Eric Miller's homepage
Examples of Jim Power's mosaic work on lamp-posts
in NYC's East Village are here, here, and here.
“Festive Art in a Festive Neighborhood:
Eric Miller <email@example.com>
Animal Behaviors of Marking...
History of Mosaics...
“The Mosaic Man,” poem
Constituting the northernmost section of New York City’s Lower East Side, the East Village is a modest-sized neighborhood. It is bordered by Broadway to the west, and the East River to the east; by Houston St. to the south, and 14th St. to the north. From Broadway to the East River is eight long blocks (one mile); from Houston St. to 14th St. is 14 short blocks (3/4 of a mile).
The visitor’s traditional entrance corridor into the East Village begins at Broadway and St. Mark’s Place (also known as 8th St.). The visitor proceeds eastward along St. Mark’s Place to 3rd, 2nd, 1st Aves., and finally to Ave A, where she comes upon Thompkins Square Park, which occupies the area from 7th to 10th Sts., from Ave. A to Ave. B. If the visitor takes a right and walks down to 7th St. and Ave A., she will have walked to the very heart of the neighborhood. There on Ave. A, across from the park, is Ray’s 24-hour news and egg cream storefront, outside of which, day and night, one can usually find people gathered, talking.
Our visitor may not have noticed, but in taking this stroll she has passed by a good deal of mosaic work--on tables, floors, and interior walls of shops and restaurants (much of it visible from the street); on a planter; on numerous external walls and storefronts; embedded in the sidewalk; and on perhaps 10 lampposts (to many of which are attached pedestrian and traffic lights). These mosaics are by Jim Power, who began this work in 1987. Jim’s street art, as well as many others’, is also scattered throughout the rest of the East Village.
Jim’s mosaic work is made up of a wide variety of materials: tiles, crockery, colored glass, mirrors, and seashells; some purchased, some donated, some found; the small pieces (many of them broken or cut by Jim) have been glued into place, and in many cases grout has been added imbetween the pieces. There is abstract design, figurative representations, and a good deal of lettering. Some of the lettering announces the cross streets and the names of shops and other landmarks; in one place it spells out “NYPD” and even the names of three police officers of whom Jim is especially fond. Jim was paid to do much of this work--the mosaics on storefronts, for example, are decoration and lettering for advertising. But some of this work--on walls, sidewalks, and lampposts--Jim undertook on his own. The miracle is: almost all of it has remained unmolested. Jim is a longtime and very visible resident of the neighborhood. People seem to enjoy the mosaic work and find it interesting. The set design of the original production of RENT!, the musical about life in the East Village, prominently featured mosaic work very similar to Jim’s; and Jim and his work have been covered in numerous television programs, newspapers, and magazines. In short, this work has become emblematic of the East Village, which is one of the world’s premiere artistic and bohemian neighborhoods.
This paper interprets Jim Power’s mosaic
work--and the East Village itself--as festive. It finds that the
mosaics are festive most of all in that they are decorative. The paper
asks: What are some facets, functions, and implications of this
decorating? Among the paper’s answers are that to decorate in this
manner is to frame, appropriate, and transform. In the course of
exploring these issues, I will discuss festival, pilgrimage, and marketplace;
animal behaviors of marking their environments; and the history and nature of
mosaics and public art. The paper argues that public and commercial
artwork such as Jim’s adds a great deal to the quality of life in a
neighborhood. Finally, the paper considers the future of Jim’s mosaic
work in the East Village, and offers some general suggestions regarding art,
business, and life in communities.
New York City culture is famous for people breaking through formality and talking to each other on the street. There is a great deal of verbal interchange, conversation, in New York City. There is a festive quality to being able to strike up a conversation, or share a witty remark, with total strangers. Mother told you, “Don’t talk to strangers,” so to do so is to be bold and adventurous: yes, it opens one up to possible danger, but “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Street communication gives one a chance to give others “a piece of one’s mind.” The act of speaking with other individuals, in addition to being festive, can also present opportunities for subversion against authority figures, who have often maintained power by following the dictum, “divide and conquer.”
But what is festival? And what makes
a neighborhood, or art, festive? One very demanding definition of
festival (which the author admits is rarely fully found in practice) is:
“Reversal, intensification, trespassing, and abstinence are the four cardinal points of festive behavior.”3 Of these four conditions, Jim’s lamppost mosaics might qualify regarding the first three: the blank (silver), state-supplied and managed lamppost surfaces are reversed and intensified into colorful, hand-made objects of art. And it must be admitted that this was done by acts of trespass and transgression--the very work testifies to this, as it supplies the incriminating evidence.
Another author stresses the grotesque and
disgusting nature (as perceived from a middle class perspective) of much
festival activity.4 However, it seems to me that much of Jim’s
work is beautiful. It transforms via lamination and aggregation.
