March 28, 1989

'Don't Make Me Over'
by C. Carr

Slaves of New York is the first '80s revival.

Out of sheer attitude, hairspray, and design, the movie re-creates that electric moment before downtown "died." In the mid-'80s I remember, a thousand flashes in the pan flared up at the same moment to illuminate the Global East Village.

Okay, I'm being simpleminded, but that's what nostalgia is all about. Like Slaves, I too can overlook the serious artists and dealers who emerged (most of them now in Soho) and remember the teeny storefronts crammed with neobadness. The East Village was a toy version of the grown-up art world, where those who played were less enfants terrible than kids who wanted a slice of mom and dad's pie. And Slaves is less about artists than about a group of oddly dressed young entreprenuers who use bohemianism to sell themselves. As J. Hoberman put it in his VOICE review, Slaves itself is "less a movie than a marketing strategy." Perhaps that's only fitting in an age when consumer culture has replaced the avant-garde.

More product went on display last week at The Gallery on Bond Street: the real paintings by real artists featured in Slaves, yours for up to $20,000. Most of them had that funky East Village look, though only a few were by East Village names (Rhonda Zwillinger, Stephen Lack, et al.) Appearing in the film had given the pictures a sort of glamour makeover. Still bad (for the most part), they now looked perfect for a time capsule, some museum of Downtown. They were the "real" bad thing. I got there early and listened to collectors call them beautiful, watched art lovers/scene lovers shoehorn into the space, big as five storefronts, claustrophobic as just one. Few people wore costumes bizarre enough to suit a bit player in Slaves, and I wondered if even those few hadn't been inspired by the film. The scene that once parodied the art world had now become a parody of itself.

That night I went down to the Lower Worst Side to the place where "East Village art" began. ABC No Rio hasn't changed much over the past decade, though there's no longer a gaping hole in the wall labeled "rat poison." Nobody had keys to the front door, so the audience tottered into the basement, turned left at the black coffin (a prop? free of its vampire?), and climbed up into No Rio. There, a man apologetically collected $2, "if you have it." Eventually 25 or 30 people filled the scarred benches for Guns and Guinness, a reading--rather, a ranting--by Erl Kimmich and Darius James. Just before they began, the radiator suddenly spewed a stream of boiling water onto a straggler climbing up from the basement, and I couldn't help but think of Slaves, with its collapsing and exploding pipes that signify Starving Artist.

Guns and Guiness turned into one of those rough-hewn evenings that you lose all sight of in the Big Time. The poets read as they paced, drank, raved, lay on the floor, twisted themselves over the podium, and drank again. Erl Kimmich is white and lives in the South Bronx. Darius James is black and lives in Jersey. Already juiced up on Colt 45, Kimmich recited his rhymes about the greedy, the media, the usual. They were simple words on hard subjects, addressed with passion, and I was in the mood to see some art, which by my definition is connected with struggle. (And I don't mean the struggle up the ladder.)

Back and forth, pacing like a hothead, Kimmich chanted "who will feed us?/we will, we will/who will teach us?/we will, we will/who will love us?/we will, we will/who will house us?/we will, we will." Hours later, after the reading had degenerated into a half-drunk conversation with the few remaining spectators, Kimmich told me that that section was "the empowering message."

Darius James talked about his writing as a "magical practice." His best work addresses racism, with hair-raising effect, and he's been working for years on a project called Negrophobia. This is a text as ugly and gross as racism itself, and he said he'd gone to New Orleans to read from it. But the audience there hadn't wanted to listen, wouldn't shut up. So he'd left the stage, then returned again with a bottle of brandy. He told me reading from it had never made him cry until that night in the South.

At No Rio, he chose to read instead some of the pornography he writes for a living, including Penthouse's occult sex column, "Ask Dr. Snakeskin." But he also delivered a work-in-progress about the trip to New Orleans, his first to the Deep South. He said the racism he'd encountered there was a different strain from the one he'd grown accustomed to. "You ain't on the Lower East Side where we keep our white folks in line and they know they place," he screeched. "With the former Klan Wizard running for State Rep and me going into my arrogant New York nigger bag, I'm bar-b-que, dig, with tequila sauce flambay. 'Feets,' I say, 'don't fail me now.'"

I got home just in time to catch Tama Janowitz on the Letterman show. Dave was asking Tama if she'll get "a piece of the action" from Bloomingdale's Slaves of New York boutique. She avoided answering, but she indicated that she wasn't really rich. Then she mentioned in passing that the clothes in the movie had been based on thrift-store items. The originals, in other words, had been secondhand.

It reminded me of something critic Edit DeAk had written when artists first opened such "anti-spaces" as ABC No Rio. The artists were idealistic, political, and young, and they acquired ABC No Rio, for example, by breaking into an abandoned city-owned storefront and installing what they called "The Real Estate Show," aimed at celebrating insurrectionary urban development." They didn't know it, but they tapped into a capitalist mainline they wouldn't be able to control as it led the neighborhood toward gentrification and spilled into Bloomies. The words came back to haunt. "We are prospectors of slum vintage," wrote DeAk. "We have taken your garbage all our lives and are selling it back to you at an inconceivable markup."

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