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