headlines | about |

Bullet Soaked in Piss

Andrew Castrucci is laying out artworks and artifacts at the Bullet Space. Bullet Space is an art gallery in a squat. The place recently exhibited decades' worth of work by the tin can cutting recycling artist Rolando Polliti. His constructions ornament the fence of the Plaza Cultural garden on 9th Street and Avenue C, original site of the CHARAS agitations of the 1970s.

This assemblage of artworks collected by Andrew over the years reveals something about this period of Lower East Side history, and the people who squatted these buildings. The context of the early works of the ‘80s and ‘90s is the squatter struggle. This can be seen in photographs of combat between squatters and police taken by John Penley, and the denizens of the Tompkins Square Park Tent City poor peoples’ movement by Clayton Patterson (neither are in this show).

So what can this show reveal of that era? And what kind of art is this? It’s not so easy to say. First, because this squatting movement is much bigger than the part of it that is in our backyard. Second, Bullet has always been about art, not reportage.

I've recently been studying European squatted social centers, the buildings taken over in different large cities to serve as cultural and political centers for collectivized groups. It’s a movement, an overlooked and important one, co-extensive with the anti-corporate globalization movement. I got onto this line of inquiry after working on Clayton Patterson's anthology "Resistance: A Political History of the Lower East Side" (Seven Stories, 2007), and sensing how important the European squats had been to the New York movement of the 1980s and '90s. In fact, traveling internationals play key roles in all the major squatting movements. They have the chops, the knowledge of how to do this kind of activism, and no fear. (Deportation is usually the worst outcome…)

But I don’t think it was this small cadre of travelers which made the squatting movement in NYC work. I think it was its historical coincidence with a genuine poor people's movement, a vestige of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visionary campaign, in the many homeless people thronging the streets and camping in Tompkins Square Park.

These people put a backbone in the anarchist movement on the LES, and helped the squats succeed. Solidarity between the Tent City occupation in the park and the squats around the park meant large numbers of people came out in the streets when it was time to defend the squats from forced eviction by the police. Defense is a necessary stage of the negotiation between squatters and city officials. If there is no resistance, then it's only a symbolic occupation. We have seen this in NYC in '09 at some private universities. Which is all good, but not really revolutionary (by which we might mean “genuinely scary to the ruling class”).

But the show at Bullet is not about the squatting movement. It’s not documentary. (The photographers I mentioned above are not in it.) The show describes a 20-year aesthetic project that coincided with, reflected upon and amplified the ethos of a radical social movement. Bullet Space, more than any other sustained cultural project during those years, represented and interpreted squatting in NYC. And ultimately, when all is past and the subject is the archive – Bullet Space is Andrew Castrucci. Andrew is an artist who has made the squat gallery his métier.

I recall that years ago when I was first investigating the squat art scene – (I was writing a paper for a graduate seminar) – I found the situation obscurely disturbing. Somehow I expected some idealistic type of collective enterprise, although in fact it always seemed to be one person who made these shows happen. Others active making squat art shows then were John Ed Croft, Thom Korn, James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cooke, and Clayton Patterson. But Andrew Castrucci put the most emphatic aesthetic stamp on every curation at Bullet Space.

These NYC squatters are very piquant individuals. I imagine Zapatistas, French resistance fighters, even the U.S. revolutionaries of colonial days – all shared this rough demeanor. It takes a lot less moxie to stand for order than to stand against it. Castrucci has been resolute -- he is the last original Bullet squatter out of a gang that broke into the building from a free range artistic milieu, the Rivington School. That was a scene of creative urban wild life enacted in a mix of rented storefronts and squatted land through scrap metal collage outdoor sculpture, and an ethos of crazy casita partying, a continuous hangout open to the street.

The successful squat in NYC was rarely open to the street. It was in fact a fortress. But one could usually find a way in. Maybe it’s open to an alleyway, guarded and dark. This blend of openness and closure, of self and collective projection makes for a kind of aesthetic triage. The squat is for those who need it most. Often these were travelers, subverted, marginal folks who regularly derail, bail on the scene, travel on, flip out, pass into the global slipstream of counterculture….

