What do you get when you put a group of artists together on a condemned pier beneath the Brooklyn Bridge? No, this isn’t a joke, but the colorfully bizarre origin story of that renowned laboratory of contemporary art, MoMA PS1.
Forty years ago this May, in the shadow of a larger festival celebrating the Brooklyn Bridge’s 88th anniversary, Alanna Heiss, art maven and future founder of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, organized an outdoor group exhibition of contemporary artists and performers that would come to be known simply as The Brooklyn Bridge Event. Taking their inspiration (and materials) from the gritty Manhattan waterfront that surrounded the western base of the Brooklyn Bridge, the artists constructed their works over a period of three days. This motley assemblage of more than 20 artists and performers included such luminaries as Carl Andre, Tina Girouard, Jeffrey Lew, Keith Sonnier, Gordon Matta-Clark, Jene Highstein, Sol Lewitt, Richard Nonas, and Dennis Oppenheim. The event culminated in a “closing ceremony” on the fourth day, when the public was invited to roam about the open-air gallery of the pier, dig in to the “Demolition Banquet,” enjoy performances by Philip Glass and Mabou Mines, watch films by Rudy Burckhardt, and, of course, cut a rug in a free-for-all dance party.
Unfortunately, I was not able to attend The Brooklyn Bridge Event since RSVPing for a party on May 24th, 1971, would have required a certain amount of time travel. Nevertheless, I have been able to piece together a vibrant and at times hilarious account of the event through documents in the records of MoMA PS1 in the Museum Archives, which I am currently assisting in processing. And while the exhibition might not have left behind the digital smorgasbord of videos, tweets, and Web pages that we have come to expect in this age of social media, documents like oral histories given by the participating artists and even an item as mundane as a city permit can reveal much about this important moment in the history of MoMA PS1 and the New York art scene.
In many ways, it’s a miracle The Brooklyn Bridge Event happened at all. Aside from a lukewarm blessing from the Municipal Arts Society, which was a sponsor of the larger Brooklyn Bridge Festival and Heiss’s employer at the time, the exhibition’s planning was consistently undermined by red tape from City Hall. Unable to get permission to host a gathering on the pier by more conventional means, Heiss had to pass off the event as a four-day film shoot featuring a “group of about 50 people having a picnic […dressed] as artists” in order to obtain a motion picture-television permit for use of the location. Power generators promised by the city never materialized, forcing the artists to jury-rig a connection from the Brooklyn Bridge’s power supply while standing in one and a half feet of water. A band of rogue youths who hung out under the bridge mistook the exhibition for the markings of a rival gang, resulting in much retaliatory vandalism, not to mention bafflement on the part of the event’s organizers. In the end, however, the carnival atmosphere won out, and even the gang of kids offered to make amends by acting as security for the artworks that they had dismantled only a day before. They were probably also tempted to join in when they saw the culinary offerings of the Demolition Banquet, which included a luau-style roasted pig that Gordon Matta-Clark had been tending to for a rumored 30 hours.
Aside from being quite the shindig, The Brooklyn Bridge Event embodied a fascinating shift in the art world’s awareness, appreciation, and reclamation of neglected urban spaces. A year after the event, Heiss went on to establish the Institute for Art and Urban Resources (IAUR), an institution founded upon the notion that “by allowing its artistic community involvement in the urban landscape, disused, and abandoned areas can become meaningful space.” This commitment to urban space was reinforced when IAUR went on to convert a number of unused buildings throughout New York City into studio and exhibition spaces, including the vacant P.S.1 schoolhouse in 1976. And it is hard to avoid reflecting on this tradition of al fresco art, performance, and celebration during the summertime, when MoMA PS1 honors the potential of space and its own beginnings in the form of the Young Architects Program and Warm Up dance parties.
The paper trail of The Brooklyn Bridge Event tells a story of bureaucratic high jinks, turf scuffles, creative problem solving, and artistic tenacity. But would you expect anything less compelling from a cultural institution that was born under a bridge? I certainly wouldn’t.
The Records of MoMA PS1 are currently being processed by the Museum Archives thanks to a generous grant from the Leon Levy Foundation. The Records are currently closed to the public, but documents of The Brooklyn Bridge Event as well as from the rest of MoMA PS1’s 40-year history will be available to researchers at the end of 2012. Keep an eye out for more posts on the records of MoMA PS1 until then!