Forty years ago, at a time when art, technology, and the City of New York looked very different than it does now, NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program opened its doors in the East Village. Now, we look back at the neighborhood surrounding Tisch in 1979 (for the sake of constraint, within the zip code of 10003), to get a closer look at the cultural institutions that were neighbors of Tisch and ITP’s first graduating class.
In the mid-70’s, New York City was on the brink of financial collapse.(1) White flight and a general exodus of textile and meat production businesses left much of lower Manhattan empty, and the city found itself without financial resources to maintain many basic services. In a kind of environmental and societal response, crime, poverty, and drug addiction in this neighborhood skyrocketed. Many East Village residents lived below the poverty line in poorly maintained buildings, often without heat or hot water.
The vital and determined creative communities in the neighborhood flourished despite these conditions. Some artists were able to draw inspiration from their circumstances; and because the cost of living was low, many were able to live on limited funds and devote themselves wholly to their art, whether it was commercial or not.
Unfortunately, a more comprehensive look at the art world in New York, even over a short period of time, is beyond the scope of this paper and tour. We’ve decided to zoom in on the zip code surrounding the school to take a more specific read of history, and explore a time when rents were cheap, there was no cable TV, and AIDS was just beginning as a mystery.
This ecosystem was the perfect environment for a place like ITP to take root and flourish. The program grew out of the Alternative Media Center, a small program within NYU, founded by Red Burns and George Stoney. The program taught artists and community organizers how to use the Sony Portapak, a recently developed portable video camera. Video was quickly becoming the cornerstone and a way of defining burgeoning artistic communities through documentation.
A handful of blocks up the road toward Union Square, the third and final location of Andy Warhol’s Factory, inhabited an entire floor of 860 Broadway. Though Warhol had finished making films by this point, he was still making art. His notorious oxidation paintings were being done at this time, created by urinating onto a canvas that was covered in copper paint.
In 1979, Warhol also began a ten-part series called Fashion, which aired on New York-based public access station Manhattan Cable (he had purchased a series of 30 minute slots for $75 a piece). Soon after, he began Andy Warhol’s TV, which ran for 27 episodes over the next three years, featuring bizarrely stylized interviews with everyone from Grace Jones to Phillip Glass to Marc Jacobs to Georgia O’Keefe.(2) While a hyper-stylized, art-damaged interview show never would have found a home on the major networks, Warhol was now able to broadcast his strange vision across the airwaves, allowing it to find whatever niche audience might be interested.
Not long after, another one of the neighborhood’s most famous institutions was attempting a similar foray into public access TV. Home to the early years of punk in the mid-70’s, CBGB was an established and well-regarded music club by 1979. Many of the musicians who performed there were multi-disciplinary: Patti Smith and Richard Hell were both published poets and sometime actors, Suicide’s Alan Vega was a sculptor and gallery curator, Blondie’s Chris Stein was a photographer, Talking Heads was made up of visual arts students from Rhode Island School of Design, and the Ramones essentially began as a performance art project in conjunction with visual artist Arturo Vega. TV-CBGB seemed like a logical next step.
Billing itself as “the first rock’n’roll situation comedy on cable television,” TV-CBGB premiered on Manhattan Cable in July 1981(3). Club founder and show host, Hilly Kristal told Billboard that the show was “one step further in exposing new talent. Radio and regular tv aren’t doing it. MTV is good, but it’s showing mostly top 40.”
Speaking of MTV, that network launched at almost exactly the same time, and just a few blocks southeast of Warhol’s Factory. The network premiered at the Ritz, a rock club at 119 E 11th Street, now home to Webster Hall(4). Though the venue, which opened in 1980, focused mainly on live music, they were famous for their 30×30’ video screen(5). It was one of the first nightclubs to incorporate a video element. The relationship between the venue and the TV network persevered, and MTV continued to host Live From the Ritz through the 80’s.(6)
This focus on mixed media permeated even smaller clubs and art spaces throughout the neighborhood. A block east of the Ritz at 254 East 10th Street, Patti Astor and Bill Stelling opened Fun Gallery in 1981. Astor had already attained a degree of notoriety as the “Queen of the Downtown Scene,” having acted in several experimental, low-budget films by directors Eric Mitchell and Amos Poe, and she would go on to star in Charlie Ahearn’s seminal 1982 hip hop movie Wild Style. The Fun Gallery was the first art gallery to open in the East Village, and gave important early shows to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf. The gallery specialized in graffiti and hip hop culture (the first such gallery to exist), and helped promote graffiti artists Lee Quinones, Fab Five Freddy, Futura 2000, Dondi, and Lady Pink (many of whom also appeared in “Wild Style”).
