Art

8-Ball Community Keeps Downtown’s Artistic Spirit Alive

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Decades ago, before the Prada boutiques and cronuts, back when the cobblestone, cast-iron warren south of Houston was just “Downtown” and not “Soho,” the neighborhood was the beating heart of the city’s art world. From the 1960s through the 1980s, it was a place of vibrant creativity — quirky galleries, affordable artist lofts, and, most importantly, a mix of working-, middle-, and creative-class denizens. The many lofts of Soho, once used by manufacturers, were vacated in the 1960s, the buildings left empty for years, too small for modern manufacturing but zoned for commercial use. Until artists showed up and started making the neighborhood their own. By the end of the 1960s, the population of painters, sculptors, performance artists, and jazz musicians in the area was so high that the Soho advocacy group the SoHo Artists Association (SAA) was founded with the goal of protecting Soho artists’ rights and improving their living conditions. The arts, back then at least, were the lifeblood of the neighborhood. Much has changed since then, but the area’s creative flame has been kept alive in places like 8-Ball Community.

The stretch of Howard Street between Crosby and Lafayette is a quintessential microcosm of a modern-day Soho — there is the buzzy French restaurant Le Coucou to one side, an upscale bar to the other, Glossier’s penthouse showroom just around the corner, and Opening Ceremony down the block. But it’s what is underneath the street that may matter the most. Below a women’s clothing store and an Italian sunglass shop, down an old-fashioned elevator, and through a narrow hallway is where the place calls home — at least for now.

Stepping into 8 -Ball’s Soho headquarters for the first time feels like gaining access to a superhero’s hideout — if the superhero was some mythological lovechild of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Laurie Anderson. The space is covered in ephemera — flyers from past shows, a zine library, artwork from previous installations. There’s a sitting area in one corner with publications for visitors to thumb through. People are constantly buzzing around — one person is busy prepping for a talk show on 8-Ball Radio, another few are working on graphic design projects, while nearby a new volunteer hangs out, waiting for the afternoon shift to start. The energy of the space is palpable and intoxicating, a cross between an artist’s studio, an art gallery, and my bedroom.

8-Ball Community, an independent not-for-profit arts organization, was started in 2012 by a small group of friends looking to help out a Brooklyn billiards hall that was in danger of going out of business. “The owner asked us to introduce him to the ‘new neighborhood’ by throwing regular parties,” says 8-Ball founder Lele Saveri. “We thought that it would be a better and more sustainable form of support if we redecorated the space and invited various people to curate weekly events. That’s how the community was built — with screenings, readings, performances, parties, and eventually the fair.” Their annual 8-Ball Zine Fair, which began in that same billiards space in 2012 and has been a focal point for the community, is now in its twelfth edition in New York City, showing and selling zines by collectives and organizations such as the Bettys, Sula Collective, and Printed Matter. Saveri, thirty-eight, was born and raised in Rome before moving to London in his twenties, eventually relocating to New York City, where, with a background in photography, he spent ten years shooting for many different magazines. He now teaches art at an after-school program in Brooklyn when he is not running 8-Ball.

Throughout the past six years, 8-Ball Community has taken many different shapes. There was the “Newsstand” installation that once lived in the L Lorimer station, and Petra Collins’s Pussy Pat show, which 8-Ball held at the Williamsburg gallery Muddguts. They’ve brought their art cross-country and overseas to places such as Tokyo, Amsterdam, and San Francisco. There’s the radio station, featuring hosts from across the worlds  of art and music, including the Bellport, Long Island–based art collective Auto Body. Also housed in the Howard Street headquarters is 8-Ball TV, the all-access television network that can be streamed right from your computer, with programming 24-7. On a random morning, its schedule included coverage of the DACA Protest in Foley Square, a show titled Resist Fascism by photographer Pete Voelker, and The Because You’re Here Show by Brooklyn-based multimedia and performance artist Megha Barnabas. The manifesto posted on the 8-Ball website includes ideals such as “Everyone is welcome,” “We have no elitism,” and “We do not have any association with brands.” When Saveri is asked about 8-Ball’s most memorable experiences, he rattles off a diverse list: “The ‘Gazete Bayii,’ a reading library of underground and self-publications in Istanbul was pretty important; the Kurdish Film Festival in New York; ‘River’s Bedroom,’ an installation we did at Foam Museum in Amsterdam last year.” Saveri pauses to catch his breath before continuing, “A fundraiser telethon show we did last year for our TV with artist Jaimie Warren, and the ‘Newsstand,’ the underground bookstore we had in Brooklyn, that was then recreated as an installation for MOMA and now it’s part of the museum’s permanent collection.”

8-Ball has no hierarchy and Saveri stresses that the volunteer who just started yesterday has as much power as someone who joined the collective years ago. “To give an example of the age range, last year we did a book with Jill Freedman, who’s in her late seventies,” he says, “and this year the curator of our weekly performance series is Rainer, an eighteen-year-old kid from New York City.” Like flies to honey, people are attracted to 8 Ball — their mission is genuine, their home base like a sanctuary.

The community, however, is currently on the lookout for a new home — its current location is being converted back into a factory space. Saveri and company are taking the development in stride — they have relocated every few years since the collective’s inception, a sort of expected caveat that comes with being a not-for-profit arts collective in a rapidly changing city. As long as the organization and its mission are still thriving, everything else will fall into place. In the meantime, 8-Ball Community will have temporary locations for the next few months until it finds more permanent headquarters — their radio show is moving to Playground Coffee in Bed-Stuy; the TV studio will be staying in their old Howard Street basement location through June; and the rest of operations will run out of Boohoo-Hooray, an archiving studio based in Soho.

Their final Howard Street art show was held the last weekend of March. Titled “Out of Ink,” it featured work from more than ninety artists who had been actively part of the community for the previous three and a half years. The artwork, presented in the form of Xeroxed copies, was a nod to past collectives, such as Club 57, that used Xerox to create a cheaper and more democratic way of showing art.

“I’m hoping more people will be inspired to get together into collectives that create work and platforms for others, outside the commercial, capitalistic structure of the art world,” says Saveri. “It is hard to find spaces that are open for people with no commercial value whatsoever, that are also totally inclusive and don’t follow hierarchic schemes, so the more the better. I understand how hard it is, especially in cities like New York where rent keeps getting higher, but there are always ways around this, or at least I hope so…”

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