The Villager , September 21 - 27, 2005
An anguished howl of support for HOWL! Festival
by Penny Arcade
|Photo by Elisabeth Robert
Penny Arcade makes a pitch for HOWL! at the pre-festival press conference.
The Howl Festival and FEVA (Federation of East Village Artists and, as I like to add, Friends of East Village Arts) was formed as a last-ditch effort to address how we as a community could educate the masses of people who are swarming into our neighborhood’s new incarnation as the “sex-in-the-city-’80s-Upper-East-Side-style party central.” Our way of life has been commoditized into a “lifestyle” and the accouterments of the “Downtown” East Village/Lower East Side have been marketed to the entire country and across the world.
Bohemian to Beat to hippie to punk to now everyone has a tattoo and leather jacket and a degree in performance art, spoken word or experimental film. However, the packs of people roaming our once-residential streets have more in common with a “Girls Gone Wild” protracted spring break mentality than anything that ever came out of these streets including CBGB at its drunk, puking-in-the-street, ’70s worst.
The fight to preserve our way of life is not only about artists. The L.E.S/E.V. scene has always been one-fifth artists to two-fifths people who live an artistic life. People who will never write, play paint or perform anything, who don’t want to, but to whom the world of ideas and participating in the arts has always been an important part of their everyday lives. They are responsible, as much as the artists who created the unique art forms, for the arts that have long thrived here, which are now commonplace all over the world, their provenance recognized internationally as “Downtown NY.”
The idea that artists are more interesting and important than nonartists comes from the same place as concepts like “emerging arts,” from academia not from the real world of art. The other two-fifths of our neighbors have been a mix of the working poor and working class, beginning with the blacks who have been here since the Revolutionary War to the varied immigrant, ethnic groups who have migrated here for two centuries. The arts flourished here in an extraordinary post-World War II renaissance, the result of the confluence of inventive and investigative artists, eager, open and broadminded audiences and the ambiance of cheap rent, ethnic diversity and variety and the hundreds of cheap restaurants that fed us all, supported by the underlying European and Russian Jewish socialist mindset that loves ideas, and the discussion and development of ideas. Many of us have lived here several decades with no wish to displace our neighbors. No need to open trendy Soho style cafes, shops or bars. We ate in the Spanish, Italian and Polish and Ukrainian restaurants and drank in their bars, side by side with working-class people.
In our desperation, as a neighborhood under economic siege, we felt that we might lure some of the new people who are choosing to move into the neighborhood or who come here to party, Sheherazade-like through the HOWL! Festival into an understanding of our fast-disappearing world. The E.V./L.E.S. has always accepted and embraced and frankly transformed anyone who wished to be part of it. There has never been a need to try to “fit in” to the E.V./L.E.S., because the E.V./L.E.S. has always been about individuality, self-expression and not fitting in.
The media, including Sarah Ferguson, the longtime E.V./L.E.S. resident who wrote the recent column about HOWL! in The Villager, seem to be unable to grasp that the motivation behind HOWL! and FEVA has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with cultural criticism and political and cultural backlash. We do not share the values that are being shoved down our throats. We do not like watching helplessly as our elderly, poor and minority neighbors are pressured or cheated out of their homes. We do not like seeing young people who grew up here, forced out of their family homes, as the low-income projects are warehoused for the rich and oblivious. Yet, all of us understand too poignantly that the luxury high-rises, along with the people who don’t look you in the eyes when they pass you on the street who live in them and the expensive stores, restaurants and bars are not going away.
We banded together to form FEVA and created the HOWL! Festival in order to enroll the public, which is wandering around aimlessly, up for grabs, in understanding what is being lost and to help us fight back the cultural and social amnesia we are drowning in, After all, politics is what we do to one another and culture is how we talk about it. Our tools and weapons are creativity, spectacle and art.
It is in this new landscape of luxury high-rises and 18-to-36-year-olds who eat $50 dinners after class or after work and who troll the streets, from bar to bar all night, screeching at each other or into cell phones, oblivious of the people who live around them, in which we must struggle guerilla style, to hold onto authenticity. And our only hope for survival is to share that authenticity with the newcomers.
As far as the artists trying to preserve our legacy and personal fame, speaking for myself, I will say that after 38 years of doing theater in Downtown New York, I have begun to accept that I and my considerable body of work will not be “discovered” by the New York media and ushered into the American mainstream. My work in New York has rarely even been reviewed, even as I am performing that same work in major markets in Europe and Australia. In fact, the only feature that has ever appeared on my work in New York, promoting the work in progress of my play “Bad Reputation” at P.S. 122 in 1997, appeared in these pages of The Villager!
The attitude of the L.E.S./E.V. regarding fame has always been surprisingly sane. We did not measure success by worldly recognition and material gain. When Bill Cosby or Woody Allen run into their old Greenwich Village nightclub comrade Taylor Mead, they do not view him as a mainstream failure; they view him giddily as someone original and exciting who made different, braver, choices in his work and in his life and survived artistically by the sheer power of his creative will.
But the truth is today, even people who style themselves as alternative in Downtown New York measure success by the same rod as the mainstream and take their cues on what to consume from the mainstream. So if people who have worked for 20 years at art forms which were considered unmarketable when they helped create and refine them are upset by the way academia has usurped what was once the avant-garde, and if 40-year-olds who have developed for 20 years are now invisible in this cynical, corporate, hipster, huckster world, just think how pissed off the people who have spent $250,000 to become “emerging” artists are going to be when they find out you can’t actually purchase artistic experience and that the world is lowering the age of the threshold of interest every day.
We had hoped that HOWL! would promote artists from our community into situations that paid, exposing many of us to new audiences, as many of us have heard that there is some money involved these days in being a performer, writer, musician, filmmaker, photographer, poet or painter with an original, unique E.V./L.E.S. Downtown sensibility. After all, Uptown has come Downtown and the invisible ceiling has lowered till it is choking our necks. So excuse us if we want a slice of the pie. Excuse us if we took the opportunity to get involved in the three-ring circus our neighborhood has become so that we might have a voice in it. Unfortunately, in this age of curatorial journalism, the press picks and chooses what it will reveal and is rarely able to serve the public by presenting a wide array of artists. Without vigilance on our part, the HOWL! Festival will become just another Disney event as the press focuses not on the ideas behind HOWL! and FEVA but on a week of odd revelry with a few “safe” famous names, already well known to the mainstream — meanwhile, the media will continue to write what the great E.V./L.E.S. legend Jack Smith once described as “the kind of journalism you know in your purple hearts that you are paid to write.”
HOWL! and FEVA are three years young and they are far from perfect. But right now this is all that stands between us and the complete oblivion of a deep-rooted and beautiful, eclectic way of life. We owe it to the neighborhood that formed us. We owe it to our voiceless neighbors who are silenced by the swelling mediocrity.
Arcade (a.k.a. Susana Ventura) is a theater and performance artist, writer and director