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Reactionary Sentimentalism

By Louis Armand.


Metal city
sunrise is grey
coal dust in the air
smudges of people…

– Khmer Rouge, “City Primeval”

He walked back into the living room, looking again at the illuminated photo of the man with the brown beard & long hair.
“Who’s that, a friend of yours?”
Mr Sweety glanced over. He said, “This picture here?” & sounded surprised. “It’s Jesus. Who you think it was?”
“It’s a photograph,” Raymond said.
Mr Sweety said, “Yeah, it’s a good likeness, ain’t it?”
– Elmore Leonard, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit

Few cities in the world exercise such influence over the mind as to manifest that rebellious spirit, that genius loci, through which the intellectual vitalism of a given epoch is channelled. These places, galvanized in their very substance by a vortex of subcultural electricity, possess by their names alone powers of conjuration. Yet such are the enervations of contemporary Culture Industry nihilism that beyond the “No Future” wrought by instant branding, there is only this mystique of the mind’s geography, laid out like the pilgrimage sites of a dead imagination – whose museumed “transcendence” instructs us as to what’s already lost in any struggle to invent our present condition if we allow it to be divorced from an act of sabotage of all that is thus Holy. Equally, there’s a question of something crucial being at stake the instant we attach a coordinate to what William Blake called the “poetic genius”: this rebellious spirit, whenever & wherever it is conspicuous, exists by a wilful delinquency, like a political crime.

There are forms of obscurantism deliberately perpetrated by the forces of Tradition, by which even those facts that violently contradict it can be expropriated at will to its discourse. In such circumstances Tradition reserves the right to proclaim itself “under attack,” imbuing its adversaries on the political & cultural fringes with the most frightening capacity to reduce all of civilisation to ruins unless (& always “against the odds” & with “great effort”) they are held in check if not outright negated. This more than merely rhetorical manoeuvre has always assumed the paradoxical form of a “siege mentality” combined with a will-to-pre-emptive-declaration- of-“war”: war on terror, war on drugs, war on poverty, war on unemployment, war on culture…

Before invading Iraq in 1990, the US & its 33 allies circulated among the media long & detailed inventories of military hardware said to be in the possession of Saddam Hussein’s régime at the time of its invasion of Kuwait – including 47 infantry divisions augmented by 9 armoured & mechanised divisions, numbering anywhere up to 600,000 men. The point of this was arguably to whitewash the fact that the ensuing retaliatory “war” was, in reality, a turkey shoot (the infamous “highway of death” of retreating conscripts). In 2003, by a logic of incrementation, imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” were likewise evoked to give the impression that Iraq, despite a decade of economic blockades, continued to pose an imminent threat to world peace, necessitating a second “war.” While in 1989, by a regression of the same logic, all that was required was the handle of a bullwhip, inserted into the rectum of artist Robert Mapplethorpe & photographed in black & white, to cause US senators to envisage such clear & present danger to the moral fibre of the nation as to justify, on the home front, a declaration of all-out “war” against the National Endowment for the Arts (effectively deemed, in all but name, a terrorist organisation). For the “moral reprehensibility” of Mapplethorpe’s photograph was such as to draw down upon any organisation or institution associated with it the charge of being a public menace. Protestors at an ensuing obscenity trial articulated one of the more sinister ironies involved in all this: IF YOU GIVE ARTISTS FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION, their banner mocked, SOON EVERY AMERICAN WILL WANT IT!

These acts of “war” & “zero tolerance” have, without exception, served to reinforce those “mechanisms of oppression” of which André Breton spoke, “based on the family, religion & the fatherland, the recognition of a necessity of man to enslave man, the careful underhanded exploitation of the urgent need to transform society for the sole profit of a financial & industrial oligarchy, the need also to silence the great isolated appeals” intended to arouse the mass of humanity from its “apathy,” the whole “mechanism of stagnation, of regression & of wearing down” directed at all manifestations of “non-conformity.” Yet it is precisely such “mechanisms of oppression,” speaking in the voice of Tradition-Under-Threat, that at every turn expropriates the language & appeal to “non- conformity,” in the guise of what the poet Blake (a lifelong adversary of institutional authoritarianism) called “honest indignation.”

Such obscurantism is clearly nothing new, yet within the historical timeframe of modernity, from the birth of the avantgarde through the emergence & disappearance of successive “underground,” “sub” & “counter” cultures, the acceleration & reach of its expropriative force has achieved unprecedented dimensions. No longer do we speak of a mere “aestheticisation of politics” as delimiting the systemic creep of fascism, or even of the all-pervasiveness of the “spectacle”: the “false choices” represented by the Tradition & its discontents mean that alienation is the only possibility, so to speak, on offer. How then, other than by an act of conscience, to live, as Breton says, “in open conflict with the immediate world that surrounds us”? An “ultrasophisticated world, a world which, no matter what aspect of it is put to the question, proves in the face of free thought to be without an alibi. In whatever direction I turn, there is in the function of this world the same appearance of cold & hostile irrationality, the same outer ceremony beneath which it is immediately obvious that the sign survives the thing signified.”

