Lower East Side: The Real Estate Show Redux
The Real Estate Show Revisited
James Fuentes, New York City
4-27 April 2014
RESx (The Real Estate Show Extended)
ABC No Rio, New York City
9 April – 8 May 2014
No City Is an Island
The Lodge Gallery, New York City
10 April – 11 May 2014
The Real Estate Show: What’s Next
Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space, New York City
19 April – 18 May 2014
by NATASHA KURCHANOVA
Real Estate was the name of the show. It opened on New Year’s Eve 1980 at an abandoned city-owned building, 125 Delancey Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A few days beforehand, on Christmas Eve, several artists, some of whom were affiliated with the group Colab (Collaborative Projects), broke the lock on the door and replaced it with their own. Then, on December 30, they returned, cleaned out piles of old junk stored inside, and proceeded with the installation.
The art on display was provocative in form and subject matter: it criticised poor living conditions, landlord extortion, and the city’s mismanagement of public and private property. Apart from its visual component, the show was also an act of protest. The Manifesto of Intent, signed by the committee of the Real Estate Show, emphasised that this act was a “short-term occupation of city-owned property” and that it was made in “solidarity with the oppressed people”, with “a recognition that artists, living and working in depressed communities are compradors in the re-valuation of property and the ‘whitening’ of neighbourhoods”.1 The exhibition was shut down and the work confiscated by city officials the day following the opening.
Despite its short lifespan, the Real Estate Show succeeded to an unprecedented extent: after a series of negotiations, the work was returned and the evicted artists received a building nearby, at 156 Rivington Street, for their unlimited possession. Known as ABC No Rio, this centre remains an important place for the art of opposition and counterculture. There are four exhibitions on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that pay tribute to this historical event. James Fuentes has artworks from the original show on view until the end of April; ABC No Rio displays contemporary artists’ responses to the original exhibition; the Lodge Gallery shows former participants’ and affiliated artists’ artwork on the subject of real estate; and Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space has an exhibition and a “living project space” dedicated to events and performative action. There is also a staging of Locked, a play by David Vazdauskas inspired by the Real Estate Show, produced as part of the East Side Stories at the East Village Theater Festival at Metropolitan Playhouse in Manhattan, and a series of film screenings at ABC No Rio and the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn
The exhibition at James Fuentes is the most straightforward historical tribute to the Real Estate Show’s existence, however short-lived. The artist Becky Howland, one of the organisers of the original exhibition, calls its revival exhibito interruptus, meaning that it is only now, more than 30 years after its opening and abrupt closing, that she can actually see this exhibition, at least partly, in the way it was intended to be presented to the public. A clear and visually appealing installation tells stories of struggle, risk-taking, resistance and victory. The light, airy cube of the gallery contains 38 works by 30 artists – about 80% of the original exhibition.2 It includes, among others, Jane Dickson’s striking paintings on garbage bags, Peter Moennig’s elaborate drawings of nightmarish plans for the city without neighbourhoods, Robert Goldman (Bobby G)’s piles of emptied cigarette boxes, Peter Fend’s mapped explorations of irresolvable conflicts between nature and industry, Coleen Fitzgibbon’s humorous anti-landlord flyers, Robin Winters’ provocative declarations, Howland’s posters with an octopus grabbing city real estate and Mike Glier’s bold black-and-white mural. Taken separately, the aesthetic merit of these works can be discussed and disputed. As a collective statement, however, the exhibition succeeded in recreating an atmosphere of cooperation, playfulness, determination and community-oriented spirit that guided these artists to mount an illegal action against the city government in the first place, but also, because of its defence of the underprivileged population, against inequities of the capitalist system as a whole.
While James Fuentes focused on reconstituting the content of the original exhibition, No City Is an Island at the Lodge Gallery agreed to display contemporary and historical works on related themes by the participants of the Real Estate Show and other affiliated artists. The Lodge Gallery exhibition was curated by its co-directors, Keith Schweitzer and Jason Patrick Voegele. From the participating artists’ side, it was organised by Christy Rupp, who came up with the title. As an environmental artist, it was important for her to emphasise the city’s dependence on the countryside for the energy, food, water and other resources that the megapolis receives from the land with no, or minimum, payback. Rupp’s own wall relief from 1983 and Fend’s drawings of cities as islands of bioproductivity perhaps relate most closely to the environmentally conscious thrust of her title. Other works – 26 altogether – cover a wide range of media, subjects and attitudes, from Charlie Ahearn’s posters and photographs inspired by the black resistance movement and a plaster relief of a shelter kid by his brother John to exquisite drawings of a light bulb by Kiki Smith and of a dead crab by Stefan Eins, who topped his work with a newspaper headline about Obama dismissing Russia as a “regional power”. There is also a remarkable washing machine by Ann Messner; a humorous drawing of a marriage of real estate and money on an island by Tom Otterness; works by Judy Rifka, Justen Ladda, Seton Smith, Walter Robinson, Joe Lewis and others.
