How When & Where? The Rivington School
This is a partial transcription of a Story Café conversation held in August 2004 for the Howl! Festival by FEVA (Federation of East Village Artists), produced at the Bowery Poetry Club by Alan Moore for MWF Video Club. Participants included Ray Kelly (sculptor and leader of the Rivington School), Howard Seligman (AKA Howie Solo, singer and tax accountant), Toyo Tsuchiya (photographer), Kevin Wendall (AKA FA-Q, painter), Michael Carter (poet), Tommy Rogers (AKA Tommy Tortellini), and Margaret Bazura (artist).
Ray Kelly: We’re gonna burn this place up...
Alan Moore: What is this Rivington School thing, and how did it start?
Kevin Wendall: Bunch of knuckleheads and wannabees.
RK: No Se No started it, Kevin gave it the name.
Toyo Tsuchiya: In 1983, No Se No 99 nights [of performance].
Howard Solo: No Se No was a storefront on Rivington Street. There was an old abandoned public school across the street.
RK: Maintained by a one-eyed Spic.
HS: The irony was you could look across the street and say there’s the Rivington School, they didn’t have any dead presidents to name it after so it became a joke on other schools of painters/artists. It really started with “Performance A to Z” that R. L. Seltman produced at the Storefront for Art and Architecture at their original space on Prince Street. Then R.L. started 99 Nights. The school across was empty... city scam...
RK: Empty except for the one-eyed Spic caretaker...These two are students of the archaeology of Rivington School site.
HS: The Rivington School was originally about welding?
RK: Welding, forging, performance, street painting--all that shit people don’t like. Anarchy.
HS: It was implicitly anarchistic.
RK: Peter Missing and this asshole (points to MC).
KW: Mr. Carter, sir.
TT: No Se became more of a gallery.
HS: Jim C [James Cornwell]'s Casa Nada, Freddy the Dreamer Gallery and No Se No.
RK: And a lot of Spics, a lot of beer and Puerto Rican rum coffee with extra, Coke in the bottom, the extra, for another 20 bucks.
HS: Real estate was cheap, you could get these cheap storefronts, artists had low overhead and a lot of free time, my band played every other night at No Se; because rents were low people were involved in culture by default. From old photos, my daughter thought I musta been down there every night. People would collaborate impulsively at least, No Se No was like your local bar.
KW: Society’s outcasts would show up.
RK: The No Se Social Club? Name was already there. Me and R.L. took it over after it was busted. [We] found a jukebox, the bar was beat up. Rivington Street was like the stock market in the morning, only they were selling drugs.
HS: Forsyth Street was $5 bjs, junkies, speakeasies, baseball bats, all that.
RK: It was a great cultural moment, FA-Q, Ken, wide open. We brought attention to this area, to the Lower East Side, we made the real estate go up.
HS: Commercial culture tried to exploit the garden by using it as a backdrop: hair bands, Stryker, Slaughter, Whitesnake, hair metal band wannabes, [they all] used the heavy metal background...It also [appeared] in Ramones' videos, etc.
RK: This whole phenomenon didn’t start here, whatever you want to call it-- scrap art, anarchy art. We went to vacant lots and built sculpture because we loved it. There were no rules.
MC: What relation with the contemporaneous East Village art scene, if any?
RK: Nothing. Evil, commercialized, none of that stuff is memorable. No crossover, cross-pollination[.]
HS: Some personnel.
KW: Rick Prol, Richard Hambleton.
HS: Hambleton’s a unique case. Is he still around?
TT: The East Village thought the Rivington School [was] too anarchic, out of control.
MC: A lot of those artists were too afraid or snobby to go down there.
HS: Women were afraid to go down there, [to be] treated like cows.
RK: Whaddya want? [It was] a bunch of guys hangin' out, drinkin' beer. You want em in suits or somethin'?
MC: Liz and Tenesh [Weber] had hardcore bands in the basement.
HS: and Rachelle [Garniez], Apocalyn (?) , the Tomboys band.
RK: No Se No---man, we had some girls!
HS: Where did scrap art start?
RK: Picasso, Rauschenberg.
HS: Duchamp’s bicycle.