It customizes by decoration:
One aspect of festival that definitely
relates to Jim’s mosaic work on lampposts is time. Festival time
is time-out-of-time, that is, there is a sensation of timelessness, an
eternal now, a dissolution of the structure, divisions, and measurements of
time. The electric lights on lampposts come on at night and go off
during the day: thus they mark and regulate night and day. The attached
traffic and pedestrian light signals likewise regulate traffic, telling one
to go, or to wait before going. These signals consist of two colors,
red (dark) and green (light), with the transitional blinking yellow.
“Without rigid adherence to predictable routines a large compact society
would scarcely be able to maintain itself. The clock and the traffic
signal are symbolic of the basis of the social order in the urban
world.”14 Since shortly after the coming of the Industrial Revolution,
the state--using state-supplied electricity--has precisely measured and
rationed time for its citizens. Similarly, we have time-at-work and
time-off, and weekdays and weekends (holidays). Some social critics
have found this rationing to be oppressive:
At festive times, “we ornament life...by getting dressed up and bringing out the best China and silverware.”16 Common to festival behavior is a change of context--putting on public view things from the private world.17 With Jim’s mosaics, the best China has been broken up and cemented into public view!
One aspect of mosaic work is the
presentation and organization of a great number of small forms. These
small objects are in a sense representative of the people of the neighborhood,
or can be seen as their offspring:
In New York City, as in festival, life is experienced at high pitch. As the saying goes, “There is a broken heart for every light on Broadway.” There is much broken glass in the city, which can represent the many hopes and lives that have shattered there. I find it comforting to see some of these broken pieces of glass, plates, etc., recycled into Jim’s mosaics.
I conducted a very informal street survey, asking what distinguishes the East Village as a neighborhood. One answer I received was that it is a place to “get high, make art, and make love.” This is a more refined version of the 60s call for “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” and echoes the older, “wine, women, and song” (the latter statement being from the heterosexual male perspective). It should noted, however, that Jim Power adamantly opposes the use of white powders such as cocaine and heroin, having seen many friends die of their use. Recently Jim has stenciled the words, “No Heroin,” on numerous sidewalks of the East Village.
“Both fair and festival operate in the zone of nostalgia, as reminders of life in a simpler economy and technology, when individuals ‘could do for themselves.’”24 I do not believe that this applies to Jim’s work, which I read as a message demonstrating and encouraging direct action.
The use of hard, shiny objects for the
festive decoration of public space is an ancient and universal
practice--although of course each culture does it differently. The
following is from the Epic of the Anklet, committed to writing some 1600
years ago in Tamil Nadu, south India:
As mentioned, the East Village is famed as
a site of 60s culture (musical and other). Its much older history as a
center of labor and political struggle is forgotten by many: it seems that
our (pseudo-festive?) mass-media consumer culture facilitates historical
amnesia about such things. In any case, it can be said that, for many
reasons, the East Village is a pilgrimage site:
Around the world there are many tales of kings and others who have headaches or other infirmities which can only be relieved by visiting, or building and maintaining, shrines of a divinity. The maintenance often includes the placing of fresh flowers, the reciting of prayers, and the lighting of candles. As Emile Durkheim explained in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the divinities and the sacred images of a community can be seen as projections embodying and symbolizing the collective membership, ideals, and history of that community. Generally-speaking, the human problem is disconnection, alienation; and the cure is integration. “The pilgrimage site is where the divine has issued forth into the human realm. The shrine is a rupture in the ordinary domain, through which heaven peers.30 Jim’s mosaics represent such ruptures, which I believe can facilitate healing integration.
“The cornerstone of the sacred journey is
the quest for the culturally validated ideal (often depicted as a
deity).”31 Of course, the worthiness of all cultural ideals is contested.
Some would say that the East Village and all it represents to them are
worthless. To visit or to patronize anything related to the East
Village is in a sense to cast a vote in favor of it.
“At the end the pilgrim...is exposed to
powerful religious sacra (shrines, images, liturgies, curative waters, ritual
circumambulations of holy objects, and so on).”34
Going from one mosaic to the other would
perhaps be a modern equivalent of “beating the bounds”:
As mentioned, Jim’s
mosaics serve many purposes. One is to advertise local
businesses. These advertising mosaics help one remember a store: the
ambiance of store is largely the thing by which it is remembered.
Advertisements are often considered to be visual pollution.38 However,
when advertisements share a common style with adjacent public art, they can
unify the environment and convey the sense that not everything is for
sale. Moreover, “a beautiful celebration is good business.”39
Jim’s advertising mosaics create a festive atmosphere around the businesses
that have sponsored them. Consumerism need not be a dirty word,
especially when commodities are tempered by the presence of
non-commodities. Advertising decoration such as Jim’s “expresses not
only the purpose of the building and its internal function but also
symbolizes the traditions, aims, and ethics of the community.”40
Marketplace and fair are associated with liberty...the marketplace displays alternative things to buy and ways to act. The market encourages choice and freedom of exchange.41
Jim Power himself is a small businessperson. In addition to the mosaic services he provides, he also makes mosaic-top tables, which are very marketable commodities. When assistants have been around and the mood has struck, he has made quite a number of mosaic tables, some of which are placed in local cafes, such as alt.coffee (139 Ave. A, between St. Marks Place and 9th St.). There are continuities here--often unthought of in mainstream USA culture--between paid laborer, artist, and businessperson, and between art as commodity, advertisement, and public art.
