Perhaps we needed a publication like Showpaper to gather all of the evidence on one page, but we can sense it just by keeping our ears peeled when wandering around the industrial waterfront of North Brooklyn at night: more and more young people in New York are taking the city’s musical culture into their own hands, booking the artists they want to see in buildings that condo developers never cared about anyway and eschewing the institutionalized age discrimination that keeps people who can’t drink away from live music. And the increased police crackdown on semi-legal concert venues (founded, apparently, on completely wrongheaded suspicions of weapon and drug possession, in addition to under-age drinking) doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone. New all-ages performances spaces still seem to be cropping up every month, sometimes attracting critical masses in the hundreds, and upstart show promoters looking to realize their unique artistic visions are practically ubiquitous. We might even call it a new chapter in the city’s cultural history if some of the people who built it with their own hands were willing and able to articulate it as such–and to explain how it might cohere as a generational worldview. With Brooklyn curator Todd Pendu, founder of the first large-scale festival devoted exclusively to grassroots cultural production in New York, we may very well have our man.
If you ever happen on the website for the Pendu Organization, an itinerant “arts and actions” non-profit formerly known as Transition Media, you might get the sense that its creator–formerly Todd Brooks–were trying to singlehandedly save the universe. And maybe he is. Since founding the organization as an independent record label in 2000, Todd changed its name (along with his own) to Pendu and expanded its field of activity to include, among other things, a traveling art gallery, an online arts and culture publication, an ongoing Pendu-curated concert and performance series, and a bookstore dedicated to artist’s books, zines, and comics. As though he weren’t already busy enough, he came up with the even more quixotic idea last year of channeling all of these endeavors into a massive, biannual happening: the NY Eye and Ear Fest, a weekend-long showcase of local DIY music, film, and art that premiered last December and returned for its second run earlier this month.
Though it may be too protean to pin down at any given moment, Pendu Org coheres through its commitment to artists working the marginalized fields of adhocism, occultism, and eroticism– “three ‘isms,” Todd laughs, “that academics just don’t like.” Pendu may be well versed in his Adorno and Benjamin, but he is just as wary of getting bogged down in a stalemate of anti-capitalist academic hair-splitting as he is of the potentially crippling effects of corporate sponsorship. With years of experience playing and organizing shows in the ‘90s hardcore scene to ride on, Pendu has arrived at a modus operandi appropriate to his own aims (and means), taking advantage of the proliferation of underground performance spaces like Death by Audio and Secret Project Robot to host dozens of events without having to pay rent: “Basically it’s the ideal of constantly moving the space that you are declaring Pendu. So it enables me to say at any given time, Here, I declare this as Pendu. And from then on, anything that happens there will be a Pendu event. It gives me the freedom to not have to rely on things that I actually don’t have.”
Which is not to say that finding a permanent home is not high on the list of Pendu Org’s long-term goals. But this spirit of itinerancy–along with the greater ideal of an arts organization that sustains itself entirely on resources found in its immediate environment–remains Todd’s priority. Pendu Org not only specializes in “adhocist” cultural production, but, like many of the venues it inhabits, survives and proliferates via adhocist principals. Coined in 1972 by architectural theorists Charles Jenks and Nathan Silver, the term “Adhocist” denotes a spontaneous act of creation–initially, in the field of architecture–that makes use of readily available materials–and often discarded materials–as it primary structural components: “It’s a question of taking the waste that’s all over the place, and using it, rather than just making more waste,” Todd explains.
Adhocism is nothing new, and predates the word itself, flowing through the history of modern art from Dadaist collage to DIY punk and the dwellings that the residents of the Drop City commune constructed out of junked car roofs in the 1960s. But it becomes particularly compelling when–in the midst of an economic crisis, rampant unemployment, and a widespread reconsideration of economic values–it emerges as an idea that an entire community can rally around: “It’s about using your local resources rather than depending on outside forces,” Todd explains. Let’s say you’re in the middle of the United States somewhere and it’s kind of a nowhere town. And you believe the only place you can have fun is New York. That’s a terrible thing to believe. And I hope that someone empowers you to say, No! I can build from all the things I have right here in my own hometown. It might not look like what they have, we might not have the same resources, but it’s what we have. And so you would have to overcome that.”
