Rafael Fuchs has lived in Bushwick for the last 11 years. For the first five, Fuchs worked as an independent artist and since 2012 he’s run Fuchs Projects, a gallery for showing work by himself and other artists (international and local) inside the BogArt, a building that on weekends is packed with streams of visitors headed to galleries with names like Soho20. An Israeli photographer who’s lived in New York since 1985, Fuchs arrived in Bushwick just prior to what he calls the “art explosion,” as just another newcomer looking for cheap rent. His neighborhood stomping grounds over the years have been mostly confined to the area around the Morgan stop. Beyond that zone of familiarity is what Fuchs described to me as “deep Bushwick.”
“For me, this was an industrial zone,” Fuchs recalled of so-called Morgantown in an interview last week. For the first few years, he lived in an industrial loft space where his bedroom was an old freight elevator. “I don’t feel I’ve had a direct effect, but there is an effect on the native community– it’s a tidal wave, it goes that way,” he said, gesturing outside his studio.
Fuchs had decided to start his own gallery after seeing two of his favorites in the neighborhood close up shop. Almost immediately after opening Fuchs Projects, he started receiving attention from the art world outside of Bushwick for his involvement in, well, Bushwick. “All of a sudden, Fountain art fair was like, ‘Why don’t you come?” he recalled. “People wanted the voice of Bushwick in photography.”
However, it’s not Fuchs’s photos of the neighborhood that have given him local name recognition, rather it was the photographer’s ill-fated “Bushwick 200” list that earned him some real attention earlier this year. The 200 project was pitched as a “comprehensive list” of the neighborhood’s most influential people. “I got caught in the fire, and it was very hurtful,” Fuchs told me. In a way, it was the perfect storm– Fuchs’s seeming cluelessness to the ongoing dialogue about gentrification; his plan to highlight those who were “transforming the conventional” in categories like real estate and “hi-tech”; and the gallerist’s unwillingness (and, as it turned out, inability) to reveal his selection criteria.
Nicole Brydson, a local artist and member of Arts in Bushwick, argued in a blog post that Fuchs’s rhetoric was replete with “quintessential purveyors of the myth of gentrification, related often through blog media, that ‘there was nobody here before’ or ‘there was nothing here.’” Her summary of the issues with Fuchs’s list followed the social media firestorm that reached seriously whoa-buddy heights when at least one other Brooklyn gallerist came to Fuchs’s defense with his own patently racist two cents. Fuchs finally deleted the project from Facebook and told us it was “done… in a way.”
But as of last Friday, the Bushwick 200 project is back, and Fuchs says it’s being made over… in a way.
Last week Rafael reached out to B+B regarding Unity Within Diversity, a one-off performance and ongoing art exhibition he was set to host at Fuchs Projects. We were especially intrigued when Fuchs described the event as “a step in the attempt to heal the gap between long-time residents and newcomers in Bushwick,” and one that “intended to start a healthy and productive dialogue in the community.” All were welcome, the Facebook invite insisted.
“The fact that it was suppressed from the get-go doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. People told me to just drop it– I guess you could say I’m brave,” Fuchs mused during an interview at his gallery last week. I asked Fuchs why he didn’t choose to simply move on from the Bushwick 200 in light of all the controversy and misunderstanding– why not just start from scratch? After all, Fuchs admitted that there was no list and no criteria, that all of this was hypothetical anyway. “‘I’m an artist, I’m not a social activist, and I’m not a historian,” he explained. “If my art is touching some nerves, that’s great. I’m not going to fight it, I’m going to go with it. This is why I chose to go this way.” The 200 project, he added, is “not gonna die– it’s not like I want to take more heat, but I believe in what I’m doing. I believe it went wrong in a way, or maybe you can say it went right.”
If you thought that Fuchs’s original plan for the 200 project was murky, try weaving together the defunct (er, not totally defunct) project together with Fuchs’s renewed initiative. In his view, the initial attempt at creating a Bushwick 200 might have been a failure, but he’s not dropping the project, not by any means.