The East Village is tucked away along the
East River. It is equidistant from the City’s two great skyscraper and
business centers: Mid-town to the north and the Financial district to the
Animal Behaviors of Marking Their Environments
Humans are not the only animals which leave imprints on their environments. Before proceeding to consider the production of mosaic and public art in human civilization, it may be of value to widen our perspective and briefly observe ways in which other animals mark their environment: doing so may shed some light on the various motives inherent in human decorative activities.
Snails (littorina littorea) commonly secrete mucous (slime), leaving trails. There is often a high concentration of calcium in such deposits, which can build up and become permanent features of the landscape. It is not known precisely what function this serves the snail, aside from making the environment its own.44
Numerous species of ants lay alerting
trails, which signal their fellows to follow the same path.45 This is
done by the depositing of chemical secretions that are perceived by
scent. Many mammals share this practice:
Height is an important quality for messages that are meant to be cast far and wide. “Animals can signal over longer distances by elevating themselves above ground...The territorial songs of birds are usually delivered from a raised song post, which increases their effective range, while grassland birds such as meadowlarks sing as they fly.”48 Trees are very popular scent-posts (in an urban environment, a fire hydrant will do). Trees also offer sites for nesting and for the laying and storing of eggs.
Animals marking territories need to be
persistent, repeating their efforts again and again. Why expend the
effort to stake out and mark an area? To mark an area can be to lay
claim to it and its resources. It has been carefully documented for
many species of birds that: “1) only territory holders succeed in mating, 2)
there is a surplus of individuals that do not hold a territory, and 3)
mortality among the non-territorial birds is much higher than among territory
holders.”49 Males with large territories are more successful in
attracting females. Females that deposit eggs in protected territories
have greater reproductive success because fewer eggs are lost to predation
(both by other males of the same species, and by animals of other
species).50 In other words, having a place can improve one’s chances
for long life and successful reproduction.
History of Mosaics
Mosaics flourished early in the East. Chaldeans were skilled mosaicists by 2500 BC, at which time mosaics also existed in Ur and in Egypt.56
From the lands of the eastern
Mediterranean, the art of mosaic reached Rome as part of a wave of
Hellenistic luxury that, much to the vexation of the highly conservative
Romans of the old school, put an end to the simplicity that had been
predominant both in private homes and public buildings during the
Throughout the Roman Empire, outdoor mosaics were created in courtyards, gardens, and temple complexes. Floor mosaics (indoor and outdoor) are almost the only ones to survive from the pre-Christian era, due to the durableness of the materials and the ground itself. Floor mosaics were composed of “tesserae,” which are cube-shaped pieces of natural stone, such as marble. Mosaics on walls and ceilings--which have for the most part crumbled along with the surfaces on which they were composed--were usually made of colored glass, often covered with gold leaf or other substances.60
The specialty of Sosos of Perganon was the so-called “asaroton mosaic” (asaroton means “unswept floor”). In a very lifelike manner, Sosos represented in floor mosaics all kinds of scraps left over from a meal: lobsterclaws, fishbones, nutshells, and fruit peelings.61
A favorite medium of public art in Ancient Greece was sculpture of the human body, which was presented in idealized physical beauty. This was increased to a monumental scale in Imperial Rome, where the production of awe towards the state’s gods and heroes was the goal.
Classical antiquity presents the deity as an object in space. In the early Christian era the divine image in bodily form largely disappears, and the space itself, and the surfaces that surround and enclose the sacred cult, become divine, through the application of two-dimensional art such as mosaics and frescoes.62 The change was from the human-centered exuberant outward-looking attitude of Classical antiquity, to the transcendental inward-looking attitude of the Middle Ages.63 The corresponding shift in the ideals of art was from the imitation of nature, to the presentation of symbols and abstract designs meant to stimulate contemplation.64
In Classical times, many had seen mosaics as a painting in stone. By the Middle Ages, mosaic had developed into an independent artform, often employing larger stones, which were set so as to reflect light at different angles. In the inner and outer walls of many cathedrals, “the daylight, or the light of flaming torches is transformed by the mosaics into something supernatural, refracted and reflected by thousands of separate flashing surfaces.”65
“The whole universe as a divine creation
was embodied in a Medieval building, as well as in the images that
embellished it.”66 :
The goal of creating a “New Jerusalem” has
There have been many counter-movements to
revive and develop embellishment in public space, as, for example, in
Victorian architecture of the nineteenth century.
