Those who proclaim the spirit of New York City is dead would be wise to look away from the fresh horror that is the CBGB Target and instead fix their eyes on the work of photographer Walter Wlodarczyk. There, you’ll find a vibrant collection of musicians, performance artists, dancers, and other experimental creative types. As Wlodarczyk’s solo exhibition There Is Only One Of You demonstrates in an impressive 160 or so photos, thriving artistry is still alive and well here.
A cursory perusal of Wlodarczyk’s photographs reveals a veritable cornucopia of local underground culture, including spaces like Wreck Room, Silent Barn, Secret Project Robot; dance duo FlucT; bands Dreamcrusher, Show Me The Body, and Deli Girls; Estonian performance art group Non Grata; anarchist puppeteer Kalan Sherrard. New York isn’t the only location he’s captured—places like Miami and Philadelphia also make an appearance. Such comprehensive coverage can only be accomplished by a certain degree of relentlessness, and Wlodarczyk certainly fits the bill in that regard.
“I shoot constantly,” he says. “If I’m not shooting for an assignment, I’m probably trying to get out and shoot something for my archive. The only thing that limits me is needing to edit. I’m definitely out trying to shoot something in all my available time.”
One may want to describe the focus of Wlodarczyk’s work using the buzzword “DIY,” but “that term is overused to the point where I’d say it’s all sort of meaningless today,” he says.
“I’ve more recently described what I do as documenting self-organizing creative communities, because I think that’s the consistent thing about them,” he tells Bedford + Bowery. “They’re spaces where people and communities come together, create space, put work on by working together without institutional funding, without lots of money. Being very hands-on as opposed to being in more formal hierarchical organizations.”
The photos will be mounted on a “system of panels” created by Erik Z and Rachel Nelson of Secret Project Robot. Part display method, part art piece in itself, “these will be movable so they can get out of the way when they do shows and need more space, and otherwise move back into exhibition mode when there’s not a show,” Wlodarczyk explains.
Wlodarczyk’s body of work acts simultaneously as art and archive, memorializing the spaces and faces of a scene historically associated with a high rate of closings and departures. Depending on your own experience with the city’s history, you may nostalgically recognize a slew of now-defunct venues, or learn that band you just started listening to has played at a whole host of spaces you never even knew existed.
“Since I started photographing with intent around 2010 [or] 2011, the spaces open now are completely different than the spaces that were open then, with a few exceptions,” he says. “I think there’s always been pressure and difficulty, but in the last handful of years it seems there’s more turnover with spaces and people just not being able to keep the spaces they had for one reason or another.”
In lamenting the very real issues smaller art spaces have surviving in the city, the fact that the people behind these spaces are often also complicit in gentrification can get pushed to the sidelines. Another purpose documentary art can serve is to amplify a diverse range of DIY artists, rather than just the ones operating in insular pockets of up-and-coming neighborhoods.
“Speaking for myself as a documentarian, I try to be aware of as much as possible that’s going on,” Wlodarczyk says. “I try to spend more time at spaces that are really actually being parts of their community, or at least have that as a goal and do their best to be, as opposed to spaces that are more isolated.” He mentions The Living Gallery and the recently-closed Silent Barn as examples of “spaces that try to get to know everyone in their neighborhood and actually provide space for people to do shows and programming there.”
Recent local legislative efforts, such as the repeal of the cabaret law and the establishment of a “Night Mayor,” have made the future seem a bit more feasible for the types of “self-organizing creative communities” Wlodarczyk spends so much time immortalizing. But notable roadblocks, like rising rent costs and complicated laws regarding permits and licenses, still remain.
“You just hear stories about people having to pay so much for lawyers and other professionals to advise them on opening spaces and being up to code, it really puts it out of reach for anybody who doesn’t have that kind of funding,” he adds. “I think to keep nightlife and art interesting in New York we need to be able to have spaces that exist safely but don’t require people to have massive budgets.”
Walter Wlodarczyk’s “There Is Only One Of You” opens Wednesday, August 1 at Secret Project Robot, 7 pm to midnight, and will be on view through September 4, 2018.
Update, August 1: the original version of this post was revised to correct an error in the date of the exhibition’s opening.