Directed by Marcin Ramocki The Museum of Modern Art
"There are three things you don’t want to see being made: sausage, legislation, and art history.” Mark Kramer lobbed this bon mot at me during a recent update on the estate of Lee Lozano and some truly bizarre revelations in her Last Will and Testament (which are beyond the scope of this article).
As an art history buff, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about just what the process of art history is, the forces that shape and manipulate it, and why it’s important. To the uninitiated, things are what they are. We’re delivered accepted wisdom, and swallow it as fact. With some experience, the inquiring mind can peel back the layers and look at the underlying structures. Things get messy, rank, faded, and the truth becomes slippery, thin, and twisted. But, as engaging intellects like Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt have stated, every artist is a walking history book. Further, the career of an artist over time depends on her or his inclusion, however meager, within this canon.
To this point, many “mainstream” pundits have gone out of their way to disparage the Williamsburg scene as a ne’er-do-well slacker apparent to the historical neighborhoods of New York’s legendary past. They assume that, somehow, the ‘Burg, having never coalesced into a coherent “school,” should be stricken from the chronicle. From Irving Sandler and the Beats, to Patti Smith, to Jonathan Larson’s musical, Rent, locales like 10th Street, Soho, and the East Village have been romanticized for decades. Even if many of these representations are cardboard clichés, they have at least dented the universal consciousness and provided a basis for the further propagation of myths (history). You might not want to see how your morning sausage is made, but there’d be a big hole in your breakfast without it.
On the evening of February 25th, during the Museum of Modern Art’s final night of Documentary Fortnight, the public was invited to view the premier of Brooklyn DIY, the directorial project of Marcin Ramocki. Though a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, having arrived in the late 90s, Ramocki connected with Carlton Bright, a local videographer with extensive footage of some of the most seminal Williamsburg happenings. This “collaboration” places the various clips recorded by Bright into an historical context, while providing Ramocki with invaluable documentation of events long gone. Indeed, an intriguing aspect of the documentary is its intention to cast as wide a net as possible for sources and contributions. (Full disclosure: Because of my own longtime efforts documenting the Williamsburg community, I spoke with Ramocki during the final weeks of editing this two-year-long project, and shared my photo and document archive with him. Also, proudly, one of my paintings is glimpsed for a few seconds in the documentary.)
Ramocki founded and, until recently, directed VERTEXLIST, a North Williamsburg gallery concentrating on “New Media.” It was through this venue, and its previous incarnation as Four Walls, that the filmmaker laid the foundations of his narrative. Mike Ballou, Amy Sillman, and Ward Shelley, three major forces of Four Walls, are extensively interviewed and their perspectives flavor the film’s general tone. Adam Simon, another principal, is mentioned without going in depth. Other major players include: musician and artist Ken Butler; Pierogi founder and longtime ‘Burg presence Joe Amrhein; proprietor of Front Room and publisher of the local art guide WAGMAG, Daniel Aycock; stalwart critical chronicler Sarah Schmerler; Jack the Pelican’s Don Carroll, and dozens of others.
The film opens with a vintage scene of Gene Pool from February 11, 1996, clattering around in a beer-can-suit, reading a manifesto declaring himself “President of the University of Williamsburg…an institution of the mind…that will live forever,” followed by “Williamsburg Before the Artists Came”—four hundred years of local history (abridged) presented through drawings and a soliloquy by Matt Freedman, accompanied on jazz drums by Tim Spelios.
As you might expect from New York’s wackiest art community, there are plenty of zippy montages and trippy views of people doing outrageous things, lots of dangerous-looking stunts and nasty artworks. Along with this expected “entertainment content,” Ramocki has leavened the mix with insightful dialogue and important footage that offers viewers the chance to witness events unfiltered, and ponder the changes they engendered.
The story traces the nabes from the late 80s, when a group of young activists began to coalesce around loose happenings and loft parties, to more organized events like “Cat’s Head” and “Organism” in the early 90s, to the boomlet of small galleries and alternative spaces to the real estate crunch of the present. Clips from the legendary Salon of the Mating Spiders at Annie Herron’s Test-Site and other essential happenings invest Brooklyn DIY with scholarly significance. As I wrote in “The Brooklyn Canon,” which appeared in the June 2008 Brooklyn Rail, “half the artists in Williamsburg began their careers with Mating Spiders, a street fair, New Music performance, picnic and art happening, all rolled into one.” Having missed this party, I’d always wondered about it. As the story arc reveals, not all is sunshine, rockin’ nightclubs, and cool art shows. Dramatic changes have been wrought in Williamsburg by pie-in-the-sky overdevelopment. Frank discussions explore personal hardships faced by local residents. A flutter of applause becomes an ovation when pictures of the late Annie Herron flash on the screen.
Having never dreamed of being a “film critic,” and despite several points of contention, I’ll break my own rules against ratings and give Brooklyn DIY four stars. It’s got sufficient intellectual punch for local history buffs and enough down-and-dirty neighborhood drama to satisfy fans of cinematic realism.
After the film, a Q&A period with the director shed some light on the difficult and dirty business of making art history. Complaints were aired about inclusions and exclusions, why Brooklyn DIY was picked as the title instead of something more specific to Williamsburg, why certain questions were asked and not others, etc. The director described recording dozens of interviews over hundreds of hours, and the difficulty of editing it all down to a mere 75 minutes. Ramocki also spoke of concerns that paragons of “Political Correctness” might take issue with the general “complexion” of the movie. Admirably, the filmmaker decided to present exactly what he found, rather than trying to avoid offending special interest groups with a more acceptable demographic .
Tellingly, one of the final statements made by Ramocki at the screening was to the effect that, “This is only a beginning; I hope other people will carry on this project and create their own versions.” So history gets kicked a bit further down the road. The place that was Williamsburg begins to have a story, and maybe, just maybe, it’ll be something the grandkids might be interested in.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.