The Williamsburg Scene by WAH Center Intern Millie Prince

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The Williamsburg Scene: The Historical Significance of Williamsburg’s 1980s/90s Warehouse Art Scene

By Millie Prince

The neighbourhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn has undergone many reinventions throughout its relatively short history. Throughout its origins as a Native American settlement, time under Dutch ownership, and subsequent English occupation it adjusted and transformed accordingly. As time passed it became a neighbourhood for wealthy New Yorkers, a bustling industrial hub, and eventually a relative wasteland. The 1980s and 1990s brought with them a new attitude towards areas such as Williamsburg, and the neighbourhood was given another chance at success: artists and creatives moved in and re-­‐established the area as an artistic nucleus for New York’s struggling creative community. From the ashes of a shattered industry-­‐minded district was born a thriving community focused on giving the area a second life. From this community came the artistic movement known as Immersionism, which in turn brought attention to a forgotten wasteland. Williamsburg went through a subsequent gentrification, and it is because of which that the district exists as it does today. The first people recorded to have settled in Brooklyn were the Canarsee, a Native American Tribe from Delaware, who lived there until the arrival of the Dutch West India Company in 1625.1 With them the Dutch brought much violence, land appropriation, trade, and war, which eventually led to the fleeing of the Canarsee and their replacement by Dutch settlers.2 The Canarsee, an Algonquin-­‐speaking tribe, were reportedly bought out of Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg, for the price of “eight fathoms of duffels, eight strings of wampum, twelve kettles, eight chip axes, eight hatchets and some knives, beads, and awls”.3 Over the next few decades the Dutch settled in Breukelen (Brooklyn) by chartering people with the purpose of establishing a permanent presence.4 This period of Dutch occupation however ended in 1664 with the coming of the English, a presence that endured until the end of the War of Independence. The Williamsburg area of Brooklyn soon became a suburb for wealthy New Yorkers wishing to escape Manhattan, which had become over crowded and dirty, as well as rife with yellow fever. Brooklyn’s maiden steam ferry across the East River, the Nissau, signalled the beginning of the nineteenth century for Brooklyn. This paired with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made the riverside setting of Williamsburg an area of extensive industry. Because of this Williamsburg quickly developed from a tranquil suburb to a bustling factory district. The nineteenth century continued to be prosperous for Williamsburg and harboured the inception of many of today’s industrial giants including Astral Oil and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.5 1 Leonard Benardo & Jennifer Weiss, Brooklyn by Name: How the

Neighbourhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges, and More got Their Names (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 3. 2 Ibid. 3 Judith DeSena, The Gentrification and Inequality in Brooklyn: New Kids on the Block (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009), 20. 4 Benardo & Weiss, Brooklyn by Name, 3. 5 Victor Laderer, Images of America: Williamsburg (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 8.


The decades that followed World War II, however, triggered a massive economic downfall for Williamsburg; many of its houses were abandoned and the construction of the Brooklyn-­‐Queens Expressway meant the destruction of countless blocks.6 The 1970s brought the bottoming out of New York’s economy and the devastation of industrialised Williamsburg, leaving its East River shore a relative ghost town.7 However, in the 1980s and 1990s as the city’s service sector strengthened and crime fell, New York became once again a desirable city in which to live. This led to a rise in real-­‐estate values and rent costs, pushing the poorer artist community out of Manhattan and into desolate Williamsburg, with the hope that the area would go the same way as the East Village and Lower East Side had before it. Urban pioneers had succeeded in transforming these areas into fashionable, attractive districts and so brought with them bookstores, galleries, cafes, and shops, evolving Williamsburg from New York’s poorest and most dangerous neighbourhood, to a progressive avant-­‐garde.8 Historically, avant-­‐garde art has always been adverse to the idea of a passive audience, and has, particularly in the case of performance art, strived to break down the boundaries between art and spectator. In the early 20th Century there was Dada, an anti-­‐art, anti-­‐bourgeois movement driven by a desire to make art spectators question preconceived notions about what art is and how it should function in a gallery setting. Marcel Duchamp, perhaps the most well known artist involved in the Dada movement, took what he called “Readymades”, or found objects, and placed them in a gallery. He was therefore removing them from their initial, practical purpose and rendering them useless except for their function as aesthetic objects. To Duchamp, and other artists involved in the movement, art was to be looked at and thought about but did not need to be venerated and worshiped in the way that had come to be commonplace. The concept of creating art that is ephemeral or indefinable has been celebrated by many avant-­‐garde artistic movements ever since, Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917 incorporating issues that are specific to the time and place in which they are set. Something that is clear when one looks at the example of Immersionism, an artistic movement that occurred in Williamsburg, Brooklyn during the 1980s and 1990s. The 1980s and 1990s brought with them not only the beginning of a Williamsburg’s gentrification, but also the invention of the Internet, which represented a trend in new technology that puts an emphasis on the extension of the human reach and gaze. The Internet provides a means of displacing time and 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid.