The preservation or insertion of pockets of
artfully designed nature in urban areas was one of the central goals of
the great American urban designer, Frederick Olmstead.76 The deployment
of nature and art has been seen as a charitable gift
However, the rise of the nation-state and then the corporation called for monumental, awe-inspiring architecture: “Unity of sentiment, solemnity, and splendor...should be the dominant qualities in the artistic expression of great public buildings.”79 A “corporate style...conveys an aesthetics of uniformity, conformity, anonymity, and order. Control and power are coded in these monumental structures.”80 What this means, in the words of Native-American critic Jimmie Durham, is that cities built in this style “establish themselves against their environment. The USA is a political/cultural construction against the American continent.”81
The overriding aesthetic development in
modern urban design has been that of bare simplicity, efficiency, and
As Lewis Mumford wrote 40 years ago,
a) Types of public art.
a) Types of public art.
There are many types of public art.
To begin with, there are stand-alone structures such as monuments and towers.
Although the mosaics that decorate the bases of the Watts Towers is somewhat similar to Jim’s mosaics, the contexts are extremely dissimilar. Jim’s mosaic work is mostly on the street. It breathes with the neighborhood, very much like the NYU campus a few blocks to the west. The sharing of the streets, and the fact that pedestrian culture is still dominant, is a great glory of New York City, especially Manhattan. In California, in contrast, a person tends to stay in his car and home, and on his property, until he can escape to nature.
Jim’s lamppost and storefront work is
opportunistic: it adds onto that which is already there. As such it is
place-specific and site-specific:
In Berkeley some years ago, the tops of hundreds of parking meters were sawed off overnight and replaced with flowers. This was a destructive type of public art that was destined to be short-lived: the parking meters were soon replaced.
The 1983 ribbon-around-the Pentagon project was a one-time political demonstration against the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. This effort demonstrated the connection between festive decoration and political power: the very fact that the organizers could mobilize and bring together tens of thousands of participants from all over the country alerted politicians to the depth of anti-nuclear sentiment.
Cristo’s wrappings of buildings and bridges
are temporary publicity stunts, conceptual art projects that have little
relationship with or lasting effect on the chosen sites. Another
example of public modern art are the steel sculptures that embellish many
“Public art has generally been meant to put us in awe of the power of our government or the power of corporate sponsorship.”92 In contrast, Jim’s mosaic work puts one in awe of what one individual can do. Actually, Jim’s work is difficult to even pin down and label as art: it includes utilitarian public signage (announcing streets, avenues, and landmarks) and advertising for businesses, as well as pure decoration on public surfaces. It is difficult to pin down what its function and legal status is in its various locations: here it has been commissioned by a local business, here it has repaired a hole in the sidewalk, here it has covered state-owned property in a pleasing manner--in one case, as mentioned, with a salute to the NYPD and three of its officers, honoring their presence as valued members of the community, a gesture that surely has not hurt the chances of the mosaics’ survival. In fact, with much of the mosaics, Jim has acted as a self-appointed city worker, including tour guide.
Suzi Gablik, author of The Reenchantment
of Art, writes of “the Cartesian dualism that isolates an autonomous
intellectual self from a world which becomes a value-free ground on which
fantasies of a world can be inscribed”(93)--but this is not the case with Jim
and his work: he is a member of the neighborhood that he is decorating and
which he obviously loves and identifies with very much.
b) Public art in neighborhoods.
One role that Jim’s mosaics play is to unify the walls, sidewalks, storefront interiors, and lampposts of the neighborhood. From the sidewalk to the sky, there are mosaics. This is not obvious, as there are truly not that many mosaics in the neighborhood. In fact, one reason why the citizens and the authorities have permitted the mosaics to remain is that Jim knew when to stop, so as to prevent his work from becoming too insistent and noticeable. Nonetheless, the subliminal effect of continuity is there, both horizontally and vertically.
As mentioned, these mosaics lend a style and identity to the neighborhood. Many designers have pointed out the need for visual themes, to help one orient oneself in a city.94
Jim’s Mosaic Trail is somewhat akin to the “history trails” that have appeared in American cities in the last decade.95 These trails lead visitors to valued local sites, where historical--and sometimes legendary and mythical--are claimed to have taken place.
Public decorations are a “witness to the
values of the people that live in that area”96:
c) Issues of control, and the
relationship between the artist and the community
In the late 60s and early 70s, many artists rejected the commodity status of art through happenings or becoming community artworkers. However, most did not want to sink to the working-class level and make signs for businesses (commodities to sell commodities): they for the most part wanted to receive funding from neighborhood and art agencies, which meant a cumbersome process of getting plans approved. Although Jim is well-aware of the artworld, he is not at all of the gallery and dealer scene: if people want him to make a table for them, they must seek him out. Jim is of working-class Irish descent, and is proud to be a Vietnam veteran. He did not need a public-art-related club, federation, or society to act as a bridge between artists and the public, for he is a member of both groups.103 He is a working-class person as well as a professional artist, and as such he is living testimony to the artificial dichotomy between these two worlds.
