The youths breaking into NYC’s highest profile buildings

Rebelling against the grip of corporate real estate, filmmaker Sean Vegezzi records his mates climbing up iconic landmarks and sleeping atop 67-storey skyscrapers

As gritty as it is poetic, the latest film, “Scott” (2015), by Manhattan-born photographer and filmmaker Sean Vegezzi unfolds like a double-edged eulogy to New York City – a follow-on from his earlier film “Joey” (2015). After all, everybody knows that the skyscraping metropolis of opportunity and wealth has its downsides. Like countless major cities across the globe, NYC is pushing out creativity, and trading it in for corporate control. The culprit? Plain and dirty real estate – and if you’re not on the receiving end of a trust fund, it can often feel like you’re more or less doomed. Although, Vegezzi resists being so resolutely pessimistic. “None of us are interested in aligning with some sort of defeatist or nostalgic take on the current state of New York. None of us are interested in being overly enthusiastic about it either”, says the 25-year-old, referring to his group of friends featured in the film, who all share a similar outlook on the state of the city. “So with that said, (“Scott”) is more of a celebration and a criticism of a living, breathing place.”

Challenging the grip of corporate real estate in NYC, Vegezzi's short film captures his mates clambering through no-go zones and construction sites of some of the city’s most iconic buildings that lie in the hands of private property developers. They climb back-end structures, ascend 67-storey buildings and sleep atop of them – with the reclaimed privilege of waking up to an aerial view of sky-high Manhattan. Premiered here on Dazed, Vegezzi’s urban escapade is also documented in a meticulously considered booklet. Containing photographs interspersed with quotes from the 19th-century architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler, the publication reveals the extent to which the film is anchored in a deeply historical and conceptual understanding of the city, its redevelopment, and implications for those being edged out. Below, we speak to the filmmaker about the monikers “Scott” and “Joey” (2015), and why he chose to break into some of the city's highest profile landmarks. The bottom line? “The future of New York City cannot be put into perspective through the exploration of patterns in abstract data”. And the same goes for every other city suffering similar reconfigurations.

What is behind the title of your film and booklet, “Scott”? And how does it link to another of your videos, “Joey”? 

Sean Vegezzi: “Scott” is really just colloquial for a certain stereotype amongst my friends and I – the finance worker, the office worker, the corporate worker. Whereas “Joey” is essentially the same thing, but Joey is a character within the blue-collar world, a builder. These two projects speak to one another in a very direct way. “Joey” constructs the spaces that “Scott” eventually moves through and inhabits.

“Scott” seems to sit between an eulogy and an elegy to New York City – if anything, what is it mourning?

Sean Vegezzi: I can definitely see how it may seem like an elegy, but none of the participants are mourning anything. My friends and I are often confused about how to make sense of our stance on the eternal redevelopment of New York City. While the city is progressing in so many ways at the moment, exclusivity is a very real force at work here. If you are not extremely wealthy, you are being actively denied from most spaces. I think it is important to check our collective privilege here, my friends and I certainly aren’t disenfranchised, but we are very, very sensitive to this denial. I’m comfortable saying that I don’t feel as if most people even realise they are being denied from most spaces in the urban environment.

My friend Paris, who is pretty much the producer on any project I carry out, didn’t contribute to “Scott”, but wrote me this mail that I feel exemplifies what I’m getting at: “The value of a space is determined by its rarity. When you spend millions of dollars on a penthouse within a structure like the Woolworth Building, you don’t just expect it to be of superior quality, but you also expect that experience to belong to you and nobody else. Part of the value to us as unauthorized users is that we are not meant to be there, but we are there despite someone spending time and money to actively deny these spaces to us, which makes their perceived value increase.”

“I don’t feel as if most people even realise they are being denied from most spaces in the urban environment” – Sean Vegezzi

You follow your friends in the video, and there's a great shot of them in sleeping bags at the top of a skyscraper. Can you tell us a bit about this scene?

