So commendable is this emphasis on downtown as a scene that it feels almost mistaken to break that apart and talk about the artists as individuals. It’s a show whose sections are not composed of different artists but different themes - should this not be kept up? Nevertheless, ‘scene’ is definitely the right word - and it is by definition a different, more loose-limbed creature to a movement. Artists overlapped in interests, inspired and supported each other, even fed each other, but each had their own direction. (Imagine this lot issuing a manifesto...) So, having established their commonality first, let’s move on to what made each distinctive...
Laurie Anderson: Sculptural Instruments
It’s tempting to see Anderson as the odd one out here, given her subsequent career. After all, she moved from penniless performance artist to Grammy-nominated musician, from acting out spontaneous improvisations in the street to selling out the Town Hall. Surely she was only ever slumming in the downtown scene, keeping a toehold in Manhattan while waiting for the moment she could springboard to the big art league?
Actually, and happily, it works almost exactly the opposite way round – we find here the roots to almost all her subsequent work. Anderson cheerily recalled the chief distinction between that scene and today – “art had nothing to do with money” and was instead all about “fun”, something she clearly regarded as a kind of liberation.)
For example, her interest in “sculptural instruments” and sound-manipulating devices became less lo-fi and more technological after the Seventies, but they stem from just the same impetus. In ’Duet For Door Jamb and Violin’ (1975), her violin bow pushes a door behind her as she plays, causing a magnetic tape stuck to it to pass over a playback head. ’Electric Chair’ uses the detritus of an apparently abandoned office as sound sources, a flickering florescent light, the whirring and trundling of the electric chair.
However, that’s not to say emphasis hasn’t shifted in that time. Unlike some of her later inventions the ‘sculptural’ sound source needs to be present, the concept being more important than the generated result. They’re indicative, not illustrational. They’re about learning to hear music everywhere around us, cacophonous city noise retuned into a symphony.
Perhaps Anderson’s truly distinctive feature, in this crossflux of collaboration, is her tendency to work and perform solo. This leads to a notable shift in her art as the Seventies progress. The programme comments, “just as she engaged passersby during her street actions, she also created a few interactive works that require the viewer’s participation in the gallery.” Of course the gallery is a shift from the street, but it’s their claimed point of continuity which actually obscures something.
They are talking about works such as ’Talking Pillow’ (1977) and ’Handphone Table’ (1978). In the latter, for example, a recording set inside a table generates vibrations. To hear it the listener must sit with their elbows on the table and hands over their ears, effectively using their own body as headphones. Anderson has gone from engaging street crowds to creating works which can only be heard individually - the solo performer is now insisting upon a solo audience! So strong is this personalisation that I wondered if there was something ultra-Protestant in Anderson’s background, that she was simulating its shtick for the word of God in the believer’s ear.
(Of course it could be said that Anderson’s later, more mass-media work, is the reverse of this. However, I’m not so sure. There is something in her low-key, murmury performance voice which leaves you feeling she is speaking just to you.)
Trisha Brown: Dance Off the Stage
Instead, perhaps it’s Trisha Brown who’s the odd one out here. Over a decade older than Anderson, she’d been practising in New York City since 1961. However, she fits in so easily that she gives the truth to Anderson’s claim that the scene’s roots were in the Sixties.
However, it’s possible Brown presents us with another problem. Despite all this multi-media malarky going on around her, she has stuck to pretty much one discipline – dance. And worse, I am quite antagonistic to that whole business. I only ever dance when no-one else seems to be looking, so I can’t see why everyone else can’t pay me the same courtesy. And ask for all that interpretive dance business, surely that’s just a long-winded four-letter word...
Yet this is Brown’s dance as described by the programme: “eschewing virtuosity, working with non-dancers, using everyday movement and taking dance off the stage.” There’s quite often not even any music in the performances, while there is plenty of audience laughter. In short, by the time she is through with it dance isn’t really dance any more – at least as most of us think of it. (She calls this “post-modern dance”, but then no-one’s perfect.)
Without being too reductive, there seems to be two strands to acting out Brown’s particular branch of anti-dance. First, Brown takes everyday movements, often so familiar as to be subliminal, and by replication explodes them into defamiliarity until we look at them anew. She said “I use quirky personal gestures like bending or straightening”, plucked from life and divorced from function to become “pure movement.”