A certain reactionary sentimentalism attaches itself to appropriations of this kind: we see it not only in the jingoism of justified “war,” but in the progressive gentrifications & commodifications of “underground” culture; in the cynical reason of a world “without alibi” that suffuses the image of every possible critique with its own (disavowed) irrationality. A paradigm case is 1970s New York, whose market- driven political institutions exhibited such blatant “irrationalism” as to bring the city wilfully to the verge of bankruptcy & infrastructural meltdown, while pointing the finger at those “urban primitives,” the socially marginalised, as the true subversives. Symptomatised over subsequent decades into a living museum of counter-cultural “artefacts” (of a city collapsed back into a re-evolutionary moment, as if made to crawl once again from some primeval swamp of endemic corruption & social decay) it has been since cashed in on by a heritage industry driven by a reactionary sentimentalism of unprecedented cynicism & scale: from CBGB’s merchandising outlets among the sushi bars of a gentrified East Village, to the endless retrospectives of domesticated Punk, No Wave, Graffiti, Hip Hop, Transgression, etc., etc., in institutional gulags like the Museum of Modern Art. “Reactionary sentimentalism” was the epithet coined by film critic Richard Brody in response to Wim Wenders’s 1977 film Der Amerikanische Freund. In his retrospective overview – “Where Wim Wenders Went Wrong” – published in the New Yorker (a “journal of record” that wears umlauts on its diphthongs like culture police Waffenfarbe) almost four decades after the fact, Brody claimed that Wenders’ film suffered from a “yearning for a mythic America that no longer existed.” Did it ever? Der Amerikanische Freund, a loosely neo- noir adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s (at that time unpublished) novel, Ripley’s Game, begins on a Lower West Side Manhattan street – outside 388 West Broadway, to be exact, between Spring & Broome – in full view of the recently completed Twin Towers of the now-disappeared World Trade Center. Dennis Hopper’s “Ripley,” a kind of Marlboro cowboy transplanted to Hamburg, steps from a cab on his way to the SoHo studio of a blind-in-one- eye art forger played by Nicolas Ray, who provides Ripley with bogus Old World masters to peddle via European auction houses back to cachet-hungry US galleries. Everything about this rendezvous speaks to the fallacy that was, & is, the contemporary Culture Industry.

The rest of Wenders’ film expounds on this basic trope of fakery, blindness & the imaginary “fetish economy” of the American Idea. It pegs Brody’s “reactionary sentimentalism” from the very start as precisely that seductive naïveté at the locus both of commodity fetishism & of critical pseudo- emancipation: the Janus-like spectre haunting the American Century & its post-WW2 European franchise. Brody might just as well’ve called the Statue of Liberty a study in European “reactionary sentimentalism,” since that’s what his complaint amounts to – a sort of “misguided” New Wave Kulturkritik-as-cinephilia that induces a German director like Wenders to “venerate” (however ironically) James Rosenquist-style kitsch & local “outsider” products like Nick Ray & Sam Fuller (Brody goes so far as to call Wenders “the exemplary arthouse filmmaker of the Age of Reagan”). While to speak of the neighbouring Twin Towers in this way, of course, would be merely a case of the “sign surviving the thing signified.” Yet the paradox of the Twin Towers is not so much in the long shadow they cast over New York, as over the consciousness of Wenders’ “Amerika,” but that they themselves are shadows, cast by a duplicitous “liberal economic” irrationality: that malign fake Amerika at the heart of the “Dream” – that paralytic nightmare that repeats first as Art then as real-estate dollars.

Between the opening of the World Trade Center in 1973 & the release of Wenders’ film the year of Ed Koch’s election as New York mayor, nearly a million people fled the city in the face of rocketing crime rates, social disorder, collapsing infrastructure, economic stagnation, rampant corruption & an almost continuous state of emergency. At the height of New York’s fiscal crisis in 1975, the US president no less declined the opportunity to provide assistance. Daily News headlines read FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, before the White House finally relented, in the end bailing New York out to the tune of $1.3 billion in federal loans. This still wasn’t enough to repair the drastic cuts already made to municipal services such as hospitals, libraries, fire stations & the subway system – which was notoriously plagued by violent crime & frequent breakdowns. So much so, that the Council for Public Safety (representing police, fire-fighters & other public-safety workers) – in response to administration plans to lay-off a further 10,962 uniformed officers – published a brochure adorned with a skull & cross-bones aimed at deterring tourists, entitled WELCOME TO FEAR CITY: A SURVIVAL GUIDE FOR VISITORS TO NEW YORK. The brochure included such advice such as: “Stay off the streets after 6pm”; “Do not walk”; “Avoid public transportation”; “Remain in Manhattan” (“If you remain in midtown areas & restrict your travel to daylight hours, emergency service personnel are best able to provide protection”). The media, meanwhile, indulged unrestrained schadenfreude in depicting Times Square as a haven of pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts & homosexuals, while Central Park became universally synonymous with mugging & rape. As Lydia Lunch recounts in her introduction to Miron Zownir’s NYC RIP, “New York City during the 1970s & early ’80s was a beautifully ravaged slag, impoverished & neglected after suffering from decades of abuse & battery. She stank of sex, drugs & aerosol paint.”

When the city experienced a 25-hour blackout on July 13, 1977, widespread looting resulted in over 3000 arrests, held up as proof of the degeneracy of the urban sub-classes – but as numerous accounts (such as Jonathan Mahler ’s The Bronx is Burning) point out, the true culprits were opportunistic slumlords & the real-estate lobby, occupied for a decade in the systematic erasure of large tracts of New York tenement housing, aided & abetted by tacit City Hall collusion & Rand Corporation-guided mismanagement. Construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, combined with rent control policies that abetted insurance fraud & arson, turned the South Bronx into a no-man’s land of burnt-out tenements & rubble-strewn vacant lots. In the ten years between 1970 & 1980, seven census districts lost more than 97 percent of their buildings to fire & abandonment. Christopher Meele’s Selling the Lower East Side, recounts how a similar fate befell Manhattan’s underprivileged downtown: “Sandwiched between the corporate skyscrapers of Wall Street & Midtown, the East Village landscape, particularly in sections of Loisaida [Alphabet City], resembled the bombed- out centres of some European cities at the close of World War II.” It was no accident that the area east of Avenue B in the East Village, once called “Little Germany” (for its turn-of-the-century German- speaking inhabitants), was referred to in the early ’80s as “Little Dresden.”

