Who Owns a Vacant Lot? Orthodoxy vs. Culture Industry

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By 2009 I had shown studio space over 400 times, leased to over 70 tenants, and was usually negotiating or producing projects with up to 5 others. A commercial broker out of DUMBO who had been hired by my father to lease the creative workspace that was to be phased in after the arts component took hold had not been so lucky. He chose to make up for his leasing deficiency by pushing his own cultural agenda, one of a handful of people that tried to force themselves onto the momentum. Everyone knew someone with an art project in need of a space.

Insurance complications and predictable delays resulted in a minor lull in arts programming activity during which he proposed to management without my knowledge what came to be known as ‘The Rave’. Stranded! 2009 was organized by a pair of DUMBO-based ‘cultural event producers’ who produce large, post-rave, self-described “art extravaganzas” in loft spaces. Its explicit alignment with Burning Man raised concerns for tenant security and with no connection to either the tenant base or the site, it was unlikely that it would raise the profile of the complex or contribute to leasing space—the criteria used by management to evaluate the merits of an arts program. Dia had become a bargaining chip, synonymous with ‘high value tenant’ or ‘optimum use of industrial space for art’, so my final argument in opposition to Stranded! 2009 was: if you want Burning Man you can forget about Dia.

The Rave took place in 32,000 sq ft below the Incubator studios where all previous and future arts programs were focused. According to a few Orthodox staff that attended in case things got out of control, 1,200 people in their late 30s partied until dawn in hybrid rave-burlesque or did yoga in a quasi steam punk fashion and there were no security issues. It was therefore an unprecedented success. Five months earlier we threw Bottom of the Sky, a party that drew over 700 people who orbited the Industry City community. With the crescendo of beer bottle throwing and topless lesbian dance floor it was, even and especially by Dovy Fruchthandler’s account, a great party.

But from the standpoint of management an event was successful if it brought people to Industry City, period. As Orthodox Jews, their limited cultural awareness was what had enabled me to push through my own agenda, but it was also what made them unable to comprehend the qualitative differences between purported art events and their respective impact on Industry City’s critical reputation in the art world. Although they correctly perceived my opposition as elitism, their inability to appreciate it as necessary caused them to view it as snobbery and obstructionism.

At that point, the battle I had been waging against hierarchy from that concrete compound had shifted into a position that advocated for it. My own orthodoxy had given way and I was accepting—and rather embracing—the necessity of stratification and the arbitration of taste. Not everyone could be a citizen of Industry City and not just anyone would be invited in. If management understood value quantitatively through their orthodoxy as business people, I had learned to do the same. Our financial and ethical interests were finally aligned but our aesthetic was not, and this made our goals fundamentally incompatible.

Sensing the dangerous ideological and cultural divide opening up into which everything I had been carefully cultivating was falling, I organized to make a presentation to help management understand that a rigorous approach to standards would sustain the project and bring them the high value tenants they needed to raise the property value. By making explicit the connections between our tenants and major museums and the importance of the social networks that build communities and set algorithms of status into motion, I planned to demonstrate that Industry City’s reputation could be made or broken by the choices we made going forward.

The presentation was scheduled for the end of October 2009 and was to be made by Light Industry’s Ed Halter, myself and artist tenants Kabir Carter and Paul Chan to Dovy Fruchthandler, Bruce Federman, and Andreas Chizzali, Industry City’s new Chief Operating Officer who had just relocated from Denver, recently hired by my father with the ownership to restructure the management of ICA.

In preparation, I informally surveyed the Incubator tenants in an effort to build a case for the program’s value, recording how it had (or had not) benefited their work and careers. Though not a secret, the survey was ‘leaked’ to management. To Chizzali it was a breach of what he perceived as my limited role as a subcontracted real estate broker and I became the first casualty of his new world order. My termination—and effectively the termination of the project—occurred then, just before the presentation was to be made. The vehement opposition I had voiced against The Rave had by that point corroded the trust Fruchthandler and Federman had had in my judgment and they chose to support Chizzali’s decision. My termination was final, immediate and messy.

Within a few months Chizzali had hired his Orthodox wife whose second life as a hobbyist painter qualified her to take over my position, and in the four years since there have been biannual raves, pro-Israel group shows, open studios, and the complete dismantling of the Incubator Program into market rate space. My father was gently phased out after my termination and the broader regeneration program was suspended. Chizzali was expelled in 2012 and in 2013 a formal complaint was lodged with the Better Business Bureau and NYS Licensing Agency against Industry City on behalf of a coalition of tenants with the further intention of soliciting help from City Council Member Sara Gonzalez.

Over the months following my termination I regretted that I couldn’t have found a way for Industry City in its vastness to have accommodated both pure democracy and total autonomy: why couldn’t it contain the sum total of mass cultural production as it looked to me, leveled into an indiscernible field of objects and ideas, while also supplying a polished concrete Dia football field around every art work? I no longer believed in the foundation of the project, that there was room for everything; I had reached the outer limits of my own orthodoxy—but management had not. Room for everything had become their rationale and they saw no irreconcilable differences between Dia and The Rave. What they didn’t understand was that their coexistence at Industry City would break a fundamental taboo, one whose empty violence could only result in their canceling each other out. In the long run, breaking that taboo would have meant no increase in property value—and had they understood that, they too would have reached the outer limits of their orthodoxy as property owners.

Now, in the wake of Occupy, after other well-meaning initiatives have splintered into self-serving entropic missions, I understand that the self-righteous feeling I got when the simple act of doing my job (enriching the landlord) seemed to solve an ethical problem (securing equitable working conditions for artists), as well as the impasse it all ended in, were in fact just masking and denying my own nostalgia: when forced to choose between Stranded 2009, Dia, and the autonomy of the particular artists in my own community, it became clear that mine was not the democratization of the art world or the accommodation of teams of privileged cultural producers at the expense of the neighborhood. My latent and diabolical fantasy was that New York could regain its potential to be a vacant lot once more. It could still be orphaned by all corporate and market entities, abandoned by all things aspirational: go back to the suburbs and the Ivy league, go back to nature, back to business school. Remain: a manageable group of radical self-educating artists working, thinking, organizing, and performing against a run-down backdrop owned by no one; a covert and secularized culture of ideological debate, like performing Midrashic texts—orthodoxy not culture industry.