This week: Duncan, Richard and Amanda talk Nonsense with Jeff Stark!
What is Nonsense NYC?
Nonsense NYC is a discriminating resource for independent art, weird events, strange happenings, unique parties, and senseless culture in New York City.
What does that mean?
We send out an email every Friday about unique events occurring the following week.
What kind of stuff?
Street events, loft parties, puppet shows, bike rallys, costume balls, interactive art shows, movies in unusual places, parades, outlaw dancing, guerilla theater, burlesque and variety shows, loser open mikes, cirkuses, and absurdist pranks. Nonsense covers the stuff that has no name, or a name that you feel really awkward and self-conscious saying out loud, like “underground.”
Sounds great, how do I sign up?
Um, I’d rather not give you my email address. Can I just read it online?
No. The only place you can read Nonsense NYC is your inbox. We like the intimacy of email, thank you, and this Web stuff is too much work. We promise not to sell your email address or give it away. We’re not going to spam you with useless information either.
OK, I’ve signed up, and I want to know more about Nonsense. Will you print my event?
We’d love to hear about all of your events. The important thing to remember is that Nonsense NYC happens because of you. That means we rely on you to let us know what events you’re organizing and what events you’re attending. Please keep us up to date and don’t assume that we’ll find out about it from someone else. Our job is to gather, edit, organize, and filter; your job is to make interesting things happen and let us know about them. Remember to include all the important information, like the address and stuff, and a brief description. When you put it all together, send it to email@example.com. Please send a text-only email; flash graphics, links to online fliers, and facebook announcements make our life more difficult. You can find a guide to better email communication here.
Also, Nonsense does not list events that cost more than $25 at the door, without door code, RSVPs, or special arrangement. We make some exceptions for obvious extra expenses, like boat rentals. To those of you promoting events: We’re sorry. We know it’s hard. We know it’s risky. We know it’s expensive. But nonsense has always skewed toward cheaper events; our readers expect it.
But one time I sent you something about my band/my movie/my party/my opening and you didn’t print it. What gives? How do you decide what events will be on Nonsense NYC?
To start with, almost all the stuff we list is independent. Also, we like rock bands and experimental musicians and arty films and galleries and museums and big street festivals, but we can find information about all of those things in other places. We generally will not list them.
We use something called the rule of three. That means that we will generally list your event if there are three different things going on: DJs, bands, dancers, costumes, fire performance, theater, film, art, projections, fashion, an unusual space, or several other intangibles. Your event doesn’t have to include all of these in order to be listed, and it certainly doesn’t need all this at once. If you’re in doubt, send it to us anyway — we’re decent editors.
The list is huge sometimes. Where do you find all this stuff? Do you write all of it yourself?
We don’t really write so much as edit announcements from other people. The bulk of each weekly list is culled from other lists and Web calendars. We monitor a couple dozen of them. You can find a partial listing on the Links page.
So, do you go to all of the events that you list on Nonsense?
Not even. We can’t afford it. We go out a couple of times a week, and we generally write a small editorial note if we have an opinion to share. You can find those comments in each post. They’re all marked like this: NOTE.
How can I tell the good events from the bad ones? Will I have fun at all the events?
No, you won’t always have fun. And please don’t assume that merely listing this stuff is some sort of implicit endorsement. A lot of these events are strictly amateur hour. We love amateur hour. But the problem with some amateurs is that they’re just amateurs. It’s hard to distinguish the good stuff from the bad. Some of it, no doubt, will make you wish you’d sat on the couch eating microwave nachos. If you want a safe bet, go to the movies.
That said, if you start going to a lot of the events listed here you’ll start to recognize some of the names of performers, promoters, venues, and so forth.
Let us know if you have a great time at an event. Hell, let us know if you feel like you got scammed out of $5. Send us a sentence or two about the events you’ve attended — especially if you went to something that is ongoing — and we’ll run them in the future. You don’t have to be a professional writer or do anything fancy. Just tell us what you would tell your friends over a late breakfast. Your fellow subscribers will appreciate it.
Why does the new Nonsense come out so late? Can’t you get it out earlier?
