A TASTY TREAT CURATORIAL MARKET;
CUCHIFRITOS - NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Installation view from "Curatorial Market"
Gavin Wade and Scott Rigby, Ideal
According to the work Border NY Times 01-02 at Cuchifritos
gallery in the Essex Street Market, the word Border appeared
in New York Times headlines 124 times between January 2001 and September
2002. The artist/compiler Burel simply printed out all the stories and
bound them together in a book. Almost every article is about fighting
over borders, strengthening borders, or panicking at the porousness of
An indoor shopping center on the shabby Lower East Side, Essex Street
Market is not the kind of place you would expect to find an art gallery.
But this is precisely the point. Cuchifritos, a tiny triangular space
tucked away in the southern corner of the market, was created in August
2001 by the Artists Alliance Incorporated. They persuaded the New York
City Economic Development Corporation, who owns the market, to give them
$12,000 to renovate the space. The current exhibition, in which Border
. . . appears, is called Curatorial Market. It is the
culmination of the Cuchifritos project to dissolve boundaries between
art and the market (literally, since the exhibition spills out into the
market itself) and between artists and the market (for the exhibition,
curators were invited to contribute as artists, and artists were asked
to curate). Cuchifritos means something like a fried tasty treat.
Essex Street Market is an air-conditioned retreat from the street. Inside,
there is a gentle happy hum of people. The market is lego-bright: shiny
banners hang from the ceiling, the floor is blue; there are yellow pipes,
red garbage cans, the green plastic fur of fake grass. There are electronics
and clothes stores; you can get any part of any animal from Luis the butcher;
there is a stall with '70s kitsch objects and ethnic statues, with a sign
saying NO PHOTOGRAPHS. Among the shoppers, a man is asleep
draped over a table, a few old men gather around a television, people
argue and joke; a man is dancing by himself. Beneath his feet is a question
stuck to the ground in vinyl, translated into three languages: What
is it that you need, or could make the market more ideal for you?
The question is posed by the artists Gavin Wade and Scott Rigby, who are
determined to make art useful, to make it solve problems. A cardboard
structure sits in an empty stall, acting both as a sculptural interpretation
of the produce boxes piled behind the counters everywhere and as a plinth
upon which to place their pamphlet An Ideal Art For the Market.
In it, they ask two further questions, in five languages: Ideally,
how do you imagine art could be made of use to you? and What
is your ideal relationship or connection to others in the market?
Luis Rodriguez, the owner of Luis's Meat Market, says he isn't the kind
of person who goes to galleries-not even Cuchifritos. But he was happy
to answer Wade and Rigby's questions. Art is personal, he
wrote. It has to be something that a person likes and enjoys, and
somehow helps them to relax, and also I think that it could help to develop
more business, for example if people see a work of art they become content,
and when people are happy they have the tendency to spend more. For that
reason, I think that art is useful. Rodriguez may be indifferent
towards Cuchifritos, but he understands the Curatorial Market
idea perfectly: allowing art and commerce to embrace. He also insists
that music should be piped into the market, to pacify people and get them
to buy more. This is the kind of music they should play-or jazz,
he says, smiling, and leaning back from the counter to turn up the radio.
Although he is not against the gallery, Rodriguez doesn't understand why
it is in the market. He asks me to explain the message behind it, when
I was hoping he would explain it to me. I say something about making art
accessible and bringing different kinds of people together. His deeply
wrinkled, indented face scrunches up a little more. There's a big
cultural difference between the people who come to the gallery and the
housewives who come here to shop, he says. The people who
go to the gallery are totally different, more educated. Those who come
here for the gallery don't usually shop, and those who come here to shop
don't usually go to the gallery, he explains. So maybe the
gallery isn't really attracting either group of people in any great numbers.
Most shoppers seem to ignore Cuchifritos, but very occasionally someone
stands transfixed by a photograph; one women exclaims I love that
idea! And sometimes the educated people buy a nectarine
or a peach from Farm Foods. Cuchifritos facilitates slippage between the
categories of people in the Essex Street Market through chance conversations
and the surprise-even the affront-of finding art here. The kind of gentrification
which Cuchifritos represents is more inclusive and inspiring than the
Rodriguez has mixed feelings about gentrification: he used to have a shop
on the Lower East Side, but was forced out when the rent went up from
$500 to $4000 overnight. All of a sudden a lot of boutiques started
opening up and the area became . . . he pauses, shrugs, .
