The ABC No Rio Interviews: Peter Cramer and Jack Waters

by Whitney Kimball on August 1, 2012 Interview

Kembra Pfahler in performance. Photo by Toyo, courtesy of ABC No Rio Dinero.

PC: Oh, yea. People who were associated with Squat Theater [a well-known radical downtown performance group] came and did a Fassbinder play, “Garbage, the City, and Death.”

JW: Squat Theater was also a base for underground theater, very similar to the Wooster Group. The Fassbinder play was interesting because Fassbinder had written in his will that the play could not be performed anywhere aside from New York or Frankfurt.

PC: It’s a very biting satire on real estate and the role of the Jew…it was very loaded in that fashion, because of the neighborhoods that were represented. The Lower East Side, Rivington Street, was where the original rag pickers and shopkeepers used to put out their stuff. So it’s maybe not so much about the people, but it’s about a ghetto.

JW: His characters are very caricature-generated, and there was a character called the “rich Jew.” It made it this very hot-button topic because of its obvious interpretations of antisemitism, and for that reason, it hadn’t been performed, and of course no one would produce it, and so, we did. [Laughs]

WK: And were you receiving any press coverage?

PC: …The press generally did not come to events, and I don’t think they wanted to cover it too much, because it would alter it. It would’ve continued to draw people down to the neighborhood and make this whole gentrification process happen faster. So it’s kind of a blessing in disguise.

JW: Yes, for me, the press so much recognized our intent. And the value of a truly alternative venue, and they would abstain from covering things that would make them big attractions. Because they know that it would defeat the whole purpose of having it.

P: Right, because it was about artists doing it themselves. Because they were essentially just given access to mailing lists, so they were doing it as we were fiddling with some of the shows. They would handle completely by themselves, others they would actually do.

WK: Yea, it seems like … most of the people I’ve talked to who ran the space for a couple of years just came in, and they were writing grants.

P: Right, that was kind of a prerequisite.

WK: Whether or not you knew how to do it.

PC: Right, it was very self-help in that way. But there was a template, and it wasn’t really that complicated….the numbers might have been difficult to produce, because you had to show income. And that was when non-profits were beginning to be forced into this corporate model, so all of these activities had to be much more on the up-and-up, in a certain way.

WK: With [ABC No Rio] becoming a non-profit, do you think that’s limited any of its activities?

PC: No, I don’t think so. I mean, because they really were just a business, a DBA, doing-business-as. They were incorporated that way, and if they needed funding, they did it through Colab.

But eventually, because Jack and I had Allied Productions, which was the nonprofit that Jack had set up, we took on that role and became the fiscal and financial conduit. So we really started, instead of being artists, we became administrators. And that’s always the shift of people, and that’s eventually what became less interesting to me, especially as the building continued to deteriorate, and having to constantly deal with the city. So your natural inclination is to re-examine what you’re doing.

WK: And around that time, ABC lost NEA funding?

PC: Yes. The culture wars had a really cooling effect, and No Rio felt it first. Long before you started hearing about more well-to-do, even nonprofit organizations being hit, No Rio was hit, and they said it was on the basis of a drop in the artistic level…

JW: In the artistic merit. This was before the second Reagan administration, after which they were actually defunding and censoring people on ideological grounds. But before that, and we actually surveyed it, they started taking National Endowment of the Arts funding from organizations like ABC No Rio, Films Charas, etc.

PC: It’s the same push that Republicans are doing right now.

WK: So before you became a nonprofit, would you say you were able to do things that you wouldn’t have been able to do elsewhere?

PC: Jack took on a particular group that would’ve given other people second thoughts…I’d prefer to have it remain nameless at the moment…

But we were criticizing the United States government. One of the big shows that Paul Smith organized was the “U.S. Out of Central America” show, which had work from David Wojnarowicz to Hans Haacke to Claes Oldenburg, to everybody in between doing something at No Rio, which was part of a national movement. Also the “Art Against Apartheid” show was a call for divestiture and boycotting of South Africa.

JW: I don’t know if we did things that you couldn’t have done anywhere else, though. Things that were overtly critical, like “U.S. Out of Central America,” anti-Apartheid, were easier because it’s in another country.

What Peter was referring to– I booked the group NAMBLA for a series of meetings at ABC No Rio…

PC: [Laughs]

JW: I didn’t know what they were. I mean, I knew what they professed, but at the time I was idealistically naive…I was looking at NAMBLA’s literature.

PC: …it doesn’t come off as the organization that its opponents profess it to be.

JW: Because there are two sides, and both sides are so extreme…and I was also looking at the randomness of the determination of age of consent from state to state.

PC: I don’t think anymore…

JW: It may have changed, but up through the eighties, and even now, the majority age, especially in the South, is really low. I was considering the gender disparity in age of consent, marriage laws, and sodomy laws  –  how that impacts on creating separate legal status for heterosexual and homosexual unions. Whereas an older person can marry a much younger person and it’s legal and acceptable, but in a homosexual trans-generational relationship acceptability is not possible because there is no legal bond in most places. So the idea of what constitutes a child and an adult, I felt was very loaded, specifically because this group is homosexual.

So I was looking at this idea of North American Man Boy Love Association— what’s the problem?  We didn’t have any contact or experience with the group aside from reading in the press “Oh, these horrible perverts…” Needless to say, there was a whole firestorm that happened after booking one meeting.

PC: Right, because right at the same time we were in negotiations with the city, and as soon as our representative found out, she was aghast!