As Jim was repairing a lamppost mosaic the
other day, a number of people stopped by to chat and place a piece of tile on
the post. At one point, Jim called out to a passing friend, also of
Irish descent, to stop for a moment and put onto the lamppost a “customary”
piece. I am not sure if this is exactly the word that Jim meant to use,
but it seemed fitting, and reminded me of people in a pub having a customary
pint together. The artist in this instance was acting as facilitator
for others in the neighborhood, enabling them to partake in a common creative
and traditional act.
e) The balance between order and
In architecture, public art, and other
fields, the correct balance between complexity and repose is the key to
beauty: ”Aesthetic success is conditional upon the victory of order, but
there has to be sufficient complexity to make the victory
Will the bright colors and shiny surfaces of Jim’s lamppost mosaics, like fireworks, disappear? I recall once mentioning to my friend Lincoln that I particularly liked the graffiti painting of an antelope on the wall across the street from his storefront home on East 4th St. He replied wistfully that it is the nature of our neighborhood that images come and go. Lincoln, who was physically disabled, died some years ago when he was unable to crawl out of his apartment in part because the regular entrance was blocked due to efforts to evict him and renovate the building.
Although people may not be consciously aware of it, all know that it is illegal to put anything on a lamppost and that this mosaic work could be stripped away at any moment. The city showed how serious and effective it could be by eradicating subway train graffiti virtually overnight in 1989: it simply purchased a new set of trains and cut off entry to the trainyards. There is now on the street an army of uniformed welfare recipients who have to work a certain number of hours per week. These people could easily be assigned to scrape the lampposts clean. Thus, the lamppost mosaic public art presents a drama, a tension between permanence and fleetingness: it is a drama to which many longterm East Village residents can relate, for the unsanctioned mosaics on public surfaces are similar to their own precarious and poignant existences. Many in this neighborhood live, at least in part, on monthly electronic deposits of SSI or SSD money (physical or mental disability) or some other government benefits, and there is an increasing possibility of such benefits being discontinued. Many are harassed by landlords who wish they would move out so that renovations could be made and rent could be radically increased.
How can an illegal act be promulgated as an international symbol of neighborhood and community? There are instances where a community practice is illegal and yet continues to thrive: for instance, cockfighting in Bali and elsewhere. But fighting cocks can be hidden: lamppost mosaics on Ave. A are utterly, pathetically vulnerable.
There are some things that when brought to the attention of the authorities, the authorities have little choice but to act upon in a repressive manner, even if they would prefer not to. Some conflicts cannot be solved satisfactorily, so it is best to avoid them. Might it be possible to grant landmark status to that which is there, while saying that future work would need to be approved in advance. I am not sure that Jim or others would agree to such conditions, even if they could somehow be offered.
It would be wonderful if the mosaic lampposts could be awarded landmark status, but I can’t really conceive of it being possible. It is seemingly an impossible precedent for the city to allow. There is much to be lost, and little to be gained by forcing the issue with the authorities at present--or even by bringing it to their attention. My sense is that the local police are doing their best to look the other way. So it is probably best to simply continue as is, living with and appreciating the lamppost mosaics from day to day, with no security or guarantee of what will come tomorrow.
Is festivity necessarily antithetical to order? Perhaps festivity enables order, by providing an outlet for wild emotion. Is it possible that less repression would be necessary if people were able to express themselves more freely? While many leaders of festivities are consumed by it all, others are leading artists, thinkers, conversationalists, and entrepreneurs in the community. In any event, the fame and wealth of the East Village is due to people like Jim, who are often master community-builders and promoters. Jim’s unsanctioned mosaic lampposts, for example, have surely contributed to the neighborhood’s rising real estate values.
“New York is a summer festival” ran an add campaign a few years back. Every night of the summer, Ave. A. is mobbed with visitors looking for something interesting. Most will settle for going to a bar. Hispanics, poor artists and musicians, self-fashioned leftists and rightists of various stripes, unique people with style, are being driven out, replaced by consumers, not producers, of East Village culture. Every night of the summer, performers, masseuses, and crafts people could work all along Ave. A. The park curfew of midnight and the crackdown on performance clubs have done much to curtail night activity, but still much more could be done. People need to learn how to give performances and workshops on the street with a minimum of baggage and furniture, as police will tell people to move even temporary tables.
As mentioned, on Ave. A between 7th St. and St. Marks Place is Ray’s newsstand and egg cream store, the anchor of the neighborhood. Ray has operated this business since he purchased it from the previous operator thirty years ago. People congregate in front of Ray’s 24-hours-a-day, but especially at night. There are about a dozen regulars, all men. It is shocking that the neighborhood may soon lose this store: Ray claims that the rent is being increased from $3,000 to $7,000 this coming July, and he will be forced to leave. This would be devastating for the culture, economics, and safety of the neighborhood. From the doorway of Ray’s, one can see three mosaic lampposts. Even if Ray should decide to retire, we are hoping that the 24-hour store will somehow survive.