Todd’s decision to consecrate Eye and Ear entirely to artists and musicians from New York–as opposed to opening it up precisely to those “nowhere” towns that tend to fall under the nation’s radar–may seem at first glance like a contradiction in terms. But wouldn’t importing acts from rural Kansas and Montana and Mississippi kind of defeat the idea of highlighting the ways in which artists build from their local environment? And might such a configuration not simply reinforce the notion that New York was the gravitational center of the cultural universe, beckoning in underexposed artists from Nowheresville, USA and beyond with the promise of being finally validated? By restricting itself to a single geographical and cultural locus, Todd argues, NY Eye and Ear pulls back against this centralizing movement–showcasing the city as an isolated and idiosyncratic cultural ecosystem, as opposed to a career destination. “It’s not about closing yourself off, it’s not like saying, I only live here, I don’t want to go anywhere else again. It’s not the bubble. It’s just about saying, wherever you live, that place is going to have different foliage, different trees, it can be a swampy environment or a rural environment. All of these different things are going to effect how you think, and you create, what you think [...] And one of my main goals is to have Eye and Ears happening all over the place. I would like to see a San Francisco Eye and Ear, an Ohio Eye and Ear, a Chicago Eye and Ear, all utilizing the same principals and ideas.”
This month’s installment of NY Eye and Ear presented over seventy bands and filmmakers across four days and a heterogeneous scattering of venues: the Knitting Factory, a commercial but historically open-minded Manhattan music club; the 92nd Street Y, a non-profit cultural and community center in Tribeca; and Death by Audio, a leaky DIY performance space and guitar pedal manufacturer overlooking the East River in Williamsburg. For the two shows at the Knitting Factory, Pendu configured the performance schedule to allow for a maximum of musical discovery without provoking sensory overload. Spectators circulated round-robin style through three floors, catching a clipped, 20-minute set by one band as the following band set up downstairs–or zoning out for a time in the seven-hour continuous drone room in the basement, where a handful of artists–Pendu’s own solo project, chaos.CM.majik, included–facilitated an alternative experience of duration. Rather than group artists by genre, Pendu focused on making each evening as representative as possible of the sheer diversity of DIY musical production in New York. Night one, for example, followed up a free jazz detonation by George Steeltoe Ensemble with some danceable numbers by synth nerd trio Love Like Deloreans, then rolled out the carpet for Mike Wexler’s darkly glistening guitar folk. “I look at it like making a mix-tape,” Todd explains. “A mix-tape has all different kinds of music on it, but they all work, because if you’ve made a good mix-tape, you’ve made it flow in such a way that you can have all different genres. [...]. And then the whole thing just became something that you can’t get enough of.”
Central to the Eye and Ear model–which, Todd maintains, is reproducible practically anywhere– is the belief that festivals should be designed to facilitate community building. Presenting a black metal outfit like Liturgy alongside the freaky forest shenanigans of a group like Nymph may periodically force some spectators out of their musical comfort zones, but that might just be another way of saying that festivals like Eye and Ear bring strangers together. “I feel like putting it all under one roof gives people a chance to break out of their niches. In the South by Southwest model, if you only like noise pop, that’s all you’re into, and they have a showcase of noise pop in the festival, and you don’t have to hear anything else. You can just stay in your little bubble, go to your fake little show, watch the bands you like, and then go away. And I feel like it’s more about exposing people to stuff that they may or may not know, and doing it in a way that isn’t trying to make people commit to anything, just trying to help them have a fun time.” And Todd probably has a point here: at a time when the capitalistic specialization of labor and social identification has insinuated itself even as far as the world of independent music, pitting noise kids against new music composers and hippy songwriters against hardcore bands, the festival’s emphasis on geographical proximity and common adhocist practices might vest artists across the countercultural spectrum–along with their fans–with a renewed sense of solidarity.
But Eye and Ear is more than just a showcase of anti-hegemonic artistic production. As someone who has been churning out homegrown cassette and vinyl releases for as long as he can remember (including albums by Talibam!, Gang Wizard, Fossil, and recently, Atelecine, a noise lp by pornstar Sasha Grey), Todd knows that portrait of adhocist culture in New York could not be complete without a view of the independent businesses working behind the scenes to disseminate it to the public. Hence the NY Eye and Ear record fair, a day-long music bazaar featuring over 30 local independent record labels, equally emblematic of the ethic of making the most out of limited means.
