I hadn’t been to New York in 16 years so my sojourn there last week proved a trip! Somehow it didn’t surprise me that I should find myself leaving from Gate 23 of Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 4 on Monday 17 October. Even more predictably I wasn’t interested in any of the in-flight movies, so I didn’t watch them. The choice of on-board music was pretty lame too…. although they did have Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles ‘greatest hits’ albums, so I gave those a spin – and otherwise just left Aretha Franklin’s classic 1968 platter Aretha Now on repeat play. Arriving at Newark I took the air train to Penn Station in Manhattan. Gavin Everall – who’d booked my flight and hotel – said I could walk to the accommodation from the station. I enjoy proving a point, so I covered the seventy or so blocks to 103rd street on foot, and with my luggage slowing me it only took about ninety minutes.
The Marrakesh Hotel was cheaper than most other accommodation in Manhattan for a reason – in places the carpet was worn through and the bare brick work in my room had crumbled badly. When I opened the blind I had a delightful view of a brick wall about two feet from my window. The Moroccan themed decoration in the hotel was at best half-hearted, but then I guess the fact that the place was way cheaper than your average New York perch made up for that. Even the Guest Safety Tips I was handed with my key were old school: “Always use the deadbolt. Secure valuables. Report suspicious persons or acts. Never open door prior to verifying ID.” So if you want a taste of old New York then The Marrakesh may be the place for you – although unlike when I was staying in downtown Rio about seven years ago, I didn’t actually spot any armed muggers in the corridors. I arrived at the hotel around midnight, read for an hour, then went to sleep.
I woke about 7am and got myself together before strolling down to White Columns on Horatio Street. This was an amble of about ninety blocks but without luggage I was able to cover the distance a little faster than my seventy block power walk of the night before. When I arrived at White Columns, director Matthew Higgs introduced me to his crew and then took me out for coffee at Snice – where I could get a double espresso rather than the too weak for me American diner coffee. I then unpacked the boxes of material for the exhibition that had been sent from London, and aside from a Mexican lunch with Matthew, worked through until about 6pm on starting to arrange the show.
I decided to walk back to the hotel and detoured into a video shop on the way – I hadn’t looked closely at the TV set up in the hotel and wrongly thought that like the last hotel I’d been in (west country in England), there was a DVD player. The store I went into was chock-full of kung fu movies priced at less than ten bucks a pop – lots of old school classics such as The Shadow Boxer (AKA Spiritual Boxer II), Backalley Princes (with Angela Mao and Carter Wong), Return To The 36 Chambers (AKA Return of the Master Killer), The Kung Fu Lizard (with Lo Lieh), and Enter The Fat Dragon (with Sammo Hung). In the end I picked up Bruce Lee & I, a notorious piece of Brucesploitation with his mistress Betty Ting Pei playing herself in a particularly shameless piece of trash made shortly after Lee’s death. After that I went to an AT&T store to sort out a cell phone for while I was in the USA. I kept wandering north but not always in a straight line. I stopped for some chow and still made it back to the hotel before 9pm. Discovering there was no DVD player, I tried the TV channels but all I could get without paying for a movie on the hotel system was a New York educational/community station (running a History Detective programme about the evolution of Ronald MacDonald’s clown costume) and an old episode of Cheers. So I read until one and then caught another full six hours sleep.
When I exited the hotel on Wednesday morning it was pissing with rain. Still I decided to walk to the gallery, and as I did this I made calls to my friends on my mobile, which I’d set up before leaving the hotel. Strolling south down Amsterdam Avenue with everything looking wet and grey, and very aware that the streets were laid out in grids, I started fooling myself into thinking I was taking a psychogeographical trip around Glasgow. When I got to White Columns someone had put a huge plastic bucket beside the door, where I deposited my umbrella alongside many others. I worked away steadily at putting up my show, took lunch on my own but during shorter breaks I was cracking jokes with Matthew’s White Columns team – Amie Scally, Carolyn Lockhart and Jeff Eaton.
My old mate Tom McGlynn – a New York artist I’ve known since the mid-80s – turned up mid-afternoon and we went for a coffee at Snice. After that, Matthew and I continued to work on my show. Around 6pm Gavin Everall appeared with some more of my material from London. He left to check into the same hotel as me, and I got back on with organising my exhibition until Tom McGlynn came back to the gallery at eight. Leaving Matthew working on my show alone, I headed off to Brooklyn with Tom to catch Jarett Kobek giving a presentation of his new novel Atta at the Issue Project Room on 3rd Street. At the space we hooked up with Simon Critchley and Gavin Everall. Gavin did a Q&A with Jarett after the main presentation. Then it was on to some Brooklyn bar for drinks and a chin-wag with Tom, Gavin and Simon. The talk was good, the hardcore punk rock being played in the bar was lousy.
Thursday morning found me back at White Columns working on my show – once again I power walked the ninety blocks after a full six hours sleep. By Thursday gallery technician Ian Holman was hanging some of the material I’d arranged by placing it on the floor beneath where I wanted it on the wall; while Amie, Jeff and Matthew were also helping out with various aspects of my installation. When Gavin turned up I went for lunch with him at Snice, then it was back to work for me. Gavin went off and when he came back we headed up to the Chelsea Museum for a performance of Aldo Tambellini’s Black Zero – a recreation of a happening performed by Group Center several times between 1963 and 1965.