This can be done through shifting the plane, such as the afore-mentioned ’Walking on the Wall’ or the earlier ’Man Walking Down the Side of a Building’ (1970, above). In both cases all the ‘dance’ we are really looking at is walking, what she called “a natural activity under the stress of an unnatural setting.” Similarly, ’Floor Of the Forest’ (1970, below), another of the show’s live performances, is based around getting dressed but horizontalises it by suspending clothes across a steel frame.
At other times this is given emphasis through being played out by several figures in synchronisation, like a simple phrase repeated until it gains significance. (One example would be ’Group Primary Accumulation’, 1973.) These are rather like the result if Busby Berkley had designed dance routines for Steve Reich or Philip Glass’s music.
Brown’s second strand is to derive choreography from random processes. She would assign movements numbers, then numbers letters, then generate choreography from simple plain-fact phrases. (Such as her birth-place, see example top of section.) These working methods were close to fellow choreographer, and frequent John Cage collaborator, Merce Cunningham. (See her tribute to Cunningham here.) I’m intending to post something about Cage in the near future, so I’ll say more about all this then.)
Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitecture and Fake Estates
In fact, if there is an odd one out here, it’s Matta-Clark. Even if the show’s sections are themed, the ’Urban Interventions’ section is almost entirely devoted to him. His patented term (and short-lived group) ‘Anarchitecture’ tells us two important things about him; firstly, and most obviously, that he worked at the junction between art and architecture.
If Brown and Anderson used the city as an inspiration and canvas, for Matta-Clarke it’s quite literally a medium. Real estate had fallen so cheap in places that he could buy up buildings at auction, like other artists buy paints and paper. (The documents are on show for one he bought for $25!)
In ’Splitting’ (1974), he cut a New Jersey house in half, and similar experiments were to follow. (Such as carrying a house intact down the Hudson on a barge; if ’Clock Shower’ was his ’Safety Last’, that must be his ’One Week.’) He described this as like “a dance with a building”, but it struck me as more like collage – merely using an axle-grinder instead of a scalpel. (He also made photo-collages, enhancing this idea.)
With a family history in Surrealism (his father the painter Roberto Matta and his godfather no less than Marcel Duchamp), there’s no doubt he enjoyed the surrealist dimension of rending bricks and mortar into his clay. His ’Bronx Floors’ (1972-3, above), sections illegally removed from abandoned buildings and transported to galleries, are in some ways akin to Duchamp’s ready-mades.
However, ‘anarchitecture’ also suggests at a political perspective, commonly absent from his contemporaries, and this gives us the double nature of Matta-Clarke’s works. At the same time they are playful, there is something lamentary about them. You look at the tawdry squares of cheap and peeling lino in the way you’d look at a found family photo, as a section of someone’s life rent from its context and meaning. Symbolically, the cut-out sections of floors are like looking at the accumulated sedentary layers of the past.
A landscape painter might then feel an affinity to that landscape, take an interest in its history, seek to protect it from development. Matta-Clark does that with houses. His ’Reality Properties: Fake Estates’ (1973) assembled documentation from unsellable properties he’s bought. If buildings were Matta-Clarke’s materials, he also saw himself as their biographer. These works reminded me of the sign-off line in ’Gangs of New York’, “no-one will ever know our names.”
This political dimension led to a more confrontational attitude than Anderson and Brown’s celebration of life in the city. In 1976 he was invited to stage an exhibition at the prestigious Institute for Architectural and Urban Studies. Shortly before the opening, he took an airgun and shot out the windows of the gallery, so as to reflect his home environment the more clearly. The venue promptly banned him.
If Anderson was rooted in Fluxus, I wondered if Matta-Clarke was similarly influenced by the Situationists. Extensive research conducted after the exhibition proved me right – but only half-right. He had been in Paris during “the events” of 1968, and come across such currents. Yet what I saw in his work was an earlier era, prior to the political coup of 1962, when concepts such as unitary urbanism still held sway and Chtcheglov was a guru. The then-dominant idea was that the city should not be fixed, like an exoskeleton, but modular - a “landscape of our desires” which we could reshape upon our whim.
