March 18, 2013

The Zone

The Zone was an abandoned factory located at 104 South 4th Street between Bedford Avenue and Berry Street. In the mid 1980s the seven-storey building had three "tenants," only one of whom paid rent. On the top floor were the artists and punks who squatted the place for studio space. Some of them even lived there. A local Puerto Rican gang had the 4th floor. On the ground floor was the last legal tenant, Klaus, a German engineer in his 60s at least, who puttered around in a labyrinth of machinery. And if anything dubious happened in the Zone, which it did, Klaus did a good imitation of Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heros — "I KNOW NOTH-INK!"

You could not have found a more motley tenants' association. Yet it was in everyone’s interest to get along. Klaus was glad to have people in the building at night when he was away from his shop. And the artists and gang members got along like symbiotic parasites in a strange and hostile ecosystem.

The founder of the Zone was Durwood Wiggins, a dancer who took a lease out on the top floor and worked very hard to turn it into something. It was at one of his events that I saw for the first time a hip-hop show; a group of very young boys from the Bronx, line dancing and break dancing. It was absolutely riveting, unearthly, truly something new.

Later Chris Fiore​ took the top floor over from Durwood, and eventually it just filled up with all kinds of freaks. If anyone knows Durwood Wiggins or where he is, I'd love to know.

The Zone was vast, it lent itself to excess. Entire floors of the building were chin-high in bolts of cheap synthetic schmatta. The kind of place you'd shoot a Jewish zombie film. Giant paintings were in the offing: house-paint on polyester. And from about 1984 to 86 there was environmental art going on here. The Zone was one of the micro-scenes here and there in Brooklyn that appear before the afflatus of High Williamsburg.

Frank Shifreen, a certified architect of Williamsburg Immersion, one of the dirty dozen it would be fair to say, had in the early 80s been a mover at the Gowanus Memorial Artyard.

This writer, Ethan Pettit (myself) was a dancer at the Zone in the 80s, above left with the painter Dominick Leuenberger. Maybe there are five of these Paleolithic settlements in Brooklyn that I know of and seven that I don't. In those days it was still possible to live in Brooklyn in supine isolation, and the borough was full of eccentric tinkerers, from every background and nation, and with time and space to spare that is hard to imagine today. Distances were longer, shadows were deeper, and the appearance of other people on the streets was manifestly paced. Emptiness abounded.

Exactly because of this isolation, the early subcultures are not connected other than by the anecdotes of a handful of Saddus. Of Gargoyle Mechanique and Lalalandia, for example, maybe five people are in the equation. When these balkans coagulate, finally, then we have sprawling empires like The Federation of Ongolia and transnational guilds such as the Institute for Aesthetic Modulation (IFAM).

The black-and-white negatives and color slides we have are labeled "zone dance" and "zone works," and a mere sliver of this work has been posted online. They are essentially two instantiations of "event" (Alain Badiou), each of which involves painting, sculpture, and getting naked on the roof of a building with a slam-dunk view of the East River. The Twin Towers. The mighty Williamsburg Bridge.

Photos by Eva Schicker