This trend toward multi-media creativity within the greater New York art world was further represented by the community surrounding Club 57, which brought together visual art, performance art, music, theater, and film in a tiny converted church basement at 57 St Marks Place.(7) Around this time, filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and James Nares were members of a band called the Del-Byzantines, with author Luc Sante contributing lyrics. Basquiat and actor Vincent Gallo performed in a No Wave band called Gray. David Wojnarowicz was a member of 3 Teens Kill 4, one of the first bands to embrace sampling technology. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo both had day jobs in the visual art world. Liquid Liquid bassist Richard McGuire was an accomplished painter and illustrator. Rapper Rammellzee was also a sculptor and graffiti artist. Filmmaker Richard Kern cast musicians Lydia Lunch and Clint Ruin in his films, made music videos for Sonic Youth, and was himself a member of the band Black Snakes. Actor, painter, and musician John Lurie shows up everywhere.
Club 57, which opened in 1978, was initially run by actress, musician, and performance artist Ann Magnuson, and was initially embraced by a group of SVA students, including Keith Haring, John Sex, Frank Holliday, and Kenny Scharf. Haring would perform at poetry events with his head inside a gutted television, and curated several art shows, including a black light show. Sonic Youth made their live debut at Club 57, and the Cramps, B-52s, the Misfits, Pulsallama, and Klaus Nomi performed as well (larger Club 57-sponsored shows were also presented at the nearby Irving Plaza). Drag performers including RuPaul, Lypsinka, Charles Busch, and Joey Arias all made formative early appearances. Early DIY musicals by future Grammy and Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman premiered at Club 57. Tuesday nights were given over to a Monster Movie club, screening obscure and cheesy old films like “Horror at Party Beach” and “I Was A Teenage Werewolf.” Immersive events included lady wrestling nights, a reggae-themed mini-golf tournament, and a costumed memorial party for Elvis Presley.
However, it would be reductive and misleading to suggest there was only one community embracing the concept of immersive artistry. Separate from the “Downtown 81” community, but close by and also interested in immersive art works, was the renowned club, The Saint. Described as a “technological wonder,”(8) The Saint opened in 1980 at 105 Second Avenue, which had been home to Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore East. The Saint was the city’s largest,exclusively gay, disco. The club was owned by Bruce Mailman, who also owned the nearby St. Marks Bathhouse. The venue’s circular dance floor was topped by a large planetarium dome, and lighting designers worked with the DJs from a booth in the center of the floor to create full planetarium projections over the dance floor and its dancers. The dome also hid a state-of-the-art surround sound system and a ceiling panel that would open to reveal a disco ball. An impressively wide range of performers came through the club, including Gloria Gaynor, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tina Turner, Pet Shop Boys, Debbie Gibson, Patti LuPone, and RuPaul.
Susan Tomkin, former assistant to the club’s principal owner Bruce Mailman, reminisces: “I can remember the first time I went upstairs into the dome. The star machine was on, and the lights were going. I felt like somebody had sliced off the top of my head, and poured acid in my brain. That’s the only way I could describe it. It was absolutely like another world.”(9)
The community around The Saint was closely-knit and active, brought together by their enthusiasm for this gloriously over-the-top experience (not to mention the casual sex and drug use that it often accompanied). Many patrons were also regulars at Mailman’s St. Marks Bathhouse at 6 St Marks Place, advertised as the world’s largest gay bathhouse. AIDS first emerged in New York within the St. Marks Bathhouse/Saint community, and was informally referred to as “Saint’s Disease”(10) before people knew what it was. As the virus took its increasing toll on the community, the bathhouse was forced to close in 1985, and the club followed suit in 1988. There simply weren’t enough patrons left to justify staying open. Mailman himself, succumbed to AIDS in 1984.
It is difficult to overstate the devastation wrought by the AIDS crisis on the art world of Lower Manhattan. According to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis more than 100,000 people died of AIDS in NYC alone. Many of the casualties were well-known and promising artists. A comprehensive list of AIDS casualties within New York’s arts community would be heartbreakingly vast, and would include some of the most important names in the community, including Haring, performers Ethyl Eichelberger, John Sex, and Lance Loud, filmmaker Jack Smith, actress Cookie Mueller, and musicians Klaus Nomi and Arthur Russell, and others.