ABC No Rio, which came into existence as a result of The Real Estate Show, is a “collectively run centre for art and activism” committed to social and political engagement.3 Initially, Howland, Alan W. Moore and Bobby G took care of the lease and the bills. In those early days, the centre’s programing presented exhibitions of visual arts, with evenings of poetry, music, and video. According to Howland, most of the works for the show at James Fuentes came from the ABC No Rio’s Collection and the ABC No Rio Archive.4 When it became evident that many artists wanted to make new work about real estate, Howland, in league with Moore, approached the collective with the idea of an exhibition in the spirit of the first show – open to all. The centre’s website warned that the work could be damaged during the Punk Matinees held every Saturday, which tend to be very rough, and artists were advised to make a copy of their contribution. In conjunction with the Real Estate Show Extended, ABC No Rio also offers a film programme, which includes rarely seen works by Liza Béar, Milly Iatrou and Ronald Morgan, Stephen Torton, and Ted Colless with Tim Burns, as well as films by Robert Cooney, Fitzgibbon, Andrea Callard, Sebastian Gutierrez, Ariana Allensworth, Teresa Basilio, Regina Eaton and Lili White. To complement this strong visual arts component, the centre scheduled a public discussion of community land trusts in New York, a growing grassroots movement of removing land from the market and placing it under control of community-based, nonprofit corporations.
Moore, an organiser and a self-designated chronicler of the Real Estate Show, remarked that the artists were well aware that what made this exhibition enter history was not so much the art on display, but rather its political edge, its “circumstances and the outcome”.5 While the outcome was the establishment of ABC No Rio; the circumstances consisted of a fiscal downturn and governmental mismanagement of the city property. As the group’s Manifesto of Intent makes clear, political framework was important because the show was all about politics, albeit on the local level of occupation and eviction. At the time the Real Estate Show opened, New York was still in the grips of the worst fiscal crisis in the city’s history, trying to keep itself afloat despite the federal government’s initial refusal to bail it out of impending bankruptcy. The Lower East Side was a site of abandonment and destruction, populated by poor immigrant communities and artists who often used space illegally, either by squatting – living in abandoned property without permission of its owners – or by living in their studios. In his book Art Gangs: Protest and Counterculture in New York City, Moore provides a vivid description of those times. “In the early 1970s, almost no one lived in Lower Manhattan,” he quotes artist David Reed. One “… could walk home from [the tavern] Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue and 17th Street to his loft on Great Jones Street and not see a single person. Coming home late, the streets were abandoned and empty, totally quiet – no pedestrians, no traffic, no open restaurants or stores … higher up on the buildings, illegal residential tenants kept their windows dark.”6
According to Messner, who researched the history of the building, it was not by chance that the Real Estate Show succeeded as an act of defiance, because, unbeknown to the artists, its timing coincided with one of the worst failures in the history of city planning. There have been many attempts to revitalise the site on which the building stood since the mid-60s, including when 14 blocks of low-income housing in that area were demolished and 1,852 low-income families displaced.7 Initially, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (Spura), as the project became known, came into existence after Robert Moses’ and later Paul Rudolph’s controversial plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expresswaycame to naught. In the late 70s, there was a new development plan for Spura, put together by the Koch administration, which fell apart abruptly in 1979.8 It was very shortly after this that the artists occupied the building. They had no knowledge of the turbulent history of the site. All they knew was that they were in need of affordable living, working and exhibition space, and the city was not providing them with these amenities, while it owned plenty of abandoned or unused property. When the story about the artists’ break-in and their immediate eviction hit the papers, city officials were put on the spot. The last thing they wanted was spreading publicity about Spura, which would bring to public attention their managerial and planning failures. Although the artists were skilful negotiators, the presence of Joseph Beuys may have helped. He came to support them at one of the first press conferences held shortly after the city repossessed the building. He even contributed a small drawing of a hat on a statement co-signed by himself, Ron Feldman and John Halpern, which is displayed at James Fuentes.