Black Zero featured some recorded sounds, including the voice of poet Calvin C. Hernton who couldn’t be there in person because he was dead. One of the improvised elements was Henry Grimes on double bass and Ben Morea on power tools adapted as musical instruments – and they were fabulous together! There were film projections all over the place and a very good modern dancer, who amid apocalyptic verse about racism and nuclear holocaust, eventually fell down into an erotic death pose: at this point Tambellini entered the stage area with a pen knife and popped a balloon onto which film was being projected, and that was the end of the performance. I was knocked out by the event, describing it in words really doesn’t do it justice. Afterwards I went for a drink with Tim Beckett, who I’d arranged to meet at the Black Zero event but he’d been delayed and missed it.
I didn’t need to go into White Columns early on the Friday as the show was coming together nicely, and Matthew wanted to get on with some final touches on his own. After breakfast in a diner with Gavin – where I got into a good humoured argument with a waitress over the relative merits of the Mets and the Yankees - I gave Ben Morea a call and we hauled our asses over to his tiny Manhattan apartment. We took a look through a selection of Ben’s recent paintings, he does them in Colorado where he lives most of the time – they’re Zen-like abstracts which he’s been doing since 1982, and very different from the darker pictures he made in the sixties prior to the founding of Black Mask. After we’d rapped a bit, we went out for coffee and further talk – with the subject matter ranging from Ben’s friendship with Valerie Solanas to the current activism going on around Occupy Wall Street. I’d spent a week with Ben in Europe during the summer, so we also did a bit of catching up.
Gavin and I left Ben to check out what was happening at the gallery. Overall I was very happy with how Matthew had finished the installation, but wanted to make one small change which he agreed to. Then it was around the corner to Snice for lunch with Ken Wark and a conversation covering everything from the recent travels of those present through to the political situation in New York and elsewhere. After checking in at White Columns and finding I wasn’t needed, Gavin and I headed for Occupy Wall Street. There was a good atmosphere and we picked up all the literature we could. Everyone was friendly and I had brief conversations with kids in their teens and twenties through to a middle aged rank-and-file member of the CWA (Communication Workers of America). The groups involved were really diverse, but then I guess that’s the nature of a broad movement. It looked to me like the beefy union members who’d got involved had played a key role in putting the authorities off using force to break up the demonstration. While I was at Occupy Wall Street, I got a call from Lee Wells who’d shown pieces of mine in group exhibitions in the New York area in the past, so we walked around to his nearby office for coffee and a chat.
Heading back up to White Columns on Horatio Street we were early for my opening, so I had a drink with Gavin in The Art Bar opposite Snice. When we went to the private view it filled up quickly and when I tried to talk with various friends like Tom McGlynn, Lynne Tillman and Hari Kunzru, I was constantly pulled away to meet new people. We went back to The Art Bar for drinks after the opening. I was told David Byrne had been inspecting my work very closely, and a lot of critics had turned up including Hal Foster. I hadn’t clocked these people but then that isn’t surprising since the place was packed and I don’t know what they look like. Indeed the opening was so busy that I even failed to clock some of the people I knew from London – such as Mike Sperlinger, who I learnt later was doing his own event in NYC. It’s a shame I didn’t get to speak to everyone I know, but I guess that’s showbiz…. Anyway, after a generous helping of Talisker in The Art Bar, it was back to the hotel on the subway.
Saturday morning I just wandered around Manhattan, and as I walked I was calling up a few friends for some catch up, including Darius James who hadn’t been able to make it into town while I was there. I was basically heading south, so that by 2pm I was at Apexart, 291 Church Street, for a series of readings being promoted under the banner Mad As Hell! Given this was really close to Occupy Wall Street I’d assumed it was going to be an afternoon of stories based around current political activism. Instead it turned out to be inspired much more by Network, a movie I haven’t seen for years, with stories about anger rather than politics. I saw Dale Peck, Elissa Schappell, John Haskell, Patrick McGrath and Lynne Tillman read. I was really curious to see Eileen Myles but the reading started late and I had to get to White Columns for 4pm, so I had to miss her. Tillman was for me the highlight – her sharp but spare prose and incredible wit really make her stand out from most other writers.
Back at the gallery I was doing a reading with Kenneth Goldsmith. Kenny was way more than a warm up, he presented me with the challenge of matching and attempting to better his riotous spoken word act. So I started by standing on my head and reading from Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie, then proceeded to shred a copy of my novel Down & Out In Shoreditch & Hoxton, and finished up by rapping about the work I had in the show. It was another packed event but I managed to catch up – often too briefly – with some old NYC friends like mail artist Mark Bloch. Afterwards a crowd of us moved on to The Art Bar. As it got later and people started drifting off, I decided to walk to the upper west side with Esther Leslie, who was over from London and staying on 79th Street. I carried on to 103rd by foot, reaching The Marrakesh Hotel sometime after midnight. I was feeling great thanks to both a successful show and the extremely large shots of Talisker served in The Art Bar.
On Sunday morning I walked around the upper west side, before heading to White Columns to do an interview with Aimee Walleston from Art In America. I’d planned to hook up with Tom McGlynn after this, but when I called him he’d was unexpectedly tied up at home, so I wandered around downtown on my tod until it was time to go to the airport. I really couldn’t believe how much dowtown had changed since I’d last visited 16 years before. Streets like Christopher and Bleecker were unrecognisable from how I’d first encountered them at the end of the 1980s, they’d been completely gentrified. Canal Street seemed to retain more of the atmosphere from the old days than anywhere else I went… And while it is in the nature of cities to change, it is always gonna be better when that change is directed by the working class rather than the rich! So we still need a new urbanism!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!