No, we can’t. It takes a long time to put this thing together. We have real jobs, and real lives. Both prohibit us from compiling the list earlier in the week. We try to run events for the following Thursday so you can have a heads up, but a lot of the people who do the kind of events that we list don’t always have their shit together.
We print stuff that’s happening on the day we post because sometime the show will happen a few more times throughout the weekend. Sometimes there will be a contact listed and you can use it to reach people and make sure that you don’t miss their events in the future. If you check your email before you go out you’ll still have time to make a snap decision.
What’s with the “we?”
We don’t know. We got used to writing like this several years ago and we kind of like it. It has a lot of antecedents, including the unsigned Talk of the Town section in the old New Yorker. We’d like to think that it alludes to that sort of liveliness and sparkling wit. You may disagree. We will cherish our delusions.
Conceptually, we thought that Nonsense NYC would be sort of a group effort, with its subscribers kicking down a lot of the weekly copy. It didn’t really turn out that way, but we still like to hold on to the thought that Nonsense is put together by its community. In a way, it is: It would be a mighty boring list if there were no events to compile, and the people who make these events happen are the kind of people who receive it.
So who exactly is “we,” and why are you doing this?
Nonsense NYC is compiled by Jeff Stark. Alita Edgar graciously puts together the Wishlist section. Jennifer Liepin edits the Help section. Juliana Driever is responsible for the Learning section. J. Sinopli is the person behind Spectre Priority. Neille Ilel did all the Web stuff.
Why are you doing this?
We believe that there is more to life in New York than getting drunk at slick new bars. We were frustrated when we moved here and couldn’t find a reliable source of alternatives, even though we knew that there were creative people making cool shit happen. Almost more annoying was the fact that certain groups we knew about weren’t always aware of one another.
Our solution was to start a weekly list. We did this in September 2000. Our goals are to help make New York a more interesting place to live, to encourage others to do the same, and to have more fun than just about anyone else. We’re particularly drawn to participatory culture, amateurism, and urban folk art. To us, that means that things are more rewarding when you invest yourself in them, and that you are responsible for entertaining yourself and your friends.
We admire the handmade, the recycled. And we’re generally suspicious of commercial entertainment. That doesn’t mean we reflexively hate television or going to the movies. It’s just that we genuinely believe that everyone has something to contribute, and that life is much richer when people stop treating each other like walking wallets.
Wow, this all sounds so lofty. Are these your ideas?
Not even. We’re stealing ideas from a half dozen places and using the bits that suit us. In particular, we are indebted to Fluxus games, the Cacophony Society, the Suicide Club, the Situationists, American punk rock in the 1980s, the Do-It-Yourself ethic of the early 1990s, the Madagascar Institute, Dark Passage, and the yearly Burning Man festival in Nevada.
We do think that we are witnessing a special synthesis of these ideas in New York right now — this very minute — and that in a few years we will recognize it as a golden age.
OK. So how do you make money off of this?
That’s not really the point. However Nonsense now accepts donations. The newsletter remains free, but there are real costs that we absorb in its creation. We would love for you to donate money to help offset webhosting, software, and computer expenses. The labor remains free.
We aren’t asking for much; a yearly subscription would be a tremendous help. Please consider $5 for the year if you use the list to figure out what to do on a Saturday night, or if you just like to keep track of what’s going on in New York.
Go ahead and donate $20 if you promote events that we list on Nonsense. You know it’s worth it. And we would be grateful for more money if you really like what we do.
To be clear, these are donations: You are not paying for a service, but rather confirming that what we do is valuable and agreeing that independent artists should support other independent artists. If you’ve ever paid for a ticket to see your friend’s band you know exactly what we mean.
But I want to complain about something. Who can I yell at?
You’re getting this ostensibly for free; you’re not allowed to complain. If you have to yell at someone, try a taxi driver: They’re used to it.
I’m not getting the list. What’s up?
We don’t know. First, you should check your spam folder. Several of the major email providers sometimes think Nonsense is spam; first Yahoo and Hotmail, and eventually AOL and even Gmail blocked some newsletters. We use Dada Mail and Tiger Tech and are always trying to fix this problem.