It is the continuity in time and place – that is, the ability to reconstitute the show as a historical event – that is relevant today, not least because Spura’s aims of developing low-income housing were never achieved. Recently, this ill-fated project reemerged as Essex Crossing, another major redevelopment plan for this blighted urban area.9 The idea of “revisiting” the Real Estate Show came up in great part as a response to the unveiling of Essex Crossing. Dickson recalled that it was Howland who first remarked on the connection between the Real Estate Show and Essex Crossing, since it concerned the same site. Then Dickson discussed this idea with James Fuentes. Fuentes, who grew up in this neighbourhood, liked it, but he left it up to Dickson, Howland, Fitzgibbon, Bobby G and other former Colab members to locate the works and put the show together. A series of turbulent meetings ensued, in the course of which it became clear that the “revisiting” of the show required more than the remake of the original installation. It had to be expanded to include contemporary works about real estate both by the participants of the original show and any artist interested in subject. It also had to include performance, film screenings, and attempts to involve the public in the discussion about Essex Crossing and its possible effects on the neighbourhood.10 This is why multiple venues were needed.
The connection of the Real Estate Show to Essex Crossing is explored most directly in the installation at Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space. Located within the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, which will soon be relocated and rebuilt to make room for Essex Crossing, Cuchifritos is directly affected by the proposed changes. As a response to this development, Bobby G, in cooperation with Messner and others, arranged an installation and performative space consisting of a sweet-potato cart, a common site in this neighbourhood in the early 1900s, an informational display with posters, books and leaflets relating to the controversy aroused by Essex Crossing. There is also a soapbox, which serves as a speaker’s platform for anyone willing to voice their opinion on the changes proposed for the neighbourhood (Frank Morales, Parrhesia. Free Speech on a Soapbox). According to Bobby G, who is in the gallery most of the time to engage visitors and introduce them to the space, as well as record their speeches on the soapbox, Essex Crossing is destroying the traditional fabric of the Lower East Side, since the design of the reconstructed market, with clearly visible Prada and Paul Smith shops, aims at a much wealthier clientele than its current customer base. As an artist, Bobby G is trying to educate the public about the forthcoming changes and provide them with a platform – literally – to express their views. Because the formation of his socially conscious outlook on art has been shaped by the Free Speech Movement, he made available for browsing a copy of Michael Rossman’s landmark book The Wedding within the War, which documents its history.
It remains unclear if any of the efforts to ignite a public discussion of the issues surrounding Essex Crossing will have an effect. Contemporary zeitgeist seems to be turning away from effective political action towards more conventional modes of artistic engagement. However, the “revisiting” of the Real Estate Show has definitely revived the spirit of Colab, which will hopefully have an impact on young artists who often heard about it indirectly, through books or word of mouth.
• I would like to thank Coleen Fitzgibbon, Bobby G, Ann Messner, Becky Howland, Jane Dickson, Christy Rupp and Alan Moore for providing first-hand information for this article both through interviews and informal conversations.
1. Manifesto of the Real Estate Show, 1979.
2. Interview with Becky Howland, 23 April 2014.
4. The ABC No Rio Collection was initiated by Alan Moore, and preserved by Jack Waters and Peter Cramer of Allied Productions, who were the second set of directors of ABC No Rio. The Archive was preserved under the care of the long-time director Steven Englander.
5. Excavating Real Estate by Alan W Moore. In: Imagine, a special issue of the House Magic Review for the Real Estate Show Revisited(April 2014), page 4.
6. David Reed in High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975, edited by Katy Siegel, (2006) quoted in Art Gangs: Protest and Counterculture in New York City by Alan W. Moore, published by Autonomedia, 2011, pages 46-47.
7. (Re)visiting Spura: An exhibition by students of the City Studio at Eugene Lang College, The New School & Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani buscada.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/ReVisitingSPURA_newspaper_final.pdf
8. Interview with Ann Messner, 19 April 2014. See also the Creative Time website, where Messner gave a presentation on the Real Estate Show: creativetime.org/summit/2013/10/26/ann-messner
9. On Essex Crossing, see http://ny.curbed.com/tags/essex-crossing and http://essexcrossingnyc.com/about/.
10. On Spura and Essex Crossing, see After Years of Delay, a Lower East Side Gap Is Ready to Be Filled by Ronda Kaysen, New York Times, 26 February 2013, and They Kept A Lower East Side Lot Vacant for Decades by Russ Buettner, New York Times, 21 March 2014.