 1980’s. 

Waters and Cramer spoke interchangeably, with Waters continuing the next sentence.  We followed the ACT UP adage, which borrowed from the Feminist slogan – the personal is political.  Petit Versailles is our backyard.  In 1995, it was a vacant lot.  We cleared out the rubble in 1995.  Waters situated the story of his garden within a larger story of squatting and urban space in New York.  By the time we got here in the 1980’s, no one wanted this property.  We came at the end of white flight and basically took an empty vacant lot.   At the time, a gardening movement was taking shape, with the Green Guerrillas supporting the transformation of such lots into garden spaces.  The Koch era Green Thumb program supported gardeners using these spaces.  But nothing was going to be permanent.  They could take it back at any point.  This movement overlapped with a squatting movement already strong.  ABC got a lot after the Real Estate Show.  There was heroine.  Our building was shooting gallery.  Again the personal was political.  We started having parties and events.  We already had a presence here in the visual arts.

Engaging in the garden movement, Waters noted a false dichotomy being forced upon the movement, between green space, housing, and the arts.  Housing was framed as a need of people of color, art as something for white people, and gardens for people of differing classes, high or low, as if housing wasn’t something everyone needed, green space and art were not things everyone needs. 
The story of Petit Versailles was about pushing back against such dichotomies, connecting art and social movements into an image of a green performance as a work of art, while maintaining a space for different colors and stories on a richer canvas.  In this way, it was  a part of a movement in the history of artistic activism.  At the time, the Colab strategy was getting old.  It was the end of heroine and the beginning of crack.    And a new generation of activists was taking shape.   This would be a space for an encounter between past practices and current projects.  In 2001, we met a whole new group of polymorphous artists and started a public access show.

The show highlighted the queer gatherings around the world, from Queeruption encuertos to Queer Fist Zaps of the Human Rights Campaign.  We didn’t want to get married.  We’re queer.  We saw marriage as retrograde, and misogynistic for what it does to women.   At this time, more and more activists and artists were coming to Petit Versailles from Brooklyn, making their way.  We saw the need for a safe space.  So many of these vagabonds found their way into the fabric of the gardening, hiding away when and taking respite from a cruel world.  Increasingly Petit Versailles would become a convergence point for Radical Faerie drag march dress up parties and Times Up! roving garden parades.   By 2004, the gardens had stopped feeling like radical spaces. They had lost their vibes as means of resistance after so many years of fighting for own existence.  Many involved just hunkered down.  Still Petit Versailles would buck the trend,  remaining a radical bastion for arts, gardening, and fashioning a city as a work of art, with murals, graffiti, and queer political performance.

“We’re here, we’re queer!  We’re faaabulous! Don’t fuck with us!”  Queer Fist can be heard chanting on their public access show.  Over the years, the garden would served as a bridge between James Baldwin and Harry Hay, Adam Purple and ACT UP and the lives between decades and the pictures of a what kind of a sketch one can draw with this city.   

Politics and party intersect within our lives.  We like to party and hopefully the politics does not get in the way, Jack confessed.

The q and a session could have gone on for hours, as we talked about ways we do and do not say hello.  Sheila noted some say hello more than others, following a theme we discussed in the Sarah Schulman event a few weeks before.  This is a theme Marlon Riggs described in Black Is Black Ain’t.  Sometimes we just can’t or won’t talk with each other.  But we have to.
Above Sheila at MoRUS.  Mural outside of Petit Versailles

In between the panorama of images, Petit Versailles reminds us that art and lust, gardens and desire, aids activism and queer world making, graffiti and political performance, direct action and drag, generativity and decay – this is the stuff of a city street as a work of art, ever evolving, ever mutable.
Join us Jack and Peter invited the audience.  And that we will.  Such evenings and conversations could go on forever.  They help me feel like this story is moving somewhere, helping me make sense of what this space is, reminding me of why I love it so much.

Finishing the show, brother Ron and I walked to meet Keegan, Monica, Jenn, Barbara and company for more conversation.  We talked about what was of this year and what we were going to become, what has become of the city and where we build on our encounters between  past practices and current activists struggles, connecting who we’re been with where we need to go, letting go of the old, while propelling ourselves through time , as we hope to create something better within the devastation and heartbreak.  We talked about cycling  campaigns and 5Pointz, whitewashed.

“Every time something like this happens in NYC- when we lose an institution of our creative spirit- that is the time to make something even crazier and more amazing” mused Monica. 

“Get to it, New York! As the wise Ben 
Benjamin Heim Shepard told me when I was distraught by Bush's reelection- "F*uck em. They don't get my sense of humor."
We hatched plan about public spaces, fashioning the streets of cities as spaces for installations and performances, derive and detournement.  

I love living here, imaging what our city can be, reveling in the contradictions and conversations.  Between teaching and hanging out, I plan my days around the kids and drawings, cooking and fires, art and activism, in hopes of reshaping this city in whichever small ways I possibly can, hopefully to push back the Robert Moses of the world, if even for a day. This was part of what we were thinking, I was thinking as right of way posted twenty is plenty signs, imploring cars to slow down on Saturday night.  And I joined them. Sunday, we made murals and book blocks to fight off the library closures.   