History has not necessarily been any kinder to Matta-Clarke than his subjects. For one thing, he died tragically young in 1978. His disinterest in conventional media, while enthralling, was also not the best decision in terms of preserving his work. As Steve Stern comments in ‘Frieze’: “More than any of his peers, living or dead, Matta-Clark exists for us in documentation and anecdotes. His interventions were ephemeral by design, his cut-up buildings have been razed, his restaurant shut down. There is simply no such thing as a Gordon Matta-Clark work in the world today.” But perhaps that’s even appropriate. Perhaps it is the ideas which have the currency...
When the Party’s Over
In that afore-mentioned Brighton Festival conversation, Anderson confessed her chief fear for this exhibition was that it would present the scene as “tidy”. In writing this, my chief fear has been similar, that I would present it as an accumulation of art-works to peer at. Which might sound virtually a definition of an exhibition, but the point of the pieces here was chiefly to inspire. You didn’t necessarily need to become an artist yourself, but you needed to look at the urban environment enveloping you less passively and more creatively.
In one of my few criticisms of this show, with Seventies New York such a centre for creativity, I would have liked to hear more about how all this overlapped with other scenes. If they ran counter to minimalism in art, what about minimalist music or the general downtown music scene which was emanating from other loft events at this time? (And would seem to have much in common; taking music out of its common performance areas, out of the hands of musicians, responding to the urban environment and so on.)
For that matter, what of the punk scene then emerging, which was often influenced by performance art? Or hip-hop? Perhaps counter-intuitively, hip-hop may even be the closer fit. In its early days it was uninterested in social commentary. Yet it covered run-down buildings in colourful graffiti, and countered gang culture by putting on all-inclusive parties in public spaces. Until the very end of the Seventies, this was confined to the majority-black borough of the Bronx, and it’s possible - indeed likely - the two scenes were unaware of each other. However, they might make for an interesting comparison.
Beyond the scope of the exhibition, but interesting to know, would be how many other similar scenes flourished out of similar conditions in other American cities at this time? You could optimistically imagine anywhere big enough to have a downtown having a downtown scene. Steve Brown of San Francisco’s Angels of Light later commented:
“We lived together in a big Victorian house...pooled all our disability cheques each month, ate communally and used the rest of the funds to produce lavish theatrical publications – never charging a dime to the public.” (Quote from Simon Reynolds’ ever-influential ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’)
Perhaps it’s a testament to a show when you try to extend it in your mind, conjuring up more of it elsewhere. However, there seems one sharp limitation to such extensions, one revealed in the show’s title. As mentioned Anderson started out the Seventies by performances on the street. She’d wear ice skates embedded in blocks of ice as a timer, when the ice melted the show was over (see top of section). Alas that block of ice has now truly melted beyond replacement.
The low-rent attractions and urban possibilities of SoHo have gone, choked with one hand by a property boom and the other by the clamp of a post-Guliano “zero tolerance” regime. Matta-Clarke was buying buildings with money which now wouldn't pay a week's rent. Nowadays artists can only survive in such an area by producing blinging yuppie fodder, like the contemptible Jeff Koons.
Yet, to turn to military terminology momentarily, of course what counts isn’t the battle but the war. When one field is closed, you merely migrate elsewhere. If the function of the downtown scene is to inspire, it doesn’t need to – indeed shouldn’t – be copied.
...at least that’s the official answer. But I wonder if the downturn will lead to the return of the downtown scene, or at least something similar. The real estate collapse in America, which has occurred on a greater scale than here in the UK, could be a crisis which creates opportunities. (I have heard tales of artists recolonising areas of Detroit.) When cities can no longer be based around work, perhaps they’re ripe to be transformed into places for play all over again. As the Fall put it back in the Eighties: “new art forms hit recession cities best.”
The financial black hole and act of social cleansing commonly known as the Olympics has shown a surprising upside for London – all the art exhibitions and events being planned to coincide with their intended tourist influx. In fact some of these seem to be arriving already. There will be, I fear, more to see than I will be able to. While many are safe blockbuster shows, others look more interesting. But it seems doubtful that many will be as genuinely inspirational as this glimpse into the downtown scene. It’s literally off the wall! (At least I saved the bad gags till last...)
Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...