Category Archives: Art

Who’s The Mack?

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In late January I began another marketing internship at Mack Industries, an event branding agency located in SoHo. After a joint interview I was hired on the spot, probably by virtue of having not finished high school last week. I was excited from the moment I stepped inside the lofty, open-plan office. I filled out my application on a leather couch, as The Cure blasted from an iPod hooked up to a stereo. Other employees arrived on skateboards, while at one end of the room a man paced up and down speaking French into a telephone. The walls were adorned with oversize prints of Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and other icons of popular culture. A series of blown-up images of John Lennon shooting hoops with Miles Davis hung behind the desk of Willie Mack, the company’s jet-setting, flip-flop-wearing boss.

I was immediately attracted to this position, even though I was vague about the job itself. Sadly I quickly learned the “job” was not all it seemed, and it soon transpired I was basically being used as a plumber, decorator, locksmith, DIY expert and general errand boy. In two-and-a-half months at Mack I changed a bathroom fitting, painted an exterior wall, changed a lock, fitted a curtain track rail to the ceiling, ran all over town fetching and buying equipment, and spent an entire day in the snow handing out flyers for a ridiculous “event” called Absolut Machines, in which the Swedish vodka giant had sponsored the creation of an ludicrous if ingenious internet-operated music box, housed at a what a colleague infuriatingly referred to as a “space” on the Lower East Side.

High points did include interviewing models at a Morgane Le Fay fashion show, in which I came up with the killer question, “Which is tougher: becoming a model or dating a model?” and even met a bleary-eyed Brittany Murphy. When I wasn’t running all over town, I was working on writing for Mack’s proposed online newsletter, but even that was impossible. Willie was mostly absent, and so there was little clear direction in the office. Sometimes meetings were held which only served to cloud issues further. No-one ever seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing. Equally infuriating was the office’s insistence on using Instant Messenger for all conversations. When I would ask a question to colleague (sitting three feet away), they’d reply, “Just IM me it, darling.”

I was surrounded by the very type of young person I loathe, and was mad at myself for having been fooled into thinking the place was cool. I wasn’t going to waste any more precious days performing menial tasks for young urban narcissists. On what turned out to be my last day I was sent to organize the picking-up of Willie’s new designer sofa. The following week I quit, demanding the money I’d been promised (I had yet to receive a cent from these guys). A very talented and yet-to-be-paid colleague had warned me early on that the company was “bulls**t” — I should’ve listened to him.

Chelsea Morning

Chelsea at dawn as viewed from Sefra’s bathroom window.

On Friday night I was invited along with a few of the MoMA gang to a party held at Sefra’s Chelsea loft. I never figured out how many people actually live there, but much of the sprawling apartment acts as a studio for an artist who I met briefly, and whose strange styrofoam sculptures dominate the kitchen and hall. The apartment is accessed from the roof, which was partially bathed in light by the looming Empire State Building which rose from behind. To help withstand the bitter temperatures we rigged up lights and toasted marshmallows huddled around a small fire. Sefra also did her bit by cooking up some apple cider with Jim Beam which was definitely welcomed. By dawn the view was even more impressive, and a warm, delicate, morning glow picked out the nearby water towers and buildings as far away as the financial district. It wasn’t long before Joni inevitably popped into my head:

Veselka (My Conversation With Jeff)

My first experience of Veselka was at 5AM the morning after I moved to New York. I can see directly into the place from my bedroom window so it seemed an obvious choice, and ever since I’ve had a sort of affinity for the place. The staff are friendly, chatty and make you feel like a local regular immediately. I’m often charged a single dollar for take-out coffee instead of the usual $1.25. Although the coffee has a strange taste I haven’t found anywhere else. At first I thought it was the jet-lag, but it hasn’t prevented me going back for breakfast, or a late-night snack. One Saturday about a month ago there was a fight in front of Veselka, in which its outdoor chairs and tables were knocked over. This hurt me deeply, but fortunately no permanent damage was done.

A few nights ago I was feeling peckish and so I popped downstairs for Veselka’s signature pierogi. I sat at the counter, where another man began talking to me. He was probably in his early 60s, and reminded me a little bit of the short-lived character Mr. Heckles, Monica’s grouchy neighbour on Friends. The man began asking me questions, hesitantly at first, so as not to pry, but I was quite happy to chat for a while. He’d lived in the East Village for over forty years, had worked as an artist, poet and salesman among other things. He told me about how he dabbled in painting, meticulously describing the difficulties he had trying to reproduce light and perspective. His technical shortcomings still obviously pained him, but he seemed to have been at least halfway accepted into the art community, even adopting an alternative last name with which he signed his canvases. It seemed he’d been taken under the wing of a painter/poet, and older woman who often invited him to eat with her family. But they had a falling out and didn’t speak for years.

