December 13, 2009

The Knitting Factory in Williamsburg

Peg Simone

Jonathan Kane's February played the "Brooklyn Knit" in October

Once an eccentric backwater of the downtown music scene, Williamsburg receives the movement's first mothership. Here's an article about the Knitting Factory moving to Brooklyn. Read it in WG Magazine. Or right here:

The Knitting Factory has been at its new location on Metropolitan Avenue and Havemeyer Street for all of three months. And this indeed is a nice little bow tie on the loopy tale of two of the city’s most enigmatic art scenes of the past twenty years—downtown music and Williamsburg.

The “warehouse movement” that started in Williamsburg in 1990 was a network of unlicensed clubs, lounges, events, and environments that bore not the slightest resemblance to either the galleries or the nightclubs of Manhattan at the time. It was a cultural movement really, which amounted to a kind of alternate universe of aesthetic experience. But what the warehouse artists did take from lower Manhattan was the legacy of that genre-busting, iconoclastic music and performance juggernaut that has been known for nearly half a century simply as “downtown.” And it was the Knitting Factory that in 1987 provided the downtown scene with its first permanent venue, first on Houston Street and later in Tribeca.

What places like the Kitchen, the Knitting Factory, and other venues in Manhattan did between 1971 and the beginning of the 90s was to ensure that music and sound would become more a part of the daily life of conceptual art, installation art, and the business of aesthetic hubris in general. And this development reached a peak in Williamsburg in the first half of the 90s.

For the Knitting Factory today, the picture is bigger than Williamsburg or downtown or conceptual art. The variety of programming has increased over the years, and so has the reach. “The Knit” has venues in Hollywood, Boise, Spokane, and Reno. They run several record labels, an artist management division, and they recently signed an exclusive concert promotion agreement with the Warsaw Theater in Greenpoint. This will allow the Knit to put some of its artists before much bigger audiences than the Metropolitan Avenue location can accommodate.

“A primary focus of ours is to grow artists from a grass-roots level to a 1,000-capacity venue and beyond,” says Chris Moore, senior VP of Knit Touring. “Adding the Warsaw to our repertoire of venues continues with that mission.”

The Knitting Factory today appears to be putting an interesting business model in place: a national organization that can manage a great number and variety of underground acts and subgenres, and get them to the mainstream or to new markets with a certain efficiency heretofore only dreamed of in this industry. I asked senior East Coast talent buyer Chris White if this is the case. He replied by email:
 “I’m not sure our goal is to propel anything into the mainstream as much as to have a long-term and sustainable business built on presenting and promoting quality events and artists. The Knit has a long history of producing events outside of its owned and operated venues. The Warsaw relationship is an extension of that, the same way any ‘Knitting Factory Presents’ shows we do will be.”

Staff at the Brooklyn Knit are circumspect about the new reach of the organization. “This is still the hub,” says Zach Jeager, a manager at the Brooklyn venue. “We still do everything we’ve always done, and more. We’ll always have the John Zorns, the Gary Lucas’s. But we still have a lot of variety. And the programming is completely different at each Knit location.”

The “downtown” or “experimental” music with which the Knitting Factory first made its name is usually defined as music that is unfettered by genres or preconceptions, and which might roam freely between jazz, rock, pop, classical, folk, muzak, spoken word, and poetry, and even raw sound or what is sometimes called “concrete” music. In its first decade the scene was a renegade contingent, awkwardly negotiating fixed-genre rock and jazz venues like CBGBs and The Blue Note; until Michael Dorf and Louis Spitzer opened the Knitting Factory in 1987. Dorf moved the club to Tribeca in 1994, and with the recent move to Brooklyn there is no longer a Knit presence in Manhattan.

In 1998 the gravitational center of the downtown scene shifted to a new club on Norfolk Street called Tonic. When the beloved Tonic closed in April 2007, twenty years on the money after the Knit had opened, it felt as if downtown music had lost its base in its ancestral homeland of downtown Manhattan. There has since been a downtown Diaspora to places like Zebulon, Glasslands Gallery, and Death by Audio in Williamsburg, the Tea Lounge in Park Slope, Issue Project Room, Galapagos, and to John Zorn’s space The Stone on Avenue C in the city.

John Zorn, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Shelley Hirsch, Alan Vega, Elliot Sharp, William Hooker, Yuka Honda, David Moss, Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori, Michael Formanek, Raz Mesinai, Toshio Kajiwara, Tom Surgal, Drew Gress, Toshinori Kondo, Uri Caine, Ralph Alessi.