If you don’t find Nonsense in your spam folder there are a couple of things that you can do. You can approve messages from us or put us in your address book or on your whitelist. You can sign up with another email account. And if that doesn’t work you can use your password to access our archives online.
This should be pretty obvious, but please do not flag our messages as spam for any reason. If you want to unsubscribe, please take a minute and follow the link at the bottom of every list or send us an email. Finally, it helps our case if you send an email to your provider to complain that Nonsense is being marked as spam or held.
I forgot what I was going to say, but I’ll probably remember my question later.
email us anytime.
Empire Drive-In is a full-scale, twelve-night, outdoor cinema and social spectacle. Hosted by the New York Hall of Science, and brilliantly programmed and designed by artists Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark, this project is an ambitious statement on upcycling and participatory culture seen through the defunct theater of suburban drive-in entertainment.
On the surface, Empire Drive-In has plenty of nostalgic charm, but it doesnâ€™t take long to see how the project redirects retro sentimentality into much more nuanced conditions of creative re-use. Made entirely from re-animated waste, including cast-off lumber and 60 wrecked cars salvaged from a Brooklyn scrapyard, the projectâ€™s junk aesthetic offers up a critical interrogation of our cultureâ€™s throw-away mentality, and the tremendous value that can be recaptured with artistic reconsideration and a little bit of elbow grease.Â Chandler and Stark offered their impressions this conceptual overtone:
â€œOne of the things that weâ€™re saying, or that weâ€™re trying to get at, is that this kind of place â€“ a place that is built by hands and is brought alive by living artists and performers â€“ offers a type of critical alternative to the safety of theme park nostalgia. [â€¦] People love nostalgia. A lot of us have an almost emotional attachment to the romantic idea of a drive-in theater. So we use that as kind of a set-up. People come to Empire with that romantic idea, and what they experience is on some level quite different: Itâ€™s a bunch of dirty old cars in a parking lot. Weâ€™re not trying to trick people, but we are deliberately looking for a little nuance â€“ a little questioning.â€
The creation of public and private space is another big picture idea that plays into the experience of Empire Drive-In. Sitting an early aughts BMW on the evening of my visit, I found traces of the previous owners scattered around the car, purposefully left behind by the artists. A wallet-size studio portrait of two young children and an ATM receipt with a balance for little more than $9.00 created a humanizing and intimate fantasy of these earlier occupants. The private narrative unfolding in the car was met on the other end with the larger, public narrative taking place outside, as people moved around, socialized, bought popcorn from the snack bar, and lounged on the hoods and roofs of cars. This division between public and private has always been part of the haphazard choreography of the drive-in theater, though here these narratives feel more direct and curated for personal discovery.
In addition to the social concepts it tackles, letâ€™s not forget that Empire is essentially a series of film screenings; a program that is thematic, collaborative, and diverse â€“Â including a Bollywood Bash, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), and silent films. I attended the Teenage Wasteland double feature, with screenings of Over the Edge (1979) and Suburbia (1983), both about the uprising of white youth in the face of oppressive and alienating suburban communities; a rebellious delight. The films were preceded by a presentation of Stephen Mallonâ€™s impressive documentary photographs of scrapped subway cars in the process of becoming artificial underwater reefs, tying into the spaceâ€™s larger theme of industrial re-use â€“ though hanging somewhat awkwardly in relation to the rest of the eveningâ€™s programming. RVIVR, an energetic punk foursome from Olympia, WA played a set during intermission, giving the crowd another opportunity to gather before heading back to our cars.
While participation plays heavily into the artistsâ€™ thinking about this work â€“Â as it also does with Starkâ€™s otherÂ â€œunauthorizedâ€ eventsÂ in which complicity is an unambiguous, horizontal requirement â€“ true, active participation at Empire feels optional. Interaction is certainly encouraged here, but some may simply go for a controlled, car-bound experience. â€œThereâ€™s been a lot of talk about the tyranny of participation, and yet itâ€™s true that Claire Bishop and a lot of ideas about social practice have influenced some of our thoughts about Empire Drive-In,â€ remarked Chandler and Stark.
