The Dimes Square Spiral

  Still from Bernadette Corporation, Get Rid of Yourself , 2003
 Damon Sfetsios, Untitled , unfinished painting , 2022

A concept, a state of mind, a hated and mythologized chimera, or just a real place where everyone gets along. Dimes Square it’s art but it’s about more (or less) than art: it’s life turned into theater, or rather “autofiction” in the real world, belle époque in the age of Substack. Is it so distant from all our other forms of identity obsession?

“If fascism comes to America, we’ll watch on TV like we do everything else. There will still be MasterCard commercials, too, but they probably won’t feature gay interracial couples anymore.
I believe it was John Dolan who said good art can be honest or something genuinely new. To be new is to transgress. If the last fifty years has taught us anything, cultural transgression of any kind is now impossible under capitalism …
When I was in my early twenties, I nursed vague dreams of moving to New York and becoming a writer of some kind. Instead, I had multiple psychotic breaks, and then I tried to kill myself. After a long time in the hospital, I moved in with my parents and worked food service jobs and in call centers. I worked really hard, got a grip on my mental health – I’m happy to say I live on my own and am in a stable relationship. Crumplar is a good, insightful writer. With that in mind, now that I know about this stuff, I can honestly say I wish my suicide attempt had been successful, or that, at the very least, I was still living with my parents, my mind so dulled by anti-psychotics that I was incapable of understanding any of it.”
Sam, comment on “My Own Dimes Square Fascist Humiliation Ritual” by Mike Crumplar

In his Baffler essay “Escape from Dimes Square,” Will Harrison notes that “‘Dimes Square’ signifies a bit more than it used to, looming larger in the city’s imagination, having become a concept, a chimera, a state of mind.” He’s right, although also very naive. “It’s not a square, by the way,” the Dimes Square (2022) playwright Matthew Gasda agrees, “it’s a feeling.” It’s but a rumor. Nobody much agrees on what these words refer to.

First of all I’d say it’s a place: a small pedestrianized piazza in Chinatown and the few blocks around it bustling with cafés, bars and restaurants, and a leafy park of children’s playgrounds. It’s one of the few shared public spaces in Manhattan, a triangle of happiness and a sort of paradise, a village square populated by service workers and babysitters who are also artists and sometimes intellectuals. Its most famous faces are probably Meetka Otto, a musician and writer who’s also a barmaid at Dimes, and Ivan Berko, a DJ and a longstanding barman at Clandestino. In Dimes Deli on Monday afternoon, where I was reading my hundreds of pages of Dimes Square think pieces and comments boards for this column, the barista there, Bernard, who is also a model and a lapsed art historian, told me, “It’s the best place in America.” It has a great sense of community he said. The real square is not the reactionary hellmouth it’s often painted as, not some bleak vision of a broken America without Brooklyn’s calming influence, but more like a liberal dream, a very friendly and diverse place where everyone gets along. The wonderland of queer beauty, sexual exploration and everyone just supporting one another, even while modeling, shown in the Dimes Square reality show The Come Up is not so far from reality. Although it is redundant to make a reality show about this place because it’s a reality show already, every day.

“Dimes Square” however is also a metonym for a wider Downtown scene made up of many different, overlapping scenes. It has come to be associated with a certain attitude: boredom with performative outrage and disdain for overbearingly earnest didacticism. I don’t think it represents an opposition to progressive values but rather a wish to retreat from a culture in which everything is supposed to be political. It’s a reflection of what’s also happening elsewhere. Culture is changing, rolling on as it always does. 

 

You write your autofiction about yourself and others write their fictions about you, often anonymously, on Substacks, subreddits, messageboards

 

The scene has also come to be associated with, and indeed has been created by, relentless self-mythologizing. Writing about “Dimes Square” is what people in and around it often do. After three or four hours of reading the relevant literature in Seward Park on Monday I entered a comfortable fugue state, only to come to and find myself in the same place I was reading about. Friends wrote to ask or asked in person why I hadn’t printed out their Dimes Square essay as well, but there are just so many, you’ll never reach the end of them. It was a balmy hot winter’s day, highs of twenty-five degrees Celsius. The sun was low in the sky, just above the rooftops. All the leaves were lurid yellow on the trees. Right there I got an email saying the Drunken Canal, the local newspaper about a small group of friends, is closing down next month. That feels like an end to this cycle. This neighborhood’s wave of international infamy began with the publication of the first issue of the Drunken Canal in fall 2020, soon followed by the Cut and then the New York Times’s profiles of its founders, and Civilization’s map of everyone Downtown and the metaphysical structure of the cosmos, and angelicism01’s blog, “Somebody Please Columbine The Entire Drunken Canal Editorial Staff,” and the rival paper the Sober Canal, and plenty more takedowns as well, all of which combined to create the idea of a scene together, out of hyperstition. Dimes Square, the playwright and musician Leah Hennessey told me later that day, in the Deli, was an “anthropological invention, a bogeyman” created in large part by its detractors, as “a horcrux of their hate.” Everyone around it is a part of it but doesn’t want to be considered as such. It’s like how being a hipster was: it’s always somebody else.