That’s a short list of avant-garde artists from among the many who have played at the Knitting Factory over the years. It’s also a short list of artists who have worked with dj Olive.

Gregor Asch (dj Olive) was a co-founder of the Lalalandia Entertainment Research Corporation, which was a mainstay of the warehouse scene in Williamsburg. Asch coined the word “illbient” to mean a darker, “sicker” permutation of ambient music. He is a member of the group We™, with Ignacio Platas (Once 11) and Rich Panciera (Lloop). Their CD releases are classics of the 90s after-hours culture — startling, delicately funky works of modernity that satisfy the downtown canon as well as any definition of the warehouse movement.

Apart from being the best endorsement for duct tape the city has ever seen, the warehouse movement raised the bar on after-hours culture. Consider the fact that in the mid-80s a derivative theme club called Area was the hottest ticket in town. A decade later a wholly original and much more unearthly environment had overtaken after-hours scenes across Brooklyn and Manhattan, with tags like “Omnisensorial Sweepout,” “Webjam,” “Zion Bubble Party.” This was thanks to technology and a booming economy, but it was also thanks to Williamsburg and the rise of audio culture within downtown music.

In 1989 the Lizard’s Tail opened at 99 South 6th Street, fast by the Williamsburg Bridge. The following year they started producing enormous one-off blowouts in the warehouses along the waterfront. In 1991, another group of artists started Keep Refrigerated at 90 North 11th Street. Out of “the Fridge” came Lalalandia and later fakeshop. These spawned more than a dozen environments around Williamsburg in the space of five years, including clubs, lounges, a restaurant, and even a school bus “shuttle” to get around to them all. There were performance and theater companies that provided spectacle, rappelling down the sides of grain silos, and even providing some buoyancy now and then in the East River.

As much as possible, music and performance were required to support the whole environment, blend with it, become a concrete part of its idea. The conceptualist Ken Butler took ideas about concrete music and prepared instruments, and extended them to fully-realized “hybrid instruments”—a cello made from a rifle, for example. Butler of course has recorded on the Knitting Factory label.

At the Knitting Factory on October 30 was Jonathan Kane’s February, a blistering avant-blues quintet. The set was awesome and rather cinematic. The only catch was that one of the band’s guitarists, Peg Simone, is really hot and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. But this band is smokin’. I got a quick word backstage with the virtuoso drummer himself, and it turns out Kane was in the Sirens with Dina Emerson, the diva of Williamsburg in the early 90s. Dina also collaborated often with Ken Butler. Brian DeWann, Billy Basinksi, and the award-winning Jamie Mereness are other names to check from the early audio-frontier of Williamsburg and downtown.

Williamsburg has generally not been known for movements. It is a pluralistic culture, and the rise of the neighborhood as an art center corresponds with the end of an era that required neatly packaged movements. Yet the warehouse scene was a strikingly collaborative and stylistically consistent enterprise. Writing in 1998 in Domus magazine, the architect Suzan Wines perhaps best summed it up as “immersive culture.”

The movement has fanned out into the world and inflected the culture. One of its descendents is Galapagos, which was on North 6th Street between Wythe and Kent avenues, until it moved to Dumbo for twice the space at half the rent.

So how difficult is it to get a gig at the Knitting Factory. And also, do they allow bestiaries, or is it primarily just for bands.

“It’s not that hard to get a gig,” says Zach Jeager, the manager at the Brooklyn Knit. “On the other hand, we’re not Bowery priests. We are curators, we work off our taste, and we’re into growing and developing acts. We’re not going to be that venue that’s trying to make revenue by booking five bands a night, with each band bringing in 20 people.

Any plans for amphibious life?

“Yes. We are definitely open to burlesque.”

October 27, 2009

Where Brooklyn Meets the Sky

Edgey (left) and Delilah of The Last Internationale
Originally published in WG magazine in October 2009.

If East Williamsburg is not the most beautiful place on earth, it is pretty close. This is a neighborhood where Pentecostal churches hold rousing services in the streets outside their storefronts. It’s a place of industry and warehousing, where vertical tenements look over horizontal shipping yards. Low slung warehouses give the place a big sky. It is massive and sublime in a way that makes the Williamsburg of the waterfront look quaint.

