When lawyer Wylie Stecklow — whose firm’s slogan is “Lawyers for the rest of us” — showed up at Trump Tower just after 10am yesterday morning, the fifth-floor garden was locked. Although it’s just a concrete terrace glommed onto the private development, the garden — home to metal chairs and tables, a handful of trees in giant planters, and a hulking marble rectangle that may have once contained a working fountain — is technically public space. In 1979, Trump struck a deal to create it in exchange for permission to extend his skyscraper 200,000 feet into the air. It’s one of roughly 525 privately owned public spaces (POPS) in New York City, the most famous of which may be Zuccotti Park.
The Trump Tower security guards told Stecklow that the space was closed because of window cleaning. But he had with him a copy of regulations stating that the garden must be open during the same hours as the stores in the tower. “If they need to clean the windows, they need to do it in off hours,” Stecklow recounted telling the chief security guard, who acquiesced and opened the space. Stecklow was there on behalf of a group of artists who planned to perform that afternoon in the garden, so some intelligence officers told him the artists couldn’t use props. This was either wishful thinking or an alternative fact. “It’s expressive speech activity protected by the First Amendment,” Stecklow said.
In the end, the props — including a Donald Trump doll seemingly made from a beach ball — made it in, as did the costumes, instruments, and some two dozen artists, all gathered for “Art Rising,” a performance-protest against President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The action was organized by Take Trump Tower, a group that’s been holding regular teach-ins, writing groups, and other events in the skyscraper’s garden (coming soon: “Resist and Restore Yoga”), and curated by longtime producer Caterina Bartha.
“This came from my desire to have some kind of action-based response to the Trump presidency,” Bartha told Hyperallergic. “This is rapid-response art, so to speak. This event is about showing the value of the arts by actually just making art.”
The performance kicked off not long after noon, when 10 women formed a line and joined hands at the back of a small area that had been designated the stage. They wore jumpsuits printed with black-and-white bricks, on top of which were laid colored panels containing texts such as “Bimbo” and “Grab her by the pussy” — all sexist words and phrases uttered by the US president. The women were part of Brick x Brick, a project begun at the Women’s March to form “human ‘walls’ against misogyny,” and they remained in place under the sweltering sun for the next hour and a half.
After a brief welcome by Bartha, including an acknowledgement of yesterday morning’s shooting and “the non-violent nature of this event,” Howard Sherman, director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, and New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer offered opening remarks. Sherman invoked the recent Shakespeare in the Park sponsorship saga by responding to a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., saying, “Art, at least since the days of ancient Greek drama, has always been political, when it chooses to be so. Art can be anything that artists choose to explore. There are no rules.” Van Bramer admitted that it was his first time at Trump Tower and commented, “There is an assault on the arts, on literature, on thinking in this country right now. … Artists are the original resisters.”
The breadth of that resistance was on full display in what followed: seven presentations by performance artists, dancers, musicians, actors, writers, directors, and activists. They ranged from Jody Sperling’s swirling evocation of the wind to Pat Oleszko’s stint as Lady Liberty, engaged in a Marina Abramović–inspired face-off with the aforementioned Trump doll (and a cross-dressing Kellyanne Conway). Bartees Cox played a pair of raw, emotional songs about life as a Black American, while PEN America’s Kyle Dacuyan read a heartbreaking letter by Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov that was smuggled out of a Siberian labor camp, where he’s currently imprisoned. Lucy Sexton emceed the proceedings as the Factress — a character that exists in the space between truth and lies — with unimpeachable wit. “It truly is a durational performance, just like this presidency!” she quipped about Oleszko’s piece.
Although they were first up, Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir nearly stole the show. Billy’s sermon was a pitch-perfect blend of humor — “we feel the presence of the orange one’s home” — and earnest invocation of the forebears of politically engaged art. He spoke of the history of attempts to defund the NEA (as did Martha Wilson, who later performed as Donald Trump) and implored the audience to fight back: “Fear is exactly what artists teach us not to have.” Choir members shared the spotlight, with Francisca Benitez preaching briefly in Spanish and Robin Laverne “Dragonfly” Wilson leading the group in a soulful rendition of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” As the choir joined in on that incantatory chorus — “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on” — so, too, did many members of the assembled crowd, which grew to about 60 people at the its peak.
Bartha had told me she was hoping to attract tourists to the event, and despite a large number of invited viewers, her goal seemed fulfilled by the patches of people hovering on the edges with shopping bags and expensive cameras in hand. Trump Tower is something of a mall, but these days it’s mostly a tourist attraction, as people shoot selfies out front, gawk at the gaudy interior, and rest their feet while drinking Starbucks. Most visitors there seem to wear an air of disbelief, as if they can’t truly fathom that they’re entering a space built and branded by the president himself. “Everybody knows Trump Tower, but it’s different now,” a kindly old woman named Elisabeth Meyer told me. She lives in New Jersey and had brought her visiting grandson to see the building, where they’d stumbled upon “Art Rising.” Despite being curious enough to deem Trump Tower a worthwhile attraction, the pair were sympathetic to the performance/protest — in fact, they were killing time before a matinee. “It’s New York, you never know what’s going to happen,” Meyer said. “We just got lucky.”
Other tourists arrived, unsurprisingly, with more hardened attitudes, including one boy, seemingly of about 12, who sported a wary look and a T-shirt that said, “Build that fucking wall,” with an American flag. He led an even younger girl through the crowd and then vanished. Another Trump supporter — also wearing a shirt with an American flag on it — arrived at the very end of the performance, too late to interrupt a moment of silence but in time to boo loudly at the crowd as it clapped and chanted, “You’ve got to save the NEA!” Responding to his cries, Robin Laverne Wilson promptly led the Stop Shopping Choir in a song: the text of the First Amendment set to music. The Trump supporter cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, at the top of his lungs, “Loser!” But Wilson had a tambourine, and others were clapping, and they out-sung him.
When the song had ended, a woman from the audience stopped the Trump supporter on his way out and tried to engage him with a question. “No one cares about your opinion!” he yelled in her face, and stormed out. Standing nearby, I spotted a pile of flyers that had been left on a table: advertisements for a protest of the “offensive” Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar this Friday. It had been enchanting, watching artists protest creatively within Trump Tower, but reality was swiftly setting in. Despite “Art Rising”‘s best intentions, the culture war showed no signs of letting up.
“Art Rising” took place in the fifth-floor public garden of Trump Tower (725 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) on June 14 at noon.