THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL: AS I READ THE DECADE BRAIN
Dean takes us through the troubled beginnings of the 2020s, charting his own history in New York, and the timeline of events of the previous decade that brought us here. Writing is the best cure for amnesia.
On Thursday I went for my first gallery visit in six months; apart from a late night in May, after a night of riots in Manhattan, to gather round on the floor of Pedro Wirz’s show at Kai Matsumiya and drink, which was the first night of summer. I went to Reena Spaulings to see their reopening show The Sewers of Mars and pick up a copy of New Models and Bjarne Melgaard’s collaborative poster Decade Brain – The New Models 2010s: a crowd-sourced timeline of world events and cultural shifts of the 2010s, with annotations and pictures by Melgaard, the Classically tragic arc of whose own decade functions as a play within the play, a tale of excess, collapse and halfway redemption that mirrors our shared fate, our collective tumbling under the weight of a thousand narratives, and reflects its themes back to us; and as I read the Decade Brain, as I gazed into its murky synapses, I couldn’t help but wonder … What brought us to the edge? What’s behind the reality collapse event?
Was it December 2012, when the Mayan calendar ended and, as the New Models calendar puts it, the “Great Weirdening” began? Or May 2017, when King Salman assembled Presidents Donald Trump and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Riyadh to clasp the glowing orb with him? November 2017, when Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500/2011), the “Saviour of the World”, was sold to Saudi Prince Badr for $450 million, and promptly vanished, and maybe our world won’t float back down to reality until it’s found? June 2018, when archaeologists uncovered a massive black sarcophagus in Alexandria, untouched for 2.000 years, a portal to Ancient Egypt, which released such a terrible miasma they had to wear facemasks to open it? We don’t know. But looking back on the decade, I thought, now’s also an opportune moment to revisit the last twelve months of life in New York, during which so much has happened, and so many different stories have unfolded.
I went to the Rockaways on 10 August, 2019, the day Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell down in Chinatown, and stopped by New York Presbyterian, the hospital he was spirited away to, in the morning to have a look around. The police will kill you, and so will the jailers. But I was meeting a girl by the ferry, who was pressing charges against two flamboyant men she met in a gay bar in Chelsea, for reasons I won’t go into, and as we sailed across the bay she told me, and she was adamant about this, that she’d been shown a line-up of photographs of suspects and the police had touched up some of them so they had unnaturally long ears, like elves.
Later that August, also on the Hudson, I went to North Cove Marina to see Greta Thunberg make landfall in America on her black-sailed boat. Come March, a gigantic mercy-class hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, would sail into the bay as part of the pandemic-relief effort, and dock at Pier 93, one berth over from the Armory Show (Piers 90 and 94), which I’d been to earlier that month for the VIP opening, at which galleries from Northern Italy were scratching out their cities from their signs.
In fall there was the impeachment inquiry, much of which took place in New York courtrooms. In December, down the coast in Miami, Maurizio Cattelan sold a few editions of his banana taped to the wall, Comedian (2019), for around $150,000 each. Good artists can sometimes pre-empt the future and Cattelan’s banana feels, on reflection, like a sign that the market was overinflated, and full of jokers, and fairs were not long for this world, and the old 2010s model of the art world was dying; as New Models’ Caroline Busta also covered in her essay “Influencing the Void”. There in the squalid convention centre a performance artist peeled the banana off the wall and ate it on Instagram, like a monkey in a cage waiting to die.
A few months prior, in September, Cattelan’s golden toilet America (2016) had been stolen from Blenheim Palace, England, from the bathroom by the room in which former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was born; by June of this year, Churchill’s own statue in London’s Parliament Square was boarded up and guarded by bobbies to save it from being pulled down and dumped in the Thames. Symbols have power: the modern world is made of symbols and words, and takes place mostly in our minds, particularly right now, and so symbols have power over the things they describe, over the material world, and all narratives are up for grabs.
