The NYC photographer launches a photo book for his ten-year-long project with an underground space in Lower Manhattan
On Sunday, Sean Vegezzi will launch his second publication DMYCC with Loose Joints, in a large commons area and auditorium inside of the Dr. Sun Yat Sen school, a quasi-brutalist structure situated opposite the Manhattan Bridge in New York City. Comprising a book, an hour-long video piece and the photographer’s first ever collection of prints, the project represents the culmination of a decade-long relationship with an underground space in Lower Manhattan.
In 2005, Vegezzi and his friends discovered an enormous abandoned area that comprises one of several tunnel segments built in the 1970s by the New York City Transit Authority for the Second Avenue Subway. Initially presenting itself as a safe haven for a group of explorative teenagers, the space came to exist in numerous iterations from party venue to exhibition space. Developing an unexpected community brought together through a unified interest in unsanctioned renovation and challenging stiff bureaucracy, Vegezzi and his co-collaborators traverse, conflate and confront our understanding of the divisions between public and private space and ask what it means to quietly threaten both. Consequentially, occupying this undefinable non-space enabled the group to challenge an increasing climate of over-development and hyper-privatisation that pervaded the city above them. DMYCC sees Vegezzi chronologically navigate his personal archive of the space, while simultaneously presenting a methodological affront to the powers that be.
You've been working on this project since 2007. How has your relationship to it changed over the years?
Sean Vegezzi: In New York, no space is really left alone, every space is considered for development or ‘improvement' and all space is fiercely regulated. I can often feel very anxious and empty because of that, as if my time spent outside of an apartment is a constant displacement – I'm always being moved from one place to the next by many different municipal or private authorities.
When I first found the space in 2005 my friends and I really just did nothing in it, it offered up so much quiet and privacy that it really just calmed us. I felt as if I collapsed in there, it was enough to do not much of anything, quite like my own escapist experience. We risked that experience in 2007 by inviting our extended group of friends to party in it, I don't know what we were thinking by doing that – we naively thought we could share the space with hundreds of kids and somehow preserve the experience of the place. It got completely destroyed. After 2007, my friends and I began renovating it. Fixing power lines, the drainage systems, putting furniture in it. I even tried to do an exhibition of my early photographs within the space – but we were discovered.
The project follows all of these iterations of the space and the hard, defensive work that goes into protecting such a place from a city so fixated on 'improvement'.
For this event alone you're exhibiting plenty of what I would call archival information as well as prints from the project, not to mention the film you're screening. That’s quite a feat for a book launch… Why so exhaustive? Do you see yourself as responsible for collecting, archiving and displaying this moment in history in some way? Are you concerned people could misunderstand the project and its breadth if you don't present them with everything in its totality?
Sean Vegezzi: This may not always be the case, but for me the book is a special object that calls for more than a book shop release. While those kinds of releases are more than fine, they can't possibly give solitary experiences and incite the kind of joyous or menacing feelings that people felt who experienced the space in its actuality over the years.
There’s a split in the work: it's half about my friends relationship with the space, and half about giving the public the opportunity to make sense of this withheld space. There's a section in the book cut off from any of the more personal documentation, which presents a full cartographic index of the space. The city has never produced such a thing, and if they had, they certainly wouldn't share it with anyone. I want to present as much information as possible to anyone who happens to be interested and I don't want to leave any gaps.
The only reason I ask this is because as a curator, I do relate. Just from our conversations, your understanding of the role of an artist is pretty expanded. In your practice, how permeable is that boundary between artist and curator: do you see yourself as one, the other or both? Are there any other roles you feel yourself taking on in your practice?
Sean Vegezzi: I see myself as more of an occasional organiser than a curator. I try to do similar things that you get up to, but my own practice has isolated me from other people’s work for a long time. That boundary you mentioned is non-existent for me. A few times in the past, I've actually organised shows with friends in New York and I've really enjoyed it, it felt like a service, something that was required – in the best way possible. I'd do it again and again. I don't feel like any new roles are coming up, just more that I'm becoming more and more open minded.
”New York in particular really sets it up so you only really get what you're willing to steal, and the city and its servants are there waiting for you to steal, they're desperate for it” – Sean Vegezzi
I think what’s specifically interesting about this project is that even though it’s your imagery and your footage, the authorship feels pretty open. It feels collaborative. To what extent do you feel this spirit of collaboration has been lost in our culture that’s now so completely obsessed with individualism… or do you sense it’s creeping back in?
Sean Vegezzi: I'm glad you pick up on that. I really enjoyed making the first page of the book all of my friends’ names. Also, other people made some of the imagery in the book. At one point I was shifting the project into a very selfish space – an exhibition of my photographs I made from 2001-2012. Luckily the city discovered my friends and I in the process of installing the photographs – and we didn't return to the space until 2015. Ultimately my friends and I displayed the failed exhibition as a piece in itself – display boards covered in mould, neatly arranged under the lighting system we had installed... everything just as planned, but no prints. That mould reminds me of the spirit of collaboration, or the lack thereof as I've experienced it. Collaboration can creep back in if enough people with visibility show that they're open to it, or better yet – if they prove collaboration can be rewarding to a career.
It’s interesting to me that you seem to consider the photography exhibition that happened in the underground space as the culmination for the project, whereas from a different perspective it could perhaps seem in retrospect that the activities your immediate community participated in, in preparation towards this show were in fact its defining apotheosis. Maybe this is a symptom of our current climate – so stripped of safe spaces and a sense of community, we now see these as ideological end-goals.
Sean Vegezzi: I actually really agree with you that the preparation of the project was the highest achievement, I think that's one reason this project took so long. If I had finished earlier, there would have been less work made, less sense of team-work with my friends... I get scared thinking about how the photography exhibition was once my end-goal, there's something very dark in that.
I think the project is also interesting in terms of using alternative spaces that bypass the capitalist channels of the art world. Is this intentional and if so, why and to what end?
Sean Vegezzi: A lot of my projects in the past have been very inaccessible, hence why I put so much effort into the books I make. My projects have been inaccessible as a result of a flaw, not because I enjoy the idea of exclusivity or alternative spaces. Especially this last project, which only allowed a small, private group to come see the work – to "sneak in". I need none of the "cool" associated with such a thing, nor does the space itself, or the experience of entering it need it.
I've only worked with these spaces because I truly could not find them elsewhere. I'd work with any City, but as it stands in New York at the moment... you can still get detained for taking pictures on a subway platform due to terrorism fears. As for galleries, they need a lot of convincing (and with good reason), don't they? In the past I couldn't be bothered to be attractive to that system.
With that said, if someone possessed any space, no matter the square footage... and gave me permission to do something within it, I'd do it faster and more efficiently than anything I've ever done. I'm used to working in extreme conditions with extreme confines and boundaries that I do not fetishise whatsoever – I don't want my body to take 30 lbs of camera gear down a 30 foot shaft on an abseil line with police scanners hooked up to my iPhone headphones... worried about being discovered and shot by some scared cop while getting rained on. That's all fun in a way, but it's also trapping, it's a flaw. An empty space with permission is a dream.
And as for capitalism, I bypass no channels, I have to be honest... I've been working in fashion since I was 15, I've just been 'investing' the money from it into this work. I'm not pulling a fast one on fashion by doing that, I'm actually grateful for it, I don't know where else I'd get the money... you can only steal so much for so long. I've taken non-permission / and non-places to the very end.
We associate renovation with multinational corporations and greedy developers – it’s inextricably tied to money. But you were doing it for free, or for trades – would you go so far as to suggest there was an alternative economy being fabricated?
Sean Vegezzi: I really have never thought about an alternative economy, but that's interesting. It would be nice if – with regards to space – you could get what you were willing to renovate, but that isn't the case. New York in particular really sets it up so you only really get what you're willing to steal, and the city and its servants are there waiting for you to steal, they're desperate for it. I was actually always concerned with the city's own financial fumbling to do with this project. This space was made in the 1970's and never used, and the project it was connected to dates back to the beginning of the 1900's. I was always so aware of what funds and hard goods could and couldn't do for this project. The book is full of receipts from the renovation, they're not art objects, they are representations of my own fear of being a bad book-keeper. The city failed this space, I couldn't.
The drive for subcultures to reconstruct and re-inhabit disused and abandoned spaces works from a place of risk of loss and disregards a need for ownership. This feels pretty radical and doesn't seem to be an idea that would end here. I know this project has been ten years in the making and you’re ready to put it to rest, but what threads of thinking, ideologies or ideas do you think will follow you into your work or projects in the future?
Sean Vegezzi: For better or worse I belong to absolutely no subculture. I'm not complaining when I say that I grew up in a neighbourhood that had long passed its time – Lower Manhattan. My work can be aligned with the idea of a sub-culture through something like the internet because I might eye the same kinds of spaces as a bonafide movement sure, but there was absolutely no community or culture for me to group with in real life. I've reconstructed such a space with 19 teenagers, 5 of whom are artists, and we all know each other from the neighbourhood, from down the block – before we knew anything about art history or sub-cultures and their ideologies.
As for things that will follow me into the future – just a very simple curiosity really. I'd hope that privacy and autonomy I've experienced as a result of the internet get to follow me. I care very deeply about defending those things and for me, they're now inextricably linked to the internet. I think the defence of those things can take me way away from New York, which really excites me.