Bushwick Don’t Worry
10 June 2009

It’s been a few days since I spent thirteen hours running around Bushwick and I’ve been thinking about some of the prevailing notions that I heard repeatedly on my slog, my tour through the industrial stretches of the neighborhood. More than one artist sincerely mourned the end of “Bushwick” upon hearing that Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith were spotted touring the BOS and the Bushwick Biennial. At the opening for the Nurture Art leg of the Biennial, another artist I met in Miami bemoaned the end of the non-commercial freedom of Bushwick. Again and again I heard people muttering about “it” being over.

As I rode from studio building to gallery space to studio building, I will only agree that certain things are over in Bushwick. Pocket Utopia is over. Austin Thomas’s two-year social art project space presented its Final Utopia and went out with a two-keg bang. Her space, which I only caught the tale end of, was a small, but vital hub in the neighborhood. It will be missed, mainly by the artists who exhibited and mingled there over the last two years and those who came to know it and Austin, who draws people together. She half-jokingly refers to herself as the Mother Theresa of the art world and when we go to openings together, she refers to me as her opposite. So, even as Pocket Utopia closes in Bushwick, I’m certain Austin will emerge elsewhere with new projects and I look forward to more awkward introductions from Austin to dealers like John Connelly.

Overpriced studios should also be over, notably Burr Dodd’s criminally overpriced spaces at Brooklyn Fireproof East. Why? I saw a lot of studios for rent/share during my tour (and I see them daily on the Wyckoff Starr community board). The days of the vanity studio or the weekend studio are over. These were the kind of spaces rented by artists a few years out of undergrad or grad school working full-time jobs or raising children who find themselves still putting a check in the mail for a studio they see once a month. Sadly, there’s also probably a lot of working artists that simply can’t afford the absurd rents that studio landlords were able to charge over the last few years. Renting substandard studios seems to have become a full-time business out there. I can only hope that the practice is over in Bushwick. If you happen to rent at Brooklyn Fireproof; demand lower rent. I’m certain you can find equally comfortable digs anywhere to your liking in the neighborhood.

Apparently, car burning is also over in Bushwick. Artist Eric Trosko lamented the loss of regular explosions on the streets of Bushwick. He explained, as we walked between studios, that when he first moved to the neighborhood, he was treated to nightly explosions of stole cars and a general sense of lawless anarchy. He would smile as he told the stories, I think he genuinely missed the sense of being in a dangerous, marginal place without upscale coffee shops, organic (overpriced) markets, and wine shops. Artist Ken Madore also told Eric and I two amazing stories about being mugged and witnessing a second mugging right in the entryway to his home on Broadway. The muggings involved crackheads, valiant Mexicans, corrupt cops, a pretty white girl from Kansas, dazed witnesses, box cutters, shovels, hammers, bicycles, non-existent watches, and primarily the cultural differences wrought by gentrification. The muggings really weren’t about stark class differences, Ken and his roommates are working artists living in a ramshackle building. They are not yuppies in shiny new condos. They were mugged because they were white kids, artists, living in an area that doesn’t want them and may resent their presence. While the muggings occured a couple of years ago, Ken’s studio/residence is in a densely populated area right near the JMZ stop, which is higher risk than the desolate stretches between Morgan and Jefferson. Ken was inspired to share his mugging stories with us after he heard that Grace Space or Lumenhouse, right down the street, had been visited by five plain clothes cops who inquired about illegal liquor sales. When the galleries indicated that they were not selling liquor the cops said they would be back to check because “they didn’t want to see a bunch of drunk white kids get mugged late at night and cause them a headache”. While the days of cars burning in the streets are over (for now), there is still plenty of cultural friction in Bushwick between residents and artists.

What really isn’t over is Bushwick’s freedom from commercialism, commodification, and money. A few short years ago if Jerry and Roberta had toured BOS and written it up in New York Magazine and/or the Times, a small army of town cars would have descended upon the next round of openings for small, yet interesting shows like Fortress To Solitude at 56 Bogart Street curated by Guillermo Creus, ready to assimilate Bushwick right into their collections. Curators and dealers may have also swarmed the open studios looking for artists to keep Chelsea and the art fairs swollen with work. (Un)Fortunately this isn’t happening.

Collectors are selling art, not buying it. Galleries are closing and shedding artists, not expanding, and studio buildings are losing artists, not gaining them. Many artists I talked to were clearly worried that their community was under some kind of attack by the commercial art world, and that soon it would be overrun with the kind of hype and expectation that washed out Williamsburg four years ago. I don’t think anyone in Bushwick should be worried about “it” being over. You are totally safe to continue working in relatively safety and obscurity.