Even if those 200 influencers remain elusive, Fuchs has now given some semblance of definite shape to the project that includes ongoing art shows, performances, and a two-volume photo series. And yet, in pure Fuchs fashion, vagueness dominates even the most tangible of his parameters. “The form that the project is taking is still unknown, completely,” he explained. “What I was doing was trying to get some names, and I’m going to bring it back, it’s going to be clearer now. It’s metaphorical, I want the voices of everybody, from all sides. There is no discrimination whatsoever.”
In fact, up until recently Fuchs was still trying to recruit some of his major critics to be a part of the Bushwick 200, including Brydson and another neighborhood activist and artist Anthony Rosado (who you may remember called Bushwick Art Crit Group a “predominantly white space”). In March, Fuchs was an awkward presence at the Bushwick Open Studios town hall where Arts in Bushwick convened a public meeting to discuss their plans to revive the annual arts festival as a more community-oriented event. Fuchs seemed to interrupt the proceedings, hoping to shift the conversation his way. But by his telling, Fuchs had gone to see if he could make peace with his critics and recruit Rosado, among others, to help him with the Bushwick 200, something he’d discussed with Arts in Bushwick members prior to the meeting. Fuchs said that Rosado declined his private invitation to meet for coffee and discuss. “Anthony told me blankly, ‘No, because I’m concentrating on working with people of color,’” Fuchs recalled, his face twisting into a flabbergasted look of shock. “I understand his choice– I mean, for me, it’s unfortunate. I’m going to have to seek for other sources.”
Fuchs, a middle-aged white guy, said that he was “really disappointed” by Rosado’s rejection. “I felt a little bit pushed away, like I have nothing to say, in a way.” While Fuchs is still insistent that he’s out to include others in his project, ultimately he stands by the notion that this is his project based on his story of Bushwick.
The new iteration of the 200 project, “Unity Within Diversity,” and the forthcoming events that Fuchs says he’ll be hosting in the near future, maintain some elements of the original project in that they’re centered (somewhat confoundingly) around a found-art sculpture, a series of photographs taken between 2005 and the present, and seemingly random interactive performances. The project is a little disjointed, or maybe it’s multifaceted– I guess that depends on whether you’re one of those people who can successfully jockey, like, 1,000 tabs on Chrome at once, or no.
Aside from Fuchs’ attempts to solicit community involvement (which seem more aspirational than real), his own photography plays the strongest and easily the most interesting role in the project. Fuchs has amassed, by his estimate, around “half a million” photographs of the neighborhood since he began shooting Bushwick in 2005. “One of the things I did during the winter, except healing from this whole thing– I mean, truthfully– I was going over all the other materials, all the photographs I’ve been taking here in Bushwick,” he recalled.
One photograph in particular, “Grattan St.,” struck me immediately upon arriving at Fuchs Projects. It depicts a youngish guy with blonde, slicked-back hair, jeans, cowboy boots and a white tee. He’s awash in the summer sun, standing at the corner of Grattan and Bogart, a place that now you’re wise to avoid on a Friday night when it’s bound to be clogged with European tourists searching desperately for Roberta’s. But when Fuchs took the photo in 2006, this area was strikingly different– in fact, Roberta’s wasn’t even a twinkle in Chris Parachini’s eye until the following year. According to a caption on Fuchs’s website, Walter, the man in the photo, is “the guy who was showing rental spaces in the 56 Bogart building.” Walter is pictured standing outside of the same unit where, years later, Fuchs Projects would be located.
“All the sudden, I realize that a lot of my photographs, there is a very heavy social way to it,” Fuchs explained. “Because you can see this picture, it’s very nice and it’s very pretty, but it’s really heavy in terms of, well, this guy’s standing here and waiting for people to rent these places upstairs. This is about gentrification! All of a sudden, a lot of my other pictures that I see– my photos of lovely girls coming to this neighborhood to party, to eat in a restaurant– and all of a sudden I look at it, and I’m like, ‘Gentrification!’”
