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Festival of Ideas Animates a Gentrified Bowery

Facade projection on St. Patrick's Old Cathedral by Marco Brambilla (all photos by author)

Obama laid a wreath at the base of the former World Trade Towers right after Osama had been buried at sea. And, as if on cue the utopian “Festival of Ideas For the New City” launched, vowing to “harness the power of the creative community to imagine the future city and explore the ideas destined to shape it.” Starchitects, visionaries, the homeless, mayors, artists, foodies, freegans, the playskool crowd, beggars, actors, bakers and 100 plus organizations bulwarked by the combined might of the New Museum, The Architectural League, The Bowery Poetry Club, C-Lab, Columbia University Center for Architecture, Cooper Union, The Drawing Center, NYU Wagner, Storefront for Art and Architecture,and the Swiss Institute looked around their own post-recession backyards to tackle sustainability and revitalization, declaring “yes we can.”  And for four days, they did.

Preservation and Destruction

There were a plethora of conferences featuring such keynotes as architect Rem Koolhaas, virtual reality inventor Jaron Lanier and former Mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus. There was a StreetFest stretching along the Bowery and through Sara D. Roosevelt Park with over 100 local grassroots organizations and small businesses “presenting model practices and products in a unique environment.” There were also over 100 projects, events, performances and walking tours that expanded on the Festival’s themes, most of them offered for free. In classic New Yorkese, “what’s not to like?”

Rem Koolhaas at his CRONOCAOS talk

Because of its massive and sprawling nature the festival was, like Rashamon, a story sampled by diverse viewers. It was also exhausting, illuminating and thought-provoking, offering many solutions for the revitalization of cities ranging from the mundane and even silly to the profound. Rem Koolhaas, together with his architecture practice OMA and The New Museum, put together the exhibit CRONOCAOS (one of those well conceptualized architect coinages) about preservation and its nemesis, development. Housed in the newly whitewashed former CBGBs on the Bowery, the installation examined the wrenching simultaneity of the growing “empire” of preservation and the ravages of destruction, analyzing the consequences of how we build, rebuild and remember. As proof of concept they discussed the transformation of the Bowery, the former center of flophouses, punk, restaurant and lighting supply stores, into the “uniform regime of the white cube,” in other words, the standoff between authenticity and gentrification. Koolhaas even admitted he “never pronounced the word preservation before eight years ago.”

The exhibit posed some tough questions, provoking thoughts on what the role of preservation is in the art world. As larger and larger spaces are re-purposed for art from industry (think Mass MOCA‘s converted factory complex), they have to be filled, offering up shows that focus on the “apocalyptic sublime,” a type of art that unconsciously mimics Hollywood in an upward-reaching constant increase in scale. Questions arise — what should be abandoned and what should be kept? These twin pressures have only grown as the lag time between new construction and preservation “has collapsed from two thousand years to almost nothing,” Koolhaas noted. Since the increase in preservation closely parallels the rise of Wall Street and tourism, there was one question left at the end of this soft flagellation of inquiry: does preservation speed or hinder development?

A Mixed-Up City

A tour of the Bowery Mission during StreetFest

The Festival’s “Heterogeneous City” panel consisted of the artist and performance pioneer Vito Acconci, Director of the Center for an Urban Future Jonathan Bowles, founder of Common Ground, Roseann Haggerty, NYU Professor Suketu Mehta and moderator Jonathan F.P. Rose, chair of the MTA’s Blue Ribbon Commission of Climate Change. Why is heterogeneity is so crucial to great urbanism? What threatens it and what  sustains it? This presentation was a good one for the statistic books, a little dry but revelatory. New York is a “cauldron of transformation,” fed by over 30 percent foreign-born individuals, making it a diverse, tolerant and complex metropolis. There are 452 theaters, 640 art galleries and 96 dance companies. 309,000 people work in creative industries, comprising 8.3 percent of all United States creative industry workers. Still, looking towards the future, New York will have more rain, and the Sub-Saharan will dry up.  “Climate refugees” will become more common, consumption will rise, commodities will becomes scarce and the gap between rich and poor will grow. There will be more mega-cities topping out over 10 million people, and a core of just 600 cities will define global cultural trends.

Celebrating the Streets

Facade projections on the New Museum

Saturday’s day-long StreetFest was initiated by The New Museum along the city’s historic Bowery street. The festival set up blocks of undulating hot-pink and blue tent “worms” that shaded scores of grassroots organizations promoting sustainability in all forms, from composting to helping artists buy homes. The Bowery Mission, the stalwart organization that has housed and helped homeless men since 1879, opened its doors and invited the public inside to see their structure. Visitor were led around by “floor captains” all the way up to the roof, where the resident “students” work on rooftop gardens. Another highlight was “Emergency Response Studio,” by Paul Villinski, a solar-powered, mobile artist’s studio, re-purposed from a salvaged FEMA-style trailer. This sustainably re-built, off-the-grid live-and-work space is designed to enable artists to embed in post-disaster settings, and respond and contribute creatively. Villinski conceived the project in response to the devastation of post-Katrina New Orleans.

The night was given over to light with curator Anna Muessig’s Flash:Light Nuit Blanche event, featuring murals along the Bowery, art projections on Nolita and Lower East Side buildings, music and performances. The New Museum’s 174-foot facade became a giant art space in conjunction with Light Harvest Studios for the collaborative projection piece “Let Us Make Cake”.  The Tokyo-originating Pecha Kucha ran New York #12; The Dimensions of a New City at the Old School Gym on Mulberry Street from 8 pm to 3 am, with over 50 seven-minute presentations. St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, a 200 year-old church in Little Italy was also brimming with activity. On the cathedral’s outside were site-specific 3D-mapped projections. Inside, the church’s soaring chapel became the site for a haunting 3D trip from heaven to hell with Marco Brambilla’s 3D video installation “Civilization. Using over 500 video loops, the piece reinterpreted Dante’s iconic Divine Comedy. The event ran out of 3D glasses for viewing, but fortunately a smiling, cassocked priest handed me his pair on his way out.

All this well-intentioned hoopla and celebration is a thought-provoking and important step in the right direction. It was an enormous effort to put together and took a Herculean effort in logistics and planning. But, as I made my way to the Delancey Street subway station I couldn’t help but notice the inordinate amount of storefronts with “Going Out Of Business” signs in their windows. Was this due to the recession, or was it the result of jacked-up rents from too much preservation success right in the heart of the Bowery? A historically dynamic neighborhood briefly turned into a playground for the arts, but what happens when the creatives leave after the weekend?

The Festival of Ideas For the New City took place in Lower Manhattan from May 4 through 8.

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