In the midst of government cuts and predictions of collapse and decay the Barbican’s current exhibition about New York’s ‘downtown scene’ in the 1970s seems both topical and defiantly familiar – an earlier manifestation of the recessionary ghost that keeps turning up to the party. This exhibition focuses on three artists – Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark – who lived and worked in the area now known as SoHo when it was full of empty factories and warehouses rather than cafes and designer shops. The NY authorities were broke and seemed inclined to abandon the place to rats, artists and anyone else who’d move in or couldn’t get out.
Film clips and photos of crumbling roads and pavements, houses with every window broken and what look like post-apocalyptic wastelands scattered with rubble show the extent of decay in this part of NY at the time. Anderson, Brown and Matta-Clark responded to this environment by literally launching themselves into it, not only using empty factory space as workshops and galleries but organising dance and music events and making sculptures and what might be called landscape interventions in the streets, on rooftops and under flyovers. Lack of official interest and control opened up a huge canvas where pretty much anything could be tried. People walked down the side of seven storey buildings using very minimalist rope and harness mechanisms and Matta-Clark in his Bronx Floors, Bronx Doors project carried out architectural ‘dissections’, sawing through walls and floors in empty houses to reveal unexpected perspectives and layers of decorative and building materials that make the viewer feel like a time and space traveller.
The artists in this exhibition come from disparate backgrounds. Matta-Clark had studied architecture whilst Brown is a dancer and choreographer. Anderson is possibly best known for O Superman, her eerie poem/song where her voice is electronically layered and distorted. What unites all three is an interest in art as a process and performance that can’t be restricted to specifically designated and designed spaces like galleries. Faced with curating this expansive philosophy the Barbican have split process and performance, using the gallery’s upper floor to display the films, photos, text and drawings which plan and record the evolution and realisation of various events and installations. The lower floor acts as a space where some of these installations and activities are recreated, including demonstrations of wall walking and Planes (see above) where performers seem to hover above an aerial panorama of NY.
With little money but virtually unlimited space and experimental freedom Matta-Clark, Anderson and Brown developed ideas and ways of working that continue to resonate in all sorts of ways today. Their shared interest in movement and the fluid, contentious boundaries between public and private space shapes all of the work shown here. Brown choreographed performances involving dancers and non-dancers that explored the resonance of repeated and accumulated movements – a sort of bodily expression of what rapid fire photography can display – and displaced movement – those hallucinatory figures walking upright down walls and ladders. In a photo of Roof Piece performers stationed on top of different buildings signal movements to each other, passing on the same gestures from one person and location to another, mute messages leapfrogging from street to street. Surrounded by chimneys and air vents and what look like water tanks on stilts the performers seem to express the frailty and ingenuity of human life in cities, how the whole urban project rests on a series of codes and communications from transport systems to the individual etiquette of how to order a coffee or a pizza.
Anticipating Tracey Emin’s approach to private life as public art Anderson tried sleeping out in various public places including a court house and Coney Island beach – “The water is beginning to cover my frozen feet” – to see if the different locations affected her dreams. In Object/Objection/Objectivity she turned her camera on men who propositioned her in the street, taking their pictures and recording their comments and reactions. It’s the flip side of Emin’s famous tent, more ‘everyone I’ve never slept with’, and has a freewheeling feminist vibe that’s utterly absent from the carefully embroidered names in Emin’s tent.
As well as photos and videos a significant portion of the exhibition is given over to drawing. All three artists appreciated the speed, economy and simplicity of drawing and the plans and sketches displayed here are the foundation for much of their work. Grouped together they also seem to act as a conversation between the artists, revealing how they influenced each other and responded to their surroundings. A series of tree drawings by Matta-Clark show both his interest in environmental projects, as in Parked Island Barges on the Hudson, a string of barges planted with gardens and connected by bridges, and the minutiae of trees themselves, the shape and composition of their leaves, branches and bark. Brown’s penciled choreographic plans combine text, numbers and pattern, an expression of thinking with body and mind. Rows of unbroken lines that move from ricocheting zig-zags to sudden straight drops and soaring curves seem to mirror the city’s horizon and form a new alphabet, or perhaps it’s just a reflection of an alphabet we already know, transposed in typical Brown style into a different setting and context.
While all exhibitions tend to remind visitors of something else as comparisons are made between artists and styles it’s striking how so many of the ideas tried out here have gone on to influence not only the visual art scene but also literature, broadcast media and the environmental movement. Matta-Clark’s collages of walls and floors covered in peeling paint and strips of multicoloured paper and lino and his interest in off-cuts of land under bridges and between buildings that no-one knew what to do with link to the growth in ‘psychogeography’ and the writings of authors like Patrick Wright and Iain Sinclair. Anderson’s Stereo Decoy: A Canadian-American Duet which involved a piano, a goose decoy and both banks of the Niagara river being wired for sound is an ambitious precursor to all those sound sculptures on Radio 4’s Saturday Live programme.
On a larger scale and with the opening last week of Turner Contemporary in Margate this exhibition feeds into the continuing debate about art’s role in regenerating run-down areas. There’s a huge and fascinating contrast between the more recent use of set-piece, often iconic building projects like the Guggenheim in Bilbao to rebrand cities and regions and the diffuse, low-cost, activity-centred approach taken by Brown, Anderson and Matta-Clark. It’s rather sad to think that in today’s controlled, CCTV monitored cities the first wall walkers would probably been arrested for breach of public safety laws.
Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s runs until 22 May at the Barbican.
Image: Trisha Brown, Planes, 1968 Photograph by Rune Hellestad