“Right now”, I wrote, in my first column of the Twenties, “when so many have succumbed to doom and foreboding and self-pity and self-loathing, shouldn’t we try and be more optimistic? It’s a new decade and a moment of great possibility.” Well, the decade hasn’t got off to a great start. But it’s still very much a moment of possibility, and everything’s in flux, melting like cheese in the heat. “In the morning”, I also wrote, “my mindful happiness course asks me to imagine a light inside me growing larger than the world, larger than the cosmos. I lie on my apartment floor picturing the ending of Akira”; and so far this year has been like Akira (1988), with riots on the street, doomsday cults, hallucinatory experiences in small rooms, motorcycles.
In January I also went to DeSe Escobar’s party Glam at China Chalet, which was particularly joyful and lawless, with lots of smoking indoors and key bumps in the booths, but now that restaurant, that nightclub, where friends would throw the best parties in the city, which was, a couple years ago, remade as synecdoche by Ben Schumacher at Bortolami, has closed down for good, like many other restaurants and small businesses, and some of the best galleries too; but hopefully not all forever, and hopefully we’ll see our friends again someday, at the great China Chalet in the dark smoky sky.
By March New York was the heart of the global pandemic, Ground Zero again for a couple more weeks. From May, following the killing of George Floyd, there were weeks of radical protest, some nights of hardcore, organised looting, and Abolition Park, the City Hall Autonomous Zone, was declared by the bottom of the Brooklyn Bridge, and eventually torn down by riot police in a pre-dawn raid in late July.
On 3 April I wrote, “In the evening there are bursts of fireworks over the East Village.” I saw them from my window and they filled me with hope. By June kids were setting fireworks off all night, every night all over the city, which led to New York fireworks delirium discourse really popping off on Instagram Stories, with conspiracies circulating among the art crowd, and the media crowd, that the police were behind this, or the FBI, or the CIA, or the government, the Dark Lord; and this was the first time, of many subsequent times, that I noticed quite how far we’ve allowed ourselves to drift from the real. Well I thought the fireworks were pretty, in their chaotic, hellish noise music show way, and it was wonderful to run along the river at night and watch them blooming on every side like flowers in the night, and the CBD store on Bleecker Street reopened, and placed a sandwich board outside promoting its CBD oil for dogs having trouble with all the fireworks.
In January I went to laughing yoga in the basement of a library on the Upper East Side with some artists and walking around pointing in strangers’ faces and laughing. Now my friend who invited me, who’s moved to Europe, is still doing his uptown laughing yoga over Zoom. Doing laughing yoga over Zoom seems mad to me, but also a neat metaphor for our plight. The hot burning sun beats down on the windowpane.
We’ve been home for too long, alone for too long, on our phones far too long, and we’ve completely lost our minds; and this has come surprisingly easily, and naturally to us, and I can hardly remember what life was like before.
Atropical storm named Isaiah is tearing down all the trees. I go to the park and there are parts of trees everywhere. Andeventually, the lines begin to blur. We’ve slipped out of time. At some point my neighbours stopped banging pots and pans out of their windows at 7 o’clock, which was how I used to know it was 7 o’clock. At some point the protests dissipated. At some point I looked up at the sky and there were no longer four or five helicopters over Manhattan through the day and the night. The news is the same every morning. It’s not really news; there’s nothing much new about it. All of this swirling chaos has fallen away into disorientating, monotonous groundhog repetition. An unexpected side effect of the novel coronavirus has been its unspooling of time.
Time is an illusion. It only flows through our imaginations. Only this April we found signs of a small parallel universe in Antarctica in which time’s going backwards. In September 2015, a century after Albert Einstein proposed their existence, gravitational waves were observed for the first time by the continent-spanning LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), disrupting space-time as they ripple out across the universe from collapsing stars and waltzing pairs of doomed black holes. Then six months later, in March 2016, as I read in my New Models wallchart, Instagram introduced the non-chronological timeline. With Instagram, Melgaard observes, “We suddenly went from taking holiday photos to suddenly documenting every aspect of our life as if we did not do it we would not exist”; and so, in the spring of 2016, before the Brexit referendum or Trump’s election, one can observe the collapse of both reality and time, all because of an algorithm written in Silicon Valley.
