Ann Messner with bolt cutters used to enter 125 Delancey Street, 1980. Photo: Peter Moennig
During that initial meeting, I felt lots of curiosity accompanied by a mixture of insecurity and unforgiving shyness . . . but those Colab artists were just so damn welcoming. A huge open embrace, which was something I had been longing for.
Perhaps resulting from a shared sixties adolescence, there was within Colab a collective disregard for institutional structures and traditional modes of practice. Out of the cultural malaise caused by Vietnam, the tragic assassinations of quixotic public figures, the images of kids being hosed and in the case of Kent State gunned down, the indiscriminate blazing of an inner city already in desperate need of repair, very little that remained standing seemed at all respectable. Reality had fallen apart, exposing distressing hypocrisy. And not surprisingly, our relationship as artists to culture took on the form of refusal and deconstruction.
From this chaos and collapse, what it means to be an artist had broken wide open. We got to start with a blank slate, and in this way, shockingly, we were lucky. The rent was not too damn high, and it was possible to work a couple of hours a day at some menial task and survive, leaving lots of time for creative searching. But that brutality we had witnessed in our coming of age had removed any vestige of innocence or utopist ideation, and despite the bitter aftertaste, there was solace in the collaboration with peers.
The Real Estate Show was a hedge, a provocative stance deployed to expose the city's nefarious relationship not only to the urgent concerns of an impoverished community but also to the creative desires of a vibrant counterculture movement. Our action: the occupation of 123 Delancey Street and the mounting of the exhibition the Real Estate Show proved a test of opposing wills. In retrospect the bravado of multiple break-ins, as evidenced in the photographic documentation, appears awkwardly humorous (oversized bolt cutters in a guitar case) but at the time the direct and forceful dealings with the city, although remaining non-violent, were not at all pleasant. If it were not for the brief attendance of Joseph Beuys in support of our action there may have been more severe consequences (his Guggenheim Retrospective had landed him front page notoriety in the tabloids and as such his presence seemed to intimidate the city officials). As it was, a stalemate ensued, ultimately ending in our favor with the granting of a temporary space at another location, as the city struggled with embarrassing damage control in the press.
I did not have the stamina for sustained engagement over time so I did not participate in the slow and arduous task of building what was to become ABC No Rio. But the experience of the initial action has stayed with me over the years as an inspiring memory of "crazy" camaraderie, but more significantly, as an example of what is possible through collective intentionality. As artists continue to engage in the development of collective "social practices," recently inspired by itinerant activities of the Occupy movement, the 123 Delancey Street action provides an interesting historical model to consider in moving forward—specifically because it involved the direct occupation of unused space to serve the needs of the community. This empty structure was rotting from neglect, and was delineated for urban redevelopment. Its forlorn presence served as a poignant example of the problematic relationship of the city to the needs of the surrounding neighborhood. To illustrate how insidious that relationship continues to be, that one building was eventually torn down and for the last three decades has remained an underused parking lot—a holding pattern for some momentous re-zoning event to come, permitting perhaps a thirty-story crystal palace, definitely not the humble tenement historically consigned to this periphery of Manhattan.
These thirty years later the stakes are much higher: we have witnessed that the value of real estate persists not in personal terms, as a place where people of simple means make their homes and raise their families, but rather as a cold calculation in its relationship to capital. The cost of housing, having no direct relationship to actual value, based rather on a cynical strategy of scarcity, is staggering. Each new building that now litters the skyline is mediocre in design, echoing its intention, the building boom being simply a calculation of maximized profit in the form of brick and mortar. If you were lucky to grab a foothold decades ago you are a member of a select few who remain, and if you are rent stabilized, your only hope of being able to stay in the city, the laws that protect you are challenged yearly.
Just as real estate, in promoting exclusivity, manufactures conflict, so does the elaborate over-production by the creative class. Artists have historically had to contend with the duplicitous implications of serving the court, in our contemporary world replaced by the market and its relationship to wealth and power. I would propose, given the urgency of this time, we artists ought to reevaluate our allegiances. Is it our desire to stock the precious walls of high-end boutiques with multi-million dollar spectacle or to steward the modest task that reaffirms a creative commons?
Imagine the posthumous scream of Edvard Munch himself as his drawing was led to the gallows of the auction block—ultimately selling for a whopping historic high at $119.9 million at Sotheby’s in early May 2012—the acuity of that contorted horror, a manifestation of the capitalization of despair.
Ann Messner (b. 1952, New York, NY)
Ann Messner graduated with a BFA from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, in 1973. She participated in the West Surrey College of Art, England, Independent Study Program from 1974 to 1975. She has completed public installations throughout New York City at locations such as Franklin Furnace, Grey Art Gallery, the New Museum, Times Square, and the Williamsburg Bridge. Additional information is available at http://annmessner.net/.