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Many New Yorkers were sad to hear of Tekserve’s imminent closing, especially artists who work in new media, video, or otherwise incorporate the use of Apple products into their practices. Although it will continue to work with large businesses, the much-beloved service side of the West 23rd Street brick-and-mortar store that caters to individuals will shutter by the end of the week. Its retail operation will cease on August 15, a victim of factors including rent, the vast shift in consumers’ shopping methods, and the indomitable success of Apple’s own stores.
As you entered Tekserve, passing through a turnstile and collecting your numbered ticket for either the retail or service area, an un-uniformed employee would greet you. Contributing to the unique atmosphere were an old Coke machine purveying six-ounce glass bottles, a collection of antique radios, and a display of Macs belonging to co-founders Dick Demenus and David Lerner (the pair met at WBAI in 1970 and helped to build the station’s studios on East 62nd Street).
One New York media artist who appreciated the relaxed atmosphere there was Kristin Lucas, whose work deals with the ways in which the digital interacts with the human. Lucas has done everything from creating a virtual environment based on climate change studies to legally “refreshing” her name. Tekserve was where, late last century, she brought her grayscale Mac PowerBook 5300 after a coffee spill, and where she would hang out to get opinions about new peripherals she had seen at the MacWorld Expo. Like many Tekserve customers, Lucas relied on the store’s technicians to glean data from failed drives; the store saved all of her early videos, including “5 Minute Break,” a 3D animation (eventually acquired by the Museum of Modern Art) of an avatar exploring the basement zones of a pre-9/11 World Trade Center.
Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga, who teaches in Hunter College’s Integrated Media Arts program, has made video games that put the player in the position of a Latin American immigrant and other works that challenge mainstream media narratives. He enjoyed going to Tekserve, which he described as a “unique” phenomenon, he said, “since I hate shopping.” Bushwick-based artist Rico Gatson had all of his Macs repaired at the 23rd Street emporium, which is also where he bought the external drives to store all his videos. LoVid (Tali Hinkis and Kyle Lapidus) creates audiovisual installations that combine analog and digital technologies using DIY and hacker approaches. Tekserve was “one of the things that helped me chose NYC as home,” Hinkis told me over email.
It was also a place its employees appreciated. As at many businesses in the city into which artists shoehorn themselves, Tekserve’s managers were supportive of the work of those they supervised, allowing them to prioritize their practices. Voice-over artist and background vocalist Nophi Mitchell, a native New Yorker with a tech background, worked there for eight-and-a-half years. She said that she “learned a lot from coworkers who became friends.” Bushwick-based artist and writer Adam Tyson, who has worked there for 11 years, said that the store even offered his books for sale. And because Tekserve was not the rigorously closed system that Apple and their computers are, Tyson was also able to make art out of discarded parts hanging around in the store.
I, too, was a beneficiary of Tekserve’s openness back when I was making installations with modular building material. Without a laptop at the time, I entreated Demenus in a letter to lend me an iBook for an installation at Andrew Kreps Gallery in 2003. Exhibiting the piece was a fantastic experience, and I won’t ever forget Demenus’s kindness in letting me borrow the Mac at such a crucial time in my life and career. Can you imagine an Apple Store doing this?
Other artists went further in involving Tekserve. John F. Simon, Jr., creator of the seminal 1997 Net Art piece “Every Icon,” employed the store’s technicians to take apart and reassemble the latest G3 and G4 PowerBooks he had bought there to make his rapidly-selling Art Appliances series. For each Appliance, Simon, Jr. created a narrative to be played out in software he wrote, producing compositions that continually evolved on their own. For example, “Window” (2001) references the work of earlier artists, particularly Sol LeWitt, who also made rule-based works. Starting with an image of a solid-colored rectangle, Simon, Jr.’s program in “Window” chooses four new points — one on each of the rectangle’s sides. The shape then rotates until its corners hit these points, and as it does, it reveals a new color. The piece reimplements these rules forever.
More recently, Geraldo Mercado made meaningful use of his employee discount during his time selling Macs for the store, incorporating Apple products into his pieces. In a performance in January at Williamsburg’s Panoply Performance Lab, he tried to get Siri on an Apple Watch, iPhone, and iPad to all set a 15-minute timer. His loud entreaties — while playing to the audience to get as many “Geraldo, I don’t understand what you’re asking” and “I don’t think you are taking this very seriously” responses — also had the effect of allowing Mercado to “make peace with the tech-centric part” of his life, as he put it, and to move back into developing video art.
Magda Sawon, the co-founder and co-director of Postmasters Gallery — which represents Lucas and several other tech-centric artists — said her gallery was “all Tekserve people forever.” In addition to data recovery, the store gave “gentle care for laptops that had beer spilled all over them” (collateral damage of a good opening) and “reasonable cost-cutting advice on crazy requests.” Echoing the feelings of many, she added: “No matter how many geniuses you put in a bar, it’s gonna be no match.”