Who Owns a Vacant Lot? Orthodoxy vs. Culture Industry

Page 3/4

While my father was developing the master plan with a team of architects and attempting to redefine for FBE what constituted industry in contemporary New York, navigating between the Economic Development Corporation, the Planning Department, local community groups, the existing tenant base, the Industrial Retention Network, retail brokers, and potential retail tenants, I was negotiating with Dovy Fruchthandler and coordinating the build-out of two floors of studio space in Building 9 for what he casually named the Incubator Program. 200 ft corridors split the floor plates in half making thirty-two 500 sq ft spaces and eight large corner units. Base rents for 500 sq ft were set at $330/month and corner units were $960/month for 960 sq ft and $1,250/month for 1,250 sq ft. The tenant base was evenly divided by gender, inclusive by discipline, age, and ethnicity but heavily and incidentally queer and politically engaged. It included Doug Ashford, Sadie Benning, A.K. Burns, Travis Boyer, Kabir Carter, Walt Cassidy, Deborah Czeresko, Anna Craycroft, Andrea Geyer, K8 Hardy, Sharon Hayes, Marlene McCarty, MPA, Ulrike Mueller, David Nelson, Karyn Olivier, Rit Premnath, and Desi Santiago, among others, while Allan McCollum, Kembra Phahler, Emily Roysdon, and Wu Tsang were signed on but ultimately didn’t make the move.

I was clear with them and they understood that their cultural capital was being openly leveraged to attract tenants that could pay market-rate. This formula then became the model for transacting space for arts programming, starting with Light Industry, a new venue for electronic media and film that did weekly screenings in an unrented corner unit in exchange for bringing audiences out to Sunset Park.

Leases were signed in a bar two days before we took occupancy. Over drinks I handed tenants the pen and assured them that everything would be fine. In late winter we joined the other occupants of Building 9: the storage facility for Virginia Dare’s liquid extract and flavoring vats, a mini-storage company, an AT&T transfer station, a busing program for developmentally challenged adults, 16,000 sq ft of damaged Verizon cell phone accessories and their receipts, and 48,000 sq ft of vacant space.

Inconsistent heat and single-pane broken windows that didn’t retain the warmth of a building that was deeply frigid did not equal optimum working conditions but Light Industry drew crowds and connected tenants, and within months unfamiliar and often explicitly queer forms of performance and film were taking place in unsecured vacant space seven stories below the management office. Charles Atlas and Andrea Geyer shot films, the Theater of the Two-Headed Calf produced and performed a queer adaptation of Macbeth, and A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner shot scenes for their lesbian porn, Community Action Center. Feminist figure drawing classes, communal Indigo die baths, and early W.A.G.E. meetings erupted in the studios. The press quickly started to pay attention. A Village Voice article, DUMBO be Damned! Industry City Forges a New Kind of Arts District was followed by New York Magazine’s 2-page spread introducing Industry City as The New Factory.

The build-out of two floors of market-rate space in Building 2 had begun in 2008 shortly after the Incubator program was launched and I had already pre-rented almost an entire floor at close to double the Incubator rents. Early on I cold-called Dia Art Foundation and Creative Time who looked at the site, and soon after Harvestworks, The Filmmaker’s Coop, and Anthology Film Archives were considering space, and there was a possibility of Industry City housing the skeletal DVD archive of the recently defunct Kim’s Video. But it was when Paul Chan leased a custom-built market-rate studio that it became clear: Industry City had arrived.

In spring 2009, 32,000 sq ft of un-rentable windowless space sandwiched between the two floors of Incubator studios was approved for arts programming use for a minimum of one year. The plan was for single artists or groups to occupy space rent-free for 3 – 6 month periods to develop a project that would culminate in something, anything, whether public or never mounted.

Scheduled were Michael Connor’s curatorial experiment Marian Spore; Desi Santiago; Nik Gelormino, Keegan Mognahan & James Leary; and Cliff Borress & Trisha Baga. Other projects in the planning stages were the Industry City Campus of Mary Walling Blackburn’s Anhoek School; and in conjunction with Light Industry and Triple Canopy, installations of Wang Bing’s Crude Oil, a 14-hour film documenting in real-time the workday of Chinese oil riggers to be screened in a public concourse over a parallel Industry City workday.

For two years it was a fraught but ideal partnership. Two orthodoxies that were indifferent to each other’s practices had compatible self-interests: artists needed space to produce and the landlord had an oversupply and needed revenue. Facilitating permissions from management to use vacant space usually took the form of an email exchange between myself, my father, Dovy Fruchthandler and CEO Bruce Federman. I would propose a program and explain in essay-style why it would add value to Industry City and without exception permission was always granted. The spirit of openness during this period is to the credit of Fruchthandler and Federman, and is due in large part to my father’s exceptional ability as sub-translator between us. It was also due to a mutual acknowledgement of each other’s orthodoxies and at some level, a respective recognition of being culturally misunderstood. They knew they didn’t ”get it” but “it” was clearly effective at realizing their goals.

At first, deciding which programs to propose was easy because projects focused on production that I liked—non-events—were coming from within the tenant base. But when Industry City’s extraordinary scale and dereliction became visible, cash-poor artists looking for studios and unsolicited proposals began to arrive, and my role as facilitator of space took on a curatorial dimension. Having to valuate people and their work undermined my rationale that Industry City was big enough to realize the dreams of each and every student of creativity who bubbled forth from the Beuysian spring. I was convinced that the complex’s enormous capacity and the applicant’s proof of financial need could mitigate any selection process by housing a community in its entirety—a democratic city-within-Industry City within New York City—but as an aesthete I was offended by most of what was being proposed. That was the first challenge to horizontality. Second was the probability of Industry City and Conceptual Art finding each other in Dia’s passing interest in Building 24.

Built into a pier, the isolated and ravishing Building 24 was precariously balanced on the harbor where Dia visitors could have been ferried directly from its dock around the tip of Manhattan and up the Hudson River to Beacon. For such a high value tenant FBE would have considered taking minimal rent and I probably would have advocated unconditionally for a deal, even by trying to guarantee no other exhibition space in a 20-block radius, assuming that was what they wanted. But after showing the Director and Deputy Director the site I also had concerns about its impact on the surrounding neighborhood and the project. If my goal was to integrate into the industrial tenant base an artist community and a critical, autonomously produced program that would reflect the very particular circumstances of its inception, making it un-reproducible anywhere else, not only would the presence of a major institution signify the project selling itself out, it would have triggered the displacement I was determined to prevent.

Things went no further than a follow-up email but an internal plan to approach Dia to produce a permanent sound installation by the now late Maryanne Amacher had been in process, as was a plan to solicit Dia’s founder Heiner Friedrich to house his collection of Dan Flavins at Industry City. Getting the attention of a large institution, like the spread in New York Magazine, also got the full attention of ICA management and ownership, which got me the credibility I needed to continue building the citadel and securing it for the community over the coming years. Still, the fluorescent Flavin glow of Dia—the word, Dia—now floated spectrally above every decision that was to be made: would Dia approve?