The descent of the Lower East Side of Manhattan & the South Bronx into a war zone of gangs, drugs & prostitution was an oft-decried late ’70s “urban tragedy,” out of which – & directly related to which – Punk, Street Art, Hip Hop & a diverse squatting scene were all born, documented in films like Amos Poe & Ivan Král’s Blank Generation (1976) & Gary Weis’s 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (1979). It also produced the new genre of “Bronxploitation,” like Enzo Castellari’s Escape from the Bronx (1983) & Bronx Warriors (1982) – in which a biker vigilante called “Trash” (played by Mark Gregory & modelled with unrestrained camp on Stallone’s “Rambo”) defends the newly-created wastelands from further incursion by unscrupulous developers – self-consciously borrowing from recent gangsploitation & dystopia flicks like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) & The Warriors, directed by Walter Hill (1979), while also making passing nods to earlier Harlem “Blaxploitation” reels like Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971) & Across 110th Street by Barry Shear (1972). Meanwhile, as the city reeled from shellshock to existential ennui, the Punk “revolution” took on momentum, spilling out from the East Village in the wake of bands like the Velvet Underground, MC5, the Stooges & the New York Dolls, with its epicentre around CBGB’s on the Bowery.

Lydia Lunch relates the broader cultural impact of the moment: “I wasn’t expecting the toilets at CBGB’s to be the bookends of Duchamp’s urinal, but then again maybe 1977 had more in common with 1917 than anyone at the time could’ve imagined. The anti-art invasion of Dada… & the Surrealist pranksters who shadowed them had a blast pissing all over everybody’s expectations. The anti-everything of No Wave was a collective caterwaul that defied categorisation, defiled the audience, despised convention.” Phil Shoenfelt, frontman for the “post- Situationist” band Khmer Rouge which emerged from the local art-noise scene & was managed by Warhol Factory photographer Nat Finkelstein (their “liberation through militant rhythms” parodying the idea of Punk as vanguard of world revolution), summed up the general ethos: “New York was a wild place at the end of the ’70s & in the early ’80s. Nobody ever seemed to sleep, & we’d go from club to club in a non-stop blur of frenetic activity checking out bands, taking drugs, making low-budget movies & generally living like there was no tomorrow.”

Khmer Rouge: Phil Shoenfelt (left) & Barry “Scratchy” Myers (right) at CBGB’s, 1982, unknown photographer.

The scene that emerged in the late ’70s was unusually heterogeneous & starkly remote from any form of industrial entertainment, & was for the most part “so transient,” as Village Voice columnist Michael Musto wrote in his 1986 book on the subject, Downtown, “that just as you discover a club, you find it’s been turned into a pizzeria, but that’s okay; wait fifteen minutes & it’ll be a club again.” More enduring venues – like CBGB’s on the Bowery (opened in 1973 by Hilly Kristal), Max’s Kansas City on 18th & Park (opened in 1965 by Micky Ruskin), the Mudd Club in TriBeCa (opened in 1978 by Steve Mass, Diego Cortez & Anya Phililips), Club 57 on St Mark’s (founded by Stanley Strychacki), Danceteria at West 34th (& later, home to the “voodoo lounge,” at West 21st, founded by Rudolf Piper & Jim Fourat), Tier 3 on West Broadway, 8BC (on 8th between Aves B & C), the Pyramid Club on Avenue A (established in 1979), the Cavern, Studio 54 (on West 54th), Tunnel, Palladium, Area Club (on Hudson, founded in 1983 by Eric & Christopher Goode), & later the Knitting Factory (from 1987) – variously featured underground film screenings, exhibitions, design shows, readings, as well as live music performance: everything from Keith Harings “Erotic Day-Glo” art shows & Tom Scully & Susan Hannaford’s “New Wave Vaudeville” at Club 57, to landmark events like the April 1981 “Beyond Words” show at the Mudd Club featuring Alan Vega, Fab 5 Freddy, Iggy Pop, Futura 2000, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring & John Sex (the downtown’s answer to PS1’s “New York/New Wave” show).

The scene at Max’s, successively associated with Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground & the New York Dolls, has been widely documented. In her memoir of Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, Patti Smith, living at the Chelsea Hotel at the time (1969), lushly describes navigating the fraught & “darkly glamorous” route into Max’s backroom & the famed “round table” where Warhol had once held court: “The ladies in waiting were beautiful, & the circulating knights were the likes of Ondine, Donald Lyons, Rauschenberg, Dalí, Billy Name, Lichtenstein, Gerard Malanga, & John Chamberlain. In recent memory the round table had seated such royalty as Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth, Nico, Tim Buckley, Janis Joplin, Viva, & the Velvet Underground.” As photographer Anton Perich recounts, at Max’s “there was cross-pollination: I saw Chamberlain talking with Gregory Corso. Tiger Morse talking with Taylor Mead. Lou Reed talking with Michael Pollard. Grace Jones talking with Glenn O’Brien. Divine talking with Charles Ludlam. David Johansen talking with David Bowie. The full list would be hours long.” Like Club 57, Area Club & the Mudd Club, Max’s also prominently displayed contemporary art, including work by Warhol & Donald Judd, “a hovering sculpture by Forest Myers,” a window by Michael Heiser, “a crashed car by John Chamberlain,” “the legendary bloody neon cross by Dan Flavin,” as well as Myers’s Laser End (“probably the most immaterial sculpture ever made”).