This recent discovery has inspired Fuchs to embark on a new kind of Bushwick 200. “Because the 200 is a magical number for me, in a way. I said, ‘You know what? I’ll take 200 days and each day I will post a picture,'” he explained. The result, Bushwick Forever, is a series he plans to release in two parts. Volume one consists of around 2,000 images photos shot between 2005 and 2011, what Fuchs calls “before the art explosion,” while volume two will focus on what he shot after the art influx through the present day.
Flip through the “Bushwick Forever” series posted on Fuchs’s website and you’ll find an array of images that look recent enough to feel eerily close to the present, and yet distant enough to feel completely disorienting. Things have changed immensely, but truly not that much time has passed. One image depicts a gaggle of awkward coeds standing outside the Morgan stop, decked out in short skirts, clashing plaids and hoodies, with legs that look way too cold to be bare or covered in barely-there nylons. They’re clearly searching for the cool warehouse party they came all the way out here to find as a transit cop lurks dumbly in the background. Another image shows a rooftop party backed by a foreboding sunset, populated by ketchup and grill things, Stella Artois, and a girl in her underwear.
Some images hold less obvious connections to gentrification and seem a little, well, random– take the hairless cat peacefully sitting on top of a plastic shelving unit. Maybe it’s the Ikea fancy surroundings that Fuchs understands as a marker of gentrification? Who knows. “With my work I don’t say it’s bad or it’s good– these are just things that I encounter,” Fuchs explained. “See, I’m a photographer and I do my personal documentary meaning, like, I’m not an historian and I’m not a photojournalist. I don’t claim to have the true, all sides of photographs. Again, my Bushwick, my little niche of Bushwick. I see my work as a very important part [of the story], but it doesn’t cover everything, and that’s fine. The way I understand it, some people should only eat fruits and not vegetables.”
The subjects in “Bushwick Forever” include Fuchs’s former neighbors, people he’s encountered out on the street, and even street art. Taken in February 2011, one of these photos, “You Are Not,” shows a large mural (painted by twin brothers known as Skewvillle) scrawled across a brick building on Vandervoort Place: “YOU ARE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE.” I asked Fuchs if he had a personal connection to this message. “Well, I’m not from Kansas,” he scoffed. But he did explain that, looking at this image five years later, he was able to make a connection to the Bushwick 200 debacle. “Who are you to decide I’m not from here? The fact that you were born 24 years ago–” Fuchs said, addressing a hypothetical critic– “And I came here 11 years ago– Who is what? What is what? So I decided, ‘You Are Not.’”
As much as Fuchs talks about these images reflecting a personal experience of the neighborhood, he also emphasizes that his lens is turned outward, aimed at the people of Bushwick. “My whole idea is to, through art, express the situation and illuminate people in Bushwick and the things they are doing,” he said.
And he’s still adding to that pile of 500,000 images. “I’m personally interested to see what’s going on in deep Bushwick, and that’s what many people want to know,” he told me. I wondered who these inquiring minds are, but Fuchs had already trailed off. “It’s not true that I shot only in this area,” he said. “I went to Puerto Rico Avenue and I would go to cut my hair with the Spanish barbers, where I would go to buy meat and go to the cobbler.”
It’s maybe helpful to think about “Bushwick Forever” in the context of Fuch’s larger body of work, where that term “personal documentary” comes up again. During the 1980s, Fuchs was stationed in Lebanon, serving his obligatory stint in the Israeli army. “I was a soldier. I was sent to the South of Lebanon for one month. I was very unhappy, for many reasons. One reason, because I could have died– it wasn’t the beginning of the war, but secondly, I wasn’t really happy with the politics of Israel, doing what they did at the time. But I had to go, because you have to go do your reserve, I said, ‘You know, it might be my last documentary.’ So I did self-portraits as a soldier in a war zone. And I wanted to reflect my feelings of distress, of fear, and it was also so surrealistic. Here I am, sent to defend my country, I don’t even believe in this war.”