Sean Vegezzi: Most of my friends in “Scott” are artists who wrote texts for the booklet, or assisted in the production of this project in some way - carrying heavy equipment up 66 stories, shooting b-roll, etc. The boys in the sleeping bags are the people that were left over from the night we recorded our writings atop the glass observatory on the 66th floor of 70 Pine Street. To simply visit a beautiful space and attempt to capture the views it may offer is one thing, to go to bed within a space, wake up within it, brush your teeth in it, is a much more intimate experience that we all find really important. The sleeping bag boys are people that really understand how important it is to experience a view before it is shut off and made exclusive.

Talk us through a couple of the landmarks you broke into for “Scott” and why you chose them...

Sean Vegezzi: I would like to list out countless factoids here, but that’s all a quick search away. The building that gets the most attention is 70 Pine Street – formerly known as the Cities Service building and the American International Group (AIG) building. It is now being converted to some of the most expensive, exclusive and exotic residences in the city. Prior to the construction of the World Trade Center site, it was the tallest building in downtown Manhattan. So it made sense that most of the emphasis is on 70 Pine – it’s the ultimate viewing platform to look at the other structures that appear in the project.

At the 3:30 mark I walk around the inside of the very top spire of the Woolworth Building, which is also being redeveloped and reimagined as a residential property. I wanted to show that all of these truly impressive structures are all being reconfigured. They are all facing futures that stray really far away from their original purposes. Purposes that, for some reason, seemed more fixed, more permanent, than those of any other structures. Seeing buildings with these long legacies of use by some of the most powerful people in the world be reconfigured, but not totally disappearing, is a bit of a confusing thing to witness.

At the end of the film, a voiceover reads what seems to be a poem - can you elaborate on these words?

Sean Vegezzi: At the end of the video, my friend Tommy Malekoff says “…I will dive into Lower Manhattan, just as it dove into me”, as an aerial shot over Lower Manhattan pans up at the new One World Trade Center building. When my friend had read that piece, I immediately saw it as a representation of the eternal redevelopment of Lower Manhattan. For me, it recalls the ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail – the finance worker forcing himself out of a space that he has either directly or indirectly worked so hard to force others out of.

“I think it is important to check our collective privilege here, my friends and I certainly aren’t disenfranchised, but we are very, very sensitive to this denial” – Sean Vegezzi

The booklet that accompanies the film is interspersed with quotes by Montgomery Schuyler – how do his words come into play with your exploration of New York City?

Sean Vegezzi: Years ago, I stumbled upon a private publication made for F.W. Woolworth to celebrate the construction of his new tower (the Woolworth Building). I’ve always made up this narrative in my head that it was the first building that really caused any uproar in Lower Manhattan. It was so tall and so beautiful that I have always imagined that it must have caused so much chaos amongst the people who lived around it. So I see the Woolworth Building as the both the ultimate and the prototype skyscraper that ultimately set the tone for all of the buildings made after it, which again, is personal fantasy.

Schuyler’s words throughout the Woolworth book really highlight all of the ideas that the Woolworth Building was set to explore - and ponder the subsequent impact of these ideas. Schuyler is very self-aware throughout the text and questions the importance of such tall structures. Schuyler’s writings set an example that I find very attractive, he is able to have two-sided conversations and promotes the idea that it is only right to both celebrate and question any structure that you may come across. Schuyler’s approach to writing about the nature of structures is much like my own approach to making work about spaces.

Finally, why do you think it's so important that artists aren't financially pushed out of the city?

Sean Vegezzi: Artists should be here, reconfiguring people's ideas of what all of these neighborhoods mean. Artists should be out all night, coming back inside from a night of toil while finance workers are heading to 5am spin classes, and they should be working hard enough to be living in the same neighborhoods, within the same spaces as those people. I am tired of art being this thing that exists in the outlaw areas, in the peripheries. I understand that this has a lot to do with the economic climate, but if you cannot afford to be living in a certain neighborhood, you should still be making work that transcends the little niche that is the outlaw area. I hope a project like “Scott” can prove to be a bit of an open source message. You do not need to be able to afford to have a show in the most expensive real estate development in New York. You can just go do it. Stop making excuses. 

“Scott” (the printed publication) will be released on Saturday 6 February. Five copies will be for pre-sale on the project's website. The book will then be free to download after the release.

You can see more of Vegezzi's work here