RK: Picasso, Jean Tinguely’s sculpture that destroyed itself. But this [is] New York: we just put it all together. There was all this free metal, lots of scrap around so we just pick it up and put it together.
MC: It helped that Parker had that huge flatbed truck, whatever you could get five guys to pick up.
RK: We all had trucks. Nowadays it's too expensive to park them...you can't do that kind of art anymore.
HS: It became too expensive, like real estate.
RK: You can't get a lot in the city anymore anyway...A lot of the artists moved up state: Tovey Halleck, Ken Hiratsuka, Freddy the Dreamer Bertucci, Jack Vengrow.
RK: Everybody who can’t afford to be here is gone.
AM: What was a typical day like at No Se?
RK: Which period? The performance part started in the basement down on Rivington St.
KW: A typical day started at 6 [and went] until 6 in morning, 6 o'clock.
HS: I was playing there when the club got busted.
RK: Toyo started the gallery there and we went out. I kept the space going [at] 300 a month. Buster Cleveland was staying there for a while, then Mako.
[Tommy Tortellini arrives; general horseplay]
HS: Hard to get [an] exact chronology, but Toyo’s photos help piece it together.
RK: No it isn’t...Toyo documented No Se No and the Rivington School since '83, most complete.
HS: When we first came [it] was a drug supermarket. One 6 a.m. we walked out, bright sunshine, and cops with visors and batons. "Man, are we trippin'?" [It was] Operation Cleansweep.
RK: I’ll go way back, when me and R.L. went lookin' for a space, John Gotti [famous mobster, a boss in Little Italy] said get the fuck out of the Storefront for Art and Architecture, he said go over there to the other side of the Bowery, so we found the old social club.
[Margaret Bazura arrives]
KW: We need a women’s point of view.
RK: We really want Parker, you're just sittin' in 'till Parker comes.
Margaret Bazura: Usual state of affairs. I remember I brought piece to nose, and even tho' my name and you (RK) said get outta here we already have our artists, get outta here bitch. Then I was accused of being a feminist so and so... It's because I rejected so much of it that I’m here to talk about it.
KW: I thought you were a schizophrenic.
TT: I have a jacket everyone signed.
(A general discussion of Rivington School participants, etc.: Luca Pizzorno, Geoff Gizmo (died); Louis Lopes, Jeff Perren, Demo Moe)
MB: Eric Miller made video documents.
HS: Mark Zero, who made “Human Waste,’’ in Vietnam.
RK: David Catlett Mora, whose mom’s a famous p.c. sculptor.
MB: What about the guy who wanted to self-immolate? You all said, ‘Great, hey, we’ll build the fire.’. I was livid after that. He died right?
RK: We got him out. He stood there bleeding, his skin was dripping off his body. I gave him a knife, I said kid (unintelligible)...he [spent] 6 months in the intensive care burn center.
KW: Was that at a pig roast? Remember the fat pig with the little head?
MC: And remember the road-kill barbecues? There was a beaver and a hedgehog...
TT: The human sacrifice thing was going on...
HS: We had religious license, like those Santeria guys with the chickens . These animals were treated humanely; in most case they were already dead when we found them. We ingested their souls.
RK: Remember the woman whose corpse we found and the head fell off? I have a video of all that: there’s a lot of weird stuff.
MC: [Daniel] Rakowitz? [famous East Village convicted murderer]
RK: No, he never came around down there.
MB: But some people came... What happened to those people, like Manon Briere?
KW: Manon’s OK. She’s in Montreal, she’s cleaned up.
KW: I’m proof there's life after death. I don't smoke or do drugs, I don't even drink anymore.
RK: Hey, somebody get some drinks over here!
TT: I remember when we took a band [that] was playing in the back of a flatbed truck on New Years’ Eve & we all went to Poughkeepsie with it.
RK: That wasn't a flatbed truck. That was my truck, yer fuckin' full of shit!
RK: Remember Jeremy from the Fabulous Bluejays?
HS: I see him all the time. He has a studio, he married the singer Laura Cantrell.
MC: There were the house band at No Se.
TT: They were on the soundtrack of Michael Moore’s film, the one with Charlton Heston, Bowling for Columbine.