In 1974 Max’s closed, then reopened a year later for a final 6-year stint, captured in all its decadence in Marcia Resnick’s Punks, Poets & Provocateurs: NYC Bad Boys 1977-1982. During that time, alongside the scene-makers known as the Downtown 500 who’d previously defined the club circuit, there emerged a curious mix of the new categorically ellusive “urban primitives” – graffiti & “street artists” like SAMO© & Keith Haring, unclassifiable “performance artists” like Joey Arias, Klaus Nomi, Diamanda Galás, Annie Sprinkle & Kembra Pfahler, “writers” like Kathy Acker, Tom Clark, Eileen Myles, Peter Smith, “musicians” as varied as Arto Lindsay, Thurston Moore, Rammellzee, Debbie Harry & John Zorn, “filmmakers” like John Lurie, Richard Kern, Sara Driver, Jim Jarmusch & Tim Burns, hybrid “avantgardists” such as Lindzee Smith, “photographers” like Marcia Resnick, William Coupon, Robert Carrithers, Lina Bertucci, Richard Sandler, Bethany Jacobson, Nan Goldin, “actors” like Patti Astor & Lung Leg, dragqueen “performers” like Lipsinka, Lady Bunny & RuPaul, & so on, & so on.

In 1966 the Poetry Project had been established at St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, by among others Paul Blackburn, who lived upstairs from McSorley’s on East 7th. There was frequent “crossover ” between the scenes, with the likes of Clark Coolidge, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Lewis Warsh, Bernadette Mayer, Ed Sanders, Vitto Acconci, Steve Dalachinsky, Tuli Kupferberg, Ron Kolm, Thurston Moore, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Abigail Child, Henry Hills, effecting an on- going “revolution” in word, visual art, performance, music, film & mimeography – including a swathe of downtown guerrilla poetry publications such as Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, C, Angel Hair, 0 to 9, United Artists, Roof, & L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. In 1973 Miguel Algarín founded the Nuyorican Poets Café in his East Village apartment & later in premises on East 6th & East 3rd, serving as a locus of the city’s Hispanic literary scene, around writers like Miguel Piñero, Lucky Cienfuegos, El Coco que Habla, Bimbo Rivas & Sandra Maria Esteves. Meanwhile “Off Broadway” theatre spawned Richard Schechner ’s Performance Group (1967), Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysterical Theatre (1968), & the Wooster Group (Elizabeth LeCompte, Spalding Grey, Willem Defoe; 1975). While all of the major clubs of the period have since closed down, the Wooster Group, Poetry Project & Nuyorican Poets Café have become “institutions,” lone figures in a landscape from which all previously recognizable indigenous life, so to speak, has been eradicated (including virtually all the bookstores ), & instead of which there is (on Ave C) the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space – reminding that the “margins” remain & have always been creatures of Tradition, & that their own “traditions” don’t in fact belong to them, but to the expropriative domain of Capital.

Perhaps nothing embodies this idea more than the figure of Andy Warhol who, like the World Trade Center “Twins,” cast such a long shadow over the New York scene up till his death in 1987. It is in this shadow, of the prophet of inauthenticity & “business art,” that the politics of authenticity surrounding the broader social identifications of the late ’70s & early ’80s (hinged around the shooting of John Lennon outside the Dakota on 72nd Street), & not only the Punk & No Wave scenes, articulates its key paradox – which is that of the asymmetrical relation of the “powerless,” as Czechoslovak dissident Václav Havel wrote in 1978, to “Power.” Punk & No Wave, having since retreated to the museums, accomplished their own auto-critical destinies as “appropriation of appropriation,” while the institutionalisation of poetry merely served to further affirm its socio- economic marginality as a Culture Industry sub- genre – having become its own museum, in situ. The career of Warhol’s most brilliant acolyte, whose poem-paintings exceptionally attracted record prices during his brief lifetime (& continue to do so thirty years after), Jean-Michel Basquiat a.k.a. SAMO©, described precisely this arc – from the cardboard- box-on-Tompkins-Square-dwelling subject of Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81 to the “Lonesome Flyboy in the Buttermilk of the ’80s Art Boom” of Greg Tate’s 1989 Village Voice article, “Nobody Loves a Genius Child” (dead at the age of 27 a year & three months before the article was published, Basquiat had become that ideal commodity: a cash corpse©).

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1979, by Robert Carrithers.

