The Weird Thing Zone, 1991
by Mark Rose
New York Press, 1991
"Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York...
But it did not apply to Williamsburg."
-Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Artists began moving into Williamsburg in earnest six years ago and it is now estimated there are 2000 scattered throughout the Southside and Northside, a veritable invading force.
Artists are attracted to Williamsburg because of its close proximity to the city ...and a chance to escape the overly-ambitious, commercialized hustle of the Manhattanized art world. In this milieu, fellow escapees find solace, ideas flow freer, it's strictly a Brooklyn state of mind. In Williamsburg you can create, you don't have to sell. Big city cares and stresses are left behind. Or are they?...
Williamsburg has a long and proud tradition of fervent activism. Poles have faced down dozens of cops, marched on City Hall, shut down the BQE for 18 miles, burned politicians in effigy and occupied a firehouse. When the Latinos of the Southside Political Action Committee tire of Congressman Stephen Solarz becoming "an apologist for conservative, Republican policy," they lead a march on his residence. When the unions want to protest unfair labor practices at the Domsey clothing outlet, they call in Jesse Jackson. And you can't mess with their own police force, their own medical teams; they can come at you in waves, with backup support.
So where do all these artists fit in?
Mostly, they live among the Polish, Italian, and Latinos, but they are having a catalytic effect on the entire community, and they are beginning to spread their influence to the other North Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Over the last few years a tight cadre of neighborhood activist-artist-media co-conspirators has emerged, [including] "Nerve Circle" -"a multi-media organism," according to its "nucleus," Ebon Fisher. Hatched in Boston in 1987, "Nerve Circle" is a label for a series of experimental performance events.
"All we can confidently do is lean into the wild, cyclonic suction of integrity, sensing the yearning of all things to relate. Your convergence here is precisely what we are touching upon. Integrate," Ebon says.
The neighborhood has also established a network of "safe houses," for "Linkage, Integration, Interaction," such as the two art galleries, Minor Injury and Brand Name Damages, bar/clubs such as The Right Bank, Teddy's, The Ship's Mast, theaters such as The Open Window, the "experimental hole in the ground, practically under the Williamsburg Bridge" called Epoche, a smattering of Latino and Polish neighborhood restaurants, and that huge stretch of eerie, magnificent, vacant waterfront, with all those great rotting warehouses that are perfect to use as performance spaces.
Artists have also created an impressive semi-underground "Xeroxable" media network to lay unifying feelers out to the mass of the Williamsburg art community and the long-time residents of Southside and Northside.
Word of Mouth (WOM) [later, WORM], a photocopied monthly with a circulation of 270, is intended to "politicize the artists in the neighborhood without being bombastic... to creat an interest," according to editor Kit Blake. Sam Binkley, "a quixotic swan of the pen," according to Ebon, writes in WOM about the neighborhood "with the sympathy of a socialist and the wink of an anarchist." Sam, the self-named director of the North Brooklyn Center for Utopian Disorder, writes: "You have nothing to lose but your brains!"
The Nose, compiled and published by Ethan Petit, is a collaboration with local artists. It includes poetry, philosophy, critical theory, visuals and "various exhortations such as Kit Blake's images of computer chips, rallying the North Brooklyn Silicon Subculture together," according to Ebon.
Waterfront Week is a legal-size Xeroxable gossip info-rap sheet dominated by Medea De Vyse, the "suburban house-wife" side of Ethan Pettit.
It also carries news of Ebon Fisher's latest "Media Compression," where you gather to chew on, rip through, blend and digest media -"no information, medium or sensation is too trivial. The audience brings their own art and media to the event. We start with a media blitz, then a media blackout, and then, in total darkness, we return to the most primitive of all media, the spoken word. The purpose is to integrate and make sense of the media overload. Like any mutation, a Media Compression is an outgrowth of a disturbed environment," Ebon says.
El Pitirre, a monthly educational, political newsletter published by El Centro Cultural, is named after a small bird native to Puerto Rico that is known for its ferocity.
Linkage. Integration. Interaction. These are the three guiding principles of the art-activist cadre. That means that Genia Gould, who edits and writes for the neighborhood paper Greenline, also writes for Waterfront Week and Word of Mouth. Ethan Pettit, likewise. Ebon lends support to all the publications. Rube Fenwick, Phyllis Yampolsky, Anna Hurwitz; the contributors to one publication are likely to be the contributors to another.
"Everybody chips in and does what they can. Money as compensation is never part of the discussion," says Kit Blake. Kit intends for Word of Mouth to serve as "a micro model for a macro world."
In the October 1990, Word of Mouth, Ebon writes:
"Our western myth of the passive, consuming being who sits in a brain surrounded by concrete objects of prey and repulsion is beginning to dissolve... we are beginning to place the locus of attention beyond the mythical 'self' and into a psycho-physical swirl as we might call common space." Common space is what the Williamsburg art-activist movement is all about; a heady experiment to integrate into, defend, help build and somehow connect the community at large, while remaining true to that ever-slippery ideal called "artistic integrity." In fact, the Williamsburg Way is to create art through activism and interconnection. This involves subtle, non-confrontational shifts in how normally conflicting cultures understand each other. Take, for instance, Ebon's "Weird Thing Zone," at last year's Grand Street Waterfront Festival.
The Waterfront Festival existed happily for many years as a traditional three-day Labor Day Weekend Latino bash at "a chunk of grassy turf," says WOM, where Grand Street meets the East River, "Where the Northside meets the Southside and the land meets the water," says Ebon.
There are rides and food and beer and music, a regular hot summer festival...and then come these Weird Things, these "publicly relevant phenomena...wherein the public was invited to wander freely."
For the "Weird Thing Zone," six artists were invited to contribute "physical catalysts for participatory culture," in a clearly marked area set off by orange cones and yellow tape.
These Weird Things, from which "various tactile, auditory, and visual signals emanated," beckoned to be sat on, touched, stroked. Whatever these Weird Things were, at least two of the artists agreed it was not "art."
Anna Hurwitz created "This Is Your Office" for the "Weird Thing Zone." Anna says of her Weird Thing, and her art in general: "I hate precious art..I measure the success of my installation by the degree to which people participate. Nobody seems to be aware that my furniture installations are 'art.' They just seem to see it as furniture, which is actually pretty great considering that it's sitting on a dance floor in a nightclub or in the middle of Grand Street."
Ebon, whose Weird Thing was "The Pulse Box," also states flatly, "I don't do art. My work is a media organism which protrudes into public space and exchanges unmentionable nutrients."
How do the Latinos feel about these unmentionable nutrients protruding into their public space?
"Oh, the kids loved it. They crawled all over everything," says Chris Lanier of El Centro Cultural de Williamsburg, sponsors of the Grand Street Waterfront Festival. "That was a unique festival. Usually we exist in parallel worlds, the Anglos and the Latinos. Something happened at that festival. A coalition was formed."
-- Mark Rose, 1991