Scenes from Sunday book making party top and cookies for New Alternatives below. 
Photos by library lovers league. Nine-year-old library lover E. and his mom made these awesome giant books for the Dec. 9 street theater Flash Mob to Save NYPL. (E's dad is coming, too, as one of the billionaires who thinks books take up too much valuable real estate!)

It's now been 170 days since these Girl Scouts asked Landmarks Commissioner Robert Tierney in person to schedule a hearing for Brooklyn's endangered Pacific Branch Library. And 9 years since a formal request was first filed. Enough with the shady back-room deals: Time for an open process and public hearing! Photoes by Library Lovers League. 

Today’s Brooklyn Street includes lined with falling leaves, hospital closures, libraries being sold off to the highest bidder, guerrilla speed signs, and cars careening way past forty down Prospect Park West, only to brake at the red.

20 is plenty action.  Photo by Peter Meitzler

“The NYPD is too busy stopping and frisking to stop speeders.  It's all part of the bloombergian car driver industrial arena complex” notes my friend Amy Sohn, who lives in the neighborhood.   “We must put an end to it.”
Marshall could not have said it better himself.  Shalom.

Brother Ron later noted: He was a remarkable man. Taught me my Marxist humanism, the crazy flow of cities and modernity, connections among music and politics and culture of all kinds. I took three classes with him. Amazing. We shared stories of loves lost and loves found. We went to each other's weddings. I left for Germany a day after he passed away, not being able to visit family and friends at his home and the funeral. Sad. I'll always remember how happy he was at his wedding to Shelly. And how they both looked very much in love at our wedding. So many good times .... Such a brilliant man. A good soul. A big loss.
Postscript. The MoRUS catalog is out.  The Museum celebrates its anniversary next week. 
A Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space Opening—
a moment’s Catalog; December 8, 2012

64 pages- 
letterpress cover, hand-sewn binding,
photocopy interior. 
Limited Print-run of 150 books. 
Ben Shepard- editor
Emily Larned (red charming) - designer
A catalog for the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space - museum

To be shipped in early December.

On October 29th, 2012, C-Squat on Avenue C in New York's Lower East Side was flooded by the wilds of
Hurricane Sandy. The Museum of Reclaimed Space (MORUS), located in its basement, was scheduled to have its opening party that night. The next morning the MORUS community, instead, was bucketing water and salvaging displays. They also hosted a pedal-power bike generator to recharge cell-phones and became a node for dumpstered food distribution.
Ben Shepard, with an assist by Marc Herbst, has put together an ode, a short book about activist New York under Hurricane Sandy and a re-telling of the eventual opening of MORUS on December 8 2012. 

by Alan W. Moore, Stephen Duncombe, Maggie Wrigley and Frank Morales.
Art by Fly, Mac McGill and others.
This book honors this Lower East Side Museum's DIY spirit through the hand-made (letter-press cover and hand-stitched binding), economy of resources (low price, packed with images) and zine-iness (interior is photocopied, yo).
Oh, its also really good looking. 


"The founding of the MoRUS signals a historicizing self-reflective bent that has taken hold of some among this tribe. The Squatter Rights and Times Up bicycle activist archives that were put together for the Tamiment Library several years ago were an early sign of this, preserving important political and subcultural movement documents for study. But the MoRUS is much more ambitious. It is also held together by young people, volunteers who sit the desk and run the errands. So there must be something in it for them, some information and experience they need to negotiate their lives in these times." 
- Alan W. Moore

"...This is not our problem. In the New World we look backwards and see nothing.  Ours is a world populated by people fleeing from or pushed out of history. Immigrants running away from class oppression, political persecution, or religious intolerance. Slaves ripped out of their history and forbidden to remember. Native peoples whose history was systematically exterminated. Those of us who came to the Lower East Side are no different; not only the waves of immigrants --  the Dutch, English, German, Jewish, Ukrainian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Chinese -- but also the American-born migrants from towns and cities and suburbs across the United States, desperately leaving the histories of bigotry, homophobia and all sorts of small-thinking that made our lives wherever we chanced to be born unbearable. We came to the Lower East Side to look forwards, to forget our past and build a present more to our liking." 
- Stephen Duncombe

“One particular Saturday, December 8th 2012 to be exact, we continued such a conversation at the opening party of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space.  

Much of the activist perspective on this history is being whitewashed away,” says Bill ‘Times Up!’, echoing Sarah Schulman's point from the Gentrification of the Mind, that positive social changes does not happen because politicians are nice; they happens because people have fought for them using direct action. “AIDS drugs were not released because the US government became nice, AIDS activists forced them to do the right thing. Gardens are not preserved because the city likes them.  They survive because people fought for them.”

Much of the genesis for MoRUS was born of conversations like this one. Knowing this history, Bill suggested we open a museum to highlight the neighborhood’s real activist history.  This alternate history is the subject of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space."
- Ben Shepard