It’s this vision of the city & of America in general that comes through most clearly in the early work of Jim Jarmusch – like Wenders, a poetic anatomist of “reactionary sentimentalism.” His first feature film, Permanent Vacation (1980), recalls a comment by Richard Sandler, the “unsung street photographer of 1980s New York”: if there’s “nothing more mysterious than a fact clearly described,” then a photograph “that doesn’t try to do anything than show you exactly the way something looks… is absolutely different from life.” It becomes a cenotaph, an advertisement not of some thing that has passed on from this world, of its remainder, nor even of its disappearance, but the disappearance of its disappearance reconstituted as an image, an artefact, a fetish, a commodity. We can look at Jarmusch’s scenes in the abandoned smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island (which reappears in both of Enzo Castellari’s Bronxploitation flicks) – just as we can look at Sandler ’s DOCUMERICA photographs of graffiti-bombed subway trains & dead-eyed commuters – & grasp nothing of the “city primeval” they seek to record, beyond its phantasmatic disappearance into the eminent domains of the Culture Industry & Real Estate. For the blankness of every “blank generation” there’s inevitably an image of regeneration: what failed or refused to work once, is forever being put back to work, like those outcasts in the wilderness turned into imitation Caravaggios. And while this process of renewal & degradation has been one of the endless fascinations of New York, there’s been a dawning sense since the mid-’90s that gentrification (since transformed into hypergentrification) has become a one-way street – giving rise to the open- ended litany of disappearances & high-rent blight chronicled in projects like Jeremiah Ross’ Vanishing New York, a.k.a. The Book of Lamentations: a bitterly nostalgic look at a city in the process of going extinct.” Closing out a special edition (#37) of the East Village Eye – produced for a retrospective at Howl Gallery in September 2016 (the first issue of the magazine to appear since 1987) – David H. Katz spoke to this “bitter nostalgia” with a Swiftian satire on “Degentrification: A Modest Proposal to Un- Improve Our City,” which advocated, among other novelties, “Tax breaks & abatements for areas to be meticulously restored to their original 1975-1985 condition as public art works, providing tourists with a simulacrum of urban decay, a Disneyland of dystopia, featuring burned-out buildings, brick- strewn lots, ubiquitous drug dealers, bargain- basement prostitutes & corrupt, indifferent cops.” Katz’s ambivalent proposal to restore New York’s “grandeur of decrepitude, returning it to a forbidding, grungy hellhole,” politely chides the likes of the Trump-Kushner real estate mafias without disturbing a single pane of glass (menial work left to immigrants in passenger jets). It’s a moot point, in any case. But in the narrative arc from war zone to corporatist cryogenics, from skid row to New Museum, something has happened to that widely parroted assertion that the only successful revolutionary class in history is the “bourgeoisie.” Because the hypergentrification of New York isn’t a middle class revolution – if anything it’s an advertisement for the abolition of the middle “commuter” classes (a.k.a. mortgaged lifestyle consumers) & of the irrelevance (other than as picturesque museum fodder: the memorial of a “repressed” that only ever returns as an image) of a resident proletkult who’d come to believe it was they who’d built the city up from its ruins but have been apparently content to subscribe to the remake. This newest revolution belongs to the pure accumulation of capital itself: the apotheosis of what Guy Debord called “spectacle,” which – in the aftermath of a spurious postmodernism (“capitalism’s masterstroke” in the words of Fukuyama) – has itself become the dominant revolutionary force of our time. The transformation of New York is merely its least concealable symptom, but only on the margins of living memory, which as everyone knows doesn’t live forever.

Like all things, this project for a revolution in New York (to thieve Robbe-Grillet’s 1972 book title) didn’t, of course, come out of nowhere. But one thing’s certain: its momentum had nothing to do with the provocations & subversions of homegrown “anarchist revolutionary” aspirationists wielding Krylon & Fender Mustangs, yet it had everything to do with the tenacity of their seemingly embodied “nihilism” & the apartheid mentality it duly incited beyond the five boroughs. The ghetto history of the city is a long one, but by the mid-’70s the view of Middle America was that New York as a whole should have a wall thrown up around it, so that every reprobate in the nation could be quarantined there (déjà vu?). There’s a barely disguised appeal to wish-fulfilment of this kind in countless films of the period, from the de-evolutionary oblivion evoked in Franklin Schaffner ’s Planet of the Apes (1968) & the public service disaster melodrama of Towering Inferno (1974), to the self-fulfilling prophecies of Castellari & Carpenter ’s early-’80s “escape” movies. But while out-of-town producers cashed in on this new vision of the Frontier, the narrative of class & race war that’d been evolving throughout the preceding decades entered a new & even more catastrophic phase with the arrival of the AIDS “plague” in the summer of 1981.

Since the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the gay & lesbian communities in New York had become increasingly visible in its push for civil rights, but still constituted one of the city’s marginal “sub-cultures,” centred around Christopher Street & the dilapidated port area between the Westside Highway & the Hudson River (the legendary “Sex Piers”), as well as the porno cinemas & peepshows (like the Deuce) around Times Square & the transgender & gay leather clubs (the Hellfire, the Vault, the Anvil, etc.) in the Meatpacking District. If Larry Mitchell’s The Terminal Bar (1982) is considered the first novel to address the subject of AIDS, the conspiratorial intersection of ideology, capital & virally-mediated genocide had already found expression in the writings of William Burroughs, from Naked Lunch (1959) & Queer (written 1951, published 1995) to The Place of Dead Roads (written at the “Bunker,” 222 Bowery, around ’79/’80). And while films like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (both 1964), Carolee Schneeman’s Fuses (1965) & Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966) set the tone of earlier underground art cinema’s “crossover” (with Flaming Creatures provoking an obscenity case against Jonas Mekas’s Film-Maker’s Cinemateque), the deeply sinister ambivalence that accompanied the AIDS, heroin & lawlessness “epidemics” at the turn of the decade (street heroin becoming suddenly cheap & plentiful in 1979) was most fully evoked in the emergence of No Wave &, a few years later, Cinema of Transgression (both movements explored in close detail in Céline Danhier’s 2010 Blank City, the first documentary of its kind).

No Wave, a self-conscious rejection of both commercial & institutional avantgarde “art” cinema, was a loose collective of downtown filmmakers working in a guerrilla no-budget style centred around themes of crime, mind control, sexual repression & violence – including Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Vivienne Dick, James Nares, Tim Burns, John Lurie, & Scott & Beth B – whose films sometimes screened at the Mudd Club, Club 57 & Max’s. The movement “came of age” with the appearance of Poe’s 1978 film, The Foreigner (featuring Eric Mitchell, with Anya Phillips & Debbie Harry) – described by Emma Hacking in No Ripcord magazine as an “existential search & destroy mission” – & Nares’s Rome 78, staged amid the city’s pseudo-Roman architecture (Grant’s Tomb & the American Thread Building; featuring Mitchell, David McDermott, Lydia Lunch & Patti Astor), which was first screened in 1979 at the short-lived New Cinema, & was described by Colleen Fitzgibbon in the East Village Eye as “the great political opus of New Wave cinema.” The short-lived New Cinema at 12 St Mark’s Place had been established by Mitchell & Nares to provide a showcase for new work: “We thought it’d be good to have a venue to show our work outside the standard venue, which was Anthology Film Archive, because they’d decided that independent filmmaking had ended in ’72 or something like that.” Censorship by omission was among the motivating factors that prompted Nick Zedd to found the “Cinema of Transgression” in 1984 – an anti-movement that grew out of No Wave, influenced by the Wiener Aktionismus of Kurt Kren & Otto Muehl, as well as the films of John Waters & the Kuchar brothers. A manifesto appeared under the nom-de-guerre “Orion Jeriko” in Zedd’s self- published “crudzine,” The Underground Film Bulletin: “We propose transformation through transgression – to convert, transfigure & transmute into a higher plane of existence in order to approach freedom in a world full of unknowing slaves.”

