By Lincoln Anderson
An art exhibit marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of an East Village squat is a powerful shot of history, encompassing the tumultuous scene of the 1980s and 1990s but also extending as far back as the 19th century, thanks to a fascinating new excavation in the building’s rear yard.
The exhibit is aptly titled “The Perfect Crime: Andrew Castrucci & the Bullet Space Archive 1983-2008.” Indeed, one of the items on display is a sledgehammer in a guitar case; the latter concealed the former when Castrucci and his brother, Paul, brought it to open up the bricked-up, abandoned building to start the squat.
The building is one of 11 East Village squats that were sold to their residents by the city for $1 apiece in 2002. Earlier this year after a drawn-out process of bringing the structure up to code Bullet Space, at 292 E. Third St., was the first of the buildings to be legally converted and have its ownership transferred to the former squatters.
Castrucci, who attended the School of Visual Arts, where he currently teaches graphic design, is the last of the original Bullet Space squatters still living in the tenement. Last Saturday he gave a tour of the ground-floor gallery space and the outdoor excavation. In the exhibit, artwork is blended together with physical artifacts of the building and neighborhood, blurring the lines between what is art and what is functional. The show was curated by Carlo McCormick.
“It’s all squatter art,” Castrucci noted, adding some have termed it arte povera referring to the 1960s Italian school of radical, unconventional art.
Along one wall are four metal, wood-burning stoves that Castrucci and metal workers like Robert Parker and Tobey Halleck made in the early squatter days when the building lacked heat. In the room’s center hangs a human-sized fishing hook made of cold-pressed steel; Castrucci who was hooked on drugs as a young man said it represents all addictions, whether crack, TV, sex or anything else. As with much of the art in the show, Castrucci sees multiple meanings in each piece. For example, he enjoys fishing in the East River though only eats one or two fish he catches per month for safety reasons so that’s yet another side of the hook.
A stack of large, flat, black books arranged that way to give a sense of “solidness,” Castrucci said contain silk-screen and offset prints contributed by 100 artists back during the height of the squatter movement. The books, which took four years to make, were hand-printed at Bullet Space, which used to have a print press. Called “Your House Is Mine,” each weighs 16 pounds.
As he flipped through the heavy pages of one copy, Castrucci explained, “Back after the Tompkins Square Park riots, we did this book. At that time, the neighborhood was organized and we felt we had to say something.”
He said it was a source of pride that the book is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library.
Prints from the book, in turn, were made into posters that were pasted up all over the neighborhood and carried around on posts during protest marches.
While many describe the park riot of 1988 as a “police riot,” Castrucci said that’s “political.” It was also a “people’s riot,” he said.
“There were people who wanted that riot,” he noted. He personally felt the clash helped bring the community together, calling it “beautiful there was a sense of unity,” he said.
There was a method to the madness, as it were.
“From 1988 to 1998, we felt we slowed gentrification,” Castrucci explained. “It wasn’t just Tent City. It was also the squatters.”
Also evoking the feeling of the times is one of the fake window decals that Mayor Koch had put up on abandoned Bronx buildings to try to soften the image of urban blight. Castrucci added his own touch by taking it Upstate and blasting it with a shotgun. The decal is hung by a window, and the resulting light showing through the shotgun-pellet holes evokes a stained-glass window effect, Castrucci noted. Again, the aesthetic of squatter art is the confluence of high art and low art, he said.
On the subject of windows, there’s a stack of rusty old metal window weights piled in a triangle in a corner. Although worn utilitarian relics of another age, Castrucci said, “I thought they were such beautiful objects I collected them over the years. That’s the theme of the show,” he reiterated, “everyday objects.”
On a wall, four trowels still covered with thick gunks of tar that the squatters used to repair their roof, are mounted on a roughhewn board. Again, through his presentation, Castrucci has transformed these mundane tools, which tell a story, into a work of art.
An interesting find during the building’s renovation displayed in a glass case in the exhibit was an old Torah, a hat and a wooden piece of a Torah scroll that were concealed in the floor. The former squatter said these objects were likely “buried” in the floor when someone moved because of a prohibition against throwing away Bibles.
A few other pieces on the tongue-in-cheek theme of “cement shoes” are more personal for Castrucci, who grew up just across the river in New Jersey.
The final element of the exhibit is at once its most recent, and yet most historic: In the backyard of the former squat, fellow artist Austin Shull and Castrucci have led a group of 30 volunteers foremost among them Katherine Foster and Ernest McClees in excavating a former well, which was at later points also an outhouse and finally a garbage pit. So far, the hole is 10 feet deep. All of the items they’ve unearthed are displayed on tables in the backyard, with the finds from different depths grouped together in chronological order. There are a wealth of white shards of broken chamber pots, pieces of blue-and-white dishes and cups, and old rust-covered nails. Closer to the surface a small, plastic methadone bottle was discovered.
In a glass display case back inside Bullet Space, some of the more interesting historical objects from the hole are displayed. One of the most intriguing is an 1863 “New York City penny.” Castrucci explained that during the Civil War, metals like copper and nickel were being hoarded, causing a penny shortage. As a result, local bar owners, among others, started making their own pennies, which were recognized as legal tender until after the war, when they became worthless and were, no doubt, discarded into backyard holes. An interesting pipe bowl in the form of a face is also among the objects in the display case, as are little segments of clay pipe stems. Castrucci said the old clay pipes used to have very long stems, and that the idea of hygiene back then was to snap off a section of the stem before puffing on it since apparently pipes were shared.
Recently, a neighbor called police to complain about the excavation, but when the officers arrived they found nothing illegal about the hole. They were rookies and, in fact, enjoyed taking in the whole exhibit, Castrucci said, since it gave them a feeling of the neighborhood’s history, and it was interesting for them to see things that they had only heard about. Castrucci and Shull are making a video of the show and the excavation.
“The cops showing up is part of the video,” he said.
“The Perfect Crime” is scheduled to run through Dec. 20, but Castrucci now thinks he will extend it through Jan. 10 and possibly even through Jan. 17. Gallery hours are Fridays, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. There will be a “closing” party, featuring readings, this Saturday from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. For more information, or to set up a viewing, call 347-277-9841.