After they cleared Zuccotti, stacks of barricades appeared everywhere. You’ve probably seen them: the standard crowd control-pen type, metal, with the blue NYPD stencil here and there, three or four feet high maybe, in six-foot sections that interlock—now augmented with zip-tie handcuffs, so they can’t be separated. It was as if Mayor Bloomberg had commissioned a new public sculpture project in all the major plazas: Union Square, Washington Square, Battery Park. The New Brutalism. Kind of like after 9/11, when they put up all those concrete barriers, except now, instead of picturing a careening van full of explosives every time I saw one, I pictured a careening cop, about to bash my friend’s head in.
Not my head, though! My head was safely on the other side of a laptop screen for most of the police action. Or in a car, like it was now, cushioned by the headrest, sipping some iced coffee, half-following the voices on NPR, inching along. A virtual-occupier? A commuter-occupier? There had been articles about this, but I couldn’t remember what conclusions the authors had drawn; I probably heard about it on the radio. As I passed the more familiar barricades on I-95, the white-and-orange concrete that lines the endless construction zone that leads to my house, I had the thought, the pretty embarrassing thought, that I was just between activisms, in the way that the unemployed were between jobs. A silly idea, but maybe you’re familiar with the mixture of guilt and relief that follows a more frenzied period of political engagement. And when that fades, as it did for me right around Bridgeport, Connecticut, the only question is: what next?
After I got my MFA I was full of hope. I mean debt. I was really just chock-full of debt. And dread. This is an interior monologue, right? Because I do want to talk about this stuff, but I don’t want to panic. So let’s take it slow. Let’s start with the total amount. The figure hovers over me constantly, like a security guard at the mall. (It scowls when I look at the new iPhones, or if I peruse the Blick catalogue in an idle studio moment.) I didn’t go to a top school, so it’s under a hundred grand. Actually, I don’t want to say the amount. It’s probably outdated anyways, already.
You’re supposed to think of it as an investment. And it is: it’s a lot like taking a mortgage on an invisible house. This house is made of ideas about art, so along with being invisible, it’s invaluable. That’s great, but you still have to pay it off in monthly installments. So, the Master of Fine Arts works as a studio assistant, an adjunct professor, an art handler. Thankless work most of the time, but, at the end of the day, the Master goes home to his very own invisible house. It sucks to live in an invisible house, as the Master’s invisible children are always quick to point out. And the market in these invisible, invaluable houses is notoriously hard to predict, so the Master naturally gets a little nervous about his investment, and starts asking around about resale values, and payment plans, and default options, and—sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, I’m in some group shows, re- doing my website, having some good studio visits. Can I give you my card?
That was the last time, that was absolutely fucking it, I said to myself as I walked downtown after the panel, having declined the invitation to the obligatory post-event drinks session, wishing I’d declined the invitation to the panel in the first place, and working on my riposte: something funny but stinging, bitchy but charming, I thought, something that will stick in the collective craw, so the people who were there will know exactly what I’m talking about, and the people who weren’t will still be able to laugh along. That’s how you do social media. I considered platforms. On the blog I would have to go into the event, to describe, recap, gloss, or parse the content (ha!) of the discussion, the inane contributions of my fellow panelists—charlatans all, with whom I’d already shared so many cloth-covered tables in so many kunsthalles and gaudy hotel conference rooms. Ferrence. Keller. Guo. We’d locked horns at Reputation Economies in Cyberspace, done vicious battle at Did Conceptual Art Crash the Stock Market?, ended in stalemate at Museum as Large House, and I was finally sick of the fight. Ferrence babbling on again and again about post-format mediatization, Keller demanding affective transparency at the level of the network, Guo calling for a reimagining of the digital sensorium, me sitting in dreadful silence at the end of the table—a silence, I think, pregnant with disapproval, an Old Testament silence of righteous, restrained critical fury. Who do these people think they are and why do they keep talking? What gives them the fucking right? And then the obscurely menacing phalanx of students in the front of the audience. Ferrence fondling his Poland Spring bottle; Keller, glasses slipping down her nose, reading her essay with the utmost gravity like it was the Port Huron Statement; Guo taking off his glasses and pounding the table, literally pounding the table, as he made his point—about what? A point about making a point, I thought, as I walked home. All points in art panel discussions are points about making points, I thought, are phatic rhetoric, are rhetoric exhausting itself in the enunciation of the desire to speak and be heard, and most of all to propagate. To spread like kudzu across the social media, both the electronic and the archaic, the buzzing of a hundred openings and dinners and drinks with colleagues after work. Here’s a panel topic, I thought: No One Should Talk to Anyone Ever. I counted off the characters with each footfall as I walked. H (one) E (two) R (three) E (four) APOSTROPHE (five) S (six)—how many city blocks equal one tweet? Here’s another one: The Social Turn Is A Disaster for Misanthropes. A misting rain began to fall at 23rd Street, and by the time I passed Union Square my clothes were damp.