Beth & Scott B, 1981, by Robert Carrithers.

Zedd’s “dirt-cheap atrocities in Super-8 & 16mm” set out to savage Reaganite “reactionary sentimentality” through a mix of grindhouse- terrorism & un-American-kitsch, in a filmic equivalent of the Weather Underground. Subcultural in the full sense of the term, Zedd appropriated the tabloid nihilism of mainstream TV news & fused it with both a Lower East Side counter-realism & détourned Peep-O-Rama “porno consumerism,” in a rebuke to the political & aesthetic hypocrisies of institutional “art” at that time. In comparison, for example, to the “subversive” art cinema presented by Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16 a decade previous, the viewing booths at Peep-O-Rama on 42nd Street, a.k.a. The Deuce, “were showcases for the wildest & most extreme films in cinematic history.” As a sign of art’s increasing marginalisation by an industry of endlessly appropriative potential as subversion (not what Harvey Wheeler intended by “the institutionalisation of revolution,” but amounting to the same thing), the cinemas that extended around Times Square (mixing “heady doses of sex & raw violence… from bloody horror movies to post-mondo shockumentaries & every subgenre of exploitation movies imaginable” ) were paradigms of a contemporary social critique that outside No Wave & Transgression had failed to recognise itself, retreating instead into MTV post- Punk anaestheticism & “entertainment.”

Along with Richard Kern, Vivienne Dick & David Wojnarowicz, Zedd’s films proclaimed themselves “politically against the grain of generic America & its homogenized artistic bourgeoisms,” “employing derision & satire” to produce “unrelenting attacks on dominant culture using the cheapest available tools.” In tune with the emerging scene around CBGB’s (bands like Suicide, The Ramones, The Cramps, Richard Hell & the Voidoids) Club 57 & Pyramid Club (with their “drag queens, old TV cartoons, Japanese animation, fake rappers, lady wrestling tournaments… & a succession of pre-sellout weirdos like John Sex, Wendy Wild, Klaus Nomi, Ann Magnuson, & an endless list of shitfaced lowlife in the days before gentrification ruined the neighbourhood” ), these films pursued a “para-punk” strategy of sexual dissidence aimed at audiences “fatally lulled,” as Wojnarowicz put it, “into society’s deep sleep.” (“Sex in America long ago slid into a small set of generic symbols; mention the word ‘sex’ & the general public appears to only imagine a couple of heterosexual positions on a bed – there are actual laws in parts of the country forbidding anything else even between consenting adults.” )


Klaus Nomi silkscreen collaboration by John Sex & Kenny Scharf, 1980.

At a time when “one in every four people in the Bronx is HIV positive,” Wojnarowicz argued, the suppression of sexuality & its representation in public vied only with commodity hysteria in the arena of domestic “extremism,” systematically championed by the same political forces responsible for orchestrating the ’80s “culture wars” & attacks on artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano & Karen Finley (foremost being North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, “one of the most dangerous homophobes in the continental United States”). Indeed, throughout their tenures, both New York mayor Ed Koch & US president Ronald Reagan steadfastly refused to deal with the AIDS crisis – thereby appeasing the religious right on the one hand & the real-estate lobby on the other, for whom AIDS served as a convenient method of “slum clearance.” Playwright Holly Hughes recounts collective guerrilla action against New York advertising spaces as late as the early ’90s to expose official inaction: “In Sheridan Square in the West Village, right across from a big Marlboro billboard, we put up a billboard of a cowboy with Bush’s face superimposed on it, & in the same typeface as ‘Marlboro’ it said, ‘AIDS CRISIS!’ & in the ‘Surgeon-General’s Warning’ box it read, ‘WARNING: WHILE BUSH PLAYS COWBOY THERE’S ONE DEATH FROM AIDS EVERY EIGHT MINUTES IN THE UNITED STATES, & 37 MILLION AMERICANS CAN’T AFFORD HEALTHCARE.”