Inspired by memories of ‘90s Florida hardcore scene, where pretty much every show was fair game for tables piled high with ‘zines, records, buttons, and patches (not necessarily having anything to do with the groups that were playing on that particular night), the fair presents an opportunity for real-space and real-time interaction between vendors and consumers, bringing participants back–or forward?–to a time when the independent music industry wasn’t completely subsumed by the facelessness and geographical dislocation of internet mail-order. Pendu’s hope? “I think it would be really exciting for people to get back into the idea of saying, Oh! I don’t have to mail-order, I can meet these people, these are the people who run the labels, these are the people who make the stuff, who are hand-building the tapes. You can actually be part of it, be inspired by it, it might make you start your own label when you go home.”
For the labels themselves, which range from penniless at-home cassette labels to “major” indies like Matador, the event’s non-hierarchical sprawl of tightly-packed tables presents an occasion for local movers and shakers to meet, talk music, and profit from their mutual association: “If somebody hasn’t heard of Obsolete Units, but they’ve heard of Abandon Ship Records, and the two labels are sitting next to each other, and they go to Abandon Ship Records because they’ve heard of it, they’re more likely to look over at Obsolete Units. And now know about a label that they didn’t know before. You’re building everybody up.” And if the festival’s spectators look closely enough, they can discover a similar logic in Pendu’s booking strategy, which lumps “major indie” acts like the Magik Markers in with younger unsigned artists whose national exposure pretty begins and ends with a few MP3s on MySpace.
Whether or not we agree with all of Pendu’s curatorial choices (the spaces included), or whether any individual installment of NY Eye and Ear successfully turns us on to our new favorite band or our new favorite 7-inch, we cannot ignore the festival’s greatest accomplishment: proof that it is still possible, even in the city where it would seem the least possible, to launch a massive counter-cultural happening riding pretty much on big ideas and optimism alone. Perhaps we can read Eye and Ear as an emblem of the “Yes, We Can Generation,” where, on a rhetorical level at least, young people seem to be taking to the idea that they use can their own hands to build the change they want to see. Or maybe we can explain it using Todd Pendu’s own personal slogan, “The Actions of Yes,” which turns the modernist ideal of autonomous art on its head, and attempts to present a more pro-active alternative to 1960’s ethos of opposition. “Yes implicitly says no. There is nothing that you can say yes to without also saying no. On the other side, no is all reaction. Yes is an action, which means that you have decided to do something, and said, Yes. For example, you can say, “Stay out of war. But in my view, it would be better to say yes to a world without war. Saying no to war is a reaction to the war, it’s saying that war happens, but that it’s not your thing. Saying yes is an opportunity to get out there and say, I want to create a world that is different than that.”
On a political and economic level, NY Eye and Ear says “Yes,” by presenting a living, tangible alternative to profit-centric festivals like South by Southwest–and, more recently, the Northside Festival in Brooklyn–that cordon-off all of the local bars and clubs in an entire urban area (often ones that usually curate their own events), import artists from all over the nation, consolidate all of the profits in the hands of a small group of organizers, and claim to do so in the name “community.” On a cultural one, it Says Yes to creating a home for artists that never let a lack of state of the art equipment, professional publicity, or “the right connections” stop them from doing what they love, and who convert this “lack” into the freedom to make art entirely on their own terms. “Freedom is not about breaking the rules,” Todd insists, “it’s about making your own rules.” No wonder, then, that the artists that appear in Eye and Ear all look and sound so different; each was chosen for her ability to forge her own constraints, her own parameters, honing them and mastering them until she can finally get up on stage and draw us into the ecstatic spectacle of an individual truly singing her own song. And perhaps that is the very image that we, the jobless, outpriced, millenial “Yes We Can generation,” need someone to be holding up to our eyes right now.
Interview with Todd Pendu, NYC, July 2009.
Article by Emilie Friedlander
Photo Courtesy Todd Pendu
Lend a hand to NY Eye and Ear and Pendu Org! Though the good people behind Pendu Org are simply overflowing with ideas for December’s installment of the festival–among various other adhocist experiences–the organization is entirely non-profit, and relies entirely on out-of-pocket funding and donations from good people like you in order stay afloat in this economy. Any contribution, large or small, can keep Pendu Org going; the alternative is that it may soon have to close its doors. Visit the organization’s ABOUT PAGE to donate, and click on the PAYPAL button.