It seems that the tiny storefront is owned by Leshko’s restaurant next door, which stretches to the corner. The recent remodeling of Leshko’s is ominous: the windows used to cover almost the whole front of the building; now the windows are smaller and there is a lot of blank wall. Leshko’s used to be a neighborhood working-class-type place, of the culture of the Eastern European people who were the heart of the neighborhood for many years. The breakfast special was $3. Now it is a yuppie bar-restaurant. Brunch is $8. It is darker inside, and much brighter outside at night, which discourages people from standing around or sitting against the wall. This is an excellent example of destruction of community public social space through excessive street lighting.
The East Village is inexorably being cleaned up. On its east side, near the River, in Alphabet City, there are still many Hispanic people. The East Village has for many years been a mix of white (Ukrainian, Polish, etc.), Hispanic, black, etc.; upper class and working class. The traditional border has been Ave. A. Today Aves. B, C, and D, are increasingly filled with expensive French restaurants and clothing boutiques: the Soho-ization of the East Village is well under way.
Lately, a new type of object has appeared on the street scene: plastic stands that contain free “newspapers” and advertisements, and that are chained to lampposts. These stands are a hazard and an inconvenience to pedestrians, for they block walking space. They have nothing to do with the neighborhood, and clearly are only there because someone paid money to the city to allow them to be chained there.
In short, the goose that laid the golden
egg is getting cooked. The neighborhood is undergoing a cultural
cleansing, which is slowly eroding the artistic nature that made it
attractive in the first place. But this is a universal process on the
planet: if things are bad in the East Village, they are probably worse in
other urban centers. Chains of multinational stores are transforming
every neighborhood. This is not all bad, of course. The East
Village has two Kinko’s--many denizens appreciate the high quality photocopy
and computer services, available 24 hours. The photographs that
accompany this paper are from the East Village’s K-Mart and Duane Reade
stores: the one-time-use (recycled) cameras were purchased, and the 1-hour
developing was done, at these places. It is only high technology in
large, expensive, well-maintained machines that can automatically develop
photos in one hour. Locals appreciate the availability of such
services. These modern facilities can help locals with their media
projects; they can help locals communicate with, and make money from, the
rest of the world. I would only suggest that there should be some sort
economic encouragement for locally-owned stores; and for partnerships of
local stores and multi-national chains. International chains stores
should be required to hire local artisans, to take on local decor, to sell
some local goods, and to give some local control.
Jim Power has lived in many locations in the East Village and has had numerous working studios. At present, he is living in a limited space and does not have much of a studio, which means that it is only on the streets or on a job that he can do mosaic work. This makes it difficult for him to make tables and plaques, and to take on assistants and students. Jim likes to work with others: he has had a number of informal apprentices. He would like to work with groups, but his nature is not conducive to working with bureaucracies.
Jim Power is also a video documentarian and artist. He was one of the first in the neighborhood to own a camcorder with a large (4 inch) built-in screen. He has for many years periodically submitted videotapes to Manhattan public access cable television. And...Jim has been making websites since the early 90s. His first websites revolved around his idea for an Ave. A Artists’ Association, which he continues to promote. However, the website he is currently developing, and which he owns, is www.eastvillage.com His plan is for www.eastvillage.com to eventually include an interactive map, a full list of neighborhood goods and services, and for it to enable access to and communication between neighborhood artists of all media. He would charge shops a yearly fee for listings; facilitate art sales with visiting tourists and dealers. The project has yet to make any money, but more and more people are asking to be involved and to help. Jim’s electronic work goes hand-in-hand with his manual work. In recent weeks Jim has been writing “www.eastvillage.com” in chalk on the sidewalks of the East Village, in some cases adjacent to his mosaic work.
Jim does not own a computer. He uses the computers at the local cybercafe and at the very fine public library branch on Tenth St., between Aves. A and B. Here one can have free internet access for 30 minutes at a time. One of Jim’s long-range goals is to have such a facility, preferably in a storefront that would remain open 24-hours, which would include video equipment, with editing and special effects, so that video-audio could be streamed live 24-hours-a-day to www.eastvillage.com Operating this set-up would provide training and employment for people in the neighborhood--in terms of multimedia production, marketing services and goods, taking visitors on walking tours, bringing them to performances, introducing them to local artists, etc. Jim has been talking for quite a while about wanting to give mosaic-making workshops via internet video. In-the-flesh tourists and other visitors could be offered the opportunity to join in the work, for fun and/or profit. In sum, such facilities would enable neighborhood members to organize many festive activities.
Activities in all media go hand-in-hand: each form of communication has its own advantages and difficulties. The internet is no substitute for physical street presence and art. Sometimes people talk with hope about the freedom and sociability of the internet because they feel they have lost these opportunities on the street. It is also possible, incidentally, to combine the internet with street life: there could be large-screen displays in public and commercial spaces, indoors and out. Transmitter-receivers could likewise be operated anywhere in the neighborhood. All could be portable.
