New York Plays Itself

By Lumi Tan

Oct 17, 2013

We often talk about what constitutes community at The Kitchen, and how it has changed significantly from our origins as a loft space in Soho. At that time, most of our audiences were friends and collaborators, lived in the neighborhood, and had only a handful of venues to choose from. More than forty years later, The Kitchen is a far larger institution, and one of the few non-profits still holding ground in the heart of New York’s commercial gallery district. While the art world has grown exponentially, the very idea of community even within our walls has become stratified; between the disciplines we present, and the many sub-genres within those disciplines, between the audience which has been with us since the 1970s, and the constant influx of those who are discovering us for the first time. We can no longer rely on our mere existence to create an ad hoc community.
It is at this moment, when such circumstances are being negotiated here in our program time and again (most visibly in our ongoing L.A.B. series), that I found the experience of working with Simon Leung on his performance ACTIONS! particularly heartening. Leung first conceived of ACTIONS! during the 2000 strike at MoMA, in which 260 workers picketed for an impressive four and a half months. Measuring our cultural distance from that earlier moment, Leung gathered as much information as possible on the strike and connected the lines from the initial criticisms of MoMA’s displays of wealth (a 1939 quote from MoMA employee Jimmy Ernst, son of artist Max Ernst) through the 1960s and 1970s with the actions of Guerilla Art Action Group and Art Workers Coalition, up until the present day with Arts & Labor and W.A.G.E., who have attempted to correct the inequalities so prevalent between artists, art workers, and those who profit from them.
The cast of ACTIONS! was a multi-generational group that combined career performers with artists, administrators, and academics, most of whom have everyday roles that are very much off-stage (myself included). The constitution of the audience mirrored the performers, a sold-out crowd of friends and colleagues. Leung’s script integrated historical anecdotes and statistics with quotes pulled from extensive conversations with the participants about their diverse experiences making a living from their work. In one of the final scenes of the performance, Yvonne Rainer spoke plainly about her real estate history in New York, an all too familiar tale which began with a series of live/work lofts shared with friends and partners, and ended with the shock of a current list price on her last apartment, up a thousand times from what she had paid just a few years ago. The candor in the responses that Leung elicited in his preparatory conversations further closed the gap between those on stage and those in the audience. There was undoubtedly a sense that each and every person in the room fully understood the situations being enacted, whether the lines being read were from eighty years ago or five months ago.
In almost a decade of working in galleries, museums, and artist studios in New York, I have never had the opportunity to join a union. Until the Occupy movement in 2011, when conversations about unionizing, unpaid internships, and health insurance were seemingly the only conversations worth having, it never even occurred to me that this sense of solidarity or community—akin to what must have been felt during the 2000 MoMA strike—was possible in the art world. After Occupy receded, W.A.G.E. extended the conversation with the release of their 2012 survey, in which 977 artists reported on how New York museums and institutions compensated them for exhibitions and performance, if at all. After the first performance of ACTIONS!, I was talking with another participant about how the show could be judged negatively for simply preaching to the choir; this veteran performer, activist, and New Yorker responded “The choir needs to be preached to in order to go on.” For me, ACTIONS! was a timely reminder of why the choir still needs spaces like The Kitchen in which to congregate, a need that has remained as the loft spaces, neighborhoods, and audiences keep changing over.

Photo: Paula Court. Image of Simon Leung's ACTIONS!

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