So the neighborhood has its own paper and literary journals, its own acting classes, film production studios, cinema, radio station and performance space, a skate spot, a modeling agency, galleries, bars and restaurants, so many blogs and podcasts, a continuous flow of photographers, stylists, fashion designers, editors, writers, gossip columnists, meme page admins, publishers, playwrights, directors, theater impresarios, musicians, DJs, agents, lawyers, drug dealers, art dealers, haters, sycophants, lackeys, lots of very ambitious people: it has everything you need to make yourself arranged around this one small square, this stage set in which to perform. It’s like a Broadway, or a Warhol’s Factory, for the 2020s performance of yourself as a new kind of Superstar. Sophia Vanderbilt, a shop assistant, socialite and e-girl, has described this as “autofiction” but in the real world: “People don’t want to be a character, they want to be themselves as a character.” The TikTok star Serena Shahidi once told me, on the balcony of Russian Samovar, that she dropped out of school to become a “Persona” because authenticity is out. 

The biggest star to have emerged from this Downtown scene, Dasha Nekrasova, has invented a new kind of celebrity: the it girl that posts a lot and inspires deep obsession, as an object of desire but also a role model but also a hate figure for so many around the world. We live nearby so sometimes I’ll bump into her and her boyfriend Matt and they’ll tell me which of our friends have been possessed by demons. Dasha is an actor and a director but her most important role is herself. The persona is the message; which is, as many have observed, very Warholian. There’s plenty of great art coming out of Downtown New York if you ask me, but I also believe it’s about more (or less) than making art: it’s making a name for yourself and a place for yourself in the story.

 

This contemporary obsession with the identity of the artist is not that different from the overblown fascination with the narcissistic Downtown personality

 

All this reflects the broader shift in cultural production that took place in the 2010s: the way we lived online could no longer be separated from culture and it began to overwhelm the rest of culture. People everywhere are making their lives into content, and this is simply the New York arthouse version of that for a cultural moment driven by podcasts and more recently newsletters. In this version though, a lot of your story is written by others. You write your autofiction about yourself and others write their fictions about you, often anonymously, on Substacks, subreddits, messageboards like Lolcow, on Twitter and Instagram and podcasts too, and this makes things different from what has come before. The lives of these personae are written by themselves and by others, often by people who aren’t in New York, who’ve never been to New York, as popular commentary and frantic obsession. You’re performing yourself and you’re reading your reviews as you do. It’s a very unusual way to live. And these new modes of performance and self-expression are more avant-garde than the rest of what their performers make.

The foremost chronicler of the Downtown scene, gonzo newsletter reporter Mike Crumplar, goes around in a leather jacket and a vintage Dada T-shirt and passionately believes that his newsletter is art. When accused of trying to destroy art, of being anti-art, he replied, “I said that my writing was also an art, and that in my writing I’ve been reaching higher levels of creative expression with every new piece I publish … [with] the relative ease with which I can express the multi-layered truths of this world and navigate the vertiginous terrain of reality and fiction … proceeding from expressing an adequate idea of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things,” and this is good, that he’s so ambitious. Writers should be ambitious and competitive, and perhaps a touch delusionary as well. If he says he’s an artist, he’s an artist. He is also, too, the star of his own autofiction and the real story he’s telling is one about himself, and so has been my story as well.

“I keep hearing about how literature sucks these days, how it’s sterile and inoffensive, all about identity, stifled by politics,” writes Crumps. “They say things are no longer judged according to artistic merit but to political correctness.” I guess he hears that from people like me, nonetheless I do believe there’s some truth to it: if art was once a way of expressing yourself and through doing so creating your identity – Warhol once said, “I paint pictures of myself to remind myself that I’m still around” – it has recently felt like your identity, which is now seen as residing elsewhere, in your race, your gender, your sexuality, your personal history, your trauma, has become a key part of what gives value to your self-expression; and this contemporary obsession with the identity of the artist is not that different from the overblown fascination with the narcissistic Downtown personality. Not so different at all. In both instances the person making the work is allowed to eclipse the work itself, likely as a consequence of how social media has changed our understanding of culture. The most powerful cultural forms in the attention economy are your personality, your identity, and your image, which combine in the stories you tell about yourself, and these have become an increasingly large part of what makes an artist a star.

