June 7, 2006

The Inflatable Man

Dennis Del Zotto and the Williamsburg Scene

Del Zotto in Organic TV: a New York Moment Galapagos, 1997
Screen grab from Japanese TV

Dennis Del Zotto is an artist of pitch-perfect economy and timing. He is one of the most well-liked and respected artists to come out of Williamsburg in the early 90’s, where his work was a fixture of the warehouse culture of new media and immersive art. Production outfits in the neighborhood at the time were Lalalandia, Keep Refrigerated, El Sensorium, Hit & Run Theater, The Lizard's Tail, Organism, and many more. Del Zotto collaborated with “illbient” electro-pioneers Gregor Asch (aka DJ Olive), Ignatio Platas, and Lloop Manalog (the three of whom comprise the band called We. He has worked with Jeff Gompertz at fakeshop and Ongolia, and with Robert Elmes at the first incarnation of Galapagos, the iconic Williamsburg nightclub now located in Dumbo.

All through the 90s Del Zotto, the inflatable man, made inflated architecture — "air-chitecture" he calls it — bubbles, tunnels, tents, mazes, and billowing sails out of sheets of polystyrene plastic augmented with duct tape and electric fans. His work established an atmospheric standard for nightclubs, raves, and performances in Brooklyn and beyond. Polystyrene – the ubiquitous heavy black plastic that is used to make garbage bags and to batten down construction sites against the elements – is a cheap and efficient way radically to alter a space, to disorient trendy club goers, and to seduce inscrutable hipsters. And by the mid-90’s the “inflatable” was the salient of a recrudescent installation art that had migrated from art life to nightlife.

Lalalandia 1992

Inflatable City at the Federation of Ongolia North 11th Street, 1998

Del Zotto is at the center of that other-worldly aesthetic that took ahold of the last decade of the last century. We cannot underestimate his importance as an artist in this regard; his early work was schooled in the austere precincts of minimalism, and then it morphed into the fabric of an authentic subculture. It is emblematic of urban culture in the 90s. Before long, everyone was making “inflatables.” But you could always spot a Del Zotto. His work had zing. You could see his hand in the medium as surely as you can tell the line of a first-tier artist of any medium. The black industrial plastic braced with duct tape against pneumatic pressure gave for malleable and expressive sculpture. The fibers of tape and polymer and the currents of air and light all came together in an almost ceramic union. And no one exploited this discovery with as much finesse and adventure as Del Zotto. There was an economy of form and execution in his structures. Few artists have achieved so much with so little.

Compare the first inflatable objects Del Zotto made, at SUNY Purchase in the 1980s, with any of his more recent pieces:

First Inflatable, SUNY Purchase, late 1980s

Untitled inflatable, SUNY Purchase, 1986
From an article in the Waterfront Week, November 1995

Later work, probably early 2000s

In the course of his career, Del Zotto’s range expands, and yet he never leaves the elemental confines of his chosen material. At SUNY Purchase he studied under the performance artist John Sturgeon, and acquired the crisp and “conceptual” shorthand of the American minimalist tradition. In an early work at Purchase, Del Zotto made a piece in which he “co-opted” a gallery space. “I caused the space to disappear” he says archly. For he had pressed a sheath of plastic tight against the interior of a large atrium-like gallery space at the university. Walls, floor, ceiling, skylight, every nook and niche of the room was laminated, in effect, by “a new environment,” rather like the inverse of a wrapped building by Cristo.

Against these early minimalist exercises, Del Zotto’s more recent work is explosively Romantic — great grottoes of cascading light and shadow that recall the cliffs of the Hudson Valley where Del Zotto was born and raised, and where he enjoys rock climbing.

Del Zotto is precise. He chooses his theme and his “palette,” and sticks to the subject matter. His inflatables are not arbitrary, “improvised,” anarchic, or any of the other clichés that are sometimes imputed to this movement and its art and culture. “Immersionism” is a design-oriented aesthetic. The fact that it took place in fallow buildings in Brooklyn causes it sometimes to be mistaken for a kind of dada spinoff or a junk-urban manifesto. A closer look shows that this is not the case. Immersionism is, on the whole, an optimistic and a futuristic movement.

In 1997 at the Galapagos Art Space in Williamsburg, Del Zotto took a break from 3-dimensional space. In a surprising gesture, he caused the inflatable to become lenticular. He compressed his inflatable into a large lens of white, televisual translucency. And to drive home the point, he presented the piece in proscenium fashion, frontally, on a stage. And from behind this pneumatic strata of white plastic he created a shadow play with is body. Aptly, he named the piece “Organic TV: a New York moment.” It was a riveting moment in Williamsburg anyway. People stood transfixed on the sidewalk, gazing into a garage opening, where deep inside the event unfolded, literally. The performance was featured on the Japanese edition of Good Morning America, not surprisingly, since Tokyo was onto Williamsburg a number of years before most of America.

