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Is Punk, DIY Art in NYC Going Down With The Building?

"Going Down With the Building" literally, Michael Alan's Living Installation at ABC No Rio (photo by Worm Carnevale)

Sitting in a cold performance space in the gritty, graffiti-ed punk art institution, ABC No Rio, for possibly the final time before the building is demolished for renovations in March, watching the last Michael Alan’s Living Installation performance, I became profoundly worried that I was witnessing the last gasps of a long history of free-wheeling, punk, D-I-Y art.

After the performance with Alan’s mom coming onstage proclaiming the show should win a grant and Alan interacting with every audience member with a megaphone, which turned the performance into a celebration, I left feeling more optimistic about the strength and the direction of both Alan’s public performances and the future of ABC No Rio.

ABC No Rio entrance (via papermag.com) (click to enlarge)

Even though the city has threatened to close them down about a year now, ABC No Rio will be tearing down their building at 156 Rivington Street, which has stood nearly untouched for 30 plus years. ABC No Rio plans to construct a new $3.4 million arts center, partially financed by the city. Taking a look at ABC No Rio’s plans, its hard to imagine the punk art institution inhabiting a clean, white-walled gallery space with a “planted facade.” While there is no denying that the building which has no hot water and is collapsing, needs repair, the building has a Downtown punk feel that has been lost in the Starbucks and Duane Reade-ification of New York.

Similarly, the Living Installation performance “Going Down With the Building” was its final show both at ABC No Rio and in general. A staple in my art viewership for almost two years and on the New York art scene for about 7 years, the Living Installation, a performance in which artist Michael Alan turns performers into living, moving sculptures, has been plagued by difficulties.

The problems range from unreliable performers, which lead Alan to hilariously and deftly replace a performer who didn’t show up to rehearsal with a sculpture, to unforgiving venues, that won’t  provide the paint, clay, collage-encrusted performers with a bathroom, to the loss of ABC No Rio, the space that has been the most receptive to their messy performances.  In addition, there are bigger issues at work such as the lack of public funding for artists, unlike the era of ABC No Rio’s founding, when the show costs about $2000 and up to make, no gallery representation or well-deserved invitations from Performa, and no permanent space to hold the shows (artist Kenny Scharf has been the only real major backer).  With only help from his friends and doing most of the work himself, Alan decided to end this incarnation of the project and switch gears.

In the show on Friday night, Michael Alan’s Living Installation merged both its own personal history and the history of ABC No Rio, giving me room to think about their legacies and what the future holds.

Passerby at 125 Delancey Street, site of the Real Estate Show (photo by Anne Messner; via 98bowery.com)

Born out of artist collaborations, accessibility, irreverence and anti-commercialism, ABC No Rio’s founding was completely unexpected. Organized by the artist group Collaborative Projects, or Colab, a group of artists who incorporated in the late 1970s to take advantage of the public funds that were available to artists, the Real Estate Show, which opened in 123 Delancey Street in a city-owned but vacant storefront on January 1, 1980. Taken over “guerilla style” by the artists after struggling to find a space for their show, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development padlocked the doors on January 2 and the city was eventually forced to give the Colab artists a permanent building at 156 Rivington Street, where ABC No Rio stands today.

Since then, and like many alternative spaces of that era, including Exit Art (which announced recently that it will also be closing) and Group Material, ABC No Rio held many theme exhibitions such as Animals Living In Cities to The Murder, Suicide and Junk Show.

In addition to art shows, ABC No Rio has hosted punk bands such as Japanther, Yuppicide, the Krays and others.

The sculpture/performer in "Going Down With the Building," (photo by Worm Carnevale)

With a splash of paint, sculpture and a soundtrack, Michael Alan’s Living Installation‘s “Going Down With The Building” gave ABC No Rio and its own show an appropriately loud and visually stunning goodbye. I understand its theatrical, messy nature, which admittedly isn’t for everyone, but I’ve always seen the Living Installation to be the inheritor of the Downtown punk art scene, which is why their stint at ABC No Rio has made so much sense. With a sculpture standing in the center of the room that became unquestionably the main and most captivating performer, the show literally was a celebration and a performance of art-making whether Alan, moving quickly, constructed on a sculpture or a living person.

The most interesting part of the performance was the three-hour soundtrack of Alan’s own music that ranged from  a unique mix of punk and rap to all out The Germs-like punk to songs that featured his mom. In addition to his own solo music, Alan collaborated with bands that had either played at ABC No Rio in the past or felt enough of a connection to the space or the show to give Alan a track, such as Renaldo from Renaldo and the Loaf, Williamsburg’s own Japanther, WLWL, Geneva Jacuzzi (Ariel Pink’s girlfriend/collaborator), The Krays, Yuppicide and Tim “Love” Lee. Digitally exchanging songs between the musicians and the artist reminded me of the collaborative spirit from which ABC No Rio was born.

While “Going Down With the Building” was billed as the last Living Installation, the next morning Alan discovered that he won a Brooklyn Arts Council Regrant for a performance, which means that some incarnation of his public performances will continue. As he told me, he is planning on focusing much more on sculptures and other inanimate objects, his music and his own sometimes humorous role in the performances, glimmers of this evolution could be seen in “Going Down With The Building.” “It could be anything, which is relaxing for me. I’m eliminating the format. That to me is freedom,” he explains.

Michael Alan, "History Pushes Through" (2011), ink on paper

Entitled “History Pushes Through” (2011), one of the many prints of Alan’s work covering the walls at ABC No Rio made me reconsider my sadness for the end of grimy ABC No Rio and the Living Installation. With the history of punk art spaces and performances behind them, both ABC and Alan’s public performances will push forward even if they change forms. At the heart of it, the strength of the Living Installation has always been about change from watching the performers change into sculptures to the changing materials to the changing themes of the shows. ABC No Rio has also changed during its 30 years even if it was just another layer of graffiti tags. Thinking back, I always thought there were too many performers in the Living Installation and was afraid to ever use the bathroom at ABC No Rio.

The real question I should have asked last Friday night is: if everything “goes down with the building,” what can be raised?

If you haven’t went to ABC No Rio, go check out the building before it closes at 156 Rivington Street. To learn more about its history read ABC No Rio Dinero on 98 Bowery.

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