MC: You mean the World Famous Blue Jays.
HS...The Blue Jays were the house band after my band Mildred Pierce, there was also Vacuum Bag, etc. The night the State Liquor Authority raided the place, the Tomboys were playing before us, the second we started to play they handcuffed --
RK... Jim Marshall (who now owns a bunch of bars) was there with Dennis Uhrinek ...the cop told to me to –
HS: -- Get my band and get out. I asked him why they waited so long to make arrests, and he said we like looking at cute chicks, meaning the Tomboys. It was a unique time because real estate was cheap and we had a lot of free time. Now it's the opposite and there's no opportunity for that. Guiliani was the first step in the fascistization, Bushization, Stalinization of New York. Then we get this freakin' friutcake from Boston with a broom up his ass, who doesn't even live here on the weekend, who can't stand to sit next to Negroes. "Don’t sit on my Armani suit." It’s class warfare, always has been class warfare.
KW: Too many people live here. Mass suicide is the only answer.
HS (to MB): You still in the neighborhood?
MB: No, Parker and I are staying at our workshop in Brooklyn.
MC: Do think when No Se changed from a performance club to a gallery space to the Rivington School gardens, that there was a disconnect with, that it alienated some of the performance people?
TT: I thought when 99 Nites and Music Club were finished, I said to Ray I want to organize more art shows, and then we built the sculpture garden.
TT: I have tape from the radio show at WKCR.
MC: Why do you think No Se No and the Rivington School attracted international attention, especially from the Japanese and Italians, like Enrico Baj, but not so much from the American media or the N.Y. art scene?
TT: High Performance magazine from Los Angeles wrote about 99 Nites.
HS: This is what Shalom Neuman is always saying, in Europe and Japan this kind of thing is more attractive, consistent with their traditions. In American art, scene art needs to be put in a box, formalized into the institution of the rich bastard conspiracy museums.
RK: Collaborating with these others and saying there’s no commodification here, next.
MC: Good point. So you're saying its non-commercial aspects could not be easily packaged, except maybe as a freak show.
HS: So much was spectacle; you had to be there. The Japanese tradition is geared to the live moment, to performance for its own sake...Enrico Baj and Europe were interested because it was about art that’s current, not just next Rothko or last year's model. Also tourists and visiting artists could stay cheap. Now its $99 a night at Howard Johnson’s on Houston where 20 years ago there were $5 bjs.
AM: How did Enrico get involved with the Rivington School?
TT: He funded a history book that included the Rivington School. He came down with Christine Louisy Daniel from Emerging Collector [Gallery]. She brought him to the Rivington School and he came down every year, bought Kevin’s drawings. He was a good friend of Leo Castelli; he brought Kevin to Italy and they ended up collaborating.
MC: How did the Rivington School end up going to Japan?
TT: A big Japanese dept store was looking for interesting artist for display. They called me, wanted to meet me. I introduced them to the Rivington School and to the sculpture garden, and showed them my documentation. I worked with them to put together the exhibition.
HS: The Japanese department stores figured out how to commodify it, as display, as one-time ritual.
TT: It was not meant as a not serious art exhibit, more a big one-time event. I have collaborative photo of Rivington School garden with frame made by Linus Corragio, though photo is not by Toyo (general discussion).
MC: What about the 2B Gas Station, which was established by sculptors associated with the Rivington School?
AM: A lot of great performances took place there. It was the site of GG Allin’s final performance.
MC: That was pretty horrifying (laughs).
HS: Son of the Rivington School, a spin off, club existed exploit and he’d get Eurotrash to pay 5 bucks for a Rolling Rock [beer]. (?)
MC: It was started as sculpture studio, then Javier took it over, now it's a Kings Department Store.
HS: With condos owned by Reichman; we actually tried to buy it in '88 or '89; Ray, and Harry, the old Yiddish guy, put together package to buy it. I found out who had the lease and we spoke on the phone. We went as high as 200k. ‘That's an interesting offer," he said, "But you gotta add a zero.’ 'That's a lot for artists. There’s nothing there now," I said. 'You wait, there'll be a high rise.’ 'In ten years?’ 'Ten years is a short time to me,' he said, and he was right.
