Interviews

Blindness, Memory, and the Vestiges of Anarchy

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Steve Cannon on the steps of his anti-establishment gallery, A Gathering of the Tribes, in 1998. (image by Dora Espinoza, all other photographs by the author for Hyperallergic, unless otherwise noted)

While the Metropolitan Museum of Art canonizes punk on the Upper East Side, A Gathering of the Tribes gallery is quietly celebrating its 20th anniversary on the Lower East Side. Across the street from the Nuyorican Poets Café and blocks from the former CBGB, Steve Cannon’s A Gathering of the Tribes brings together artists of all disciplines and backgrounds.

“I figured it had to be multi-cultural, multi-racial, and all that kinda stuff,” Cannon explains, “and then it had to include old folks like me, and young folks like you, crossing into multi-generational as well as multi-cultural, and since this neighborhood has always been diverse in terms of every ethnic group I could imagine — either living on the Lower East Side or breezin’ through here at one time or another — the door had to be open to everybody. The only qualification was that you had to be a lover of the art.”

Although Cannon, author of the infamous Groove, Bang and Jive Around and self-proclaimed hoo-doo doctor, started the organization in 1990-91 as a literary magazine, the gallery component opened in 1993, a project the former Tribes curator Dora Espinoza convinced him to undertake. “And life has never been the same since,” Steve says with a laugh.

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Two works from Out of the Closet and into the Open, currently on display. (click to enlarge)

Cannon’s slight southern twang, inflected with years of cigarette smoke, his tendency to occasionally interject the word “yawn” in conversation, and his sunglasses-inside look give him the vibe of a jazz singer imported straight from New Orleans (where he is in fact from). But the shades aren’t just part of his fashion sense: Steve is blind.

Cannon explains that he can typically imagine what the art on the walls of his gallery looks like through descriptions. This process of describing art inspired Espinoza to create Exquisite Poop, which the website explains was an ambitious project enlisting writers and painters in a chain: The painters first painted one work and committed to a second. The writers were then assigned a painting and told to describe it in as much detail as possible. The paintings were then reassigned to another artist, who was only given the writer’s description and asked to re-create it as closely as possible. Cannon, meanwhile, says that while he can typically picture what the art looks like, he isn’t as able to picture what his visitors look like — “and you know I’m not going to ask you,” he says.

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From the current show: Steve Cannon, as photographed by Gail Thacker.

Tribes’ current exhibit, titled Out of the Closet and into the Open, features left-behind works from the shows that have previously hung on Steve’s walls. Some of the artworks are labeled and framed, others not. The artists have been contacted, but as Steve says, “If the artists want it back, they can pay me rent for all these years of storage!”

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The exterior of A Gathering of the Tribes.

Throughout our interview, many people wander into Steve’s apartment, all greeted with the same warmth, all offering to get Steve something from “the outside world” as they left. The first guest is Dora Espinoza, a Peruvian photographer and the space’s original curator, who scrambles about the apartment, making bids on photographs and telling stories from when she was curator.

“Once I had an exhibit here, it was two guys from Medellin, Colombia, with all the big cartels,” Espinoza says. ”The exhibit was fantastic, and all the cars outside were super, [including] Rolls Royces … There was so many rich people that night, when I looked out [that window] I was like, whoa! And they were coming and coming and coming — all the drug cartel was here buying art.”

Minutes after she leaves, a couple of other guests come in, looking for solace over the recent death of their cat. Steve permits them to hold an impromptu funeral service in his garden, and the girls solicit his advice as to what type of poem to read at their cat funeral. They leave minutes later to get the necessary supplies. Alyssa Devine, his current gallery attendant, comes into the room, on her way out to run errands. She offers to grab “cigarettes, ice cream, beans, Hershey bars, and… coffee: that’s the Steve special.”

Cannon, who, along with Devine, runs the gallery with the help of various interns and guest curators, is a local East Village legend, sometimes referred to as “the living book of the East Village” and has been the subject of many documentary films and articles, including a travel show aired in Japan.

Cannon is often mentioned in conjunction with Gil Scot-Heron, whose spoken word piece “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is frequently cited the inspiration behind much of the prolific New York hip-hop movement. Cannon taught Scot-Heron at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and recalls when Scot-Heron lived with his friend in a trailer next to the campus, “because they decided that they were too bright to live in the dormitories with the other students,” Cannon jokes. He recalls when Scot-Heron invited him to hear his poem, and Cannon said it needed a lot of work before it could be published. “Next thing I know, that god damn poem became one of the most popular things on this scene,” he laughs. Cannon will be publishing Scot-Heron for the first time in the upcoming issue of his literary magazine alongside a photo of the “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” mural painted on Avenue C and 12th.

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Gallery view of the current exhibition, Out of the Closet and into the Open

Faced with economic hardship in 2006, Steve sold the building and now rents his apartment. This means he often confronts the threat of eviction. “Where it stands right now is that me and this woman I sold [the building] to are at peace temporarily,” he says, “and temporarily is in a broad, neon sign in the middle of Time Square. It’s a temporal piece.”

Although the current exhibition is worth a visit, Cannon always imbues the space with a remarkable character, making it what Espinoza describes as “the last anarchist place in New York City.”

Out of the Closet and into the Open will continue at A Gathering of the Tribes (285 East Third Street, East Village, Manhattan) through Tuesday, May 21. There will also be a poetry reading on Saturday, May 18, beginning at 7 pm and featuring Ron Kolm’s newest collection of poems, titled Divine Comedy.

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