October 21, 2009

Sidewalk Intervention Williamsburg 1989

In 1989 I opened and "projected" my storefront on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg out into the street for a day or two. Twenty years later, I repeated the photos I had taken of the same views of the street. The contrast is striking.

facebook note: Sidewalk Intervention Williamsburg 1989

flickr album of photos from this project

September 21, 2009

Televangelize This!

photo by William Hereford

From out of the Bible Belt, a young preacher comes to grace, and Brooklyn. Jay Bakker's Revolution Church.

First published in WG Magazine on September 19, 2009.

What is surprising about pastor Jay Bakker is not that he is covered in tattoos and wears a lip ring and preaches Galatians on Sundays at a bar in Greenpoint. And not that his ministry, the Revolution Church, which he shares with a dapper Lutheran from Fresno named Vince Anderson, is gay affirming.

No, what is surprising about pastor Jay Bakker is … that this is not performance art. The Revolution Church has been holding services in the neighborhood for nearly three years. And the fact that a radical Christian church operating out of a popular music venue, can hold its ecclesiastical own and not get absorbed as just another idea, is at the very least a notable turn in the discourse of the Williamsburg art scene.

Bakker, who is 33 and hails from the Carolinas, founded the church with a few friends in 1994 in Phoenix, Arizona. There are a few branches in other cities, and the great majority of its members are online. But about 30 people a week attend sermons in the back of Pete’s Candy Store on Lorimer Street, where we recently sat down with the two pastors. Jay looks like an impassioned rocker, Vince like a radiant hipster. Jay has roots in the AG (Assemblies of God) and Baptist circles, Vince in mainline Protestantism. Beyond that, they are exceedingly down to earth. They read the Bible in context, not literally, and their abiding theme is grace — grace and restoration.

Bakker is the son of Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker, the founders of the evangelical megachurch PTL that was seized by Jerry Falwell in 1987 in the wake of financial and sexual scandal – one of the biggest churches, and scandals, in the history of American Christianity.

The church survives on donations. Once, there was grant money and a paid staff. “But because we are a gay-affirming church,” says Bakker, “I knew that was going to cost us a lot. When I made that decision, I also had to lay off the whole staff in Atlanta. We’re definitely following our convictions. We’re not in it for the glamorous lifestyle. But it’s definitely worth it. I get to read and study the Bible, challenge people, and see people redeemed. That’s what I love to do.”

It is apparent that Bakker is still bracing himself against the Christian conservatism with which he has broken ties. The schism occupies his discourse, certainly more so than the possibility of getting any flack from the odd marxist or pagan in Williamsburg. He confesses in a recent sermon to being “hurt” by constant buffeting from other Christians. But it seems to be a reference to something somewhere out in right field, and a little lost on the Brooklyn flock. The congregation includes a number of avowed atheists. (“We love our atheists,” says Anderson. “They stimulate great conversation.”)

The Sunday meetings draw mostly an under-forty crowd. The congregants drink beer, and Bakker pulls on a soda with a wedge of lemon in it. iPhone lights flicker as congregants check the time or emails. It’s not your grandmother’s church.

Bakker has the evangelist’s talent for moving easily between scripture and popular idiom. But his interests extend also to subcultures, and his sense of artistic existentiality is just about pitch perfect. His sermons are speckled with references to his favorite bands, legendary tattoo artists, the redemption of Mike Tyson.

He begins a recent sermon with the news that the Lutheran clergy has just decided to accept ministers and lay leaders who are in committed same-sex relationships. Then he moves on to Acts 10, the story of the apostle Peter going among the “unclean” gentiles in defiance of Jewish law.

Bakker’s mother Tammy Faye, who died in 2007, broke the ice on Christian television in the 1980s by showing compassion for gay men with AIDS. And her popularity among gays at the time was probably also not hurt by her over-the-top fashion sense. “She was a great influence on me with regard to tolerance and compassion.” But Bakker is not gay, and he admits he was uncomfortable with his mother’s stance at the time. His realization about the need to be gay affirming came only later as a spiritual epiphany.

photo by William Hereford

Bakker struggled with substance abuse, hard partying, and the fallout from his parents’ dizzying rise and fall at the helm of the biggest evangelical network in America. He feels that his parents were severely treated, “excommunicated” by Falwell and the born-again community, when they should have been helped and “restored.” And he became generally disillusioned with what he views as too much emphasis in evangelical circles on repentance and conduct.