The Saint’s ballroom was bulldozed long ago to make way for condos; it’s lobby houses a bank. A plaque and lobby display both celebrate the location’s three-year run as the Fillmore East, but – due to a likely combination of internalized homophobia, rockism, and a lingering inability to speak openly about the AIDS crisis – The Saint’s nearly decade-long existence is frustratingly overlooked. Nevertheless, The Saint Foundation carries on the venue’s legacy with an extensive archive, including full DJ sets, and party flyers by artists like Mapplethorpe. Their website even includes a recreation of the Saint in WebVR.
However, for all the work they’ve done to preserve the memory of the space, it remains only that. Though the Saint At Large continues to throw events around the city to this day,(11) their archive shows a world lost to history. The Saint in VR is a particularly poignant metaphor — while it presents the space in all its architectural glory, it feels flattened and lifeless without the community that brought it to life.
A virtual tour of CBGB, which includes an appearance from the since-deceased Hilly Kristal, feels similarly unreal. An exhaustive archival website for Club 57 attempts to document every facet of the venue’s existence as thoroughly as possible, and a recent MoMA exhibit offered paintings, films, and an Instagram-friendly installation by Kenny Scharf to celebrate the club’s short existence, but it all requires a good amount of imagination to square that history away with the space’s current use as a mental health facility.
These spaces and communities were a product of the cultural forces that produced them, and those cultural forces have shifted dramatically in the past four decades. These communities flourished because the rent was cheap and the space was abundant. As New York continues to gentrify, they are forced further into the periphery, and eventually out of existence.
By the time CBGB closed in 2006, it stuck out like a sore thumb on the otherwise ritzy Bowery. The storefront now houses John Varvatos, a high-end men’s retailer, and the unfortunate truth is that the contemporary, thoroughly gentrified East Village gets more out of a trendy clothing store than it would a loud, smelly, dirty punk club.
Walking around the East Village and Lower East side today, you see streets lines with posh boutiques and cafes; there are even multiple fancy hotels on the Bowery. It’s a reminder of an urban cycle: when artists move into a previously undesirable neighborhood, the area gains a certain cache and becomes “cool.” Then more well-off people and businesses come in, and longtime residents without financial means are forced out. It happens decade after decade in the city – not just the East Village, but SoHo and TriBeCa, Chelsea in the 80’s, Alphabet City and the Lower East Side in the 90’s, Williamsburg and Greenpoint in the early 2000’s, and Bushwick and Bed-Stuy in the 2010’s. But even though this cycle continues, young and struggling artists here are living in a fundamentally different New York than those of the 70’s and 80’s. The cost of living is substantially higher, and as those without means get pushed further away from Manhattan’s cultural epicenter, the geographic proximity that allowed the East Village art scene to flourish becomes increasingly unavailable.
For all the changes the neighborhood has endured, the East Village at the dawn of the 2020s does not suffer for a lack of culture. Many of the artists who initially shaped the scene, now-elder statesmen like Phillip Glass, Richard Hell, and Chuck Close still call the neighborhood home. The Anthology Film Archive, which moved into its Second Ave location in 1979, remains an invaluable asset to the community, as does long-running experimental theater company La Mama. In 2009, La Mama founded CultureHub with Korean arts organization SeoulArts, with the goal of “push[ing] the boundaries of artistic collaboration and experimentation as an incubator for creativity focused on the intersection of art and technology.”(12) They have featured art and hosted residencies by artists from around the world who are using technology to prod at the edges of What Art Can Be (including more than a few ITP teachers and alumni).
However, it’s also worth noting that the gentrification of the East Village has been driven in no small part by the growth of NYU. Two beloved music venues of the era were shuttered to facilitate NYU’s expansion: the Bottom Line at 15 West 4th Street (now a lecture hall), and the Palladium at 126 East 14th Street, now the Palladium dormitory.
The impact goes far beyond a handful of lost spaces. In the mid 2010s, a group of NYU students began publishing a zine called The Disorientation Guide to catalog and illuminate some of the issues surrounding the university. Citing local real estate brokers who attribute the soaring cost of rent in the East Village directly to the growth of the school, the 2016 edition of the guide posits that “NYU may be more accurately described as an international real estate development firm with an expensive and promising educational wing, than as a university.”