JW: Upon which, I learned more about NAMBLA itself, which I have come to consider somewhat questionable. My criticism has to do with the social power dynamics of the group as I understood them upon reviewing their literature more closely; they’re basically older, middle-class, white men, and the boys are generally Asian, African-American. They said they couldn’t meet anywhere else…

PC: …When they left, [we found] a dead chicken on the steps…

JW: …Yes, they actually courted controversy. NAMBLA, in a way, was as much a part of the kind of fomenting of idiotic response and public reaction as the so-called opposition. Which I probably never would have found out about if I hadn’t booked them. But also just the dynamics that happened with the press, with politics, because the city council woman who was sponsoring us with our litigation against the city at the time…she was…I mean, I just didn’t realize how out of control the topic was.

She was like, “Are you trying to get me fired?” She was very concerned about her position, because she was supporting ABC No Rio, and here ABC No Rio had booked NAMBLA. And on and on and on… there was a neighborhood reaction, and a press reaction…

WK: Did that lead to some backward movement in negotiations with the city?

PC: No, [NAMBLA’s] meeting was cancelled.

WK: The meeting never happened?

JW: We cancelled them after the first meeting. There was a whole demo on the street. I started to realize the extent of the public and political repercussions, coupled with the understanding of who the people from NAMBLA were. They knew this was going to happen, and I think they had noted that I was kind of green.

So I kind of felt like I was played. And when the New York Post said they were going to print a story listing me as the head pervert, or whatever, and with the talismen that were being posted on ABC No Rio’s door, and the death threats coming in over the telephone, I didn’t have much of a problem backpedalling. I was like, no, no, no, not worth it…

So I think, truly, there are things that we were able to do. It’s not that you couldn’t, but the ante is much higher. And it’s not just political or financial repercussions, it’s the social cache. Of things that you do and where you stand if you take certain positions. The possibility for nuance and articulation is greatly reduced now. People don’t really do that a lot, or, I think, as much.

I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that, as Peter was saying, you could do it in a way that wouldn’t be reported in such a way as being this kind of scandal-based news…infotainment…things.

WK: Do you think it’s possible at all for another art space to happen as ABC No Rio did, in its founding? Do you think it’s conceivable for someone to take over a space and have it be legitimized as it has been?

Le Petit Versailles, New York City. Photo courtesy of Mat Mcdermott's flickr.

PC: I do believe that, because there are groups like Picture the Homeless and Art in Empty Spaces. [Art in Empty Spaces] wasn’t a squatted space or anything, but they were very much in the same conversation about artists and neighborhoods.

This garden, for example, was cleared to avoid liability claims from accidents on the razed site. As soon as it was emptied, we just applied to the Community Board to do Green Thumb, and they said yes. HPD said they didn’t really have any plans for it…and here were are, fifteen, sixteen years later, enjoying the fruits of that kind of activism. Of now having been through the experience of No Rio, you know exactly who to contact on the community board.

JW: Part of the reason ABC No Rio has survived– and this has a lot to do with your question about the difference between our administration and the current– is because squatters remained in the space when things came down to the wire. One of the reasons that we left is that we had a stipulation with the city that no one was to live in the upper floors. But at the same time, they weren’t maintaining it, so you needed to have someone there to see when it was starting to rain and rot the beams, not to mention the people who would come in randomly. And so, the hardcore people who were coming in randomly were connected with the squat movement, and the anarchist movement said no. We need to be here. First of all, we don’t have anywhere else to go, and second, the building isn’t going to remain standing if we don’t maintain it. The City of New York is not doing that.

[He’s referring to the Punk Collective. Around the time Jack and Peter left in 1993  the board of directors officially handing control over to the group Rehab Video, which was running the weekly hardcore matinee. During the 90s, ABC No Rio became one of the best-known punk venues in existence.]

PC: And that wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t already a squatter community already in the neighborhood.

JW: It’s challenging to mobilize people into doing an action of that magnitude with the understanding that there’s a possibility that it won’t last. So that’s, really, the difficulty: to generate that kind of energy while making people understand that at least it would be worthwhile for a time, and maybe we would get to keep it. In our time, ABC No Rio had probably sat for decades, and people knew nothing’s happening. It’s been sitting there for ten years. At this point, we don’t have that kind of a history yet, and I think there will be different paradigms for that.

WK: Do you think that the energy that you came in with has changed, and do you think it will change with the new structure?

PC: I think it will definitely change. It’s funny when I looked at the plans for it, I thought, “Oh, they’re still keeping that idea of the castle, with the drawbridge.” If you’ve seen the plans, they have this walkway that goes to the back of the large gallery, and then you can see down into the basement area. I thought that’s interesting, because I always thought of it as the drawbridge– because there was a moment when the building was being totally squatted. They held onto it in resistance to what the city had planned, and so that’s what eventually, over a number of years, gave them the building.

[The current director Steven Englander described some of the worst of ABC No Rio’s days in the early 90s, when the board had split and the building nearly collapsed: “Jack at one point acknowledged that you get this sort of fortress mentality because we’re fighting the city, so you have to be somewhat defensive and suspicious of stuff that’s going on. And you’re living all alone here. You know what I mean? It gets to you after a while, and who knows to what degree that impacted how I handled the situation.”]

JW: Architecture of course has a way of dictating what happens inside of it. And I think because of the newness of the building and the construction of it, you know, will definitely direct more what the feelings and intents are, and I think that was intentionally so. You’re designing a building for certain things to happen in a certain way…

PC: I think it’ll be just as much on-the-wall type of things, site-specific type of things, but it’ll be done in a way that has to build out from the wall now, you’re not building on the actual wall.

JW: I truly believe that No Rio is an anomaly. That anything, any kind of rule or pattern or guideline that would be expected of something else is not [something we would adhere to].

I always thought one of the biggest ironies is the idea that a self-avowed anarchist organization is in the face of capital development. That, in itself, says a lot about where the world is right now, and what ABC No Rio represents in the world.

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