Places that Matter

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ABC No Rio

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Kim Funk, 2009
Kim Funk, 2009
Kim Funk, 2009
Kim Funk, 2009
Center for volunteerism, art & activism
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Place Matters Profile

As it was in the `60s, the East Village has again become a Mecca for artists all over the world.  And ABC No Rio has been involved with this scene in many of the scene's phases. ABC No Rio is an artist’s storefront featuring a gallery space, a zine library, a darkroom, a silkscreening studio, and public computer lab. In addition, ABC No Rio plays host to a number of radical New York City projects, including weekly hardcore punk matinees and the NYC Food Not Bombs collective. ABC No Rio seeks to be a community center for the Lower East Side, sponsoring projects and benefits for the community, as well as a center of  radical activism in New York City, promoting "do it yourself volunteerism, art and activism, without giving-in or selling-out to corporate sponsors."  DIY spaces are incredibly important, and are becoming fewer and farther between. Moreover, ABC No Rio is trying to expand to be entirely self-sustaining in terms of solar energy and growing food, which would be an incredible step forward and would set an excellent example for others to follow. 

The story of No Rio begins with a look at its surrogate parent organization, Collaborative Projects (Colab), a group which reflected the milieu of the late '70s. When the baby boom generation, schooled on the highly publicized art of the previous decade, flooded the art world, they found that things weren't so open. To deal with this situation, Colab banded together as a union of artists to raise funds, organize exhibitions, and share equipment. While this union of artists was unique at the time, its formation paralleled the growth of the alternative spaces.

At its beginnings Colab consisted of about forty artists, meeting each month in a different person's loft. It was soon stoked by the National Endowment for the Arts with $6,000, and aspirations became reality. The principle activities of the group in '77 and '78 were film screenings, both public and private, an action which culminated in the short-lived New Cinema on St. Mark's Place in the East Village. Colab also produced a cable television news program, "All Color News," and published X Motion Picture Magazine, a collaboratively edited journal of film, photography, art and poetical reportage. Colab members were also closely involved in the emerging new music and nightclub scene. Like the visual artists, young musicians faced a similar market freeze-out from which they escaped in the punk rock and new wave explosion that centered around CBGB's and Max's Kansas City. 

Even as they generated this scene, artists were being removed from it physically by the process of revaluation of rental properties called "gentrification." As artists of modest means were forced out of Soho and Tribeca by skyrocketing rents, many turned to the Lower East Side, a largely slum neighborhood south of 14th Street and east of the Bowery, also known by its Spanglish name of Loisaida or Alphabet City after its avenues A, B, C, and D. Many Colab members moved to Ludlow and Stanton Streets, and it was there that the East Village Eye newspaper was started in 1979, signaling the emerging self-consciousness of the area's new residents. The housing stock in this traditional immigrant neighborhood had greatly deteriorated, the result of bank redlining and landlord disinvestment, epidemic arson and abandonment. But at the same time a new group of real estate speculators were moving on the neighborhood, abetted by the city government's planning and policy, setting the stage for a new wave of gentrification.

The "Real Estate Show" was organized in response to the harsh economic realities facing tenants in New York. It was an illegal exhibition, in a vacant city-owned building on Delancey Street. The exhibition fused the theme show notion with a romanticized attitude about aggressive confrontation with the powers-that-be. The show was stridently political, art fused with rhetoric, and all pitched to the news media. The "Real Estate Show" was the most publicized group exhibition of this period. A street corner press conference outside the padlocked show drew reporters from three newspapers and two magazines as well as the visiting German artists Joseph Beuys. The city felt compelled to negotiate with a group of artists who appeared to represent a political force. The eventual result of these talks was ABC No Rio, an abandoned storefront at 156 Rivington Street which the city offered as a compromise in 1980.

As the new generation of New York artists began to make their mark, ABC No Rio, located in the burgeoning artists' community of the Lower East Side, was to play an important role. At first, establishing the gallery was an uphill battle. The building had suffered years of neglect; rainwater, sewage, and falling plaster had driven out the previous tenants who had tried to run a beauty parlor. No Rio was a thoroughfare for rats living in the granaries of the matzoh factory next door. Around the corner was a large open-air drug supermarket with heroin dealers hawking their wares and junkies disappearing into "shooting galleries" in abandoned buildings.

Rooted in the directed political action of the "Real Estate Show" and clearly a minority institution the barrio, No Rio was dedicated to the idea of interactive art -- an attempt to address realities in the neighborhood and to attract community residents into its activities. No Rio's two prime operating tenets were an open-hour policy, the idea of the free space, that the gallery was at the disposal of any who could use it; and open meetings, particularly Monday night sessions where all decisions were made.  The organization continues to have many events and is a place from which to, “facilitate cross-pollination between artists and activists.”

 

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