Now the flat, dreary infinity of internet time and the looping, total déjà vu forever repetition of pandemic time have folded into one another, leaving us down here in our hypnotic, dreamlike experience of life.
I miss that feeling from March of running under the white and pink blossoms by the river late at night thinking I might die, of walking around Union Square in a cacophony of sirens. It felt good to be in a dangerous place for once, and to experience something authentic and frightening, and real. I miss that feeling of thinking I’m going to die, because I felt so alive for those ten days in spring. Now I feel like I’m already dead, but pleasantly so, I’m here in the bardo, where all’s still and calm, all’s warm and pleasant and eternally returning. Every day feels the same. I’m always riding my Citi Bike the wrong way down some street Downtown. It’s early evening and it’s hot. It’s always early evening and it’s hot. “They say that summer’s over”, I wrote last August, “but I wish it could have lasted forever.” Well now it’s going to.
It’s been two months since New York reopened, not that it ever really closed. Four months since friends would call and say, “You must be in the worst place in the world right now”, and now it feels like the best place in the world to be. Living in Manhattan felt like dying in Venice, now it feels like a holiday in Naples, or Marseilles, a Southern Mediterranean city where all of life spills out onto the sidewalk and everybody’s drunk, on-edge, ready to go off like a firework. Restaurants, bars and cafés have opened summer terraces, streets have been closed, Dimes Square really is a square, everybody’s zipping round on Revel scooters, or they were, until the service was suspended due to the crashes and deaths, and all of this has given the city this intense, Neapolitan feel, as in an Elena Ferrante novel. Every time I leave the house I have to remember: a paper mask, a litre of Portuguese wine, corkscrew, plastic tumblers, handful of diazepam, cigarettes, copy of Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty. The city’s ours now if we want it. Manhattan’s a never-ending carnival now.
Drinking outdoors is encouraged. Drugs are legal as long as you do them outdoors.
Cycling over Manhattan Bridge around 1:00am I could hear the songs from the Swings down on the pier hundreds of meters away, floating up over the balmy East River to me. The birds are dying, Patrick says, because there’s less trash outside. The birds are dying and that’s why there are glow worms everywhere, floating all around us like in a Miyazaki anime, like we’re regressing to childhood in an imaginary Japanese countryside, chasing glow wormsaround the rice fields with nets.
One evening we were drinking wine and prosecco, doing ketamine and molly and Xanax on the corner of Spring and Thompson, some other friends strolled by, they were really stoned, they had some weed and some coke, and we could all sit down and do them together on the stone chess tables, right in the middle of SoHo, until three or four in the morning. There are no laws anymore, you can do anything you want, nobody cares. I haven’t spent so much of a summer outside since I was a little boy. Today I’m writing this in my notebook in the sun. My Decade Brain keeps blowing away. Somebody gave the birds pita bread, which they can’t fit in their bills, they can’t pick it up, they’re all hopping around SoHo flinging this bread around like they’re throwing pizzas, like they work in the Palermo pizza shop behind them. Where you are in Berlin, the wild boars are stealing your laptops, as they should, because nature is healing, we should allow the boars to take our laptops, to eat our phones as tapirs once ate our dreams, to leave us naked in the park, in the centre of the city, and only then can we be free of our shame, our hysteria, and come back to reality, dive back into the flow of time, before it disappears completely, if we want to, and what’s going on now, when will this ever end?
DEAN KISSICK is Spike’s New York Editor. The Downward Spiral is published online every second Wednesday a month. Last time he wrote about a May Days in New York.