“The message I got in my church was that good works could earn your way to God. I didn’t really learn about grace and restoration until I was about twenty. In the church I grew up in, it was all about control. But with faith, you give up control. And it’s tough not to want to grab the reigns.”

And so Jay Bakker turned away from an Angry God. Tried, as we all do, in so many words of the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, to work his own way out of a pickle.

“I was finished with God. I was trying to earn my own salvation, rather than receiving it from Christ. Because in my church, all the emphasis was on conduct. If you didn’t speak in tongues, you didn’t have the Holy Spirit. Things like that. When I finally learned about grace and restoration through Christ, it blew me away, it changed everything. I realized you could read Galatians and Romans, and then read the gospels in the light of grace.”

“If anything, we get accused of teaching too much grace,” says Anderson. “They say we practice ‘cheap grace.’ But to that, I say the other churches practice ‘cheap repentance.’ If you look at the Bible through a legalistic lens, you will see it as a set of rules. But when you read the scriptures in the light of grace, they become transformative.”

“It’s not even about being saved or not saved,” Bakker adds. “It’s just that the rules don’t give grace.”

It is a predestinarian position. But there are shades of difference between the two preachers. Anderson is a Universalist: “We’re all saved.”

“To say that would have been heresy in the church I grew up in,” says Bakker. “I still talk about repentance. But for me, it’s about process.”

“He hangs on a little more,” says Anderson. “We work well as a team. We teach an attitude of repentance. Not the traditional view where … I was wrong, now I’m right and everyone else is wrong.”

The main evangelical movements in America are about a hundred years old, and they presently risk hanging their collective hats on a few words of scripture that have long been scientifically disproved, in many species on the planet. But for Bakker, this is not just about a no-brainer like acknowledging the normality of gay and transgendered people. Bakker is a theologian who has come to join the philosophers, in a general discussion of identity, ethics, and struggle.

“Transparency and honesty are a big part of what we practice. We are as earnest as we can be, and as honest as we can be, and my example is Christ.”

Jay Bakker takes speaking engagements, he is the author of “Son of a Preacher Man,” and the subject of the 2006 documentary “One Punk Under God.”

Vince Anderson plays with his band “Dirty Gospel” at Union Pool.

Revolution Church services are held on Sundays at 4pm at Pete’s Candy Store, 709 Lorimer Street. Listen to sermons at

Visit the blog at

September 18, 2009

Council-Manic Followup

Well there you go. Our candidate Evan Thies came in fourth of the seven contenders for the city council seat from Brooklyn’s 33rd District. The winner was Stephen Levin, who won by a landslide with 5199 votes, or 33.71 percent of the return. Levin ran with the endorsement of US Senator Chuck Schumer, and was generally considered the candidate to run against.

This was an energetic and very competitive race. But at the same time, voter turnout was abysmally low in this district. Joe Anne Simon came in second (3109 votes), followed by Isaac Abraham (1937 votes), Evan Thies (1915 votes), Ken Diamondstone (1324 votes), and two others with about a thousand votes each.

These numbers are no larger than popular facebook pages. If you could commit 20 friends, that was big. If you could lock in a housing project or a senior center, that was a landslide. And canvassing outside the Park Slope Food Coop, for example, was quite a different thing from canvassing the subway rush hour at Grand Army Plaza. At the Plaza, I was amazed by how many hipsters I encountered who clearly had no intention of even remembering that it were an election day.

I was also surprised by how many Republicans there are in Park Slope, streaming out of the subway in seersucker suits and Tilly hats, into the brownstone neighborhood. And they were politically more alive than most others in the crowd. This is from the street, not statistics, but time and again it was, “Nope, not voting, I’m a Republican.” (Remember, this was technically just the Democratic Primary, but in a heavily Democratic district where the GOP will probably not waste money running a candidate in a final election.)

In theory, had Diamondstone and Thies thrown their support behind Simon, the seat would have gone to Simon. But then the race would not have been nearly as interesting or as revealing of the political dynamics in this part of Brooklyn. The 33rd includes, as I remarked last time, those parts of Brooklyn that you see in the movies: most of the famous waterfront and bridges, all of downtown Brooklyn, and most of the Brooklyn neighborhoods that have gentrified fastest over the past twenty years. It is no wonder this district is heating up politically. Only two of the city’s 51 council districts ran more than six candidates in this election. Most ran three to five. A district in northern Manhattan ran eight candidates, and the 33rd in Brooklyn ran seven.

