Taylor, Marvin J. The downtown book

Taylor, Marvin J. (2006) The downtown book: The New York art scene 1974-1984. New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Ensayo: A crack in time, por Carlo McCormick (p.67)

Clearly post-counterculture, this was the moment of multiplying subcultures, a politics not of engagement but of estrangement. Too often regarded by others as mere apathy, to “party like ya just don’t care” or to refuse humanism with the headlong nihilism… (Marvin:2006;78)

…art made you think – or at least blink – at unlikely times and places.

When it worked best, it tricked you through the gift of mimesis, pretending to be what it was not – a proclamation of self or the proposition of an idea – at a time when we still only knew how to read signs as information and understand their status in the landscape as sponsored advertising. This was the great gift of DIY as it hit the market of cultural production – art didn’t have to look like art; it could take the form of any populist commodity: a magazine or a poster , a tourist souvenir or a novelty item. The best group shows and the most inspired creativity often came in the lowliest of forms, be it a zine, a self-produced compilation, a vending machine, or a gift shop. (Marvin:2006;81)

Ensayo: Art after hours: Downtown performance, pro Roselee Goldberg

This period, beginning in fact some years prior to the starting point for this exhibition, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and running through the mid-1980s, can be considered the Big Bang whence the ideas, the visuals, and the values of contemporary art of the following decades would emerge.

Whether object or film installation, public intervention or video portrait, the conceptual source, the range of materials, and the visual language of today’s art had their origin in those years. It was a time when the entire art-making process was reconfigured by artists eager to infuse their work with investigative energy and to change the function of art to reflect experience, for the maker as well as the viewer. During this period artists focused on live actions, not on things, on an art of ideas, not of product (Marvin:2006;97)

Conceptual art, and performance art, which was its corollary, had essentially cleared the marketplace of goods for sale, and artists stayed away from traditional galleries and museums of principle. They performed on rooftops, in vacant parking lots, or in warehouses turned studio-cum-rudimentary-habitat. They hoisted pianos onto opposing riverbanks and installed soundworks over water (Laurie Anderson); made giant collages from suburban houses cut into quarters (Gordon Matta-Clark); took fellow artists and friends via public transportation to a nearby beach for one-of-a-kind actions (Joan Jonas). They wound Super-8 cameras around their bodies as they turned and turned in circles and filmed a partner doing the same (Dan Graham); gathered in semiprivate meetings with other women and pulled from her vagina a scrolled manifesto on the politics of gender (Carolee Schneeman). They lay beneath a specially built wooden ramp in a gallery, masturbating for several hours each day to alter the psychological matrix of a space (Vito Acconci); spent a week in a small Downtown walk-up gallery with a coyote symbolizing colonial decimation (Joseph Beuys). (Marvin:2006;98)

A new terminology – Land Art, Body Art, Sound Art – was invented to describe, and also to categorize, the endless variables, which critics reviewed in radically different prose from the art writing that had come before. Creating dances about gravity, with performers supported by mountaineering harnesses walking down the face of a building (Trisha Brown), making sculpture about the sensation of sculpture, hanging by fingers and toes in a convex curve between two walls (Denis Oppenheim), or composing music about the sounds of music, using may sets of clapping hands to accumulate dense polyrhythms (Steve Reich), they raised the rhetoric of art practice. Yet they did so in the most practical ways; before art theory of the early 1980s provided fixed systems for analysis, activities such as these provided empirical proof that art can change perception and signal shifting political and economic realities. (Marvin:2006;99)

…or CBGB’s and the Mudd Club, where any number of Punk and Post-Punk bands, often made up of the same group of artists who might be showing at the Kitchen or working in its back rooms, were playing. Later, they might take their way further downtown to the Ocean Club, to hear a band of recent art school graduates, the Talking Heads, and later still, to Puffy’s Tavern, on Hudson, for early morning cocktails as the sun came up. They were the media generation who had grown up on rock and roll, B movies, twenty-four-hour television, and fast food, and who focused at art school on the mechanics, both perceptual and emotional, of the media as ubiquitous cultural and experiential filter. (Marvin:2006;102)

The media generation’s sophistication was palpable, as was their ambition, and their experience of Downtown life, much edgier than that of their elders, made no distinction between the intellectual high of conceptual art and the gut-wrenching low of Punk, the ingenious experimentation of artist’ video or the ironic absurdity of late-night TV; The Gong Show; Mary Hartman; or Saturday Night Live, on the one hand, and videotapes (and live performances) by Michael Smith, Julia Heyward, Mitchell Kriegman, Bill Viola, Kit Fitzgerald, and Jill Kroesen, on the other, were the flip sides of a mirror that reflected the United States as a vast media landscape stretching from coast to coast. With one foot in high art and its historical legitimacy, and the other in the mire of popular culture and celebrity acclaim, they dreamed up an entirely new look for the art of the 1980s that would fit together the nuanced sensibilities of the one and the not-so-nuanced pronouncements of the other. (Marvin:2006;103)

Performance provided the vehicle for this two-way shuttle between art world and everyday, between art space and all-night club. By the late 1970s, it was clear that performance was the key factor in the connectedness of the Downtown community (imagine how different the way of life would have been if artists had sat alone making only objects in their vast loft work-living spaces), and for a radical inventory of influences -from Happenings to Fluxus, Judson Memorial Church, Grand Union, and the actions of conceptual art -which would be of enormous import to contemporary art, locally and internationally. Participating artists had long considered performance integral to their practice. But only in the 1970’s did major art institutions finally accepted it as a medium of expression in its own right… (Marvin:2006;103)

In those early days at Franklin Furnace, we had no idea we were creating art history, and we sometimes failed to document events. In the case of performances, artists often chose not to document their work on videotape not only because we believed that the presence of the camera would “change the work”. Now I am grateful for any scrap of documentation we have from that time. (Marvin;2006:111)