The fourth interview in a series of posts examining what it means to survive in New York. Today I speak with artist Marcin Ramocki. Other interviews in this series include curator and Prospect Non-Profit Director Dan Cameron, Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett of Triple Candie, a non-profit gallery located in Harlem, and artist William Powhida. A full piece reflecting on these interviews is available in this month's issue of Map Magazine.
Paddy Johnson: I want to talk to you a little about your career in New York, and what you think is essential to get by.
Marcin Ramocki: Right. Some kind of a stable income is super important if you are a creative individual. If you don't have a quiet mind, you can't kick back and think and make things. I mean, people say you need 75 grand a year to survive in New York and not make any savings. How many people in New York that call themselves artists actually make that kind of money? 2%, maybe 5%.
PJ: I'd say 2%, max.
MR: Exactly. As far as my operations go I think I was just lucky, because my first idea was to work for this interactive design advertising company, and it paid a lot of money, but they went under in the late 90s. So I started teaching, and that was a good choice. And you can see, actually, especially in new media, that the artists – even those who hate the idea of teaching – end up teaching because it's one of the few viable operations for an artist.
There're also variations on that theme, because it’s a different thing teaching full time at a college or teaching part time, where you have to drive around and you get paid much less and you don't have health benefits. I am not saying everyone should get a teaching job, because I know a lot of people who are adjuncts and teach four classes and each one pays them, you know, 500 a month with no benefits and they have to drive themselves to three different states on four different days.
PJ: Well, a tenure track position in New York is pretty rare, is it not?
MR: Yeah, it is pretty rare, but I think if you really really want it and spend a couple years, you'll find something. You'll just have to survive until then; there are a lot of small colleges and universities around New York, an hour or two out of New York, if you’re willing to make that trip. You'll find something eventually if you actually have a career that is somewhat happening, and you are showing and making stuff that people are seeing. That's been the story with most of my friends involved in this new medium.
PJ: Most of them are teaching?
MR: Yeah, I am actually trying to go through the list of all my friends and…yes, I think that 90 percent of them ended up teaching. It’s not only necessarily for money, it’s kind of a natural development, because if you are making new media or video art, even if you are a recognized artist you’re probably not selling all that much. You're going to end up teaching, and people want you to teach. It is as simple as that. I think it may be less so in the world of painters, because there are so many painters and sculptors it's hard for them to find a job. If you are accomplished in computer arts – visual arts or new media arts – then you will probably get at least an adjunct position because there aren’t many people who consistently have that kind of achievement.
PJ: Right. You've done a lot of things in your career as an artist, because you actually ran a gallery called Vertexless. Could you talk about Vertextlist a little bit and what you did with that?
MR: From the survival/financial perspective, you mean how it was done?
PJ: Well, a little bit of both. Just letting people understand what it was you were doing. I think one of the interesting things about Vertexless is that it was not a non-profit: you were selling net art, which is difficult to sell- or maybe it wasn't. You could let me know what the market was like for that. Did you have to do art fairs, that sort of thing?
MR: Vertexlist was a little artist run gallery that I started in 2003 and it lasted until 2009. My concept of the space was to have an actual gallery space, which would be mostly devoted to obsolete computer art. It turned into mostly net-related things but originally it was digital art and art that was conceptually related to new media. I started without any plan whatsoever. I had come to a place in my life when I just felt like I needed to do something and there were all these people, myself included, who were in new media and didn't have any viable platform to show or discuss their work. At first it was kind of a party place for people to display their work: there were bands playing, I had the space open on weekends. If you do something consistently for 12 months, as it is in New York, people start noticing. I got a few write ups, there was The New York Times and a couple other ones and people recognized it as a place where younger artists did these computer things that usually didn’t sell and where there was barely any idea of selling. I didn't go non-profit because the wait was so long that I- basically, I was not organized enough to put the whole process together. I tried, but I was a one man operation, and then it became a one man and one woman operation after my girlfriend started helping me, but it was really small scale. Making money, it was really based off of this real estate trick, where you rent a commercial building and you subdivide it, and there are people living in parts of the building and having studios in the building, and they pay enough money so that the cost of renting the space itself is fairly small.. So that made it possible. We had sales, the prices of the pieces were between 700 and 3000 dollars and we had three or four collectors that were regulars, one American and two Europeans. That was really it for larger sales, but then we had these annual events where people would come and pick up a print or something for 500 bucks, and that really helped. At no point was this really a successful commercial operation and I don't think many galleries in Williamsburg, or in Greater New York, are very successful financial operations. Maybe in six years we had three months where it was really happening. Every time that happened I would try to expand and do something crazy, going to an art fair with new media art, selling almost nothing and blowing a whole bunch of money. So that was about it, it was just a stubborn art project, with someone who was willing to blow 70% of his salary from teaching to run this space and do this thing. It was, by all means, a successful project. I would do it again, if I had the energy.
