InFinite Futures and The Past Will Be Present
ABC No Rio
156 Rivington Street, New York, NY
Open now until June 24, 2016
In the contemporary Lower East Side–a neighborhood of unlimited brunch spots, luxury condos and pristine white-walled galleries, artist-run punk haven ABC No Rio stands defiant as a welcome anachronism. Whether interpreted as a graffiti-covered blight or a monument to the heavily romanticized culture spawned downtown in the late 20th century, ABC No Rio has acted as a hub for a community of artists for over three decades. The space remains inexorably tied to the last gasps of the neighborhood’s gritty essence, which is why the plans for its sleek renovation seem almost shocking.
With the demolition and reconstruction finally on the horizon after years of delays due to bureaucratic red tape (AFC even published a series of interviews on ABC No Rio in 2012 in anticipation of its forthcoming closure), the nagging question remains: will the experience of ABC No Rio be the same without the fear of falling through their stairs or tumbling into some industrial waste in the backyard?
I wasn’t so sure. And I perhaps wrongly assumed many artists who are part of the ABC No Rio community would have the same trepidation, because hope is not what I expected to find in the last building-wide show InFinite Futures and The Past Will Be Present. Launched just before the demolition and multimillion dollar revamp this fall and now in its last week, I worried the show would define the space by reliving its past.
I was glad to be wrong. Split into two exhibitions–InFinite Futures and The Past Will Be Present not only honored the storied past and present of the alternative space, but also offered an optimistic glimpse at its future.
Structurally, the two shows do a good job of telling a complete story. In the ABC No Rio Gallery, The Past Will Be Present features a selection of photographs of ABC No Rio in the year before the construction. In the rest of the building, artists take over individual rooms as part of InFinite Futures. With the building nearly empty since most of ABC No Rio’s facilities have moved elsewhere in preparation for its demolition (such as the Zine Library) ABC No Rio’s final exhibitions feel at once abandoned and populated by the energy of its history.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in The Past Will Be Present. While Chris Villafuerte’s images capture the decades of overlapping wall murals and graffiti that has become synonymous with ABC No Rio, Jade Doskow’s photographs of the building’s kitchen and grimy bathroom add an unexpected layer of domesticity to the space. The documents of what will soon be destroyed read as a preemptive elegy to the former ABC No Rio space.
This could easily read as overly nostalgic, but works such as Margarida Correia’s photographs of the hard working, mostly, volunteer staff add a layer of raw emotion to the mix. Rather than just portraying the building itself, Correia imbues her portraits, contextualized within art-covered ABC No Rio, with a tender intimacy. In one photograph, a volunteer at the Zine Library files on a ladder and gazes directly into the camera, creating an unwavering and bold connection with the viewer. Another photograph shows ABC No Rio’s longtime director Steven Englander standing meditatively in profile in his office, lit by a nearby window as if looking toward ABC No Rio’s future.
While The Past Will Be Present’s documentation of ABC No Rio serves an important purpose, InFinite Futures is undeniably more engaging, as each participating artist fully transformed a room in this four-story building. Whether developing their relationship with ABC No Rio for decades or only in recent years, all of the artists in InFinite Futures held deep connections with the history of ABC No Rio.
Given free reign of the building, the artists were asked to address the next five, fifty and five hundred years of ABC No Rio’s future. While the works present a wide variety of takes on the theme from Noah Scalin’s spaceship made from discarded cassette tapes to Takashi Horisaki’s trompe l’oeil latex castings of ABC No Rio, the most moving installations in InFinite Futures come from the artists who played an important role in its founding.
For example, Jody Culkin and Christy Rupp’s collaboration depicts two widely placed, drawn eyes on a large piece of black plastic sheeting. Despite this humble exterior, a vibrant red beating heart lies beneath the eyes, visible only by staring into the pupils. The duo’s installation reflects ABC No Rio’s position in the eyes of artists like Culkin and Rupp as the heart of this tightly knit arts community.
Known for her eponymous octopus, which became the de facto symbol of the Real Estate Show, Becky Howland’s installation is partially based on a poem Islands by Yusef Komunyakaa, which she printed onto a large sheet of paper. With a line that reads, “Someone could stand here/contemplating the future…” Howland’s room features a turquoise wall mural that represents the idyllic view of the tropical island described in the poem–a striking juxtaposition with the urban debris riddled throughout ABC No Rio. Taking the “bird with a sprig in its beak” from the poem as inspiration, Howland also extends a long white and orange construction gangplank outside the second floor window with a sculptural bird on the end, gesturing to the natural world and ABC No Rio’s beloved backyard.
Even with this almost utopian gesture, Howland’s installation continues to engage with the real estate issues of today and yesterday: a few Real Estate Show references are scattered around the room. Opposite her mural and bird sculpture, Howland positions an assemblage of bricks, a shirt she found at ABC No Rio’s PrintShop emblazoned with an image of Krazy Kat’s nemesis Ignatz Mouse tossing a brick and a futuristic mock-up of a condo building that is set to replace the historic Streit’s Matzo Factory. The condo will also l become ABC No Rio’s new neighbors. The sly arrangement not only playfully encourages direct action, but a little vandalism too.
Installations like Howland’s prove it is not time to mourn the loss of the old ABC No Rio, but celebrate its future by commemorating the artists’ continued connections with the space. As Brian George and Kelly Savage write in their statement accompanying their bathroom installation—a piece that encompasses the transitions with ABC No Rio and in their relationship, “In this there is no loss, only a layer of change that fosters growth and new beginnings.”