Evan Thies probably did best in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, where he lives and has a strong base among young veterans of the Obama campaign. He was also the only candidate in the race who lives in the northern reach of the district.

The 33rd is a gerrymandered district whose northern provinces of Williamsburg and Greenpoint have been long subsumed by the political clout of downtown Brooklyn. This is a situation that will probably change as Brooklyn’s industrial north steadily fills up with artists and yuppies, and the area begins to get political traction in the form of people like Evan Thies.

The 33rd district should be reorganized. Its two parts are culturally and geographically quite different. It should be severed at the narrow strip of waterfront that presently connects its northern and southern reaches. Williamsburg and Greenpoint should be joined with their neighbors East Williamsburg and Bushwick (which presently reside in the 34th district) to form a contiguous northwest council district for Brooklyn.

There may be a political archeology to be uncovered in the present configuration, which may point to an attempt to divide and conquer the ancient “City of Williamsburgh.” That city had its own town hall and opera house up until 1855, when it was merged with the City of Brooklyn.

September 12, 2009

Evan Thies for New York City Council

Evan Thies, candidate for the 33rd city council district

There are seven people running in the Democratic primary for a seat on the New York City Council that has a tradition of being a political hot seat. That may have something to do with the fact that the 33rd councilmanic district takes in both the brownstone south and the industrial north of that part of Brooklyn that you usually see in the movies.

The two parts of this district are culturally and geographically separate. The south part includes the leafy warrens of Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, and other brownstone neighborhoods. The north part is an area of industry, tenement buildings, and traditionally working class town houses.

The two reaches of this council district are connected by a narrow strip of waterfront, where there is a long-standing restaurant called Giando's. Years ago, I stood on the patio of that restaurant with Ken Fisher, who was the councilman at the time. We talked about development. Giando's had hosted a presentation by the local community board for a housing development on the Williamsburg waterfront. Already, waterfront development had become the subject of a viscous firefight among several factions in the neighborhood.

The Williamsburg waterfront at that time was still a magnificent wilderness of rust. Valleys of surreal industrial jungle were interspersed with the huge gaping caves of empty warehouses. It was an apocalyptic landscape of dense industry in the process of being reclaimed by nature. And it was in this environment that the first big wave of badass college kids in the neighborhood took up what had been a tradition among badass local kids — the warehouse party! Our parties were probably more self-consciously Nietzschean in conception than those of the Brooklyn gangs of the 1970s. But then again, maybe not. You never know. That was the joy and the mystery of it all. One thing is for sure, though, they were better publicized.

If the artists hold some responsibility for gentrification and the ridiculous piles of crap that now stand empty all over Williamsburg — and look like they were airlifted in from Boca Raton — at the very least we can say this: We did gentrification better, and our vision was better. It was during a recession in the early 90s that artists filled the empty warehouses, lofts, and storefronts of Williamsburg with myriad forms of activity.

Today, the real estate developers have botched the game. They have not held up their end of the gentrification bargain, have they now. They have blown who knows how much carbon into the atmosphere, and now they can't sell their pathetic cubicles of sheetrock. Their excuse is the economy. But in the artists' manual, that is a wimpy excuse. It speaks to a lack of imagination. And development in Williamsburg has been anything but imaginative.

We are accustomed to viewing artist culture as a prelude and a part of real estate development, where there is a trajectory from art to real estate. But that model comes into question now. Hipster-bohemian culture continues to expand and evolve in all kinds of ways into Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, and Bushwick. New condo development, on the other hand, not only stagnates, but it is also out of key with the vernacular of both the bohemian and the local culture. Why would you want to move to industrial, gritty, cool Brooklyn, to live like a piece of chatska in a display window? It is not just that the economy is slamming the developers, it's that the developers don't "get it." Their product is fundamentally unhip, in a market that demands hepitude.

It speaks, in other words, to a lack of vision. And this goes for the drones in city government as well, who for decades have systematically ignored the community and kissed up to real estate interests. The result is crap-shoot development. "City planning" in this picture amounts to little more than some landscaping for the high rises on the waterfront. Well, the city and its clients have made their bed and they can sleep in it. They wanted in and out, fast, and they got snagged. Too bad. So much for a fast buck. But worse, they have left nothing interesting, nothing of substance, nothing sustainable, nothing of enduring value to the community.

On September 15th I will vote for Evan Thies in the city council primaries. I believe he is earnest about responsible development in Brooklyn. Thies would also represent downtown Brooklyn, where a major sweetheart deal between the city and a big developer has also stalled on account of a bad economy and a dim vision.

