Last month, in our ongoing series of ABC No Rio interviews, we left off with Colab member, artist, and historian Alan Moore. The story resumes in 1983 with Jack Waters and Peter Cramer, activists and trained dancers who directed ABC No Rio until around 1991. Their own programming was perhaps best marked by experimental performance and the queer screening series Naked Eye Cinema, though concurrently the space produced exhibitions and activities like the Z Club (a transgressive performance series run by Bad Actors) and Matthew Courtney’s open mic (a cabaret and poetry venue). While living in the basement, they wrote grants, kept the building intact, established No Rio as a nonprofit, and kept HPD at bay with meticulous public records.
Since 1981, they’ve proliferated films and performances, taught, and coordinated a host of community workshops, screenings, and art events, with neighborhood activism at the heart of their collectivist work. The pair works as the nonprofit Allied Productions Inc, a few blocks from ABC No Rio out of Le Petit Versailles, an unbelievably lush community garden where we met for this interview. It’s hard to imagine that this brimming oasis and community performance hub was an abandoned lot when the two began it in 1996.
Whitney Kimball: When you began at ABC No Rio, you were both living in the basement?
Jack Waters: Yea. Needed a place to live. That was our exchange. We had put on [the performance marathon] “Seven Days of Creation” with Carl George and Brad Taylor. [Carl George and Brad Taylor introduced Jack and Peter to ABC No Rio. The group had been performing at the Pyramid Club as POOL, a performance collective that was a project of their nonprofit Allied Productions, Inc., which is still active.] The people at Colab liked it so much, and they felt so much in common, that they asked Carl [to take over the administration]. Carl was the go-getter organizer in a lot of ways, or at least visibly. And Carl said “no, but Jack and Peter don’t have a place to live. They’ll live anywhere.” So Peter and I got to be the designated directors.
WK: Had Colab kind of dropped off around the point when you started working at ABC No Rio in 1983?
JW: Well, Colab was more of a transition, because Colab had always distinguished itself from ABC No Rio, very intentionally. There were three Colab members who were directing ABC No Rio at the time [Alan Moore, Becky Howland, and Robert Goldman]. ABC No Rio was still the center for Colab’s activity, but when we came in, people were moving on to other spheres.
WK: And why did you think that was? A dropoff in interest?
Peter Cramer: No, I think because they had gotten a lot of notice with the various shows that they had done, starting with the Times Square show….and then the Real Estate Show, which helped to create ABC No Rio. They went back to their practice and tried to develop more of a contact with the art world, I think. They continued supporting other causes, but there was less of a collaborative, communal effort.
WK: Did you keep the same structure Colab had put in place?
JW: We tried. We inherited from the Colab group the Monday night open meetings, where people could come any Monday and make a proposal. And generally, there was no proposal that would be rejected– however, there would be Mondays when we just didn’t feeling like opening the door. [Laughs] Seriously. And honestly, there were times when people would come to Monday night meeting, and there would be no Monday night meeting.
PC: Sort of weed out the people who are really intent on doing something. We wouldn’t say no, but we’d say, “you realize all we’re giving you is the space.” Because sometimes the press promotes something, and they assume that you’re this well-oiled, well-funded machine.
WK: Would you say you set a certain tone in the programming?
PC: Our attempt was really to become more a part of the city agency. We did the Fifth Anniversary show up at the old NYC Department of Cultural Affairs at Columbus Circle before it relocated. Also, our own programming in the school system was really an attempt to show how No Rio was not trying to isolate itself from the community, wasn’t particularly pursuing the art market realm of what it is to be an artist and that there are other ways of being an artist.
JW: The work itself was collectively-generated, [rather than] by individual artists and names. And I think that was intentionally and consciously so.
We had a political interest, which is why we were asked to take over– but at the same time, we weren’t as didactical. We were doing things that were more socially-engineered, in that the kinds of things we were doing were looked on as being….I use the word ‘decadent’.
PC: I think that’s because we were involved in the club scene. And we were involved in the East Village art scene until we were engaged with No Rio. When we took on that mantle, we took it very seriously. It was right when we were beginning to ask what are artists really doing in these neighborhoods, and what is the effect of that?
JW: We were also more openly queer, and that became embedded in our politic and our creative practice. And it was distinct from Colab’s generation.
I think the current people are less interested in art for art’s sake as much as they are in art as a means to communicate political values. So really it’s the same, but it’s a different approach with a different intent.
But, like ABC No Rio itself, whereas Peter and I were designated directors, it was actually a whole group of people. Kembra [Pfahler], Philli, Richard Hofmann…
There were a lot of things going on concurrently at ABC No Rio at any one time.
WK: You started a screening series when you came in…
PW: Jack started The Naked Eye cinema with Leslie Lowe.
It was a traveling movie venue based out of No Rio, Leslie’s Studio on Clinton Street, and Richard Armijo’s store, Embargo Books, which used to be right next to Shapiro’s Wine, as far as I recall.
JW: [Naked Eye Cinema] came out of the fact that we were all becoming interested in moving image– Peter, our colleagues, Carl George, Brad Taylor, the whole group of people. We were exploring the history and nature of cinema, as well as making new works. Bradley Eros was making film and performance with his partner, Aline Mare under the name Erotic Psyche. Following Bradley and Aline’s lead, we would integrate Super 8 and video with film retransfers.
It was kind of like a pick-up operation. ABC No Rio became a lab, studio, and a base of operation. We would use resources like the Donnell Media Center, The Film-Makers’ Coop, or Canyon Cinema, and rent classic avant-garde experimental cinema, but we’d also look at new work. As we were making new works at the same time, we would have screenings in different locations, rather than limited screenings.
One day we were screening at a place called CUANDO. It was a big, old institutional building on Second Ave and 1st Street, now it’s condos…. And then we had the big building on Rivington and Suffolk, which is now The [Clemente] Soto Vélez Center. And so when we had big houses like that, we would screen the Kuchar brothers. And that was really pivotal for us because George and Mike Kuchar had been pretty much forgotten at this point— I think this was ’87. It was a revival in a big way. We did Grey Gardens at CUANDO.
JW: All these things were classics, but not necessarily things that people knew about because the whole idea of experimental, avant-garde, and underground cinema seemed to have receded, in a way. There was Films Charas, but there wasn’t street level access.
WK: And there were full-fledged plays going on as well?