The avant-garde art, film, music, television and writing produced by figures living in and associated with lower Manhattan in the period between New York City’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s and Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral election in 2001 have seen an explosion of popular, academic and curatorial interest in the past 10-15 years. Retrospective and thematic exhibitions on different Downtown scenes and key figures, collectives and spaces indicate a keen global interest in this period of cultural production. These include ‘East Village USA’ (New Museum, New York, 2005); ‘The Downtown Show’ (Grey Art Gallery, New York, 2006); ‘Mixed Use Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to Present’ (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2010); and ‘Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s’ (Barbican, London, 2011), as well as exhibitions and documentaries exploring individuals such as Kathy Acker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lorraine O’Grady, Keith Haring, Tseng Kwong Chi, Zoe Leonard, David Wojnarowicz, and Martin Wong, spaces like Club 57, the West Side piers, and Pat Hearn Gallery, and cultural exchange between Manhattan and Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx.
Recent publications, particularly from the US academy, have extended scholarly enquiry into this field, including work by Joshua Chambers-Letson, Douglas Crimp, Joan Hawkins, Daniel Kane, Tim Lawrence, Peter L’Official, Ricardo Montez, Adair Roundthwaite, Jordana Moore Saggese, Sarah Schulman, Andrew Strombeck, Brian Tocterman, and Jonathan Weinberg. Attentive to the multifaceted and deeply interdisciplinary nature of Downtown cultural production, ‘Approaching Downtown: Avant-Garde Cultural Production in New York City, 1970s-1990s’ created opportunities to further examine this period as an opportunity for global cross-disciplinary exploration and exchange, taking its messiness and its interdisciplinarity as an opportunity for productive thinking across different scholarly boundaries and national contexts. Underpinning this investigation was a desire to bring together differing methodological approaches to the study of Downtown New York – its artists, archives, institutions, and histories.
Bringing together scholars from fields including art history, film and media studies, literary studies, performance studies, queer studies, and visual culture, this four-day workshop engaged with an expansive view of downtown avant-garde cultural production in New York City. Contributors were invited to offers sessions which explored an aspect of avant-garde cultural production in this period and that connects with broader themes or issues impacting new approaches to Downtown New York’s histories. Attendees were encouraged to think beyond the traditional paper format and towards other generative modes such as interviews/in-conversation-style talks (live or recorded), archival explorations, screenings, and collaborative workshop activities. The main roster of speaker-orientated sessions was supplemented by site visits to galleries, museums, archives, and artist’s studios in London, and performances, film, video and TV screenings on the Courtauld campus.