It was a classic moment in activist art and an auspicious launch to a decade: On January 1, 1980, some 35 artists—their bolt cutters in a guitar case—managed to break into an abandoned city-owned building on Delancey Street, where they set up an exhibit called “The Real Estate Show.” Police closed it after a day, so few people ever saw this notorious display aimed at celebrating “insurrectionary urban development.” But no matter. In retrospect, “The Real Estate Show” was a conceptual project, the idea that it happened much more consequential than anything stuck on the wall.
The show started debates that are still unresolved about, for example, gentrification and the role artists inadvertently play in it. But the immediate concrete result was the city’s decision to give the artists another building on nearby Rivington. That became ABC No Rio, its name lifted from a sign fragment across the street. “In the past,” one of the idealists involved proclaimed, “artists were forced to move on once they had adequately defined new real estate values. This time, on the Lower East Side, they intend to stay put and help determine the area’s evolution.”
That mighty struggle is just one of those illustrated in “Urban Encounters,” a show currently at the New Museum spotlighting six activist art collectives: ABC No Rio, Bullet Space, Guerrilla Girls, Godzilla, REPOhistory, and World War III Illustrated. These groups have a critical relationship to the art world that seems all the more distinctive because it is currently unfashionable.
While artists go to a place like No Rio or Bullet Space to experience the margins, two of these groups are about those who didn’t choose their marginality but had it handed to them. Godzilla, artists of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage, and the Guerrilla Girls, the all-woman “conscience of the art world,” critique racism and sexism within the gallery/museum system itself.
The other four groups have a certain materialist analysis of art’s impact. Bullet Space is a squat housing 15 artists, some of whom, at least, want to “give back to the community.” WW3 is a political comic book that began in response to the hostage crisis in Iran and the whole Reagan zeitgeist, moving on to issues that ranged from gentrification to prison life. And REPOhistory excavates and commemorates hidden histories, marking sites like the colonial slave market in lower Manhattan.
Curator Greg Sholette intended to recruit younger artists collectives to look at the history of the groups that preceded them. He soon discovered that there aren’t any younger artists collectives. “I may have missed something, but I really spent quite a bit of time searching for any hint of that activity,” says Sholette. The newest group, Godzilla, formed in 1990 but had its roots in one of the oldest collectives of all, Basement Workshop. In the ’80s, such collectives were taken for granted, but many—like Gran Fury, Group Material, Carnival Knowledge—have since folded.
What was it about the East Village gallery scene of the ’80s? So much real rebellion side by side with the pseudo-rebellion used as a marketing ploy. Boho Incorporated. But much of it was also about critiquing the art world. East Village squalor mocked the reverent presentation in traditional galleries, and the new dealers defiantly waved art-world unmentionables in everyone’s faces—like the fact that this was not about truth or beauty but money. Meanwhile, politicos in groups like the now-defunct PAD/D (Political Art Documentation and Distribution) wheat-pasted the neighborhood, decrying the scene’s impact on the real estate market.
PAD/D lost that one. The galleries were so successful that they inflated themselves right out of their once-funky spaces into the cheaper confines of Soho. Still, the politicos outlasted the galleries, and the utopian current running through these six collectives never died.
“Urban Encounters” doesn’t exactly feel like a retrospective. It’s more vital than that.
REPOhistory and Godzilla are the only two groups actually sticking with the idea of the show, to look at earlier collectives. But in REPO’s case, that’s what they do anyway and they are here to repossess their own predecessor, PAD/D. Godzilla wanted to reconnect with Basement Workshop to establish a lineage many of the younger artists, in particular, didn’t know they had.
The Guerrilla Girls, however, flat-out refused to look at the history of an earlier group, which probably would have been white and male. “Everyone was against it,” a certain “Anna Akhmatova” told me on the phone. “We’re doing what we want.” (All GG identities remain secret.) They have prepared Spy Mission kits, available at a nominal fee to make anyone an instant Girl, capable of rating galleries (“Boy Crazy,” “Lily White”) and infiltrating museums.
The squatters of Bullet Space have built a shack from wood and sheet metal—”found materials”—in the New Museum basement. They’re displaying fine art from their exhibition space, posters and newspapers made in their print shop, and a large book called Your House Is Mine, done right after the Tompkins Square riots 10 years ago. Andrew Castrucci pointed out the cubes at the base of the shack made by Robert Parker “out of one of the last Checker cabs. It’s about condensed space.” The shack is that too, a condensed Bullet Space, decorated with its agitprop and with decades’ worth of old shoes found in the building when these artists moved in, in 1985. And on the roof of the shack stand gallon jugs of urine, because Bullet Space had no plumbing for five years. Now, their house is yours.
What does it say about the ’90s that new collectives aren’t starting up? Sholette thinks that, among other things, “the tremendous irony or cynicism that has crept into politics and the art world works against collective practice, against believing that one could make a cultural response that goes beyond the gallery.”
It’s also true that the “old” groups haven’t completed their missions, so there’s no reason for a new group to reinvent the wheel. Then, too, there is less space and less possible funding for a new launch. What’s more, one of the big reasons a place like No Rio has kept going for 18 years is because young people keep coming in.
Seth Tobocman, a cofounder of WW3, painted the story of the Real Estate Show onto the kiosk No Rio made for “Urban Encounters.” Across the face of the kiosk, which is shaped like a giant bolt cutter, Tobocman has painted the words “Space-How-U-Get-It.” He may be an optimist, but he’s also a longtime neighborhood activist and wanted me to know that political art is not passé. And it isn’t just for people over 30.
A year and a half ago, Tobocman wandered into ABC No Rio on New Year’s Eve. “Instead of the usual drunken party, I found a bunch of young people sitting around talking about what they were going to do if the police came, how they were going to cement themselves into the doorways and lock their necks to the fire escapes with kryptonite locks to protect the building.” Tobocman felt compelled to participate, suggesting they act before an eviction could happen. No Rio has been an embattled space almost since it opened, but last year’s civil disobedience campaign won a deal with the city. No Rio agreed to evict the artists living in the building and to raise a couple hundred thou to bring the place up to code. “We had to give in for the greater good,” says administrative coordinator Steven Englander, “but we got to define the greater good.”
If No Rio makes it and Bullet Space survives, they will be the last of the antispaces, one of the only shelters for boho culture in what used to be the heart of America’s bohemia.