space, as well as distance: creating a new reality that shifts human perceptions on how these ideas function. Technology that defies the preconceived linear structure of the world and how it functions has been emerging since 1876 with the invention of the first telephone. It is no wonder then, that the crossbreeding of art and technology is now very common. Art that questions and resists the distinctions between present and past, reality and illusion, and the reliability of distance, is now commonplace. These technologies require conscious decisions and actions by their participants, another feature that has become intrinsic to a lot of contemporary art. New technologies and their interactive nature extend artists’ formerly conceived ideas, and lead to an incorporation of multi-­‐faced dialogues, and shifts in the relationship of the artist to audience presentation in art.9 When not limited by a hierarchical system, artists are able to create works that address fundamental perceptions that require responses from their audience.10 The virtual notions of space and collective experience that have been created by these new technologies were explored by Lalalandia – a collaboration between South and North American artists in the early 1990s based in those abandoned industrial warehouses in Williamsburg. This group strove to create interactive environments that could “stimulate and nourish the senses and the mind”.11 In this way the Immersionists can be likened to artists such as Ernesto Neto and Yayoi Kusama, who both create intense environments that absorb the viewer; their reactions becoming essential to the nature of the work. While Kusama’s environments, such as Fireflies on the Water (2012), are not specifically interactive as the Immersionsts’ works are, they have the same immersive nature. Spectators are surrounded making it impossible for them to distinguish where everyday life ends and art begins. Calling themselves “entertainment researchers” those involved in the Lalalandia Entertainment Research Group Corporation worked to push the limits of media technology and the social and political implications of it.12 They claimed to be architects of ‘spatial experience’ rather than that of physical space. Through this they used “immaterial elements like data, light, colour, and odour to build experiences able to traverse time and space trough memory”.13 Visitors to Lalalandia parties were confronted by large flanks of meat hanging on hooks from the ceiling; on another floor a scuba diver waving from inside a giant tank of water; mazes of plastic and metal transformed the large empty floors of the abandoned factories into dense jungles.14 The group eventually acquired a permanent location that became known as El Sensorium at which ritualistic drinking merged with the damp and dank of a basement setting 9 Lynn Hershman, “Touch-­‐Sensitivity and Other Forms of Subversion: Interactive

Artwork”, Leonardo 26, no. 5 (1993), 432.

10 Ibid. 11 Suzan Wines, “Go with the flow: Eight New York based Artists and Architects

in the Digital Era”, Domus, 108 (1998), 6.