The excitement of festive togetherness increases as outsiders visit, and as people return for a reunion with each other, the neighborhood, and the things it represents to them. Consumer-celebrants, by their very presence, contribute to that which is being consumed-celebrated: they become part of the spectacle they have come to watch. This process works with in-the-flesh and electronically-mediated participants. The most successful aspect of eastvillage.com so far is the guestbook: at least once or twice a day someone leaves a typed message on a scroll for all others to read. It is almost like putting a piece of tile in a mosaic. Actually, Jim has been talking about enabling people online to make mosaics together. A television or computer screen is after all nothing but a constantly-changing electronic mosaic, usually consisting of at least 400 pixels (picture elements) horizontally and 300 pixels vertically).
The East Village presents a festive environment for people of the world to visit, partake of. But the East Village level of restlessness, of soul-searching, of living on the edge, can be relentless and disturbing. Even today, around Thompkins Square park one can hardly avoid seeing people sacrificing their bodies on some sort of vision quest. People tend to behave intensely, expressively, even theatrically, and with abandon (although often with a calculated sense of display). There is also a great deal of humor. People of all races and sexual orientations socialize very easily and openly in the East Village. This is all normal for people in the neighborhood, but to many others, the East Village is “a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.” The fact is, the goal of most people in the world is to be able to go to work, then relax, unwind, and calm down. People generally want to go along and get along; they want to avoid rocking the boat.
Village is is a center of marginality, a shrine to art and self-expression,
whether it is accessed face-to-face or through electronic mediation.
Both types of visitors will be able to select to observe and participate with
what they like, to the degree of intensity that they like. The East
Village, like any other place, is finally a state of mind and a style of
communication as much as a physical locale. If Jim Power can help it,
East Village culture, including his mosaic work, will continue to be
available to whatever individuals desire it, wherever there is a market.
1) Victor Turner, “Introduction,” in Celebration, Studies in Festivity and Ritual, Victor Turner, ed., Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982, p. 7.
2) Alessandro Falassi, “Festival, Definition and Morphology,” in Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival, Alessandro Falassi, ed., Albuquerque: U. of New Mexico Press, 1987, p. 2.
3) Falassi, p. 3.
4) Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. Press, 1986, p. 9.
5) Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “The Future of Folklore Studies in America: The Urban Frontier,” Folklore Forum16 (1983), p. 215.
6) Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, p. 193.
7) Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, p. 183.
8) Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, p. 190.
9) Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, NY: New Press, 1997, p. 249.
10) William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act II, scene 1.
11) Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, p. 179.
12) Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, p. 222.
13) Nancy D. Munn, “Symbolism in a Ritual Context: Aspects of Symbolic Action,” in Handbook of Social and Cultural Anthropology, John J. Honigmann, ed., Chicago: Rand McNally and Co., 1973, p. 582.
14) Louis Wirth, On Cities and Social Life: Selected Papers, Albert J. Reiss, Jr., ed., Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1964, p. 74.
15) Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961, p. 546.
16) Roger D. Abrahams, “Ordinary and Extraordinary Experience,” in The Anthropology of Experience, Victor W. Turner and Jerome Bruner, eds. Urbana and Champaign: U. of Illinois Press, 1986, p. 65.
17) Julian Barnard, The Decorative Tradition, London: Architectural Press, 1993, p. 73.
18) Nancy D. Munn, Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1973. p. 164.
19) Abrahams, 1986, p. 180.
20) Roger D. Abrahams, “The Discovery of Marketplace Culture,” Intellectual History Newsletter,April 1988, p. 28.
21) Barbara Babcock, “Too Many, Too Few: Ritual Modes of Signification,” Semiotica23(1978):3/4, p. 296.
22) Roger D. Abrahams, “An American Vocabulary of Celebrations,” in Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival, Alessandro Falassi, ed., Albuquerque: U. of New Mexico Press, 1987, p. 180.
23) Abrahams, 1987, p. 180.
24) Abrahams, 1987, p. 181.
25) Prince Ilango Adigal, Shilappadikaram (The Ankle Bracelet), translated (from the Tamil) by Alain Danielou, NY: New Directions Books, 1965, p. 22.
26) Adigal, p. 5.
27) Turner, 1982, p. 7.
28) Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives, NY: Columbia U. Press, 1978, p. 5.
29) Turner, 1978, p. 6.
30) Turner, 1978, p. 5.
31) Alan Morinis, “Introduction,” in Sacred Journeys: the Anthropology of Pilgrimage, Alan Morinis, ed., Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992, p. 3.
32) Turner, 1978, p. 7.
33) Erik Cohen, “Pilgrimage and Tourism: Convergence and Divergence,” in Sacred Journeys: the Anthropology of Pilgrimage, Alan Morinis, ed., Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992, p. 52.
34) Turner, 1978, p. 8.