To be sure, the Atlantic Yards area near downtown Brooklyn should be developed. It is presently a fallow holding lot for subway cars. ("It's embarrassing," said one Thies campaign worker.) But the plan that has been force fed to the community is tone deaf. The idea for a Major League basketball arena, for example, is seated in the nostalgia of a few old men. They want to recreate an Ebbets Field, bring back the Dodgers, whatever. It is not where Brooklyn is going. Better to have skateboard ramps and boxing rings.

Moreover, the properties around Atlantic Yards should not be sold off at a fraction of their market value. This cheats the people of New York City. Evan Thies thinks the plan is illegal and he is considering suing the city on that account. Thies wants to put the Atlantic Yards properties up for public auction, piece by piece, and look at a variety of ideas from the real world, and "See what we get."

My assessment of Thies is guided in part by the old maxim of judging the people around the man. There is a strong component of New Brooklyn here, untainted by the kind of cloying patter that so frequently dampens politics in this borough, on the left and the right. There is just something fresh about this candidate.

August 14, 2009

A Tryst With Destiny

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge … At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.
— Jawaharlal Nehru, 14 August 1947

India is big news. India is everywhere. Said Nehru on this day 62 years ago, “The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us.”

He was right about that, even if it was not quite his policies we ultimately have to thank for it. I am thrilled on this day to wish everyone …

HAPPY INDIA DAY! August 15, 1947. Jaya he!

India and America have in common national birthdays that mark independence from, technically speaking at least, the same empire. But the events are so far removed from one another in time and circumstance as to make the comparison nearly prosaic. There are a few fun facts, however, that shiver the timbers.

The Boston Tea Party, for example, took place aboard ships of the East India Company, where sacks of tea, presumably from India, were tossed into the harbor. That was in 1773, and the Company had so bulloxed its adventure in Bengal that it was nearly broke. And as we know, big companies that go broke get government bailouts. This was to be shouldered by American colonists, through the imposition of a British monopoly on tea, as well as a tax on tea. And so the resulting uproar in the American colonies was, indirectly at least, a protest against British mischief in India.

For a hundred years, Indians fought a dozen major wars with the private armies of the East India Company, and with regular British troops, until in 1858 the Company was finally dismantled and rule of India was vested directly in the British crown. The era of the “Raj” was ushered in, along with some democratic and legal reforms. The catalyst of this change was the uprising of 1857, a horrific conflict so controversial even to this day that historians haven't even agreed on a name for it. It has been called "The Mutiny" as well as the "First War of Independence," neither of which is quite accurate to my mind. But that's for another essay.

I have always been entranced by Nehru’s poetic words, delivered on the eve of Independence — Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny.

What tryst was that? Perhaps he was thinking of the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885, which launched the modern independence movement. Or is he referring to 1857. Or to the Maratha Confederacy, which fought the British until 1818. I hope he did not have in mind the crazy Tipu Sultan of Mysore, whose cruel perversions were the unfortunate defect in one who was otherwise a military genius and the first Indian ruler fully to comprehend the British "noose" that was slowly being strung around the subcontinent, while Indian rulers occupied themselves with wars among themselves.

But of course it is a transcendent speech by Nehru, open to many thoughts about freedom. “Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart.”

For my part, I have decided that Nehru’s “tryst” occurred in Boston Harbor in 1773. That is my personal indulgence. Tryst has a personal ring to it, and so I take it Nehru is allowing the listener to have his tryst wherever in consciousness he pleases.

“Destiny,” on the other hand, has in this speech a definite time and place. “The appointed day has come — the day appointed by destiny — and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent.”

Indian independence was the exemplary freedom struggle of modern times. It was the cauldron of the civil rights and the anti-imperialist movements, the world over. The sense of this worldly responsibility is not lost on Nehru.

above: old photo from the first Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi, showing Nehru and the Mountbattens. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Aravind Suthandram.

June 4, 2009

Jelena Tomic

Jelena Tomic arrived in Williamsburg in 1993 from Paris, ostensibly to study at a college somewhere in Queens. But it was I who ended up writing most of her papers. And in return she introduced me to the very scene of which I was supposedly a fixture. Experience counts for little in a youthful art scene. The ones who start the movement turn 30, and then they must be guided through their own invention by newcomers in their 20s.