 

It’s an interesting idea, that there are influencers seeking to destroy reality

 

Roger Shattuck’s book The Banquet Years (1955) follows the belle époque Parisian avant-garde as they push toward a “New Spirit.” He writes that at the time, “The theater reigned supreme. Yet it was all a show within a show.” The whole of Paris became a stage, and its artistic and literary stars were great performers who were able to capture the public’s attention through eccentricity, exuberant play-acting, scandal, and novelty. Manhattan is a stage as well and now that stage extends around the world with the internet. Today though it’s the stream and the discourse and not the theater that reign supreme, so it’s perversely fitting that the biggest scandal to have yet happened in this cultural milieu – the “Dimes Square Fascist Humiliation Ritual” suffered by Crumps during the filming of a scene for Peter Vack’s new movie www.RachelOrmont.com – came from a group of Downtown personalities and extras acting out an online message board in real life in a movie theater. Discourse was brought to life as distasteful spectacle and the internet swallowed the real, with everybody seeming to briefly forget where they were and what was happening, and all of it was written up into yet more discourse, another chapter of the story, as everybody knew it had to be. The comments board from that is also a brilliant read. One contributor, Hygen Mato, blames those in the crowd “performing for effect” for what unfolded: “These people see themselves as standing outside of our ideological framework throwing bombs into it and so any criticism or claims of hypocrisy from within cannot possibly escape its own realm of logic and affect them. They’re fifth pillar, saboteurs, agent provocateurs from an alternative dimension secretly at war with this one. Cultural terrorists in our world, pious Catholics in their world. They’re fine with the shallowness, with this being a shit show, they’re fine with this Substack – it’s all part of their derealization-inducing art.” It’s an interesting idea, that there are influencers seeking to destroy reality. Dimes Square is a real place mapped onto the internet – but “Dimes Square” as a concept might also be understood as a mapping of online performances and aesthetics back onto the real world.

 

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“Who is Curtis Yarvin is he an eBoy?”
Based Henry Kissinger, comment on ibid.

I don’t believe there’s a great wave of Catholic conversions sweeping through Manhattan but even if there were, there needn’t be a Satanic panic over the prospect of young people becoming Christian. If they want meaning in their lives, fair enough.

I also don’t believe Peter Thiel is funding any Downtown personalities. Every few months I get asked by a reporter if I know if Thiel is funding such and such a podcaster or it girl and I respond: No, not that I know of. I think if he were bankrolling anyone it would have been uncovered by now: it wouldn’t speak well for the country’s leading publications if their investigative journalists were somehow being outfoxed by topless, stoned Supreme skaters and model modernist poets living on a dark money-funded diet of macrobiotic bowls and white Negronis clandestinely. I don’t think the sorts of people his organization might fund would be able to keep it secret or have any interest in doing so. When he spoke to Honor Levy for Vanity Fair, James Pogue “asked if she would take money from Thiel and she cheerily said, ‘Of course!’”

 

Even while the physical city asserts itself, the transcendental city never really goes away

 

I don’t think anyone around here is a monarchist that’s fallen under the elvish spell of the Dark Enlightenment, I don’t feel like I’m surrounded by royalists possessed of an aristocratic sensibility. Although, my barista, Bernard, did mention that his great great grandpa was the bastard son of the King of Denmark, and later married a Samoan princess and moved to Papua New Guinea, which is where he’s from, while talking to a striking Danish model named Ida who’s having a huge first season. He’s also related to King George III, he told me later. I helped convince him to join a radical new acting class that was anti-Stanislavski, anti-Method, emotionally intense and cultlike, and involved limbic manipulations and impulsive movements, I think. Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey had come in for pickled salmon bowls before they ran their first acting class at Newton, the very good former gallery (MX) now reimagined as a production house for film, theater, and gaming. There was another acting class at Simone Films apparently, a rival class with a different approach, and maybe another acting class coming to Newton as well. Everyone was starting their own insane acting class with their own obscure method it seemed. A friend rushed in later holding a screenplay of Hiroshima mon amour and said they were going to their new acting class. It all made me wonder about how much more I’d be aware of if I hung out around there more often, and spent more time talking to people in cafés and less time online freaking out.