The striking photos in “War_self portraits in a war zone,” which Fuchs described as “my strongest series,” capture a whole different mood than the images of “Bushwick Forever.” Here, we see a young Rafael, tan, blonde, and somehow flouting normal rank-and-file military fashion with a variety of accessories including a pair of red high-waisted underwear, tan lines, streamlined cobalt blue Oakleys, and the same white makeup worn by Kabuki dancers who he’d seen perform in Jerusalem. Fuchs is so separate from his fellow soldiers in these images, so distinct from the bleak war zone and remote desert landscape, that it almost looks like he’s been doctored into the photos. The war continues around him, seemingly without his help, but also in spite of his eccentric presence. There’s a real sense of resistance here, one that’s sadly futile in the face of military power.
As with the “Bushwick Forever” series, Fuchs seemed to have been in the right place at the right time. The difference with “War” being that he was distinctly aware of what was happening around him and of his place within that landscape while he was actually shooting the images. Not so for “Bushwick Forever,” even by Fuchs’s own admission. In fact, Fuchs was sort of a latecomer to the issue of gentrification. He guessed that 2011 was when everything started to add up for him. “I realized something was happening here, Bushwick was becoming a very unique place and attracting a lot of people,” he recalled.
But it’s the kind of work he’s doing in “Bushwick Forever” that seems to be most inspiring to Fuchs at this moment. Pointing to another large photograph hanging at the gallery, he started to speak about his commissioned work– which includes portraits of a number of (hilarious) celebrities including Carey Hart, the motocross racer better known as Pink’s husband; Bam Margera in skinnier days; and a founding member of 98 Degrees, who owns a bedspread bearing his late-’90s likeness. The portrait hanging on the wall, however, was a much more surreal one, depicting a nameless woman wearing a swim cap, surrounded by birds. Fuchs said that people enjoyed the work, telling him, “‘Look, it’s pleasant, people like it, it’s going to sell a lot,'” but that his attention was elsewhere. “I feel like I still have more stuff to say,” he explained. “When art can go different ways, and provoke different emotions, and start a conversation, that’s beautiful.”
What seems to be the central contradiction in all of this, is that Fuchs is trying to resolve his personal (and, as many people believe, his inherently problematic) presence in the neighborhood with the larger process of gentrification– something that he admitted to knowing little about– while simultaneously trying to remove any stain of guilt or complicity. Fuchs is adamant that he spent a lot of time after the 200 debacle “trying to educate myself” about the perspectives of others, but this “education” necessarily included “trying to explain to other people” his own points of view as well. And as much as Fuchs conceded that he has more to learn, he insisted that he’s close to becoming a victim of gentrification too. “I’m about to get evicted also, I’m the one who came here 11 years ago and can’t afford it anymore,” he said. When asked if he shared experiences with people who are being displaced from the neighborhood, Fuchs responded, “Absolutely. Definitely.”
Following my long interview with Fuchs midweek, I went to check out the opening on Friday night. I didn’t really know what to expect. The invite wasn’t exactly clear, and Fuchs’s own description of the performance and how he’d met the collaborating artists was still a little fuzzy. Arriving late, I watched the tail-end of the performance from the hallway. A group of about ten people were holding hands in silence, waiting for a shirtless, rather ripped Japanese man with glitter and body paint all over his chest and a permanent smile glued across his face, to close out the performance. Fuchs’s photos hung around the room, as did a large black bust with a rainbow of small painted pixels partially coverings its visage– things that might have been difficult to connect to the performance at hand, but that Fuchs nevertheless insists are integral pieces of the project.