Such was the case with Jelena and me. I had been in Williamsburg for a decade when she arrived. I met her at one of the illegal exotic restaurants that sprang up in the wake of the many illegal exotic nightclubs that had put the neighborhood on the map. And from that night onward, and for the year she was in New York, Jelena essentially re-awakened me to the neighborhood I thought I had invented. The music, the clubs, the fashion, the attitude. It was all new, a Williamsburg I did not know.

Only the year before I had been featured in New York Magazine as "Medea," queen mother of the hip new hood in Brooklyn. I ran the weekly paper, I mc'd the shows, I knew all the bartenders and politicians. And then, like an oblique turn in a film noire movie, I found myself being pulled into a side of Williamsburg I had not seen before, and by a beautiful young woman who had just arrived from Paris.

The soundtrack to this episode is undoubtedly "Crazy" by Seal. Jelena changed my life profoundly, and the change moved upon me with stealth, very much the way the opening grooves of that rapturous track by Seal slide up into the song.

I write about the history of the Brooklyn Renaissance, basically, and the afflatus of gentrification, and how art plays into it. And the matter of who started it all, when, and where, is interesting. Much more interesting, though, is what happens when the newer and larger numbers of young artists come to the neighborhood.

This opinion may be counter-intuitive. We look for the heavies, the giants who "pioneered" the place. But in real history, as distinct from the narrative of it, the opposite obtains. The scene gains in intensity and depth. The newcomers are frequently more intense than the veterans. A certain stark realism enters the picture, perhaps because the coziness of the old scene has been breached. And as a result, passion and energy actually increase.

The newcomers annoy the old guard to some extent, because they have an air of being motivated by a force that comes from before, from after, and from outside the scene into which they enter. It is not that the old scene is parochial, it really is not. But even so, the newcomers expand the scene. They cause it to darken and tremble. In any case, I write it down to a certain way of looking at history, and a lesson I first learned from Jelena.

Photo by Eva Schicker, 1993

June 3, 2009

Tina Helisten

Tina Helisten was the dancing diva of Williamsburg. The Finish hottie performed at venues throughout Brooklyn in the early 90s, and she performed at Gargoyle Mechanique and other venues in Manhattan. She was a local celebrity, and a poster girl for the new sensibility that was emerging on the Brooklyn waterfront at the time. This was a turn toward organic forms and weird environments, and away from the didactic allegories and imagery of the postmodern 1980s.

I was mesmerized by Tina Helisten one night at El Sensorium, a truly dystopian, Bladerunneresque club fast by the Williamsburg Bridge. The place was set low, in a semi-basement, and it was large and deep, and tricked out like a cross between a submarine and a rain forest. A throbbing bower of weirdness the likes of which I've never seen before or since.

Tina was dancing completely naked, in a flood of unearthly light and vapor. The club was full of water, in all phases of composition — from ice to waterfalls to rain to vapor. Clumps of wet moss covered the bar. And threaded throughout was a great ganglia of electrical circuitry to feed audio and lighting effects of every concoction. It was a city cabaret inspector's wet dream (pun intended). Sensorium was a slightly later and more evolved species in the netherworld of illegal nightclubs in Williamsburg in the 90s. (Galapagos was another, but because it was legal, it had a slight competitive disadvantage.)

Tina was sexy as hell, and there was not a trace of irony or sleaze about her. And that was something quite new in an underground nightclub at that time. She was heathen grace. And feisty too. Nor was it just a rarefied clique of hipsters who drank her in. The place was packed, raucous, full of homeboys, club kids, wayward preppies, and bohemians. It was hardcore. But it was also imbued with a kind of urban code for which the word "chill" would have been an understatement.

This special mood and environment had been cultivated to near perfection by a few dozen visionaries. Though it is often associated with Williamsburg, the "warehouse" or "immersive" aesthetic evolved simultaneously at a few locations on the Lower East Side as well, notably at Gargoyle Mechanique and The Collective Unconscious.

The wizards of the movement were audio and installation artists, and guerrilla cultural activists. Performing artists came to the scene a little later, and they did not always "get it" at first. Tina got it. She and a handful of performers understood the movement implicitly. Dina Emerson, Ken Butler, Andrew Hampsas, Dan McKerreghan, Yvette Helin, Lauren Szold. And Dina was probably the first dancer to embody the scene, literally and metaphorically. A real goddess, with a way of engaging the weirdness of these environments that was vulnerable and captivating.

Ethan Pettit

photo by Eva Schicker 1993