â€œWhat weâ€™re after is a space that compels participation in the face of spectacle â€“ one that allows for both at the same time. Weâ€™re hoping for an almost a civic impulse. But at the same time, we would never force people to join in a Bollywood dance lesson, or demand someone to climb up on top of a car. We talk a lot about the distinction between public and private space at Empire, and about how the drive-in is an American institution that allows for both. We often celebrate the public aspect, and work on encouraging it, but private space is important too.â€
There are several big, concurrent messages at Empire Drive-In. Perhaps this is an effect of it being a multivalent product of many collaborators, or perhaps it’s a resistance of reductive categorization. One thing is for sure: if all art-going experiences were this inclusive, a wider public might start to recognize themselves in the visual culture that represents them. Museums take note.
Empire Drive-In at the New York Hall of Science closes on Sunday, October 20.
Jeff Stark is a Brooklyn-based artist whose site-responsive work emphasizes the significance and spectacle of collective experience. Although it resists easy categorization, Starkâ€™s work has a particular closeness to participatory modes of art, theater and DIY culture. His diverse and wildly ambitious projects range from street events, secret dinners in unlikely and hard-to-access locations, full-scale theatrical productions that make unauthorized use of public and private spaces (like the subway, or an abandoned factory), and collaborations with collectives like The Miss Rockaway Armada and Madagascar Institute.
Stark is also the publisher of Nonsense NYC, a â€œdiscriminating resource for independent art, weird events, strange happenings, unique parties and senseless culture in New York City.â€ If you live in New York and havenâ€™t signed up to receive the weekly Nonsense email, just go ahead and do yourself a favor and opt in.
For my first contribution to Bad at Sports, Jeff and I chatted over email about the importance of cultural participation, the challenges of assessing non-object-oriented art and what he calls â€œtrespass theater.â€
Empire Drive-In (2010), in San Jose, California. Photo by Tod Seelie.
Juliana Driever: How would you describe your artistic impulse?
Jeff Stark: I’m not exactly sure what that means. I think you’re asking, “What makes you make art?”
JD: Yes, exactly. What gets you going?
JS: That’s a fairly complex question. But to take a crack at it, I suppose I don’t really think I’m special: I think everyone is creative and everyone wants to communicate. “Everyone is an artist,” just like Joseph Beuys said. So for me too: Making art is about living, about asking questions, about creating a dialog with others — not just those who live near me, but also those who live far away, and, in some cases, those who live in different times.
JD: Different times?
JS: When I’m working on something, I’m thinking about the past, the present, and — in the way that I am deliberately trying to invoke myth and story — the future. And not just in a general way, but of particular individuals. For example, I love the work of theater artist Reza Abdoh. I never got to have a conversation with him, but, in small ways, I hope my work speaks to his.
JD: Youâ€™ve published Nonsense NYC, a weekly email listing independent and quirky happenings and art for over 10 years, and have built a community of people around these events in the process. Do you view Nonsense NYC and your work as an artist as mutually exclusive?
JS: No. It took me a long time to realize this formally, but Nonsense is one of my art projects, and the values and ideas expressed in it are the same values and ideas that inform most of my more traditional art projects, some of which are easy to understand as creative works — like performances or large-scale installations — and others that are not as obvious — like secret dinners in unusual places.
The Sweet Cheat (2010), in Yonkers, New York. Photo by Lauren Silberman.
JD: Your projects are typically very active, social experiences and require the willing participation of the audience.
JS: Most of my projects look at the different ways we think about participation. I like projects that are open, that allow audiences to bring something to the work. Marcel Duchamp wrote about this in The Creative Act: It’s the viewer who completes an artwork — not the artist. So one of the things that I’m always trying to do is to make audiences aware of their own place in a performance, or in a space, or — in the big picture — in culture itself. And one of the ways to do this is to ask them to take a risk with me. When an audience makes an investment in an event by bringing their own creative being to it, or they put their body at risk — real risk, legally and physically — they are participating in culture, they are not simply being entertained.
JD: So, who typically shows up to take a risk with you?