It was interesting to hear his tales of a New York gone by. He told me that until the late 1970s, you could have stood on the corner of St. Marks Place and seen one other person walk by. He then began a tirade discussing Iraq and God knows what else, and I began to get tired and lose interest. It was now nearly four in the morning, and realised I had hardly spoken for hours. I’d paid my check long ago, but the man hadn’t ordered anything the whole time we’d been sat there. I got up to leave and he followed me, so I pretended I lived in the opposite direction to him (it’s one thing sitting with an oddball in a well-lit diner, quite another having them follow you home). Before we parted ways he revealed himself as Jeff Shenkman. I don’t know if this is his real name, but apparently a lot of his paintings are still knocking around.

PERFORMA 07

Through a colleague at MoMA, I’d become aware of something called PERFORMA, a performing arts foundation founded by Roselee Goldberg. I was offered the chance to volunteer for this year’s month-long biennial, PERFORMA 07, and without a real job and lots of extra time on my hands I said yes. At a meeting at the PERFORMA office I was gifted a red PERFORMA (you’ll have noticed by now that PERFORMA is always written in capitals) tote bag and assigned to assist with various projects, performances and what I guess they used to call “happenings”.

Allan Kaprow invented the term in the 1960s with his 18 Happenings in Six Parts, a redoing of which I went all the way to the Deitch Gallery in Queens to witness, though frankly I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’m sure it’s a lot more enjoyable if you’re high out of your mind (or if it’s 1966), but to a 21st century audience the whole thing felt very dated and silly.

The next day I went to Washington Square Park to help set up a giant game of mahjong — you know, that sort of Chinese version of dominoes. This piece was conceived by He Yunchang, China’s most renowned performance artist. Of course, as China’s most renowned performance artist, He insisted performing completely naked. So after we’d spent all afternoon lugging a thousand painted breeze-blocks from the Judson Memorial Church into the park, the artist appeared wrapped in a sheet, which he soon abandoned in order to play the game. I became roped into playing since we were short in numbers, but since I’m not a renowned performance artist I was allowed to remain fully clothed. After about twenty minutes a somewhat amused NYPD showed up and He Yunchang was asked to put his jeans back on.

The next day I joined a group of students (and artist Zack Rockhill) in Cooper Square to construct an open-top rectangular igloo using enormous blocks of ice. This was a challenge which was overcome by teamwork and an overwhelming desire to go get some coffee. Everyone agreed the end result was quite beautiful.

The next day I was back at MoMA to assist a backwards march through the museum lobby, as a hundred or so pensioners, children and other people with nothing better to do on a Sunday made their way from East 68th Street to Times Square. Miraculously no-one was hit by a cab, though had they been they’d have struggled to garner my sympathy.

At the Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery on Hudson Street I was asked to attend the opening party of Ulla Von Brandenburg’s La Maison, in which 8 millimetre footage of an old French chateau is projected onto a dark sheet within a maze of brightly-coloured sheets. The whole thing was so dull that one visitor mistook the messy area backstage as part of the exhibit. I was fortunately given the task of tending bar, which proved to be a highlight — if I wasn’t getting any money I was damn sure gonna get me some Grolsch.

Afterwards I squeezed into hip Lower East Side nightspot The Box for Sanford Bigger’s The Somethin’ Suite. Apparently Erykah Badu and Lou Reed were there but I missed them both. That weekend I witnessed another bizarre performance, this time at The Atrium at 590 Madison Avenue. Spider Galaxy was the work of Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, in which a grown woman dressed as a brightly-coloured bird skips and flaps around a wooden “spider’s web” stage for ten minutes before flying/running off in the direction of NikeTown. I sat through this nonsense twice before running off in the direction of NikeTown.

After all this volunteering and sitting through tiresome drivel it was about time I got my own back, and was thrilled to be given the chance to play the role of “heckler”, in Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street. In what was my off-Broadway debut, mid-way through the performance I was required to lead a bunch of “angry” audience members on-stage to confront the dancers. It was only when I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov exiting the theatre afterwards that I became nervous.