Castrucci worked with the mentally ill – let’s not say he “taught art,” but rather engaged as an artist with institutionalized individuals. When I visited the squats and wrote about them in the 1990s, it was from the point of view of a kind of merging of these two scenes, the celebration of homeless peoples' art through projects run by Tina White and Hope Sandrow, and the squat art gallery scene.

None of this was the institutional creative gruel, served up with a “whatever” and “that’s nice,” good effort, now let's get out the macaroni. This was democratic culture, stimulated, refined, and curated by artists. After a neighborhood show called “Arroz con Mango,” Group Material, on 7th Street in 1980, recognized this as a source of strength and inspiration going forward into museums and biennials. What goes on in squat culture is not social tranquilization. It is agitation. Castrucci’s conceptual impulse is ultimately a curatorial impulse, a recognition of intensity.

What then is Castrucci’s aesthesic? Let us investigate – because in its time, somehow all this artistic work was dismissed by critics as expressionism, a “juvenile disorder,” and a distraction from the serious work of overturning bourgeois culture. (That was the really serious, and finally Leninist/capitalist argument for appropriation art – not to be confusing, but, um, it was a bit of a ruse that was pulled.) But this work is not expressionist. It’s traces, the fossil tracks of people moving through a special muddy stratum of social reality…

Bullet is like a crime museum, but these crimes were ideological, necessary, with positive outcomes. It’s not a show of relics of aberrant individual acts, but relics of collective action. All the things in Bullet seems to have evidentiary weight. It’s all evidence, “dangerous remains” as the show of squatter artifacts at ABC No Rio put together by Fly and Steven Englander at the turn of the century was called. Maybe it’s like an old socialist revolutionary museum – (I saw one in East Berlin in ’86, a weird dim mix of pride and paranoia) – evidence from some forgotten place outside the neoliberal paddock of global capitalism.

At Bullet Space, artistic identity is a position – ready for combat. The work is physical, intense, made from and picturing blood, shit, iron and steel, blades, blunt instruments, cement. Yet the work is not raw or brutal. Castrucci’s art and installations are unfailingly elegant. There are lots of gilt frames, sprawling dried sunflowers, and prints in dark black and red inks – the graphic equivalent of drums and bass. (Andrew was a roadie for the reggae-punk band Bad Brains.) Much of this taste comes from the hard hand work involved in reconstructing these dumpy cheap-built tenement buildings, so much trashier than what one finds vacant in Europe. A line of stoves, one by the infamous squat blacksmith Robert Parker, are prominent in the show. Occasionally these things become signifiers of danger as in a vampire movie, and a tinge of camp enters into the mix. Corroded rubber waders, “cement overshoes,” urine-filled bottles which Andrew puts on plinths. He took a group of these bottles to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum – and broke some, raising a profound stink. This performance was an insistence on that this experience of revolt be entered into the ledger of the kingdom of the aesthetic. A violence aestheticized: Is it inciteful or purgative? Platonic or Aristotelian?

That Castrucci lives contradictions while maintaining and in fact burnishing his position is I think less a sign of hypocrisy or revolutionary impurity – (it is, after all, art and not politics that we are discussing) – than a simple embrace of human life changes. He is proud of his Italian immigrant shop keeper forebears. Those ancestors look down from photos on his walls (I visited with Roman curator Virginia Villari). They are surely models for him, but at the same time to some extent ghostly tormentors along the path he has chosen.

The proof of the validity of Castrucci’s Bullet Space venture is that so many good artists have trusted Andrew over the years, and participated in Bullet shows and projects. What has been crafted is an aesthetically convincing brief for an anti-property ethos – an argument for energy, for political intention. That it makes me – and has made me over many years uneasy is what it's about.

As it did Art & Language in the mid-1970s, the question of collectivization in art and what it really means has haunted me. While ostensibly collective, Bullet has always been an emphatically authorial project. Now this disturbs me less – in fact, it’s clear that for these projects to persist and to survive into historical memory requires individual dedication, even identification, driven artistic obsession – it’s rather a necessity.

(The photo is a detail of inside the "squatter shack" built by Bullet collaborators for a 1998 New Museum show. For more on the EU social center movement investigation, see my blog "Occupations and Properties.")

Bullet Space squatter shack interior.jpg49.22 KB