JS: I always like to think of my audiences as my friends and my community. This isn’t always the case — I love it when strangers show up, and they do, or when someone is just going about their daily schedule and bumps into a project on the street. But I suppose I start from a place where I am making work for people who care about the same things that I do. Who are smart and creative and patient and generous and curious. When I was learning how to write, I would always read the same two pieces of advice: think about your audience; find your voice. Those are deceptively difficult instructions. Eventually I had to just think about my friends and how I would talk to them. It’s the same thing in art. Anything else comes off as pandering or pedantic.
JD: Your work relies heavily on its context. What kind of spaces do you look to occupy with your work?
JS: The answer is simply spaces: I’m looking for spaces to work. That can be any space, from a street corner to a parking lot to a ruin. The ones I end up making work in are usually found by paying attention, by living, by looking.
Art can do two things: It can show you something that you’ve never seen before, or it can show you something you see every day in an entirely new way. I’m always trying to do one or the other, and I’m constantly looking for places and projects that let me do that, one or the other. So, if I’m exploring an abandoned factory, I might think, “I’d really love to bring people to see this space,” and then go about devising a project that will allow me to do that. But I could just as easily start with an everyday place, like the subway, and try to develop something I’ve never seen before — like make a play with sets and lights and costumes. My work isn’t site specific as much as it is site responsive.
Tea (2012), at ICA in Boston. Photo by Jeff Stark.
JD: Some might say that one of the challenges of creating artwork that results in a specific social situation is the question of assessment. What are your criteria for judging the success of your work? Are there certain outcomes you strive for?
JS: This is a tricky question. On one level, success is simply doing a project, pulling it off without injury or arrest. But I am trying to communicate with others, to participate in a broader conversation. And it’s not always clear the way the work is being understood or being judged. I get a lot of press coverage, but it’s rarely critical, in part because it’s difficult to make connections among all my projects (partially my fault), and in part because art and theater critics are trained to write about very conventional work (partially their fault). So I look for other signposts. One time I organized a Secret Dinner in Barcelona. It actually failed because we got caught by a security guard on our way into an empty factory. But I talked about the ongoing project at a conference, and a few months later some Barcelona kids sent me pictures of a secret dinner they pulled off in an ancient fortress. That felt like success.
IRT (2009), in New York. Photo by Tod Seelie.
JD: The act of serving others is a gesture that appears in many of your projects. What does it mean to you to conceptualize what are often thought of as practical social transactions into an artwork?
JS: I’ve thought about this, and I’m not entirely sure what it’s about. I think part of it has to do with my belief that art and culture are things we do, more so than products or objects. And so when I create a situation in which I am serving — dinner, tea, advice — I am creating a situation in which I have something to do. It’s one of the ways that I understand what it means to be an artist: Artists serve art.
JD: Like a film or theater director, itâ€™s obvious that group work appeals to you. Do you ever just want to lock yourself in a studio and work on an idea in the modernist, individualist tradition?
JD: On the whole, the art world tends to take itself very seriously, and for me itâ€™s refreshing to see any suggestion of humor or playfulness. You often use absurdity in your work, and in a particularly subversive way. Would you agree that humor in art is underrated?
JS: Definitely. And I think the best artists are terribly funny going back to the Renaissance at least. I looked at The Night Watch yesterday, and it seemed to me like Rembrandt had painted in at least a half dozen dick jokes. Artists have always valued a good laugh; it’s the cultural institutions that formalize this stuff, that steal it away and insist we take it seriously. And it makes sense: Rich people are often uncomfortable with laughter; they’re worried the joke might be on them.
JD: Speaking of Rembrandt, youâ€™re currently doing a writing residency in Amsterdam. How does writing fit into your larger creative activity?
Secret Dinner (2011), in Miami. Photo by Jordan Seiler.
JS: I used to be a writer. I studied journalism in school and had a career I quit because it made me miserable. But writing is a useful skill. It’s a tool that I’m willing to use to serve a larger project. And so I’ll do it when I need to, but it’s incredibly difficult and, I think, somewhat unhealthy for me.
JD: What are you working on next?
JS: I’m working on a few things, including a new play, another piece of trespass theater called the Dreary Coast, and a New York iteration of Empire Drive-In, which is a project that I’ve done a few times with Todd Chandler and several other artists. I’d love to make more work in New York City this year. It’s my home, and the place I care about most.