While NYU administrators may speak of the school’s “locational endowment,” it is of the utmost importance to acknowledge the ongoing hostility between the university and its surrounding community. With a record of flooding the once-working class area with affluent and transient students, purchasing large swathes of Greenwich Village real estate for use by pupils and faculty only, consistently attempting to defy zoning ordinances to build taller buildings, and indirectly profiting from larger systems of oppression such as mass incarceration and racist policing, NYU has established itself as a powerful gentrifying force.(13)
The school is just one of innumerable forces that brought about these changes in the neighborhood, and petulant finger pointing won’t put the genie back in the bottle; but critical examination of the past can give us the perspective necessary to create a better future.
For guidance, we may find it useful to revisit one of the first projects Red Burns led at the AMC back in 1971, centered around a community in Washington Heights. As remembered in a Rhizome profile on Burns from 2011:
“…they were unable to convince authorities, through traditional methods, of their need for a traffic light at a dangerous intersection. The AMC helped them make a video advocating the need for the traffic light. It aired on September 25th at 4 P.M. in 1971, just four months after the AMC launched. It was a two hour broadcast from the intersection of Audubon Avenue and 184th street and showed, according to McCandlish Phillips of the New York Times, “protesters gathering [in] the streets… their refusal to leave [and] discussions with a sergeant and later a captain.” The light was installed soon after, and the Alternate Media Center—despite Burn’s stated wish to “stay under the radar”—was already making headlines.”(14)
AMC used the resources at their disposal to amplify the voices of an underserved community, giving them a platform to advocate for their own needs; and as those resources have developed and expanded, so too can the consequent community engagement.
The real opportunity to carry on the radical mission lies in the challenges ahead. As ITP (like so many cultural institutions before it) crosses the East River in search of greener pastures, they stand at a crossroads. Their new Downtown Brooklyn home at 370 Jay St lies in the heart of an area recently known as the Brooklyn Tech Triangle, which provides many of the same affordances as the East Village in 1979 — abundant space, (relatively) cheap rent, and most importantly, a vibrant and close-knit community hungry to redefine culture.
The Brooklyn Tech Triangle is not just a loose affiliation of neighborhoods but an actual affiliation of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, and the non-profit DUMBO Improvement District, headquartered just down the road from ITP at 20 Jay St. While the organization is relatively recent, and their plans for the neighborhood are still in progress, they seem to generally have the right ideas to transform the neighborhood for the betterment of its longtime residents — from programs to train under-privileged high school students in film and tech to initiatives to bring free wifi to the entire neighborhood (starting with DUMBO in 2011).
That said, the future is not promised, and mistakes of the past are easily repeated. Literature on the Brooklyn Tech Triangle posted to NYU Tandon’s website begins with the proclamation “Watch out, Silicon Valley,”(15) a statement surely meant to conjure innovation and techno-utopianism, but equally weighted with images of soulless tech monoliths and gated communities. Elsewhere, statistics pointing to the success of the Tech Triangle hinge on things like employment at “innovation companies” and the GDP of Brooklyn at large(16), with little attention given to the quality of life of the neighborhood’s longtime residents. While their stated mission is to use the rising tide of tech to lift these residents up rather than wash them away, time will tell how effectively that mission is actualized. It’s an indelible reminder of Red Burns’ words from 1981 that ring true today more than ever: technology is not enough.
3. Among the many bands featured in the episode are Sic F*cks, led by sisters Tish and Snooki Bellomo, who were better known for their St Marks Place boutique, Manic Panic. The first clothing store in the city to cater to the punk community, it helped solidify the punk aesthetic of leather jackets, ripped clothing, and brightly colored hair dye. The store is long gone, but Manic Panic hair dye remains a lucrative business for the Bellomos. Watch the full episode here:
4. A full history of the venue can be found here
5. The video screen also played a major role in a performance by British post-punk band Public Image Ltd on May 15, 1981 – the group appeared behind the screen and played their records over the venue’s PA, while performing different music onstage. This led to a riot, which saw show goers tear down and destroy the screen.
7. The community is well represented in the film “Downtown 81,” which cast Basquiat as its star, and featured cameo appearances by Lurie, Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Jimmy Destri, musicians Walter Steding and Tav Falco, graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy, and filmmaker Amos Poe, as well as musical performances by DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, Tuxedomoon, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts.