The Downward Spiral: May Days
DEAN KISSICK was in New York when America rose up, and managed to both document and celebrate the protests that followed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the police.
SoHo’s boarded-up luxury shopfronts have become an open-air gallery. This past Sunday afternoon, 7 June 2020, there were a dozen or so people out painting there. For the most part painting apolitical, feel-good murals of flowers, hearts, rainbows, hugs, abstractions, and cringe, although there are some more interesting pieces: great posters by Amir Diop, whose loud, zippy cartoons are all over Downtown; grids of printed portraits of young Black people murdered by police in America by Lydia Venieri, accompanied by links to petitions to charge their killers or reopen their cases; painted quotes from James Baldwin, 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and former archbishop Desmond Tutu; spray-painted agitprop, “BLACK LIVES MATTER … FUCK THE POLICE … I Cant Breathe … REDISTRIBUTE THE WEALTH, REDISTRIBUTE THE POWER … DAVID FRUM DESERVES SCORN”; statistics on incarceration and segregated school systems printed out and stuck to the walls.
Nobody’s selling many goods here anymore, though I did see a flyer for 15% off broken window repair taped to one hoarding, plus some posters on the windows of Ted Baker:
“LEARN HOW TO FORGE FREE SUBWAY RIDES ‘METROCARD SONG’.”
The Sunday prior, 31 May, I was out late on these cobbled streets watching SoHo get looted. At times it was kind of unsettling. It’s kind of unsettling when a hundred teenage lads are running down Broadway towards you in the darkness, some brandishing bats and makeshift weapons, particularly if you can’t yet see what they’re running from. But less so than, say, going to a grocery store to buy some blueberries a couple months ago. New experiences are confusing.
It was chaos on the streets that night, like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Cops rolling up to one location with sirens blaring just as other cops were leaving in a hurry. Flashing convoys rushing past one another in opposite directions all night. Helicopters twirling around. Nobody had a clue what was going on where. There was so much tissue paper wrapping on the sidewalks on corners of Houston Street it looked like snow had fallen on Manhattan.
I recall cycling by a large gang of cops guarding bland streetwear emporium Kith. Usually if I see that many dumbasses lined up outside Kith it means a sneaker’s about to drop.
As many others have noted, who cares about business when the people are suffering?
Also we were all fine with the art-adjacent crowd looting from Barney’s closing-down sale after the security gates were turned off there. We published a great essay by Jordan Barse about it in our recent New York Issue:
“By the end of January, it seemed like everyone was doing it. Curators and art handlers alike were leaving with $8,000-worth of merchandise: their first designer suits; a pair of $450 sunglasses to wear with their Prada dresses and Alaïa knits. Prison-reform activists were wearing cashmere sweaters and mink fingerless gloves to a Chinatown karaoke bar.”
What a season it’s been for fashion here.
The Louis Vuitton store in SoHo tells a story about the last few months. When the city closed down in the spring it was boarded up in Vuitton-orange ply and printed with the good tiding, “The journey that was paused will eventually start again. Louis Vuitton wishes you & your loved ones health & safety.” The slogan later appeared on a nurse hat by artists Alison Peery and Visitor Design (Chris Habib), part of their series of fashion bootlegs printed with the signs luxury houses left on their doors when they closed, which they posted on 8 May and described as “a bouffant beret in the soho @louisvuitton shop plywood anti-looting protection”.
Cycling home through SoHo at 3:00am two weekends ago, early on Sunday morning, my friends and I stopped outside the store, which was being boarded up. It had already been boarded up for months, but was now being boarded up some more. I heard it got looted regardless however.
Now it’s disappeared completely. The whole orange Vuitton flagship has slipped behind some (rather chic) corrugated galvanized steel sheets and all the signs have been taken down. The same’s happened with Chanel and no doubt many other boutiques in the neighbourhood. This is the curse of being too desirable. Having grown too alluring for these desperate times, the most recognisable brands in the world have denied their own names and branding and vanished like Cheshire Cats into the plywood, which is now given over to feel-good art.
Over the past week there’s been a broader national trend of radical protests being co-opted by moderate forces, with unappointed leaders and groups appearing out of nowhere, collaborating with the authorities, and promoting a message of love and unity rather than revolution. The pretty murals here certainly reflect that trend: ♥’s,J’s andwords like “LOVE … SOLIDARITY … COMPASSION … imagine … GOOD VIBES ONLY” float over the façades, unmoored from any meaningful context, and painted with the permission of the building’s owners. When I stumbled across this scene it seemed nice, but when I went back for another look this Tuesday I felt like I was wandering through a nightmarish Instagram-ready counterinsurgency psy-op.
But, my friend says, “All this is way better than whatever is behind the boards;” and there’s still a lot of space there just waiting to be painted, in the heart of New York’s old gallery district.