Always having an opinion, having to have an opinion, is the plague of the 21st-century thinker, I thought, whose brain is like a boil, lanced every day by the media. A book, an article, a post, a tweet, a thread, a comment, a lecture, a panel, a conversation, a chat. Better to be silent, I thought, a blank doc, an empty text field, a vacant barstool. This was great stuff. I pulled out my phone to dictate a memo.
After the opening we all stood out on the sidewalk for a while chatting half-amicably in the unseasonably warm air, while most of the people trickled off and checked their phones. There was some confusion about whether I’d be invited to the dinner afterwards, but I was whisked away by the gallery director for sushi with some collectors, some friends of the artist, other gallery artists, the dealers, and the interns. There were three tables and the artist moved around a bit; the middle part of the tables moved around; my eyes moved around. The artist in the show, it turns out, also has a day job as an accountant. It shouldn’t have, but that really surprised me. The interns didn’t do or say very much, even though they were seated together. The other guy I wanted to talk to, this older artist, was very friendly and forthcoming. He was an alcoholic, it turns out. I spent a lot of the dinner thinking about that, looking at his ginger ale.
Then, of course, we went to a bar. It was a mix of some of the dinner people, some unrelated art people, and even some non-art people and then suddenly, as it turns out, an ex of mine. It was awkward at first, but then it was kind of nice to see her, then awkwardly nice. She glossed my work from the last few years with reassuring (bordering-on-scary) ease. Princeton had been good to her. Turns out that’s how she knows this other friend of mine, who knows everyone anyways, and so he slides into our booth, pushing me closer to her. Nice one. He treats these outings as a contact sport, I’m thinking, even before I notice him Googling my ex. Then he’s on my website (which I should really update); then he is ordering us another drink. He sends me a text: Why did you guys break up?
The rest is a bit of a blur: art world gossip lubricated by a couple of $14 whiskey cocktails, which I justify based on my free dinner. (File under: Free lunch, no such thing.) Actually, come to think of it, it was four drinks, because I repaid my friend and bought a peacemaker for my ex. But that’s it. I wish I had something significant to report. After the bar, it’s the trains home, where I try to digest the evening with drool pouring down my neck. Half in a dream state, I try to convince myself that a semi- dream state is the best way to take life in. Oh, and I’m starving. As I’m lumbering up the subway stairs, weighing some late-night food options while breathing in some old urine, I get a text: What are you doing after?
On the day after Sandy I got a call from the director of the gallery asking me to come in and try to save a sculpture that had gotten soaked in the storage room. It was an installation piece, a sort of living room, with carpet, a lamp, a table and chair, drywall walls. It was sopping wet and it had begun to stink. This would have been a perfect insurance write-off but the piece was sold—to a very important collector, the director told me in that special tone that art people use to signal an emergency situation where you’re supposed to drop everything and jump in a cab if you want to keep getting hired to do things. But there were no cabs, so while my roommates were heading east to take bottled water and blankets to people in the Rockaways, I was pedaling west, to Chelsea, on my bicycle, to de-mildew this significant piece. Après le déluge, moi.
The empty streets made for an easy ride at first. The power in Lower Manhattan was out, but the bars were packed. There were “warm beer parties” and “free food parties.” All of the liquor stores were open. Bodegas were selling eggs and milk at half price. Above 14th Street, things weren’t so friendly. New York traffic was in full effect, except all the stoplights were dark, and no one was there to direct anyone. There were full-fledged driving battles between the avenues and the streets; the avenues were winning.
When I finally got to Chelsea, I could see millions of dollars of damage through the gallery windows. The Ai Wei Wei chairs I had visited the previous week were smashed on the floor. Next door, boxed paintings jumbled against the window. Galleries with recessed floors had turned into swimming pools. It seemed as though very few people had come to check on their businesses; the neighborhood was surprisingly empty.
I was happy for the work, but it was undeniably strange, on this apocalyptic day, to be fretting over the archival qualities of something definitely not made to last. For whom was I preserving this thing? For how many years would it exist? I imagined a far-future society placing this fake living room in a bigger room, and then looking at it and thinking … what? Before the Earth was covered mostly in water, there lived a people who worshipped petrochemicals and spent vast sums of money on things called “art objects.” I kept revisiting this thought as I worked: these far-future humans, or maybe even post-humans, puzzling over this funny piece of sculpture—which was now, thanks to my careful ministrations, almost completely free of water stains. It did somehow get me through the day.
When night fell, I wasn’t quite finished, but I had to head home. Winding my way back through the bruised-up city, I kept thinking, Before the Earth was covered mostly in water, there lived a people. The dark buildings looked ominous and sad; only their hallways were lit up, with little red exit lights. A few days later, when the sculpture was restored and I could rejoin my Occupy Sandy friends, lower Manhattan was still dark, the party atmosphere was gone, and people had started lining up for gas.