Two Blocks of Lower East Side Fame
BY PUMA PERL | Sometimes, it’s good to be wrong. I often find myself feeding into a New York City conversation about dead scenes and lack of innovative movements. In optimistic moods, I maintain that there is vitality somewhere that I just don’t know about. DYI happenings in basements off the beaten track; a new type of sound or genre; an original vision — but I’m never sure if I’m right.
Last May, I participated in an event arranged by the Destination Downtown project. Clayton Patterson, the well-known artist/activist/provocateur and I discussed our experiences creating art in a changing Lower East Side landscape. The third presenter, Ethan Minsker, was new to me. Originally from Washington, DC, he is a writer, filmmaker, artist, fanzine publisher, and creator/editor-in-chief of Psycho Moto Zine. He is also a founding member of the Antagonist Movement — a group of artists, writers, and musicians who promote and support one another. That night, I didn’t fully comprehend the richness and density of the movement, although bits of it had been somewhere on my radar. In July, I attended a screening of “Self Medicated,” and the light bulb flickered.
“Self Medicated,” a 93-minute film directed by Minsker, demonstrates the ways in which art, within a supportive community, keeps the depression and isolation which plagues many artists at bay. It begins on the Lower East Side, where the movement was founded, and, through animation, interviews, and an exceptional soundtrack, demonstrates its global reach and aspirations. Watching the film, that light grew from a flicker to 60 watts. I knew people involved, and was familiar with many of the venues; I began to connect the dots and add a little color.
I met with Ethan Minsker several weeks later. He brought along an armful of zines and DVDs, as well as answers to my questions — beginning with, “Why the hell didn’t I know about you guys?”
“We are famous in two blocks in the Lower East Side, but outside of that nobody knows us,” he replied. “The sad part is we can’t figure out what two blocks those are.” Interestingly, there are pockets in the world, including Quito, Ecuador, in which they are very well-known, and several days later Ethan and other members would set off to Australia to make art, show films, and connect with old and new compadres.
And that is the story of how the Antagonist Movement began — friends connecting. A number of the original members were working in various bars and clubs around the Lower East Side. In 2000, a pop-up show of paintings took place in the basement of Niagara, a bar on Avenue A.
What was planned as a single show moved upstairs and became a weekly event for 11 years. Group shows, live bands, and DJs were added. Two years later, the writers in the group decided that they needed a venue. Poet Sergio Vega, an Antagonist co-founder, along with Anders Olson (another co-founder), was working at Black and White, and the Fahrenheit Writer’s Night was born. A public access show on Manhattan Cable Network was added in 2004.
“An artist’s life doesn’t need to be a solitary life,” said Minsker. “The Antagonist Movement is a social art movement, a group of people who like one another and like each other’s art, and mentor other emerging artists.
This is not the first movement with a social aspect, but it may be one of the most inclusive. There are no age, gender or racial barriers — a severely disabled woman, for instance, created one of the zines Minsker brought me. Part of the mentoring philosophy can be attributed to the spirit of the late Arturo Vega, who was widely recognized for his punk rock roots and graphic designs (including the creation of the Ramones logo). Arturo worked with the Antagonists since 2002, as a general member, a curator, and, eventually, as their main advisor and mentor.
The Antagonists are committed to continuing his legacy through building community and creating the laboratory that allows people to experiment, and to utilize art in ways that push ego aside.
As a writer, I would have been remiss had I not paid a visit to the Fahrenheit Writer’s Night. The movement’s name is based on a literary reference — there can be no story featuring only protagonists. We need antagonists to provide the conflicts and move the story forward. Richard Allen has been in involved with the Antagonists and Fahrenheit since the beginning and was filling in as host.
I had planned to read a story, but decided to do a piece with a musician friend since it seemed more in sync with the evening. “It comes in waves,” explained Allen. “It was once only writers, poets and other ne’er-do-wells. In the last few years it’s turned into quite a hodgepodge of musicians, even the occasional comedian. Recently, we are in a singer/songwriter phase.”
One of the most well-known people to have gotten his start on this stage is actor Jonah Hill, Oscar-nominated for “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Moneyball.” On the other hand, as one participant stated on the cable access show, “The best night ever at Fahrenheit, there were three readers and maybe six audience members. These guys just wanted to get up and be heard, say what they wanted to say. And it was a great night.”
This dichotomy perfectly describes the Antagonists, who pledge to make art regardless of audience size or commercial success. Minsker’s next project is “Ghost Guns,” an installation that displays the ways that guns move randomly in any direction; it’s dedicated to the friends he has lost. As per the manifesto, “An antagonist is not only one who opposes, but one who provokes.” As per me, “It’s good to be wrong.”
Visit antagovision.com (and access the Public Access Show icon). The Fahrenheit Writer’s Night takes place at 8 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month, at Black and White (86 E. 10th St., btw. Third & Fourth Aves.). To submit art, contact them through Facebook or Instagram. “Self Medicated” is available on Amazon and iTunes.