The finale and after-party were held at the Hudson Theatre on Tuesday, although after three weeks of PERFORMA I was more than glad I had tickets across Broadway for Caetano Veloso, which I am pleased to say was the best performance I’ve seen this month.

Sunday Afternoon In Brooklyn

On Sunday I took the L train for a birthday brunch at Diner, an imaginatively-named eatery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, carved into an old restaurant car. Great apple pancakes, which I walked off wandering through the deserted streets off Bedford Avenue. Later in the afternoon, I paid my first visit to the now MoMA-affiliated contemporary art museum, P.S.1. OK, so there was (overpriced) beer and a (amateur) live band, but the overall experience was highly disappointing. Most of the work on display is what I would consider the worst of contemporary art, the kind of self-indulgent nonsense that unfairly gives Modern Art a bad name, and puts millions of people off visiting museums and galleries. I sometimes wonder if it’s just me, if I’m missing something huge, but as I watched a group of self-important Brooklyn hipsterati stare with painfully earnest contemplation at a video installation of shuffling feet I decided that whatever I was missing I didn’t really care, and I suddenly couldn’t wait to get back to Manhattan, where at least pretentious crap doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street.

It was little over a month ago when I learned I’d be spending the fall of 2007 working at The Museum of Modern Art. I had long dreamed of the opportunity to live in New York City, yet never imagined it would arrive in the form of an internship at arguably the world’s finest Modern Art museum. A heavy application process (including three essays) had ended with a carefully coordinated trans-atlantic telephone interview with a certain Larissa Bailiff, MoMA’s internship coordinator. I was extremely nervous before the interview, and spent that morning researching extensively the museum’s current and upcoming exhibitions. Fortunately, Ms. Bailiff immediately put me at ease, and we settled into a breezy chat which lasted over 45 minutes. I like to think my British charm and wit over the phone was what secured me the position of marketing intern, as less than a week later, back in England, I received confirmation that I’d be spending the next three months stateside. I barely had time to obtain my visa and update my iPod before I was jetting off across the Atlantic to confront a healthy mix of the familiar and the unknown.

Having spent the last four years livin’ la dolce vita in Italy, how would I cope when suddenly tossed into the ultimate modern metropolis that is Manhattan? As it turned out, quite well: all those years spent studying the city combined with intensive previous visits had earned me something of an honorary self-taught degree in Newyorkology, and I felt confidently able in dodging such infamous New York pratfalls as subway navigation, the delicate art of tipping, and the correct pronunciation of Houston Street.

It seemed like an eternity before I finally had to go to MoMA on Monday morning. In my eagerness I had arrived spectacularly early, and spent almost an hour reading in Central Park before I was due to meet Ms. Bailiff and the other interns. When I arrived at the entrance to the Cullman Building on 54th Street I was informed by the receptionist that the other interns had elected to go to Starbucks. Putting aside my usual boycott of the Seattle-based coffee giant I walked over to Sixth Avenue where I met three other interns — from Connecticut, Los Angeles and Paris. I was surprised to discover such an international bunch — something had told me I’d be the sole Brit. Instead nearly all of North America and Europe was represented. I was relieved to find all the interns smart and instantly likeable, yet I felt a bit like a reality show contestant meeting my competition rivals. I suppose this would make Larissa Heidi Klum. Larissa in person was as I had found her to be on the phone: warm, friendly and a very entertaining speaker, to the extent that a side career in stand-up comedy would not be out of the question.

After our welcoming talk and initial introduction I met my supervisor Julie Welch, who immediately struck me as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actress Annette Bening. Julie gave me an extensive behind-the-scenes tour of the museum before introducing me to the rest of the marketing team. She then showed me where I’d be working: a tiny cubicle the size of a phone booth (but without the windows). When Peter told Julie I’d go crazy in there she gave me the option of sharing the back office with three other interns. But for some reason I chose to stick with the private cubicle, despite its lack of space. I took off my jacket and got down to work.

My first task as a MoMA employee was to input survey results from MoMA@Nite, a series of summer parties held at the museum’s newly-renovated sculpture garden. As I spent the next week typing the zip codes and annual salaries of around 1500 New Yorkers (plus about six people from other states) into an Excel sheet from my tiny cubicle on the sixth floor of a Midtown office, I realised what had happened. I had become Chandler Bing.