As Fuchs had explained to me previously, the performance centered on an improvised song and dance piece by the artists Gio Kusanagi (the mover) and Jia Doughman (the violin player). The interactive element seemed like an afterthought, albeit one that was meant to be inclusive. Below the bust were four ribbons (“They signify the four elements, because it’s Earth Day also,” Rafael explained) and a small box with instructions for gallery-goers: “Please write your wishes about the community or the society in a piece of card [sic].” As Gio pointed out, not all of the “wishes” were related directly to the community, some were personal. Each guest was asked to read a wish penned by their neighbor. I flipped through the little sticky notes full of wishes. “I wish that people would work together as a community rather than push people out,” read one wish. At the bottom the guest had drawn a heart.
“There was one African-American lady here,” Gio made sure to point out to me. “She is trying to recruit diverse people from Bushwick, she’s interested in working with people from a blue-collar background. She wants to train them to work as assistants in the theater and on film crews. She said that she enjoyed the performance.” I nodded, wondering exactly what this had to do with anything at all really, and at the same time understanding precisely what he was getting at.
Overall, Fuchs seemed very pleased with the “intimate turnout” and the prospects for the next iteration. “I could have made this controversial, but I didn’t,” he boasted. He once again brought up Rosado and the critics of the Bushwick 200. Fuchs seemed to be imagining a scenario in which they would all attend another iteration of the 200 project, and steal away together off into the sunset. “Next time I’ll invite Anthony, even though he said he doesn’t want to work with me. But maybe he’ll change his mind. Can you imagine this happening at Mayday?” Fuchs beamed, referring to the Bushwick Open Studios meeting. “We’d all get together and we go to the landlords and we tell them, ‘Hey guys! What’s going on?!”
Even though Fuchs insisted he has “several other projects” going on at once, it seems that the conflict stirred up by the Bushwick 200 remains at the forefront of his mind, for the moment anyway. As he told me earlier last week, “It was really hurting bad to me, personally– I was walking in the street and people who would say hi to me before, didn’t say hi anymore. And it’s still like that today, and I’m sure that it hurt me business-wise as well.” While the showing at “Unity Within Diversity” was modest at best, Fuchs and the two collaborating artists seemed very pleased with the results.
It remains to be seen if Fuchs’s entreaties to the rest of the neighborhood will fly, but it seems that, before anyone will listen, he’ll first have to settle some of the glaring contradictions that he harbors within his 200 project, and come to terms with his own impact on the neighborhood. “This is a zone that we know is old factories,” Fuchs told me, pointing to the street outside 56 Bogart. “That’s why when people tell you that you are a gentrifier, I say, ‘Okay, I am a part of it.’ Nevertheless, some people tell me, ‘No, dude you are not.’ But it doesn’t matter. Okay, I came from outside, I came to this area. I went on Slate.com and took this test, ‘Are You a Gentrifier?’ I am, I’m not. I don’t earn enough money to be a gentrifier. Yes, okay. I came from outside.” During tangents like these, Fuchs seemed at war within himself and I wondered– What was he defending? And above all, why? “My point is very simple, I want the social activists to unite with the artists, and not to fight against them,” he said. “Art is definitely powerful.”[Update: Nicole Brydson reached out to B+B and informed us that she had not been invited to the “Unity Within Diversity” opening and was not aware that Fuchs was restarting his “Bushwick 200” project. When asked if he’d made an effort to invite the Bushwick community to the event, Fuchs told us by email: “Of course, I did make an effort to invite the community. Aside from the public Facebook event page, I emailed the event info to about 2,500 people on my email list (anyone can include themselves on it), and also hanged flyers in various spots around the neighborhood, including by the Myrtle Avenue stop.” He added, “Although, I always feel that it is never enough to what a person can do in order to promote an event or create awareness.”]
Correction: Rafael Fuchs has amassed around 500,000 images of the neighborhood since he began shooting in 2005, not the originally stated 2,000 images.