. . hip. On the other hand, he says the Lower East Side has improved
dramatically in his lifetime, and Essex Street Market is indicative of
the economic growth. I am lucky to be in this market because everywhere
else around here the rent is astronomical. I am very happy here. I hope
nobody takes this market away from us.
Although it is a symptom of gentrification, the Cuchifritos phenomenon
is not simply a case of the East Village extending its tentacles of trendiness
down to the Lower East Side, infiltrating and perhaps Romanticizing an
audience of cool, uncultivated multiculturals. To think so would be snobbery
dressed up as anti-snobbery: many of the market-goers and stall-owners
are genuinely interested in art-why shouldn't they be?-and have contributed
to the last three exhibitions here.
For the August exhibition, Local, curatorship was democratized:
everyone who works in the market was asked to bring in something from
their home which they considered to be art. It could be something they
had made themselves or something that had been made for them, something
they found . . . anything they considered to be of artistic value.
Carmen Salvadore, who has run Three Brother's Garments for 12 years, made
a doll out of toilet paper for Local. I am very grateful
for the gallery coming here, she says, because I am a creative
person and nobody would recognize that before. I don't go to other galleries
in the city, I have to admit. Cuchifritos is the only gallery I go to.
Carmen says that Cuchifritos brings totally different people
to the market, and that it has opened the door for her to
meet new people. She beckons me over to see Wade and Rigby's geodesic
cardboard structure, before I can explain that I've already seen it. But
she sees something I didn't see: the masking tape is coming away at the
side and the shape is bursting open. Carmen looks worried, strokes the
wound in the sculpture and pushes it further back into the empty stall
to protect it from passing people.
Paul Clay, the director of the Artist's Alliance Incorporated (AAI), and
the man who pitched the idea of Cuchifritos, is ecstatic to have given
art to the people in the market as a part of their daily experience. A
totally unexpected thing, which came out of the Local project,
was the number of people who said that they do make art, but just don't
have enough time to do it as much as they would like to, if at all. I
thought that was both amazing and tragic-an example of how work just eats
away at life and closes so many opportunities.
These opportunities are something the AAI wants to give back, not only
through Cuchifritos. The AAI formed in 1998 and is based in a derelict
school building on Suffolk Street, two blocks behind the market. It is
now the largest long-term studio program in Manhattan, with 65 artists
in residence. As well as a way to organize and galvanize its members,
the AAI has always been focused on disseminating art into the community.
In the summer the AAI holds an outdoor event called SPLASH! where children
paint anything they want on a huge canvas. It's a lot of fun,
says Clay, and with Cuchifritos, we're giving a little taste of
art for people in the market.
But Clay is cautious about the issue of gentrification and the imposition,
the assumptions and the awkward questions of class and snobbery it raises,
especially in the realm of art: At first we weren't even sure if
we should pitch the idea [to the EDC], because we didn't want to go in
there and gentrify the market. Then a nice lounge and restaurant took
up residency at the north end of the building. At that point we felt the
addition of our space wasn't a problem in comparison.
The AAI has had bitter experience of gentrification, having nearly been
evicted from their studios. The city wanted to sell the building, and
the organization which manages the building also wanted them out. But
now the AAI is working with the city, with theater groups, and resident
organizations to set up a new not-for-profit to manage the maintenance
of the building, and to raise funds for capital improvement. The building
needs millions of dollars worth of renovations: for a visitor its dank
decay may be charming, but to work there must be difficult. Rents
are subsidized to make affordable workspace, Clay explains, but
the work that goes into defending the place and sustaining it is phenomenal.
Clay is still optimistic about gentrification: The critical thing
New York needs right now is neighborhood development strategies. No one
is going to stop gentrification, but the engine of development can be
harnessed to benefit the local people in a community, by diffusing profit
into the neighborhood, rather than funneling it all to outsiders at the
top, and forcing local people out.