12 Ibid. 13 Ibid. 14 Neil Strauss, “At the Clubs, Murmurs and Ambient Music”, New York Times,

March 8, 1996.


to create a “complete aquatic experience”.15 Curtains of falling water amalgamated with video projections and light so that guests became a part of the homogenous setting, running together like water. In this sense the group emulated the way that the Internet provides a collective space where information is free flowing and shifts together as water does. It also provides a means of adaptive reuse, recycling, and reprocessing of information, and so those involved in Lalalandia strove to do the same by way of taking the abandoned warehouses and creating engaging environments that reference both the history of the space and its potential future.16 Lalalandia was a collective that was a part of, and exemplified the intentions of, Immersionism. The movement was also influenced in part by a shift in society that occurred during the late 1980s and early 1990s, from one concerned with the production of machines to one whose chief occupation is the dissemination of information through digital networks.17 People’s lives were evolving into one that is experienced through virtual space, a space that provides immediate gratification and remote control potential: phenomena that are not possible in the physical world.18 There were some who believed that because of this shift, there was a need for the built environment to develop and change too. New York City can be likened to the experience provided by the Internet: it is a reality that is experienced by millions daily, it functions like a hub for global networks, and has done so for decades. The Internet, however, has the ability to provide shared experiences across great distances, and the “creative potential of change and chance events”.19 A number of artists living and working in New York City began to attempt to assimilate the assorted transformations in the social behaviours and spatial perceptions brought about by the introduction of cyberspace into “built world designs, thus revealing a diversity of new possibilities for cultural and environmental interaction”.20 The 1980s triggered a period of extravagance and shameless self-­‐promotion within the art scene of New York’s East Village and Soho districts. Directly across the East River from Williamsburg a media explosion erupted from the debris of the massive gentrification of one of America’s most notorious ghettos onto a glamorous and ostentatious avant-­‐garde art scene.21 Exemplified by Warhol, Basquiat, and the like, the scene here was epitomised by excess and self-­‐ importance, against which the Immersionist scene rebelled. For this reason Immersionism was primarily concerned with the implementation of massive multimedia events in the many abandoned warehouses on Williamsburg’s East River waterfront. Far from the glitz and glamour of the art scene directly across 15 Suzan Wines, “Go with the flow”, 7. 16 Ibid.

17 Ibid, 1. 18 Ibid. 19 Ibid. 20 Ibid.

21 Anne Bowler and Blaine McBurney, “Gentrification and the Avante-­‐garde in

New York’s East Village”, in Causes and Consequences of Art Patronage, ed. Judith H. Balfe (University of Illinois Press: 1993), 161.


the East River, Imersionist gatherings were staged in the dark and dank settings of derelict spaces in a dangerous and undesirable neighbourhood. The movement can be likened to that of Relational Aesthetics, and has strong links to the expanding world of media and technology, and was involved mostly in installation art, performance art, and new media. Their work began to explore, in the same way that the Internet does between networks, the interactions between different environmental systems.22 The creation of space in the 1990s was different to that of the machine age: no longer were people concerned with creating monuments to sole ideologies, but were drawn toward a world of diversity born from a collective and ever expanding experience provided by the cyber realm.23 An artist who delved into this media focused aspect of immersionism is Ebon Fisher, who gave his works – and the space that they occupy -­‐ the collective name AlulA Dimension after the “spurious, “bastard” feathers on a bird’s wing”.24 His work features drawings of nerve cells and neurons that reflect human behaviour, combining art with science – Fisher believed that science was an arena in which those involved were as engaged and brilliant as he felt artists should be.25 These “bionic codes”, as Fisher called them, are based on the networks of neurons in the human brain. He believes that they have the potential to be used as “models for productive and peaceful human interrelations”.26

It was the nature of his work that drew Fisher to Ebon Fisher, Bionic Code, 1990. the warehouse happenings in Williamsburg at the time, and he continued to be involved in many of these collaborative events throughout the early 1990s. An example of the events that Fisher was involved in is Organism, a one-­‐off, 12-­‐hour event in 1993 that featured the work of 120 artists who worked in every possible medium, and drew more than 2000 participants.27 The reason this event appealed to Fisher and his artistic sensibilities is that he saw his interactive, organic ideals mirrored in the web-­‐like model that the event followed. The event was held at an abandoned mustard factory on the Williamsburg waterfront, and, in Fisher’s own words, its purpose was to “absorb the audience into the belly of numerous systems, one blending

