Originally appeared on Open Eye Gallery blog, 03.02.2014
Against the grimy backdrop of economic stagnation, unemployment and lawlessness, an opulence of artistic and sexual freedom flourished amidst the dilapidated buildings of downtown Manhattan. The once bustling piers were left vacant and crumbling at the remote edges of the city. Overlooked and sheltered from regulation, the waterfront offered a space seemingly beyond social control. It gradually become appropriated by marginalised populations, one of which was a post-Stonewall gay minority, eager to find spaces where they could develop and realise their sexual identity.
Artists also saw the forsaken spaces of Manhattan as places of freedom, seeking to distance themselves from the conventional gallery context. In 1971, Willoughby Sharp recognised the potential of the piers, commissioning Pier 18 by twenty-seven different artists and photographed by Harry Shunk and János Kender.
In John Baldessari’s Hands Framing New York Harbor, the city is reduced to the artist’s canvas, easily manipulated and appropriated in his hands. It’s an artistic mirroring of the events happening across the city, particularly at the pier, as marginalised individuals recreated urban spaces and transgressed their original functions for their own benefits.
In his series Arthur Rimbaud in New York, David Wojnarowiczphotographs a figure wearing a Rimbaud mask in various sordid waterfront sites as he physically adjusts the landscape around him. The frameworks of a previously secure, official space are now easily manipulated to accommodate this nonconforming, gay figure of Rimbaud, with whom Wojnarowicz identified. The initial dominancy of convention is revealed as delicate and transitory.
Peter Hujar’s photos from inside the waterfront buildings whisper at this transitory nature of mankind’s hold and influence on his surroundings. The inclusion of the “New York World-Telegram” sign in Baldessari’s previous photo similarly hints at this- a newspaper defunct for several years by 1971, yet whose ghostly presence still dominates the city space.
Hujar’s images reveal the lingering memories of the area’s grand maritime past, now crumbling around its latest prowling inhabitants. In the same way, he foreshadows their own imminent eviction as the areas were to become gradually and ruthlessly gentrified.
Many photographers of this space were both observers and participants, providing a hyper-personal reality that goes beyond measured documentation. Artists such as Peter Hujar, Stanley Stellar and Leonard Fink were all prolific participants in the very subculture and activities that they photographed. Verifying the world they inhabited, their works reveal their own lovers and sex partners at the piers and ultimately provide an explicit record of a marginalised existence from an insider’s perspective.
While the piers offered a refuge for sexual freedom, as unregulated spaces they were also hotbeds for crime and violence.Vito Acconci highlights the dichotomy of the opportunity for intimacy and lingering threat of danger. In his performance project Security Zone, photographed as part of Sharp’s Pier 18,Acconci stood blindfolded while somebody “whose moves [he didn’t] fully trust” led him closer to the edge. Placed entirely under this person’s control, the artist had no choice but to renounce his trust to them.
Shelley Seaccombe and photojournalist Allen Tannenbaum captured documentary style images of a world they did not inhabit, as discerning yet non-participatory outsiders. Seaccombe saw her work as “as keeping a record,” alluding once more to the transiency of the space. Her images of sunbathers document the community that gathered at the piers – one not built solely around the eroticism that so many others photographed, but also around social interaction and leisure.