“Wearing a knit cardigan with a large, sparkling American flag on the front, she read a short story about a woman on a date with her sugar daddy at a Michelin-starred restaurant, being spoon-fed uni while she fantasizes about ‘a bunch of different terrorist scenarios: airplanes, incels, biological weapons.’ After, they wander midtown Manhattan, cruising the circuit of corporate, clichéd Americana – Dave & Buster’s, Madame Tussaud’s, Times Square. A psychic tells her: ‘men will take care of you forever.’”
James Duesterberg, “Among the Reality Entrepreneurs,” The Point

“Right next to her was a tower of large outdoor-size Jenga blocks that caught her attention, and from which she clumsily pulled a brick, bring it crashing down, crouching down like a child she started playing with the blocks of the collapsed tower, and holding a block she looked at me and said that she liked this view, this smallness, ‘I like seeing Crumps this way,’ and with a sudden sense of superegoic purpose she then shot back up turning to Duncan, “but not in a sexual way!” and she started giddily kissing him, they were kissing and giggling and then they both ran off into the crowd, leaving Nick and I stroking our chins the way I’d imagine Freud and his homies must’ve looked in his dream of Irma’s injection.”
Mike Crumplar, “Fear and Loathing on Planet Urbit” 

Reading passages like these I feel like I’m living in a novel, a comedy, and I feel contented and privileged to know some of these people and these writers and to live in this play of New York, this ridiculous place, this absurd portrayal of reality, and like I’m having an ever so slightly heightened experience of life. “Moving to New York City means setting up shop in a physical and very real place,” Matt Gasda has said, “but also in the New York City of photographs, films, and books. Even while the physical city asserts itself, the transcendental city never really goes away. You catch glimpses of it, and, if lightning strikes, you even participate in it. This is why I became a playwright.” Here life can be blended with theater in all sorts of ways. Crumps, likewise, has also said that, “I’m having fun exploring this world and writing about it and that I feel like I’m inspiring other likeminded writers, that I’m opening a space for a kind of literature, and that I have a new lust for life and an excitement to see where all this will take me.” That last part is how I’ve often felt too. Reading a strong piece by him, or going to one of Cassidy O’Grady or Matt Gasda’s plays in the homemade theater they’ve built in their friend Beckett’s place at 432 Hudson Street, finding a good story in Heavy Traffic or Forever or the Mars Review, listening to Leah and Emily talk about their unorthodox approach to acting and their projects, like making a new Batman that’s not so dark, they’ve grown too dark, playing Alex Mackin Dolan’s gambling cabinets at David Lewis that he made in his apartment on the Lower East Side, watching Loretta Fahrenholz’s film of young people in a financial-district high-rise acting out an old Kathy Acker play about Robespierre, in the back room at Theta, underground, in TriBeCa, while Nicole-Antonia Spagnola and Bedros Yeretzian’s machine sculpture slowly rotates like a spit behind me, I feel very inspired to write more and to be more ambitious, and I’m also reminded of how writing can change your experience of life, how you can live your life as though it were a novel, as though it were a play, and create your own identity, and that can change your fortune, can open up so many possibilities.

 

Dimes Square, like Reena Spaulings, is just an idea, just a whisper on the wind, a novel we all write together, in love and in hate

 

In his column for Vanity Fair, Nate Freeman tells the story of how Michele Maccarone opened her gallery above the old Kunst Electrical Appliances at 45 Canal Street on 3 November 2001, right after the September 11 attacks and not far away either (the responsibility for Dimes Square may lay, in a sense, with Osama bin Laden). Her gallery was in the heart of what is now called Dimes Square, between what is now Cervo’s and Dimes and the Church of Grace to Fujianese. Her opening show was by Christoph Büchel, who decided to rebuild the building within the building as an installation: “a classroom built into a roof constructed on the top floor, crawl spaces inside crawl spaces, a loft within a loft, an electronics store inside an electronics store.” This was years before Charlie Kaufman took the conceit of remaking the city much further in his film Synecdoche, New York (2008), but the underlying concept is the same: What was already there could be remade as art.

A few years later, in 2005, Reena Spaulings opened their gallery upstairs at 165 East Broadway, by the crossroads, overlooking Seward Park, where it still remains today, and also published their novel Reena Spaulings (2005) under the nom de plume Bernadette Corporation. The narrative had been deconstructed and passed around and written collectively, fragment by fragment, by many different writers and artists (or that’s the story anyway) and when it was done it was the perfect art novel of life at the time in Downtown New York. Reena has a job as a museum guard until one day she’s scouted and transformed into a wealthy, disaffected globetrotting supermodel. Everyone else decides to stage a musical, and to write it all together: “The musical ends up being about a nobody who could be anybody becoming a somebody for everybody.” This remains a prevalent fantasy, this old American Dream: that you can come here and become whatever you wish. New York has been a space for self-mythologizing for a very long time. Dimes Square, like Reena Spaulings, is just an idea, just a whisper on the wind, a novel we all write together, in love and in hate, in fondness and pure, absolute contempt, but also, underneath it all, is a real place that’s sweet and full of kind people and not much like its nightmare reflections at all.

 

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DEAN KISSICK is Spike’s New York Editor. The Downward Spiral is published online the second Wednesday of each month.