The Downtown Collection: Documenting the Scene
The Downtown Collection is not strictly limited by geographic boundaries, but serves as a metaphorical space. This concept is perhaps best understood through the title of an East Village magazine whose archives are part of the collection: Between C & D. This magazine was edited and printed by Catherine Texier and Joel Rose on a primitive computer and dot matrix printers in their apartment on 8th Street between Avenues C and D. They produced art in Alphabet City–a neighborhood known mostly for drugs, poverty, and crime–a physical space out of which no one expected bold new literature to emerge. They published works by Patrick McGrath, Dennis Cooper, Gary Indiana, Kathy Acker, Lynne Tillman, and David Wojnarowicz–works about drugs and poverty and crime as well as love and human feeling.
Between C & D, and all of Downtown work, offers a larger challenge to conventional structures. There is no room in the alphabet for anything to exist between the letters C and D, yet the works of Downtown artists disrupt such structures and emerge where they’re least expected. All structures of art, language, genre, performance, media exist only to be challenged. The Downtown Collection extends to all works that reflect this spirit of disruption of structure, experiment, and play whether the writers live in lower Manhattan or sunny Los Angeles. As the neighborhoods of Soho, Tribeca, and the East Village have gentrified and rents now rival those in the West Village, the bohemians are staking out new territories throughout the greater New York City area and around the country. Throughout the last three decades similar vibrant communities have filled the cheap-rent districts of America’s cities with art, performance, and poetry. The spirit of Downtown exists in almost everyone’s back yard. Their visual and textual productions are out there and stand waiting to be collected as Americana.
The printing press and its products have been central to North American history and culture since the founding of the first European colonies. In a land where the freedom of the press is so highly valued, it is not surprising that so many have devoted themselves to collecting and studying its endlessly fascinating history. The artists and writers of the Downtown Collection are just one more example of the American impulse to clear a space in the wilderness—in this case the wilderness of post-industrial lower Manhattan—and tell the story of that community to the world. While the means of production have changed as photocopied zines and laser printers replace letterpress, the spirit remains very much the same.
For more information on the Downtown Collection, view the online exhibition: “Kicking Culture: Fragments from the Downtown Scene, 1975-Present” www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/research/fales/exhibits/downtown/
For information about the Fales Library & Special Collections, including hours and access policies, please see: www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/research/fales/
Mike Kelly is the Assistant Curator of the Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University. He specializes in Early America, the nineteenth-century book, underground comix and punk rock.