But behind the desire for an open, experimental, artist-centered community, I also felt really bad for the artists in Bushwick. Despite their protests about the scene being overrun, I thought there was a certain disingenuousness to that sentiment. I’ve met a lot of artists who dislike and distrust the art market, but they still sell their work. Conversely, I’ve met very few artists who won’t sell their work. I also don’t know many artists who don’t want to make their work public even if they don’t make saleable objects. I can understand artists wanting to keep Bushwick about production, process, performance, and possibilities for exhibition, but it’s not a hidden space. I think it’s a fallacy to think that it can be an exclusionary community that only includes its own cliques. That’s absurd. In the end, I felt sort of terrible for the artists, unknown and emerging, working hard in their Bushwick spaces with the contradictory feelings of resisting the art market that wasn’t coming, won’t be coming and wanting a break. They seemed to be worried about a fight that has no adversary, or one that no longer exists. So, I’m left with images of artists sitting in their studios pleasantly smiling, talking with people interested in art, and hoping for something that probably won’t happen.

It’s not hopeless though. There are several gallery spaces and temporary exhibitions are happening with greater frequency. While I am aware that there artists who consciously avoid the market, there are many more artists who are looking for alternatives and better situations. It’s the mindset that produced spaces like Pierogi and Parker’s Box in Williamsburg (not Roebling Hall or Bellwether). An artist I’ve met through a show at Momenta, Jason Irwin, has been running Privateer Gallery for a few shows now, and it’s spaces like his that will create opportunities for artists.

That said, I got to talk with Benjamin Evans, the director of Nuture Art, who organized the Bushwick Biennial. I was giving him shit about the velvet ropes outside the gallery and its embarrassingly maternal name (like it wants to hug you), when he explained that whole thing was supposed to be a joke on the pervasiveness of Biennials and the importance of scenes in the art world (We were pretty bombed so I’m half-summarizing/half surmising). He assumed that everyone would understand what a joke the concept of Bushwick Biennial was and how it ran counter to its identity as a DIY, independent neighborhood. He was more than a little upset with the superserious way people were taking the BOS and Biennial, and we both agreed that there was an undercurrent of hypocrisy being expressed by artists. It’s one that I’m familiar with and accused of all the time; wanting to be critical of the establishment and desiring of acceptance. I’ve never said that I didn’t want to be part of it, I may have said I wanted to destroy it, but I’ve always been working my in. It’s just that I don’t stop talking about it, so it’s at the art world’s risk to allow me further up the ladder. I don’t pretend to be better than the art world, I’m part of and product of it, going all the way back to my first classes in undergrad where all the expectations and delusions were born.

I understood Ben’s ambivalence about his own curatorial effort and his frustration with the artists, but his is a curatorial perspective. The artists I knew in the various exhibitions were not participating because the notion of the Biennial is a joke, or an anti-Younger Than Jesus. They were showing their work because they believe in it and are seeking recognition, a solo show, a group show, a collector, or any of the reasons artists put themselves on display for the public. I certainly wouldn’t want my work framed broadly as a joke on the rampant commodification of art of the last decade if I wasn’t part of it, as many of the artists I met were not. I’m probably not being clear, but I’m trying to point out a friction that exists between how Bushwick is perceived and what people are trying to do there in this post-boom economy. The pressures the artists have been resisting consciously are greatly reduced, just as are the opportunities that existed. The art world is a mess, topsyturvy and I think people should recognize that fundamental shift. I think Bushwick needs more artist-run exhibitions spaces, not focused on sales (maybe some basic professionalism like set hours) and start showing more art. There isn’t much to rail against right now and every reason to work collectively to make vibrant scene that isn’t treated like a joke. Why not? You’re probably not going to sell anything or make money anyway. We may never see the kind of illusory money that inflated the art world for some time. To make art, people will have to be more creative and probably work a lot harder than we’ve been used to.

Update: Check out Gina B’s comments on the relative “safety” of the Morgan area. It’s not immune from crime. Also, thanks to Austin for getting me to revise my terrible spelling. My writing has gotten rusty in the twitter age. And finally, I am working a curatorial project about art and magic, or maybe just our belief in art as magic for a show next summer. I’m open to do studio visits around that project and there are other opportunities on the horizon. I’m also just open to doing studio visits to get out of mine.

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