This article was originally published on Common Edge.
While Stephen Zacks’ new book, G.H. Hovagimyan: Situationist Funhouse, is ostensibly about the life and work of the artist, there’s an intriguing and seemingly topical subtext looming in the background: the role of art and culture on the development and redevelopment of cities. It’s a complicated and sometimes fraught issue, prone sometimes to simplistic, even binary thinking. Zacks, a friend and former colleague at Metropolis, has always had a more nuanced view of the issue. Last week I reached out to him to talk about the work of Hovagimyan, the historic lessons of 1970s New York, and why “gentrification” needs a new name.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
SZ: Stephen Zacks
MCP: I know that this book had a long gestation period, since I remember you starting to work on this during our shared time at Metropolis. Talk about the background of the book. Why is G.H. Hovagimyan such a seminal figure?
SZ: You have a great memory. The ur-history dates back to that 2006 interview with Kyong Park for Metropolis, “The Dark Side of Architecture.” Kyong was remembering the New York of the early ’80s as an idyllic time. I wanted to reexamine why official accounts all record high crime, homelessness, failing infrastructure, and urban abandonment as dominant themes, yet the stories of artists tended to emphasize how it was inexpensive to live and gave them an extraordinary freedom to use and reimagine the city.
G.H. is a notable example whose story tracks alongside the cultural history of the period. He moves through all of these neighborhoods redeveloping in tandem with the formation of artist’s communities from the 1970s through the 1990s—SoHo, TriBeCa, Lower East Side, East Village—and now you can see it happening in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, where he bought a house in the 1980s and moved full-time a few years ago.
Part of what’s going on is that the “artist” constitutes a socioeconomic class whose college-and-graduate education, middle-class upbringing, and, most frequently, European descent, offered a relative advantage compared to other groups who at the time were minimized as “minorities” and discriminated against in terms of housing policy, access to banking, and allocation of public resources. As a result, the “disinvestment” presented itself as a particularly fun opportunity for artists—and investors—if you could position yourself to take advantage of devalued spaces. That said, you had to be adventurous. As a woman or an artist, you had to be willing to endure a certain amount of hardship and precarity to make good on the opportunity. Situationist Funhouse traces G.H.’s adventures not just through the lens of the city and the formation of artist’s communities, but also through the changing media of his time, which he’s constantly observing and hacking as a way of critiquing media and society.
MCP: Sadly, I’m old enough to remember New York in the 1970s. What drew you, someone younger, from Michigan, to that era? Conventional wisdom and orthodox planning says that’s New York at its nadir.
SZ: It’s always incredibly ambivalent for me when I think about the traditional leftist position against “development.” When you come from places like Flint and Detroit and Lansing, you saw decades of public and private disinvestment lead to all kinds of disheartening, depressing conditions. First of all, everyone is always leaving to find better places. The kids who go to college never come back. The downtown businesses were always mostly boarded up, and historic neighborhoods were distinguished by their large numbers of collapsing buildings. It’s an incredible cultural loss and a fairly sad condition to live in when nothing changes decade after decade.
Yet the people who stayed still orchestrated an incredibly lively and inventive cultural life. For my generation, for instance, many of us were inspired by the hardcore punk scene using old buildings and odd spaces to throw “hall parties” in downtown Flint, or artist friends in Old Town Lansing organizing loft parties. You could always find the best cafes, boutiques, music venues, and open-air art installations in downtown Detroit: Zoots, the Heidelberg Project, St. Andrews, to name a few. Techno and rave parties were born in vacant industrial buildings. But it was never enough to sustain daily cultural life for someone as restless and unsettled as I was.
The question becomes, what does development really mean? For one thing, the word somewhat neutralizes the fact that in a society gradually withdrawing from any form of state planning in favor of policies allowing private capital to be the agent of change—under the assumption that the “public” as “consumer” can then make their choices and let the market settle the rest; the agents of development are those with access to banking. That ends up reifying patterns of disinvestment and leaving historically discriminated groups, the poor and unbankable—not to mention places already suffering from commercial and industrial abandonment—somewhat in the lurch.