A disaster that could’ve been averted once again assumed the connived form of historical inevitability, of “divine retribution” as the counter-culture’s “manifest destiny.” As Hughes reflected in 1991: “I feel angry that we could effortlessly come up with a billion dollars a day to spend on the [Gulf ] War, yet nothing, ever, for education. And that a $5000 NEA grant to a lesbian performance artist is a threat to National Security. Congress passed the AIDS-Care bill, but there are no funds to implement it. The homeless & the environment are completely neglected. Obviously we have the money to kill people, but we don’t have the money to do anything else.” Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, was the line they used back in the day to sell the glories of war to the same (soon to be “blank”) generation they were busy turning into canon fodder. And when there were no foreign “defensive” wars to wage, they waged generational war instead. The war on “troubled youth,” gender war, war on sexuality: homegrown Amerikan Jihad. As one of the speakers in Wojnarowicz’s “Postcards from America X-Rays from Hell” observes, “There are no more people in their thirties. We’re all dying out.” To which Wojnarowicz himself adds, WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I’D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL. By 1991, during the “Dinkins Deluge” (the significant rise in NYC shelter populations at the onset of the 1990- 91 recession, during the Dinkins mayoralty) New York had an estimated 10,000 PWAs (“People With AIDS”) living homeless on the streets, while at the same time the NYPD narcotics squad was undergoing a 137% expansion (taking over the public crack & heroin bazaars in Alphabet City, while somehow maintaining an unchanged level of hard drug use): the two statistics went hand-in-hand with the systemic creep of eminent domain & general real- estate development throughout the Lower East Side. Lying “in the shadow of the American Dream,” all this, Wojnarowicz wrote shortly before his own AIDS- related death in 1992, would soon “be picturesque ruins only the initiated can see.” The unsubtle irony being that, with the eventual normalisation of the HIV crisis, those acts of dissidence, resistance & survival it gave rise to in combination with other “transgressive,” “sub-cultural” manifestations, would in turn also become commodified: “picturesque ruins” money could freely buy. As Nick Zedd wryly acknowledged, if the “Cinema of Transgression” could be said to have “emerged in a vacuum” & been “quickly buried by the gatekeepers of consensus reality, to be exhumed decades later by reactionaries conveniently exploiting authenticity for their own self-aggrandisement,” this can equally be said of what increasingly has come to resemble a kind of Last Flowering of the New York “underground scene” before the terminal aftershock of the new millennium turned everything retro, like Aranofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.


Westside Fuck Piers, New York, 1981, by Miron Zownir.

The template is already there in Stuart Shapiro & Harvey Keith’s piece of pseudo urban anthropology, Mondo New York, which appeared in 1988, the year of the Tompkins Square riot, & paraded its subject matter like a Coney Island freakshow for the out-of-towners in the manner of Snuff meets Midnight Cowboy. The film openly panders to (or parodies, depending on your POV) the expectations of an audience that would generously be described as credulous, & – tour-guided through the Lower East Side by a clueless blonde (played by Shannah Laumeister) – features such de rigueur New York attractions as a Chinatown white-slave auction, a punishingly tame S&M club, a “suicide bomber” (performance artist Joe Coleman, who bites the heads off two live mice before detonating fireworks attached to his chest), an “unidentified AIDS victim injecting himself with heroin,” along with appearances by a number of “underground” personalities including John Sex, Ann Magnuson (beating a stuffed horse), & Karen Finley (covered in raw egg & glitter while delivering a rant against the evils of gentrification).

Post-ironic before its time, Mondo New York seemed to prefigure the sad & inevitable fate of every counter-culture in the onward march of an “American domestic colonialism” which has come to extend across race, class, gender & sexual orientation, & whose hunger for expropriation – even of the most squalid “bastions of indecency” (see Samuel R. Delaney’s 1999 essay, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue) – has become insatiable, such that even as it hyper-commodifies everything from Basquiat to the Bowery, its “rampant inequality” (as David Byrne complained several years ago in an online opinion piece) “is squeezing out the artistic genius that made New York such a vibrant cultural capital.” For the future sustainability of “gentrification,” it’s obvious they’ll need to maintain a number of urban reserves, appropriately deprived, in which to breed sufficient “artistic genius” to keep the value-adding on its logarithmic curve.

In January 1994, turncoat Democrat Rudi Giuliani was elected to the mayor’s office on a “broken windows” platform of zero tolerance towards petty crime: “As of this moment,” he proclaimed, “the expressions of cynicism – New York isn’t governable, New York isn’t manageable, New York isn’t worth it – all of these I declare politically incorrect.” The clean- up began in earnest & the corresponding drop in the crime-rate was considered “one of the most remarkable stories in the history of urban crime.” If Giuliani’s tenure is overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, it is nevertheless emblematised by the opening of the world’s biggest (17,000 square feet) “family restaurant” a.k.a. McDonalds on Times Square in 2001 – a far cry from the prevailing image of the city a decade earlier when “Bryant Park, in the heart of Midtown & adjacent to the New York Public Library, was an open-air drug market; Grand Central Terminal, a gigantic flophouse; the Port Authority Bus Terminal, ‘a grim gauntlet for bus passengers dodging beggars, drunks, thieves, & destitute drug addicts,’” as the New York Times put it in 1992.

“Cadillacs… for everyone,” 1980, by Robert Carrithers.

The Times Square redevelopment had been an initiative of the Walt Disney Company, whose way had been prepared under the Koch administration by a series of eminent domain seizures which led to the mass closure of the district’s grindhouses, peepshows & small businesses, in favour of large- scale media outlets, finance companies & tourism. The city was swiftly becoming a disquieting penumbra, gaslit with sentimental kitsch, exaggerating at every turn the difference between what’s remembered & what was, like a reprisal. The radical turnaround left the broader community in shellshock, accompanied as it was by both a drastic reduction from the beginning of Giuliani’s tenure in services for the homeless & a widely advertised increase in the number of homeless arrests, with police regularly sweeping parks & other public places as part of a policy of area sanitation. Giuliani’s zero tolerance scheme also extended into civil rights issues in a crack down on protest & freedom of speech, including an effort to defund the Brooklyn Museum of Art for showing a Chris Ofili painting of an African “Holy Virgin Mary” (Giuliani described it as “sick”); harassing Socialist Workers Party members for collecting petition signatures; preventing the city’s cab drivers from assembling (“to make Manhattan a parking lot”) in protest against excessive new regulations; barring All Saints Lutheran Church members from delivering an AIDS education programme in the South Bronx; denying permits for a march against police brutality; issuing strict licensing restrictions on sidewalk artists; using a 1926 cabaret law to curtail any dancing in bars & clubs; imposing an excessive daily fee on street musicians, & so on. In 1999, Giuliani received the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression’s first “Lifetime Muzzle Award” for having “stifled free speech to so unprecedented a degree, & in so many & varied forms, that simply keeping up with the city’s censorious activity has proved a challenge for defenders of free expression.”