Despite its Populist ideals, the Curatorial Market raises
complex, insider issues about the relationship between artist and curator.
These two disciplines are beginning to mix and merge in ways that
some people find appalling, and others see as a powerful new development
in the history of art making, Clay explains. However, abandoning
the idea of the autonomous piece of art can be problematic. Having
art that relates very strongly to the market context can fuck up the commodification
process in an interesting way. It both points it out as an object to consume,
and at the same time, makes it harder to effectively remove from its context
in order to be sold. There is a danger that when curators have too strong
an over-arching vision, that the artists' works can end up simply, as
building blocks, used to construct the curator's point. On the other hand
if the curator's point is weak, then the works can get stranded totally
out of context.
Per Hüttner, the director of Curatorial Market, dodged
these problems simply by opening up the curatorial process. A photographer
and video artist, as well as a curator, he believes in a symbiotic relationship
between art, curator, and context. Curating is very much connected
to art in general, he says. It's a means of expressing myself
just as creatively as I do in art. I don't see much difference between
Hüttner took his first stumbling steps in curating in
a gallery in Stockholm, called Konstakuten, which he opened with three
colleagues in 1995. Curating was necessary both as a way of erasing traditional
boundaries in the gallery, and as a means of self preservation: We
weren't interested in just showing art to our mates, says Hüttner.
Without a stimulating environment and dynamic peer group, any artist,
however talented and motivated, will eventually fall silent. This either
means that the artist stops developing, or simply stops working altogether.
Above all, artists need a challenging community for support and inspiration.
That's why I picked up curating, because it offered me tools to grow as
an artist and human being-through meeting people. When I first started
this project my idea was to bring over my favorite people in the art world.
But when I saw the gallery, I realized that the context of it was something
that needed to be addressed.
The work that most beautifully addresses the context of trade in Curatorial
Market is the sound installation by Tank magazine arts editor Claire
Canning, Andy Cox (the former guitarist in the Beat and the Fine Young
Cannibals) and producer Richard Allalouf. It is an eavesdropping recording
of bleeps at a supermarket checkout set against the muted chattering of
parents packing their shopping and the excited giggling of their children.
Occasionally, the notes of the bleeps are made to echo and soar; all the
while there is a strange, barely audible rumbling-the sound of process,
of things working.
Like Wade and Rigby, Hüttner is for immediacy and usefulness in art.
Art is by default, in the Western context, useless. The fact that
no one can walk into the Met and use the Melanesian masks for a private
ritual in the museum proves that point. It's all about context.
Hüttner wishes that the idea of the autonomous work of art was obsolete.
However: The network between collectors, museums, and traditional
curators does nothing to challenge the social and monetary systems within
the art world. For them to work against the networks, by undermining
the self-sufficiency of the art work, would be like biting the hand
that feeds them. But then again, anyone who wants to challenge and change
things will, ultimately, become that renegade canine that bites his owner.
In the Curatorial Market, Hüttner insists that he doesn't
have an agenda, just some questions: To what degree is art about
ideas and to what degree is it about objects? How is commodification and
the fetishization of commodities reflected in Contemporary Art? Was art
a forerunner of this fetishism? What benefits and pitfalls are there for
Contemporary Art when art is no longer object based?
Hüttner acknowledges that, since all the works were chosen with the
market in mind, should the Curatorial Market go on tour, it
would have to change completely. But it is this transience, this uniqueness
that is the attraction of the project. It was such a nice atmosphere
setting up the exhibition in the market, Hüttner says. A
gallery or a museum can be quite hostile. Working in the market, I felt
that every day there were magical meetings between people, who would not
normally interact-because of the social void which is created in the process
of gentrification. The art in Cuchifritos reaches out to the people who
are not normally exposed to it, and we have the possibility of experiencing
a social context that we wouldn't normally be able to take part in. As
soon as the process of gentrification stops, and everyone-on both sides-gets
stuck in their ways, this exchange will wither and die. So, yes, I think
the gallery does speed up the process of gentrification, but at the same
time, it also creates opportunities within this process, that are a lot
more valuable than we could ever imagine.
New York, New York