In 1998, Del Zotto’s artist colleagues honored him with a project. He was made “principal city planner” of an “urban development” scheme inside a gigantic warehouse on the Northside. “The Inflatable City” was a mimique of gentrification, and it is one of the last of the large-scale works of Williamsburg Immersionism. The neighborhood was well into being gentrified by now. And while Immersive events such as the “Flytrap” and the environments of “Lalalandia” were collaborative and deeply communal undertakings, the Inflatable City was carried out partly as a spoof on labor, modes of production, and the inevitable clash of creative egos. Del Zotto was advanced as an inflatable Robert Moses, with a phalanx of architects and engineers under him. It had all the imbroglio and hubris of “visionary” urban upheavals promulgated by inflated egos. And this inflatable world was also meant to appease and reward Del Zotto, who by now had made it known that he was done with always having to make compromises to realize his work.

The result was a multi-level network of rooms, tunnels, catwalks, plazas, a beautiful chapel, and even an observatory with “stars” poked into the overarching roof and lit from behind. It included soundscapes and videoscapes, a richly textured environment. Each segment was designed and built by a different artist, with Del Zotto, of course, as “principal air–chitect.”

Immersionism is probably the only art movement that can be attributed to Williamsburg in our times, if by “movement” we mean a self-identified collective as opposed to a trend or a shared philosophy. I have heard old time mountain men in Williamsburg grouse that the warehouse movement was simply a “spectacle” of what they had been doing for 15 years already. But by 1992 the scene in Williamsburg had changed markedly. It was transforming from an outer-borough art colony into a an urban sub-culture. Arguably, Williamsburg was in the early dawn of becoming a hipster mecca. The neighborhood was now on the radar of thrill-seeking youth all over the tri-State area. And this was owing mostly to the illegal night spots and one-off warehouse events of the immersive movement. As many as 5,000 people attended Organism in 1994.

The warehouse movement came into being within a compliant and slightly dazed political environment in the neighborhoods. Zoning had always been flexible in many parts of Williamsburg. There was a long history of bars and brothels nestled into residential areas, and residences alongside industrial and commercial zones. So the regulatory environment already tacitly supported ad hoc nightclubs along mixed-use strips like Grand Street, Bedford Avenue, and Metropolitan Avenue.
Mariano Airaldi, Alejandra Guidici, Gabriella Ortiz, Kurt Pryzbilla and others at Lalalandia brazenly called their project “entertainment research.” As it happened, yes, in theory, you could have bars and entertainment in the neighborhood, it had always been done. And the early 90s were a perfect storm. Ambiguous zoning, a blighted area, and a society of artists eccentric enough to move to Brooklyn.

The Williamsburg warehouse artists with whom Del Zotto collaborated were neo-formalists. They represent a sharp break from the laden symbolism and allegory of postmodernism that had upset the art world barely ten years earlier. Immersive culture appeared as the World Wide Web emerged into the mainstream, and the scope of immersive art went out into big spaces and out into the nascent Web. The scene spawned music and performance in tandem with visual art. Mariano Airaldi famously declared himself “an entertainer, not an artist” and turned down a coveted slot at Annie Herron's Test Site. That gesture bolstered Airaldi's credibility and helped to define warehouse art as a new framework for aesthetic experience.

Critics and curators in Williamsburg today are quick to applaud the “diversity” of art in the neighborhood, and the fact that there is no dominant style or theory. But this was not actually the case in the early phases of artist settlement in the area. Beginning at the tail of the 80s, places like EpochéThe Lizard's Tail, Nerve Circle, and even in the mid-80s The Zone, were responding to the expansive industrial environment of the area and embracing immersive experience and collective art as a credo. This culture was anything but the procession of storefront galleries touting a smorgasbord of ideas that Williamsburg would later become. Indeed, the only “rule” that Anna Hurwitz, Rube Fenwick, and Myk Henry set down for participants in the Cat's Head and Flytrap events, was that there should be no two-dimensional imagery. Environmental and interactive art was encouraged.

Williamsburg in the early 90s was swept up in the rancorous culture wars that absorbed nation at that time. The warehouse movement was a reaction against this mode of discourse and behavior, against the race-baiting and identity politics of the time. To this climate the warehouse freaks brought a flotilla of new sensations. Boldly they claimed the waterfront, real territory, and physical sensation, as an antidote for what ailed an angry nation and a benighted intelligentsia.

It may have been the last art movement of the 20th century. We have briefly glossed it here, and placed the work of Dennis Del Zotto in that context — surely not the only place to put Del Zotto's work, and surely not the last word on his art, but an interesting place to start.

Inflatable at Organism, Williamsburg 1993

Further links to Dennis Del Zotto
Inflated Spaces, Del Zotto's blog
The Federation of Ongolia
The Inflatable Man, my facebook album on Del Zotto
A 1995 feature on Del Zotto in the Waterfront Week
Highlights of Del Zotto’s career 
2002 — Created an environment at White Columns gallery with Leo Villireal and others, for a music festival curated by Oblaat. 
2003 — Invited by art patron Josh Harris to inflate “the Loveplex”, two massive bubbles enveloping an entire storefront gallery. 
2004 — The prolific and enigmatic club-maker Jeff Gompertz included Del Zotto in a group show of “inflatable art" at Volume in Williamsburg. 
Del Zotto also plays electronic music on laptop and drums, and he has performed at Share, PS 1, Tonic, the Bass Museum in Miami, and in Nuremberg, Germany, with performance artist and vocalist Shelley Hirsch.