I think that first of all it's important to remember that it is really is worth it for an artist to be here. It is totally different if you manage to survive and do your thing in New York. It is going to count seven times more here than any other place in the world.
PJ: Is that because of all the stuff going on here? Why do you think New York is more important?
MR: New York is more important because there are hundreds of thousands of artists around the world who are not artists because they don't have the opportunity to meet the people that the artists here do. There’s this incredibly huge network supporting artists: you have huge studios all over the place, and they tell other people, hey, you know, this guy is doing good work, and then maybe Paddy Johnson comes and checks it out and before you realize it they're rocking the boat.
PJ: You think the Internet hasn't replaced the in-person studio visit?
MR: It’s in-person personality and contacting each other, it’s human energy and liking each other and in becoming involved in a persons life and supporting them, whether you have something to offer or not. It's like this one big process, New York; people meet, talk, and drink together. It doesn’t happen if you are somewhere in middle America or in Europe. In those places, there is this separation that is instituted by the state or something, these private parties, it is really kind of insular. It’s little bubbles. Here it’s not, here there is a genuine art world we are dealing with. That’s why it is important to be here. That’s why when you make something, it is really possible to be noticed – and if you are noticed, it’s going to be amplified because of where you were noticed.
The second thing is that if you come here you’d better have some money, because otherwise you are going to be utterly miserable. If you have money, New York is the best place in the world; if you don't have money it's the worst place in the world, because you are literally suffering. You will suffer every moment. I don't know how to do it: I know people who wait tables and play gigs in restaurants, who teach, who are paralegals, some who managed to inherit some money, so forth and so on, but one way or another, you’d better have some money. If you can afford to get a big space and rent it out, you can get free rent, even now. You know that's really the painful but savvy way to do it for a young underpaid hipster in Williamsburg.
PJ: Do you feel like things are the same as they were when you moved? Tougher? Easier?
MR: I would say that I don't have the right perspective because- you know, I’ve had this job, so it seems like it’s pretty much the same. It’s survival of the fittest here in New York, many people come and many people leave. Thinking of my peer group from graduate school, many people came to give it a shot and then decided it wasn’t worth it. Because it isn’t worth it if you are really struggling and you cannot make ends meet; we all know it's a friggin' disaster. So it may actually be tougher now, if I think about it.
PJ: I wonder if it’s tougher for net artists, because when you started the field was a lot newer. I would guess that the positions, though there are a lot more of them than for painters, are probably filling up now.
MR: That's true. It's hard, because if you really want to teach, especially now, they are stricter about the degree required. In the past, if a person was good and had their BFA, then they could get a gig as an adjunct; a lot of schools, now, want you to have a Master's. But if you have to go through that and pay yourself through graduate school, and then you come out of graduate school in your late 20's or early 30's and take that first teaching position, while producing your works, and then you want to be in New York”¦it gets kind of complicated. But I know a lot of people where I lived, in Williamsburg, who are struggling, and they come out of good programs. They want to do something that is related to the arts, and they want something that doesn't pay a lot of money, but pays the bills. And many of them, a lot of them, don't succeed. So I would say it’s a lot tougher now than it was when I came in 1999.
PJ: I just wonder about artists when they get older, artists who are in their 60s and 70s. They don't have pensions, so what are they doing?
MR: That is a very good question, and I will answer that question in about 30 years. But since I boil my retirement fund on projects and such, that is a very good question. I have a feeling that it is not a very glamorous life.
PJ: I think I need to find one of them.
MR: Yeah, that would be great, to find someone who has that perspective. If they've survived here for 40 years, then they will survive another 40, that's the thing. Because if they somehow managed to survive, they know how to do it. I mean people leave to go do Woodstock or the Catskills; I've seen that happen in Williamsburg, people go to Hudson and all that…If you are here for a long time, and nothing much happened, then you might as well have a nice life instead. Maybe your life changes and your ego is less involved. Lets face it; most of these struggle stories are fueled by egos. Once the ego is satisfied or destroyed, move on.
PJ: Right. On that bleak note”¦
MR: That was a depressing ending I gave you! I want to say something optimistic still. It’s still fun! I think it’s the best choice I made in my life, the crazy decision to move here. I don't regret it for a second.