In 1995, in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing – the “deadliest terror attack on American soil” since the Weather Underground, at least till the Twin Towers six years later – & with student protests & public sector strikes across the Atlantic growing into the largest social movement in France since Mai ’68, there was a sense that something might’ve been beginning. In October, Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March descended on the National Mall in Washington DC, but while in New York demonstrators against state & city budget cuts & police brutality staged blockades of several Manhattan bridges & transit tunnels – & while the “Shut the City Down” protest on March 23 saw an estimated 25,000 students clashing with police while attempting to march on Wall Street – these efforts failed to coalesce, along with on-going guerrilla actions by groups like ACT UP, into an effective political resistance against the changes being wrought in New York society. As Richard Huelsenbeck once wrote, “One is entitled to ideas only if one can transform them into life.” And though by decade’s end, anger at the city’s relentless Disneyfication had fed into the growing Anti-Globalisation movement, culminating in the Seattle ’99 riots, there was a growing sense that the New York moment had irrevocably passed. Once the Towers came down & the gentrification police had found their ultimate raison d’être, it was clear to everyone who’d survived the downtown scene that it was the END.

*“Reactionary Sentimentalism” is excerpted from the Introduction to City Primeval: New York, Berlin, Prague, an anthology of underground writing, film, photography & art, curated by Robert Carrithers & Louis Armand, published by Litteraria Pragensia this October, with contributions by Bruno Adams, Penny Arcade, Dale Ashmun, J.Jackie Baier, Markéta Baňková, Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer, Lina Bertucci, Gaby Bíla-Günther, Mykel Board, Victor Bockris, Christoph Brandl, Gary Ray Bugarcic, David Černý, Roman Černý, Michal Cihlář, Antonio Cossa, William Coupon, Max Dax, Christoph Dreher, Sara Driver, Glen Emery, Vincent Farnsworth, Nat Finkelstein, Roxanne Fontana, Thor Garcia, Susanne Glück, Carola Goellner, Anthony Haden Guest, Carl Haber, Jere Harshman, Henry Hills, Nhoah Hoena, Michael Holman, John Hood, Chris Hughes, Jolana Izbická, Timo Jacobs, Bethany Eden Jacobson, Tobiáš Jirous, Bettina Köster, Julius Klein, Hubert Ketzschmar, Jaromír Lelek, Lydia Lunch, Rinat Magsumov, Peter Milne, Steve Morell, Mona Mur, Julia Murakami, Shalom Neuman, Paul Pacey, Puma Perl, Rudolf Piper, Rudi Protrudi, Mark Reeder, Marcia Resnik, Ingrid Rudefors, Ilse Ruppert, Šimon Šafránek, Honza Sakař, Oliver Schütz, Marcia Schofield, Tom Scully, Semra Sevin, Phil Shoenfelt, Peter Smith, Azalea So Sweet, Mark Steiner, Kenton Turk, Andre Werner, Ian Wright, Nick Zedd, Dave Zijlstra, Richard & Winter Zoli, Miron Zownir.


1. In his 1935 Prague lecture on the “Political Position of Today’s Art,” trans. Richard Seaver & Helen R. Lane (Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972) 212-217.

2. Richard Brody, “Where Wim Wenders Went Wrong,” The New Yorker (3 September, 2015).

3. Lydia Lunch, “New York City R.I.P.: An Introduction,” NYC RIP (Berlin: Pogo Books, 2015).

4. Christopher Meele, Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Eastate & Renaissance in New York City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000) 212.

5. Lydia Lunch, forward to Thurston Moore & Byron Conley, No Wave: Post-Punk: Underground New York 1976-1980 (New York: Abrams, 2008).

6. Patti Smith, Just Kids (London: Bloomsbury, 2010) 117.

7. Two exceptions being East Village Books, on St Mark’s Place, with its ANTI-THIS-ESTABLISHMENT collection, & the Strand on Broadway.

8. Types like Donald Trump always get away without a scratch, which is something that should be on top of everyone’s fix-it list. Add Cooper Union & the Bowery Mission to the mix, & what chance does anyone else stand? The sign in the sky says REAL ESTATE OR BUST, all the rest’s just sentimental blackmail.

9. Alexandra Genova, “Meet the Unsung Street Photographer of 1980s New York,” Time (October 11, 2016).

10. Emma Hacking, “The Foreigner,” No Ripcord (17 October 2010).

11. Eric Mitchell, qtd in Zack Carlson & Bryan Connolly, Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2010) 410.

12. Bill Landis & Michelle Clifford, Sleazoid Express (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001) 3.

13. Jack Sargeant, Flesh & Excess: On Underground Film (Los Angeles: Amok, 2015) 58.

14. Nick Zedd, Totem of the Depraved (Los Angeles: 2.13.61, 1996).

15. David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage, 1991).

16. Holly Hughes, interviewed in Dangerous Women (San Francisco: Re/Search, 1991) 101-2.

17. Hughes, Dangerous Women, 101.

18. Michael Wilmington, “Way Down, Way Out in Mondo New York,” Los Angeles Times (June 20, 1988).

19. David Byrne, “Will Work for Inspiration,” Creative Time Reports (October 7, 2013).

20. George L. Kelling, “How New York Became Safe: The Full Story,” City Journal (Special Issue, 2009).


Louis Armand is the author of eight novels, including The Combinations (2016), Cairo (2014), and Breakfast at Midnight (2012). In addition, he has published ten collections of poetry – most recently, East Broadway Rundown (2015) & The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015) – & is the author of Videology (2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (2013). He lives in Prague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 14th, 2017.