Friday, March 21, 2014

Art, Hell, Burlesque

I've been thinking a lot about something Benbox said to me last week of his beatbox crew:
"This is it, this is the family."

I've always believed that some of the strongest family you will ever have is the family you make yourself. Choosing to be a part of someone's life is, I believe, more powerful than being placed there and having to deal with whatever comes along just because you're related.

I have been able to make a community for myself in New York of my friends and colleagues, certainly,  but I wouldn't say that I have one specific community of interest of which I am a member. My interests are so diverse and I like to focus my energy on many of them at a time, so I don't know if I ever could be. Sometimes I think it would be nice, and other times I think it would be too much. If I spend too much time on one, I may never get to see the others, and so on.

I love glimpses into these worlds, though, and I love seeing how people make their interest communities an active part of their lives. I've had three particular meaningful interactions this week that relate to this idea.

Bushwick Art Crit Group

Bushwick has a strong, rising community of artists dedicated to, well, fostering a community; developing a space where they can positively engage with other artistically minded individuals, possibly learning from them in the process. I was invited to see this development in the works by a friend of mine, photographer Carlos Henriquez, who was showing his work at the Bushwick Art Crit Group on Wednesday night. Founded by artist Christopher Stout, the BACG, as it's known, is tucked in the painted white, back room gallery space of Brooklyn Fire Proof, which you enter through an alleyway on Ingraham Street decorated with white Christmas lights. The BACG allows artists from the community the opportunity to discuss and receive feedback on their work.

I loved hearing about everyone's process and seeing the work of some really incredibly talented artists. The New York art scene is so big that it's impossible to know everyone, let alone know the artists who are making the kind of work that really engages you. But the Bushwick Art Crit allowed me to see work that really resonated with me, be it the bright drag oil paintings of Adam Bohemond, the gender/sexuality and childhood commentary of Miguel Libarnes (nudes made using Legos!!), or the bold, geometric sexuality analyses in the paintings of Beata Chrzanowska.

Manhattan is my jam, but I will fully admit it can be isolating and unfriendly. I was envious of such a community within a neighborhood in another borough. But I did also find that night that there's a similar event on the Lower East Side in my own, so I hope to get involved in that, too. It was an evening of learning and eye-opening, another of the zillion reasons I moved to New York in the first place. So thank you, Mr. Stout, for bringing together some amazing artists and working to establish a rad community of people who help and engage with each other.

Richard Hell at the Strand Bookstore

I've written often about how I've long been a punk nerd. Part of my larger concept of New York is tied up in the scary/wonderful tales of 1970s punks in the East Village, the do-it-yourself attitude coupled with a nothing-to-lose mentality. I know I'm not the only person who openly swoons while listening to a Patti Smith record or who devoured Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk more than once, but sometimes it feels like I am. So to go to a place where I'm very clearly not such a person--namely, the Strand Bookstore's third floor rare book room to hear the one and only Richard Hell read from his recently released autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp and chat with cultural scholar Bryan Waterman, whose 33 1/3 book on Television's album Marquee Moon I finished reading literally less than a week ago--is a very magical feeling. To be in a place where everyone not only knows who Richard Hell is but likes him and his work enough to come hear him speak makes me feel like I am not alone on the island of punk dreams. Though it wasn't so much an interactive community like the one in Bushwick, it felt cool to be in a group of people who have that particular interest in common.

Though Hell is most often associated with his punk persona as the leader of The Voidoids, he has been a writer of both fiction and non-fiction for years. Even so, I don't know if I ever dreamed I would be hearing about his process in the room of a bookstore covered wall-to-wall in priceless first editions. For me personally the two worlds had not yet collided--in my mind, he was still very much the "Blank Generation"-singing, ripped t-shirt wearing punk idol I grew up reading about in Please Kill Me. Hell acknowledges his past with a tousle of his hair, a squint, and a smile, but it's clear he hasn't been that brand of Richard Hell for a while. That is by no means a disappointment, but it interesting to see how people change, and what elements of themselves they choose to keep the same. In many ways separated from his past self, and I enjoy hearing the Richard Hell I didn't know much about discuss his work, his writing process, and the act/idea of growing up.

Exposed by Beth B

The last community I encountered recently was another of my favorites, the burlesque community. As always, it is an education in performance and gender studies. Exposed is a documentary film about the neo-burlesque scene and the performers who push the boundaries in it, male, female, and transgendered. On the screen, I watched a woman lay an egg, another pull dollar bills out of her behind as a commentary on greed, and another draw on herself in lipstick to the tune of Buckcherry's "Crazy Bitch." Certain aspects of the film I enjoyed, especially when burlesque goddess World Famous *BOB* discusses body image. Women often ask her, she says, how to cover up cellulite and she simply smiles, "With glitter and a spotlight." Many parts of the film I found enlightening and inspiring, but others I will fully admit I did not understand.

Burlesque is far more commercial now than it has been in years past, but I would say for the most part people who perform and appreciate burlesque are a progressive crowd. To sit in a theatre with them and learn about this part of culture that we love made me feel like I was a part of a club of some kind, an appreciation society.


Something I realized about these three experiences in a larger context, though, is that by attending them I had made New York my classroom. I felt intellectually stimulated in a large group of people, like I had somehow crafted my own syllabus of educational materials, I had made each of these locations the classroom I had missed since graduating college.

People tell you you will learn a lot by living in New York, but what they sometimes forget to say is that there's so much to educate yourself with in the city, maybe enough to get a new education in a particular field. In just the past two days I took courses in Modern Art Appreciation, Memoir, and the aforementioned Gender and Performance Studies. The city never stops giving opportunities like these to learn, either, which is another reason I love it so much. It seems obvious, but I must have been doing it all along.