One of the most attention-grabbing exhibits at the International Center for Photography’s Triennial (through September 8) isn’t really a work of photography at all. In Knee-deep in the Flooded Victory, artist Nayland Blake has assembled photos, posters, zines, coffee mugs and voodoo dolls in an installation that explores the changing meaning of public space in New York City, and especially, what it has meant for New York’s queers, activists and other outcasts.
The piece is a reflection on Blake’s own coming-of-age in New York City in the 1960s and ’70s, and his exploration—and exploitation—of the city’s multitude of abandoned spaces. These abandoned spaces, Blake says, enabled misfits like artists and gays to lay claim to a chunk of their city in a way that is largely absent today. Apparently, the title of the installation came from a memory Blake has of going into the Victory Theater, one of Times Square’s seedy pleasure palaces, only to step down into the front rows of the cinema and discover that he was literally knee deep in water. The place was partially flooded and no one even bothered to pause the movie! Now, the same Hudson River piers and SoHo manufacturing lofts that were once appropriated for cruising and creating, have in turn been appropriated by the city’s savvy real estate players for more, ahem, savory purposes.
Nayland Blake’s installation has taken over ICP’s café and restroom spaces in the same way that he believes the city’s public spaces have been taken over by corporations for private use. It is a question that was pushed violently to the fore in 2011 when Occupy Wall Street protesters discovered the park they were occupying was, in fact, private property. Marginal people have less and less space, Blake says.
It is ironic then that the world’s arguably most commercial space used to be a haven for the city’s freaks and misfits. In the 1970s and ’80s, Times Square was haunted by prostitutes, drug dealers, and other undesirables. The stretch of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th avenues, now home to an AMC multiplex and Disney’s New Amsterdam Theater, was once lined with theaters of the pornographic variety. When asked about the Disney-led revitalization of the area in the 1990s, Blake scoffed at the word. “Times Square was vital! It had drugs, sex, freaks…” So is there a modern-day equivalent to the raucous Times Square of old? Blake laments that today, gentrification is simply a given. Abandoned warehouses are just a way to make money.
So on July 12, Nayland Blake will perform a procession through Times Square dressed as Victorya Spectre, “an elaborately costumed figure meant to evoke the queer royalty of New York’s past.” Blake’s aim for Victorya is to introduce Times Square’s gawkers and shoppers to a character that isn’t Hello Kitty or Spiderman or the Cookie Monster. With the street as her stage, Victorya will revisit the sex shops and porn theaters Blake himself once frequented, now of course unrecognizable as Sephoras and Rite-Aids.