By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
February 4, 1992
A worn gray tepee sits at the edge of the city's oldest shantytown, just yards from where Manhattan Bridge traffic hits Canal Street. But it also sits in terra incognita. The two artists who've lived in the tepee since Thanksgiving 1990 admit to feeling "muddled" at times about what they're even doing there.
Seated in the dim interior on foam pads, Nick Fracaro and Gabriele Schafer began to explain. For years, they've collaborated as Thieves' Theatre, trying to "embody and articulate" the voice of the disenfranchised. Doing Genet's Deathwatchwith prisoners in Illinois. Doing Marat/Sadewith punks and ex-mental patients in Toronto. Trying to work with the homeless in the city's shelters, but rejecting it as an "us/them" experience. That propelled them into the shantytown, where they decided to stage Heiner M Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape With Argonautsin the teepee.
As the artists struggled to explain their mission, I got the impression that they'd spent hours, days, months trying to unravel the koans presented by their new life. How to do theater in the shantytown without being elitist. How to go public without being consumed. How to determine who the audience would be, could be, should be. Such questions become inevitable to artists without a community. I meanapart from one's own circle of friends, is there such a thing anymore as an artist witha community?
Schafer and Fracaro had settled in among the alienated, but homeless people aren't necessarily bohemians. Most of them share the values of the larger world, and other residents of the Hill (as those who live there call it) saw the artists as the outsiders they really are.
Several times someone called in through the tent flap, "Hey, Chief," and Fracaro would ease himself out to talk to a neighbor. The Hill is clearly a man's world. Schafer is known there as "Mrs. Chief." She made the tepee last fall out of 78 U.S. mailbags while Fracaro spent weeks getting acquainted. The artists did not want to move in without the other residents' permission. (And after much discussion, they decided not to give up their Brooklyn apartment.) They share a job at a movie production warehouse and live sparely. A few tools. A few books. They dubbed the tepee the Living Museum of the Nomad Monad. They've kept it drug-and-alcohol-free, providing coffee to their neighbors in the morning. Fracaro and Schafer say the others accept them now, but still regard them as odd.
The artists call the shantytown a "Temporary Autonomous Zone." They had come across this phrase in an obscure text called T.A.Z. [The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism]by an arcane anarchist who calls himself Hakim Bey. I'd read the book myself, since I'm interested in what's passing for autonomy these days, when a New World Order seems to permeate even our attempts at disorder or dissent. "Realism demands not only that we give up waitingfor 'the Revolution' but also that we give up wantingit," writes Bey. "In most cases the best and most radical tactic will be to refuse to engage in spectacular violence, to withdrawfrom the area of simulation, to disappear." The artists in the tepee had managed to disappear by refusing to speak to reporters. ("As soon as the TAZ is named [represented, mediated] it must vanish, it willvanish. . .") Only now, as they intuit that their days on the Hill are numbered, are they willing to talk to me.
I was reminded of other art satellites I've encountered over the last few yearsthe Neoist rituals in Tompkins Square, the Sideshows by the Seashore on Coney Island's boardwalk, the Festival of the Swamps beneath the Williamsburg Bridgeall of it unfolding far from the grant-getting vortex, part of no movement, isolated from any larger context.
Certainly I've found it harder to track the art margins lately. The climate for things experimental, for things adversarial, has not only worsened; the damage to those "autonomous zones" seemed irreparable. That historic institution once called "bohemia" has been so intensively exploited that it's had to become invisible. For the first time in 150 years, bohemia can't be pinpointed on a map. The dematerialization of the artist's milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culturemore intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression.
Dissent cannot happen in a vacuum. Nor can social or aesthetic movements grow in one. Community is the fabric that sustains experiment, stimulating that leap into the void and maybe even cushioning a fall.
Back when subterraneans still had a terrain, the bourgie types might go slumming through a Left Bank or Greenwich Village, but the colonizing process took much longer. No instant condos. No developer-spawned neighborhood acronyms. Nowrelentless in its hunt for the Next Big Thingthe media cut such a swath through the demimonde that colonizers follow instantly, destabilizing and destroying. So, the energy that moved from Paris to New York, from West Village to East Village, from Old Bohemia (1830-1930) to New Bohemia (the '60s) to Faux Bohemia (the '80s) has atomized now into trails that can't be followed: the 'zine/cassette network, the living-room performance spaces, the modem-accessed cybersalons, the flight into neighborhoods that will never be Soho.