Ken Schles, the artist behind the underground cult classic Invisible City will be speaking tonight between 6 and 8 pm at an opening reception of his work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery. Schles lived in the East Village during the gritty, burned out decade of the 1980s and documented the harrowing yet glamorous world he saw through the lens of his camera.
He has recently published a new monograph called Night Walk, a companion to Invisible City, which will be available in bookstores later this week. The gallery will feature work from Invisible City and Night Walk between January 29 and March 14, 2015. It is the first time his work has been shown in New York City since 1989. We asked Ken some questions.
No, life was pretty wild in the ’70s. I was 17 when I moved to the East Village. It wasn’t shocking because my high school experience was pretty shocking – even more shocking. So I was ready when I moved there – I feel like I grew up in the East Village. I lived on East 12th street between Second and Third. I lost that apartment because my roommate became a heroin addict. I was away in England for a few months and when I came back, he’d spent all the rent money on dope. I was homeless for a little bit, then ended up in this apartment on Avenue B in 1983.
It was wild. When you were on Avenue B back then, you were kind of in this no-man’s land. It was just before all the galleries started opening – I watched that all happening. When I was there, the landlord abandoned the building I moved into. We had a [heroin] shooting gallery in the building. The super said, don’t ever get on the fire escape because you’ll be shot. The windows were all boarded over because the junkies were trying to break in. I put a steel plate on one of the doors of my apartment and because the windows were already boarded over, I built a darkroom in the apartment. I used to develop film in my kitchen. It was crazy times. But then I fell in with a whole bunch of performance artists and by 1984 things just all started happening. This was right when the art galleries started opening and CBGBs was going on. It was a short flourishing because it didn’t last long before it started mutating and shifting. It was a very particular time in a very particular place, and I was in a very particular situation.Why did you start taking photographs?
It wasn’t a project like, “I’m going out to do this.” It was me exploring my own situation. I was trying to figure out where my life had taken me at that point. Having been homeless for a little bit, going to art school, then finding myself on Avenue B I was just trying to figure out what was this world that I’d ended up in, and what was my relationship to it. It was using my camera to go out the door and explore. Plato, in The Republic, has something he calls “The Line of Cognition.” It’s not like I’m comparing what I’m doing to Platonic reasoning, but there is a process that we go through to understand things. Images are almost a kind of beginning for that. Before we even have understanding, we have images.
They were friends of mine. Life is a little bit different, now that everything is mediated. Back when I became friends with a group of performance artists, one of them was a painter who needed photographs of his paintings made. Then I would be in his show, he would make frames for money and we’d barter services. He’d say, “My girlfriend is doing a performance piece” and then you’d go over. We’d all become really great friends and we’d have these crazy parties. It was a lot of fun. But at the same time I was struggling. I was struggling to make a living, struggling to continue making my artwork. I’d just come off this thing where I was homeless and I had friends of mine who started dying from AIDS. The last time I saw my roommate was when he’d OD’d and was in the hospital. Eventually he died of AIDS too. There was a lot of tragedy going on.
I’d studied the great masters of photography that had also photographed in New York. I felt like I was continuing a legacy of photographing downtown. When I realized I was living in this place and this time, I felt like I was seeing New York in a way that hadn’t been seen before. It hadn’t been documented, wasn’t a part of popular culture. There was press around hip hop and AIDS, but those things were just beginning and punk had already been around for years. When I got there the city was a fucking mess. It was bankrupt. I did some research on some statistics and learned there were 939,000 property crimes in the year that I published Invisible City. The murder rate was at its all-time peak – it was crazy. And I was living on Avenue B, which was ground zero. The heroin trade was out of control. One time I got broken into and I called 911 and at that point they didn’t have my address in the database. If you lived on Avenue B you didn’t exist.
I moved out of the East Village in ‘97. When my landlord abandoned the building we formed a tenants association. We got a court victory, had someone speculating on the building, what people kept leaving and eventually there were some NYU students. What I experienced was the last pre-internet bohemian place. After that everything was different.