All of this is a lot to unpack, and I still do not feel like I’m anywhere close to succeeding in telling this story, but I have a ton of research and a partially revised draft of a manuscript called A Beautiful Ruin to show for it. In the meantime, everyone has always recommended concentrating on one figure to make it easier to tell the story. I’d like to think G.H. Hovagimyan: Situationist Funhouse is the first of several volumes that follow the lives of exemplary artists that would offer a more nuanced view than the pat “gentrification” story, which seems to condemn artists and their (unintended) role in development or to glorify famous artists as heroic figures emerging from New York’s abyss.
The word “gentrification” represents an internalization of the idea that supposedly free consumer markets will be the agents of change in society, not the government’s policy regulating how those markets work, how they allocate resources, who has access to banking, and what industries receive tax breaks, direct investment, trade support, etc. Most of the memoirs, economic critiques, and fiction rely on these clichés. The truth is more in between.
MCP: What is the relevance of Hovagimyan’s work and life for present-day artists, designers, and even policy makers?
SZ: For one thing, G.H. belonged to an incredibly well-supported cultural scene. In 1960, Nelson Rockefeller started the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), modeled after the British Arts Councils, which offered young artists and arts organizations a source of funding for projects providing opportunity for those who did not have a gallery. And galleries were relatively few and far between.
Gordon Matta-Clark’s famous Day’s End, in which he illegally cut a half-moon through the Navy Pier at the end of Gansevoort Street in 1975, was actually funded by a New York State Creative Artists Public Service Program grant he used to pay G.H. and others to assist him. That’s kind of extraordinary when you think about such an iconic work of ad hoc urban reuse being funded by the state. NYSCA is still going strong and even funded the start of my research on this period.
There had been a scene of artist-run cooperative galleries in the 1950s and 60s; artists donated work to be bought by collectors to keep the doors open. By the 1970s, that model had collapsed. People got tired of giving their work away. 112 Greene Street, where G.H. began sitting the gallery in 1973 and had his first solo exhibition, started out essentially as an artist’s cooperative, except that Jeff Lew, an artist who owned the building, donated the ground floor to his friends and colleagues to play around and present their work, with some help from a patron.
The National Endowment for the Arts also formed during this time and its budget increased substantially in the 1970s. Brian O’Doherty—an art critic whose alter ego was performance artist Patrick Ireland—initiated an NEA workshop program to give money directly to artist-run spaces. All of these non-profit institutions known as alternative spaces formed during this period, places like the Kitchen, PS1, Artists Space, Printed Matter, ABC No Rio. 112 Greene Street eventually became a non-profit called White Columns. In these venues, several generations have had an opportunity to present their ideas, play with friends and colleagues, and share them with the public.
Later, when the fast money on Wall Street got interested in art as an investment tool, the East Village scene thrived in retail storefronts let out inexpensively to commercial artist-run galleries. G.H. also participated in this scene, co-founding Virtual Garrison gallery at 2nd Avenue and 1st Street, which is also documented in the book through the archives of the East Village Eye, the alternative tabloid of the moment.
And let us not discount the fact that the budget of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs in 2022 is $144.2 million; the proposed budget of the National Endowment for the Arts—for the entire country—is $201 million. That’s not counting capital projects. It’s an incredibly well-supported cultural scene. That said, G.H., like most of his peers, had to hustle in various trades for his daily bread, and the fact that New York had a lively scene converting old buildings into residential lofts and venues helped. Lots of people, then and now, got by in this way, taking side jobs. Phillip Glass is often celebrated for having been a taxi driver and a plumber while writing his most famous early compositions. That was only possible, on the other hand, because rent was incredibly cheap compared to today.