35) Henry Frederic Reddall, Fact, Fancy, and Fable, a New Handbook for Ready Reference on Subjects Commonly Omitted from Cyclopaedias; Comprising Personal Sobriquets, Familiar Phrases, Popular Appellations, Geographical Nicknames, Literary Pseudonyms, Mythological Characters, Red-letter Days, Political Slang, Contractions and Abbreviations, Technical Terms, Foreign Words and Phrases, Americanisms, etc., Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1889, p. 63.
36) Roger D. Abrahams, 1988, p. 27.
37) Roger D. Abrahams, “The Marketplace Experience and Festive Play,” unpublished manuscript, no date, p. 31.
38) Charles Mulford Robinson, Modern Civic Art: The City Made Beautiful, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1918, p. 76
39) Robinson, p. 373.
40) Barnard, p. 135.
41) Abrahams, no date, p. 9.
42) Abrahams, 1988, p. 26.
43) Abrahams, 1988, p. 27.
44) Mark S. Davies and Susan J. Hutchinson, “Crystalline Calcium in Littorinid Mucus Trails,” Hydrobiologia309(1-3), 1995, p. 120.
45) David McFarland, Animal Behaviour: Psychobiology, Ethology, and Evolution, 2nd ed., NY: Wiley, 1993, p. 392.
46) David Attenborough, The Trials of Life: A Natural History of Animal Behavior, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1990, p. 111.
47) Attenborough, p. 111.
48) Aubrey Manning and Marian Stamp Dawkins, An Introduction to Animal Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1998, p. 164.
49) John Alcock, Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach, Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1998, p. 291.
50) Alcock, p. 93.
51) Manning, p. 169.
52) McFarland, p. 385.
53) Norimitsu Watabe, “Shell Repair,” in The Molluska, Vol. 4, A.S.M. Saleuddin, ed., NY: Academic Press, 1983, p. 293.
54) A. O. Christie and R. Dalley, “Barnacle Fouling and Its Prevention,” in Barnacle Biology, Alan J. Southward, ed., Rotterdam, A. A. Balkema, 1987, p. 421.
55) Financial Times, “Identifying Chalk Fossils,” 1/13/00, http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/news/cuttings/2000011301.html
56) Ferdinando Rossi, Mosaics, a Survey of Their History and Techniques, translated (from the Italian) by David Ross, NY: Praeger, 1970, p. 12.
57) Hans Peter L’Orange, Mosaics, translated (from the Norwegian) by Ann E. Keep, London: Methuen, 1966, p. 35.
58) L’Orange, p. 7.
59) L’Orange, p. 38.
60) L’Orange, p. 7.
61) L’Orange, p. 37.
62) L’Orange, p. 4.
63) L’Orange, p. 5.
64) L’Orange, p. 8.
65) L’Orange, p. 10.
66) Barnard, p. 4.
67) Walter Crane, “On the Decoration of Public Buildings,” in Art and Life, and the Building and Decoration of Cities: a Series of Lectures by Members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, Delivered at the Fifth Exhibition of the Society in 1896, London: Rivington, Percival, 1897, p. 138.
68) L’Orange, p. 9.
69) Robinson, p. 263.
70) Robinson, p. 27.
71) Malcolm Miles, Art, Space and
the City: Public Art and Urban Futures, London: Routledge, 1997,
72) Cliff Moughtin, Tanner Oc, and Steven Tiesdell, Urban Design: Ornament and Decoration, Oxford: Architectural Press, 1999, p. 3.
73) Barnard, p. 9.
74) Barnard, p. 18.
75) Barnard, p. 40.
76) Lippard, p. 250.
77) Robinson, p. 13.
78) Robinson, p. 6.
79) Crane, p. 133.
80) Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, p. 191.
81) Jimmie Durham, as cited in Lippard, p. 198.
82) Moughtin, p. 3.
83) Barnard, p. 7.
84) Barnard, p. 11.
85) Barnard, p. 7.
86) Mumford, p. 555.
87) Moughtin, p. 22.
88) Lippard, p. 110.
89) Lippard, p. 263.
90) Lippard, p. 274.
91) Miles, p. 189.
92) Judy Baca, as cited in Lippard, p. 265.
93) Miles, p. 189.
94) Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, Cambridge, MA: Technology Press, 1960, p. 10.
95) Lippard, p. 111.
96) Barnard, p. 131.
97) Moughtin, p. 14.
98) Moughtin, p. 3.
99) Robinson, 357.
100) Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, p. 181.
101) Raven, as cited in Miles, p. 167.
102) Miles, p. 205.
103) Robinson, p. 263.
104) Turner, 1982, p. 13.
105) Richard Sennet, The Uses of Disorder, London: Faber, 1996, p. 17.
106) Moughtin, p. 10.
107) Abrahams, 1988, p. 26.
108) Richard Sennett, The Conscience of the Eye: the Design and Social Life of Cities, NY: Knopf, 1990, p. 128.
109) Miles, p. 197.
Miles, p. 189.
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“THE MOSAIC MAN”
He tells stories,
- Anne Lombardo Ardolino, copyright