TT: I liked No Se No and Rivington School better because they were more anarchic, had squat spirit, we didn’t pay rent on the garden, didn’t make a business: there were a lot more fires.
HS: Closing night of the garden, the fire dept. came three times; the third time they were so pissed off. "Oh you kids."
MB: When they were building the sculpture around it, it was a lot like the Rivington garden.
RK: Linus and Johnny Swing, who did the sculpture on top of the Red Square [apartment] building on Houston street, built it.
HS: He moved up to Harlem.
MB: I really wish Robert [Parker] was here to talk about this.
MC: What do think will be the legacy of the Rivington School, if any?
TT: The messiah...
HS: College art history classes, if any, purely academic interest, converging randomly from pieces in Europe, pieces in Japan, not connected, will pass into vaguery...I take people on informal tours; now its an ugly noodle factory...folks say, yeah I heard about that, or just nod heads...now No Se No is a high priced architect’s office, you walk by and it’s all black light cool postmodern, all black with mirrors in there. Ironically, they don't know they've restored it back to 1983....Somebody in that building who’s paying 2000 a month rent is probably buying a facsimile of a Rivington School sculpture up on 57th street, something that might have been free 20 years ago (legacy continued). Even though Gizmo died and Pizzorno died of AIDS, he wasn't in the New York Post; we didn’t have a really famous tragic artist, like the East Village had with Haring, Basquiat, etc. I hate to sound cruel but that’s what they remember, a scrap heap.
MC: The Rivington garden itself, even though everybody had the signature elements they added, was a subconscious attempt to sublimate the personal into this global sprawl of artwork.
HS: Everybody just added on to it, kinda like what Linux has done with computers, add-on.
RK: Heavy metal, heavy metal.
HS: You need to have someone write a book, then you have a legacy, or make a film, might not even be based on fact...Johnny Depp is Kevin Wendall, Anthony Hopkins could be Robert Parker, Robert Downey would have to be me.
AM: I see the Rivington School as being a linchpin for the culture of the squats, that will be its lasting cultural, historical importance. [gen cult ideas]
MB: Adam Purple’s garden was part of that, right next door.
HS: People lived at the garden. Remember the handsome Jewish guy from New Mexico who lived in there, boiled his own water, etc.? A bunch of people who used to hang out there lived in burned out buildings on Ave. C.
KW: Adam wouldn't let anyone move in his building. I used to think about going up in there, but never did.
MB: Adam’s still around, and even though his garden got torn down, he got a lot of media attention.
TT: I thought the Rivington School kinda used me; I was used sexually, they ripped me off, got me addicted, got me scoring drugs for them, buying alcohol for underage punk girls.
HS: You're watching E Channel too much...you were still 18 back then.
RK: Ken Hiratsuka told me once, I think he (pointing to KW?) used me (laughter; discussion of memorabilia).
RK: I saw Ramones memorabilia on Antique Roadshow [public TV program].
MC: Remember the Rivington School painted jackets in basement of Schapiros?
KW: We auctioned em off...where are those jackets now?
MC: Dumpsters around the country.
RK: I saw Carlo Mc Cormick on New York 1 [cable TV news channel], something about the Queens Museum.
MC: He’s doing a show there about Mets memorabilia, and another in the Bronx about the Yankees.
TT: Who was the most destructive one, Parker? No, you used to do that, destroy shit at openings, break the walls. You too Kevin, when I first met you guys you destroyed my bicycle; who did the most of the vandalism you became famous for?
RK: Everybody did....Ken used to pull out a knife and carve on the table.
RK: When we went to welder Tony Ravelli’s funeral, we saw him in the funeral parlor, we thought he looked so happy we should take him out of the casket, use [that to] drag him around the Catskills. He hung him self trying to jerk off.
HS: Auto-erotic self strangulation.
MC: We gotta get out of here to make way for Ed Sanders’ 65 birthday party.
RK: Hey you guys wanna come down for a barbecue, want some roadkill? (laughter)
RK: (sotto voce): Was that a lot of shit or what?
-- Transcript by Michael Carter; edits by Alan Moore and James Graham