Now the protests have calmed down. They’ve achieved many of their aims, and perhaps been co-opted in some ways as well. But so much of their power came from that one fiery night in Minneapolis, on Thursday, 28 May. Watching the looting of a Target store, the setting fire to businesses around that Target, and the burning down of the city’s Third Police Precinct all unfolding over social media in real time, or an algorithmically reordered collage of real time, was a spectacle like no other; and one that felt, while scrolling through and watching it, like history in the making.
The whole night was livestreamed by local “decentralized, educational 501(c)(3) non-profit media organization of artists and journalists” Unicorn Riot, who not only showed what was happening but also gave protestors a soapbox to come and speak about it on camera, and viewers a platform to comment live, as it was happening, and so played a large role in shaping both the story and the discourse around it, as good artists and journalists can.
Even more directly, many protestors were also livestreaming from their phones, both participating in and broadcasting the event, and so offering a gorgonesque proliferation of first-person perspectives on the growing, exuberant riot. As artist and curator Aria Dean observed on the night, as it was happening:
“that clip from inside target ... the long floating handheld ... roaming the aisles. cinema!/
but actually, thinking abt new (?) proliferation of civilian POV video from looting expeditions. feel like even till recently you usually get cctv or cops and these give you either totally static or overly-kinetic footage./
which obv each lend to a specific ideological reading re: chaos”
The way we see the world is changing. And for a younger generation, the stage-managed model of news feels completely dead now.
I’ve never experienced the news like that before: live-streamed by alternative media nonprofits; multiple views on everything filmed by those at the heart of the action, driving it forwards; an ongoing unfurling of opinions, information, misinformation, misdirection, new memes and conspiracy theories online, with key figures identified and unmasked as the story unfolded; more stories of unrest flying in from all over the country, all feeding back into one another; the president’s tweet marked as incendiary by Twitter; an angry, ecstatic polyphonic cubist symphony. It all felt like a new paradigm, a new form of spectacle in which events on the streets happen everywhere in the world at once. Political photomontage reimagined through livestreaming video.
The riots amplified the protests and captured the public’s attention, and it’s impossible to imagine the uproar over the killing of George Floyd growing into a national, and now international, movement without those fires; and that was their intention, clearly stated by some protestors on the streams from Minneapolis that night. Those fires were seen around the world.
Everything keeps changing here. On 30 March, as I wrote in my column for April, I stood at the crossroads of Saint Marks Place and Second Avenue one chilly evening and watched Mathis Altmann’s psychedelic light show thrumming over Swiss Institute. Two months later, on the first big evening of protests in Manhattan, Saturday, 30 May, a large pile of bricks magically appeared right there by the crossroads. Apparently this sort of thing has been happening a lot. Where the bricks have come from, nobody knows.
That Saturday, before the curfews were imposed, the Citi Bikes were turned off and the luxury flagships started disappearing, I’d been on the march walking loops of Downtown, which was bustling in the sunshine, and everybody seemed very receptive to it, drinking outside bars and clapping as we passed, banging on pots and pans from their windows, honking in their cars as we walked up and down the avenues, flowing in and out of city life. It felt like the city was opening up that day. We rested a while in Washington Square Park, where the white and pink blossoms were so beautiful in March, where the spring leaves were bursting from the trees in late April,and some organizers got up on the edge of the empty fountain and gave speeches about defunding the police, behind them young men skated in the fountain, there were picnics on the lawns, and the whole mood all day was quite peaceful and loving.
Around dusk I ran home to do Nate Freeman and I’s monthly radio show, and we spoke to our guests about how they’d like to see art change during this time of crises, I had a couple glasses of wine, my friend was texting me pictures of the protests growing rowdier as night fell, when the show was over I ran back out and jumped on a bike, there were trash cans on fire in the street, smashed windows along Second Avenue, I was looking for my friends, following the trail of broken glass, after a few months at home it was, to be honest, incredibly exciting, thrilling, that feeling of a night that could take you anywhere, of a world changing quickly.
People are angry and want to protest. Also they want to go outside and be around others. I don’t think those are contradictory impulses. Both seem motivated by a desire for a shared freedom. I saw more friends that evening than the rest of lockdown combined. Afterwards we went back to my friend Kai Matsumiya’s gallery and sat on the floor of Pedro Wirz’s exhibition, which also had walls painted orange, and drank together, it felt good, it was the first night of summer.
This year’s been good for those with an appetite for chaos and those who want to see the world change. More than any other summer I can remember, it feels like the world can change, like it really can change. It felt like that some months ago and even more so now.
Police forces are being defunded or disbanded. Statues of 17th-century slave traders rolled down the street and toppled into the water. The Overton window continues to open. There’s no second wave of sickness, not yet. We can go to protests. Can gather outdoors again. In New York it’s hot and sunny. The city reopened this Monday. The world’s opening up again in all sorts of ways. Here’s to a brighter tomorrow.
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 Little Patch of Yellow Wall.