22 Susan Wines, “Go with the flow”, 2. 23 Ibid.

24 Jennifer Dalton, “Ebon Fisher’s AlulA Dimension” PAJ: A Journal of Performance

and Art 20, no. 1 (1998), 62.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid, 63. 27 Ibid.


into another, including the audience, and the very soil, mustard seeds, and the oxygen of the site”.28 Other artists took a different approach when it came to Immersionism; Dennis Del Zotto, for example, inflated plastic Dennis Del Zotto, Installation at sheeting in interior spaces so that it tightly hugged ever surface of the room. Lalalandia, 1992 Walls, floors, and ceiling are encased, and essentially replaced, by a new world. The environment is completely altered, the original disappearing beneath a blanket of strange lamination. Spectators are transported into the undulating belly of an uncanny plastic beast. “I negated the gallery.” he said of this practice, “It was a reference to the gallery through an impression of it – denying the space but acknowledging the environment.”29 Like his fellow Immersionists Del Zotto denied the boarders of the typical gallery space and created art posed more questions than it provided answers. The Immersionist movement has had a great effect on present day Williamsburg: the gentrification brought about because of those who saw potential in Williamsburg as a future art centre in the 80s and 90s has resulted in a trendy, avant-­‐garde neighbourhood with highly sort after property and spaces. Because of the innovation and creative thinking of those involved in Immersionism, Williamsburg’s art scene has flourished and the area now boasts upwards of 60 galleries and a myriad of artists are now based in the area, due to its reputation as an artist-­‐friendly district. The neighbourhood now caters to a wealthy clientele and property prices are consistently rising, as is the prestige of the area. Immersionism was a movement based in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg, which was influenced in equal parts by the history of the area and by the technological and economic setting of the 1980s and 90s. The many faces of Williamsburg, ranging from; Native American settlement; bustling factory district; abandoned ghost town; and just about everything in between, resulted in an area with a rich history and many influences for an up-­‐and-­‐coming artist community to use and interpret. The Immersionist movement was influenced by other artistic movements such as Dada, and was a reaction against the glam of New York’s Pop Art scene. The movement drew attention to Williamsburg as a desirable area and shaped the way it has consequently evolved into an attractive, appealing, and creative neighbourhood. 28, accessed Nov 12, 2013. 29 Madea de Vyse, “Generic Man Meets World Beat: How Dennis DelZotto

Escaped From the Ambient Underworld”, Waterfront Week, Nov, 1995, 4.


Bibliography: •

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Benardo, Leonard & Jennifer Weiss, Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighbourhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges, and More got Their Names. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Bowler, Anne and Blaine McBurney, “Gentrification and the Avant-­‐ garde in New York’s East Village”, in Causes and Consequences of Art Patronage, ed. Judith H. Balfe. University of Illinois Press: 1993. Dalton, Jennifer, “Ebon Fisher’s AlulA Dimension” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 20, no. 1 (1998), 62-­‐70. DeSena, Judith, The Gentrification and Inequality in Brooklyn: New Kids on the Block. Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009. de Vyse, Madea, “Generic Man Meets World Beat: How Dennis DelZotto Escaped From the Ambient Underworld”, Waterfront Week, Nov, 1995. Hershman, Lynn, “Touch-­‐Sensitivity and Other Forms of Subversion: Interactive Artwork”, Leonardo 26, no. 5 (1993), 431-­‐436., accessed Nov 12, 2013. Laderer, Victor, Images of America: Williamsburg. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2005. Strauss, Neil, “At the Clubs, Murmurs and Ambient Music”, New York Times, March 8, 1996. Wines, Suzan, “Go with the flow: Eight New York based Artists and Architects in the Digital Era”, Domus 108, (1998), 1-­‐10.