If there’s one thing I would do to recreate the context in which G.H. and his peers were able to thrive, it would be to expand and make permanent rent stabilization and to institute good cause eviction laws that would limit the many fraudulent ways landlords flip rent-stabilized apartments into more expensive and market rate leases. That, along with G.H.’s intellectual curiosity and ongoing process of research and hacking of technology, is how you get an artist able to sustain a 50-year-long career rarely supported by any kind of commercial art market, continually exploring and giving meaning to the technological and social changes of our time.
MCP: Hovagimyan collaborated with Gordon Matta-Clark in the ’70s. His range of collaborations and his work in general is sort of astounding. He’s still very much active. What is he working on these days?
SZ: I gave this book the title Situationist Funhouse because you can see in his work from the 1970s to now this incredible spirit of fun and exploration. The title is a bit of a misnomer in that it’s only alluding in a general way to the Situationism of Guy Debord—not claiming an integral connection between G.H. and the movement. Much of G.H.’s work involves media critique, hacking or reappropriating media in a playful way, freeing it from its normally corporate, profit-making purpose.
Having collaborated with G.H. on projects in Flint, New York City, and Callicoon, in the Catskills, he’s just an incredible good-natured spirit to have around, so that’s undoubtedly one of the reasons he was such a well-appreciated assistant to Matta-Clark. If you’re spending a month together cutting apart a gigantic pier on the Hudson River or a 16th century building in Paris, you want to have a tall Armenian with a great sense of humor traveling with you.
That’s a continuous characteristic of his work from the beginning: this fun-loving look at a critical situation, flipping it into something entertaining and provocative. In Flint, when we were trying to persuade mistrustful local audiences that bringing outsiders from New York City and other places would be a good idea to stimulate another level of cultural activity, which they could use for the intentional development of disinvested communities, G.H. brought his 3D Karaoke project to the monthly Flint Art Walk. He hacked Kinect cameras—originally designed for video gaming—to produce live 3D images of performers, and programmed a software platform with popular songs and lyrics. When people came into the temporary gallery, they could choose a song and see themselves performing in 3D projected onto the walls. It was incredibly festive and fun.
Most of the time, he’s dealing with emerging technologies before anyone knows what they will be used for. Currently, he’s working with augmented reality (AR), making interactive sculptures that trigger smartphones to augment them with 3D animations. As you’re walking through galleries and outdoor installations, sounds and animations pop out of these sculptural objects, visualizing space junk—satellites floating in space, remnants of previous eras of space exploration—accompanied by sounds of the different objects.
What’s particularly exciting about AR is the potential to imagine another world within the existing world. In the future, we will have even more sophisticated screens in our glasses and be even more disconnected from the everyday reality that surrounds us—like those real-life zombies who walk around staring at their cellphones. We’ll have contact lenses showing what’s there—and something else—most likely selling you products leading to your own destruction and the destruction of the planet. This is more or less what he’s playing with now.
MCP: As someone who lives in present-day New York and is a keen observer of cities, I’d love to get your take on things as they are, as the city, staggered by the pandemic, begins to crawl out from under the weight of that. It feels a bit … like the ’70s. What do you think?
SZ: I somewhat hope it’s more like the ’70s, without ignoring the real struggles that come with economic perturbations. Rent had been declining or at least not increasing for a while, which I was happy about. But the death of cultural life during the pandemic was really hard to bear—not to speak of the death of so many tens of thousands in the city. Countless local businesses, essential institutions in their own ways, also disappeared. Cultural life seems to be coming back now, and I’m just overjoyed to be socializing with friends and colleagues again at public events. That’s the whole reason to be in a city!
A buddy of mine recently opened an antique shop in a former dry cleaners in my neighborhood, which is reminiscent of the kinds of curious, genuinely joyous places that sprout up when rent pressures decrease and people are more free to follow their own paths. Some of the other revivals feel played out, like the interim-use art projects in vacant storefronts, where you just know the landlord is biding their time to crank up the rent to some grotesque amount. There should be laws against that, too.