Significant Others: Jack, Esther, Rayya, Cynthia

Last week, after screening rarely seen films by David Wojnarowicz and Carl George, a public discussion about the East Village in New York in the 1980s was held at Participant. Moderator Esther Kaplan invited panelists Jack Waters, Rayya Elias, and Cynthia Carr to share memories and impressions from a time and place that continues to shape New York as well as have impact on those that were there, and capture the imagination of those who were not.

The conversation focused on the period between the early 1980s to 1987—what Kaplan dubbed the Kurtti years, in honor of artist Gordon Kurrti whose work is currently on view at Participant. As people spoke what emerged was a portrait of a time in transition - from the artistic experimentation that emerged after New York’s 1970’s fiscal crisis to the era of ACT UP and the worst of Reganomics. It was a desperate time when lives, artistic freedom, and a sense that anything was possible, was lost, making a generation of artists, rockers, lovers and writers grow up very fast.

Thirty years later, as echoes of the time circulate in American culture, the lower east side in the 1980s, is an import site for further inquiry. Below are quotes from the panelists, and two from the audience.

It was no more this gig and that gig. It was this funeral and that funeral, and hospitals and actions. And it was your social life. Everything was the epidemic. -- Jack Waters

Crack and AIDS hit at the same time and changed everything overnight. Immediately there was terror in the city- just fear. Mothers, within a month were trickin’. And dear friends were wasting away. Everyone was looking emaciated. It was extremely confusing time. --Rayya Elias

Friends were crawling and they couldn’t get a glass of water. Meanwhile galleries were asking me to make calls to collectors. I couldn’t do it anymore. -- Sur Rodney (Sur)

ABC NO Rio was political at a time when political art was not cool or interesting. And then there was this disease and it make political art imperative. Sure ACT UP came around but a response had been fermenting. Stuff like HEAL (an event with Cookie Mueller, Bill T. Jones and others) was a beginning. -- Jack Waters

People lost heart. When everyone is dying it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. -- C. Carr on the end of the East Village Art Scene

Only in the last 5 years am I starting to feel the impact of what happened. -- Carl George

Significant Others was organized by Dirty Looks with The Gordon Kurtti Project and Visual AIDS. This summer, as Visual AIDS continues to examine that which is NOT OVER, events remind us of what was, what is, and possibly, what could be.

Jack Waters