The Downward Spiral: March ’20 through August ’21
New York is going through a renaissance; a golden age for contrarians, Catholics, and chimera-denialists. On the occasion of his first trip outside the city in a year and a half, Dean Kissick reflects on all that’s happened in the interim.
I’m leaving New York City for the first time since February last year so thought I’d write about some things that have changed. When I saw the trees blooming in spring, the rose bushes on Thompson, baby sparrows, I remembered last year’s blooms and felt grateful to have made it back again, but also a great nostalgia for that lost city of death, that empty city of sirens and lights. I miss ghost-town Times Square at night, surrounded by giant glaring LED screens of advertising and encouragement, with no-one else around but a few quite frightening characters. But Times Square is a lot of fun now, it’s great. You might have heard about shootings of bystanders in the daytime, and it sounds like it’s hell, but it’s not. Before I didn’t like it, two years ago when it was full of tourists, it was a horrible place to go. It was far more hellish back then. Now it’s just full of Americans hanging out. All hanging out listening to music, songs booming out everywhere, masked dancing figures, entertainers in costumes and body paint dancing around, or standing perfectly still, many of whom appear on-edge or deranged, as entertainers should be, hustling for money but also just randomly flipping out on people. On the sidewalk people are mixing and selling cocktails from foldout tables, but also, right across from them, you might see a guy hawking his own medicines, reminding us that not all proteins are good for us with big cardboard street collages that say,
“Sin is an amino acid in the eye called opsin g-protein.
Christ’s blood and resurrection dissolves the protein.”
You can buy these sweet cocktails but people also bring their own handles of rum. And everyone’s smoking weed, but everyone’s always smoking weed everywhere. Wherever I go someone’s sitting down rolling a joint. On benches, sidewalks, in parked cars. People just roll joints all day now but nobody seems chill, not at all. So they hang out in Times Square drinking and smoking, with entertainers wandering round shouting, rap drawling, massive bright screens playing dumb advertisements forever, surrounded by light, it never gets dark here, and the vibes are off, but in a good way, in a good way.
The street entertainers are fantastic all over. There’s a guy in a white tracksuit I saw rolling a 5’-tall speaker stack through SoHo blaring out the Great Beauty party song, “Far l’amore”, walking quickly down the road. He’s everywhere apparently. The second time I heard him, I heard another pleasant song coming down the block to the chess tables, and was trying to figure out what it was before I realised where it was coming from and saw him rushing past with his speakers. I’ve let him pass me twice but next time I’ll follow him. I’ll follow this stranger for as long as I can, like Vito Acconci used to, and find out where he’s going with these songs. I keep hoping this guy will come past me again, and that he’ll be playing a song that I like.
Richard Turley, from Civilization newspaper, pointed out to me this lady who’s always dancing in Washington Square Park. Dancing fiercely, like she’s in a trance. Like she’s partaking in the mysteries. Every day she dances barefoot on a big white piece of paper to all sorts of songs, to 1990s dance music like Underworld, and leaves abstract charcoal drawings with her feet and hands on the paper, like it’s the ’60s. Richard likes this, probably, because he likes print.
Sometimes there’s also a saxophonist in the park who plays along to pop songs, who Alison Peery and I wanted to hire for our birthday party on her roof, but it turned out he’s a Zoomer saxophone influencer and costs $500/hour. The Post says the park is out of control, and it’s dangerous, but it’s fine. It’s not that dangerous and it’s where microfireflies first appeared in our part of the universe.
There are so many good street preachers too. I was sat in Union Square having a falafel, and this fellow was giving a speech to a small crowd of supporters telling them nobody should get vaccinated, he went off on a tangent about how the Democrats in the Senate had just defeated an amendment that would have outlawed the creation of chimeras in America – prison sentences of ten years and fines of $1,000,000 upwards for even attempting to birth a human-animal chimera, for making any sort of animal with a person’s face – and soon there would be these half-bestial ungodly abominable children, these pig-headed or monkey-brained babies crawling around on the floors of college laboratories, because of the Democrats, he said. Coming over the hill. A couple was sat on the bench next to me having their lunch and they were scoffing at him, telling one another he was a madman, he was talking nonsense, but I wanted to say: He might not be right about the vaccines, who knows, but he’s totally so right about the chimeras.
Art that’s designed to look good in a wealthy person’s beautiful house, it turns out, often does look really good in a wealthy person’s beautiful house.
I went to a just-opened club on the weekend and spoke to an attractive and passionate anti-vaxxer who said she’s about to flee to Northern Europe to escape Mayor de Blasio’s vaccine mandate. But I was also with a friend who’s really into experimental mRNA vaccines, he told me they’re making mRNA vaccines for everything now and he wants them all, he’s signing up for testing so he can have them before they’re approved, he’s excited to have the AIDS vaccine soon (I don’t know why). We’re going to drive round Southern Europe. So there are options.
Of everywhere that closed, the place I’ll miss most is China Chalet, which used to host some of the best parties I’ve been to, and where everything was pretty free and you could do what you wanted. China Chalet’s gone, but Ben Schumacher’s sculptural remaking of it still remains, probably in storage somewhere, waiting to be exhibited again.
Over the winter, nightlife shifted towards those with the money and space to host people when everywhere else was closed. A West Village party townhouse; an open-plan model house round the corner from Lucien, where the models thought the police were waiting outside with guns and might kill them, at which point my friend made us leave because she was bored; a secret lap dancing club by Madison Square park hired by a gregarious NFT dealer (I met a photographer who went for his dance, and halfway through the dancer said, “You’ve never had a lap dance before, have you?”); literary salons in grandma’s mansion on the Upper West Side, an elegant sex party in someone’s uncle’s Uptown timeshare, which never took place. Green shoots of recovery. A rave over four floors of a Between Bridges walk-up by the church, where tall and delicately beautiful transsexuals wavered always on the verge of fainting and collapsing down the many flights of stairs. SoHo loft screenings hosted by Nelson Mandela’s grandson. An infamous TriBeCa penthouse whose impresario caused a massive and never-ending hyperobject of a scandal by asking visitors to take their shoes off when they come inside.
All these spots are in Manhattan though. I have a buddy that lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and likes to host dinner parties, but he couldn’t host any last year because, had he tried to do so, his journalist neighbours would have called ICE on him immediately.
Dealers enjoyed last year because they didn’t have to go to Basel. Dealers were stressed last month, because it was nearly August and nothing had calmed down like it usually would. They had too many sales coming in, they told me, there are too many people with too much money to spend. I was invited into a few grand art mansions on the Upper East Side this spring, to collectors’ houses, dealers’ houses and advisors’ houses. In one, following a show of photos of Lana Del Rey’s face on a T-shirt, twisted into a range of expressions, I was offered part of a long line on a $7 million table (I may have misheard this valuation). Our host kept their coke in an envelope. There were mirrors on the ceiling and reggae was playing.
There was a house near Jeffrey Epstein’s old place. Our hosts had gone and had a look round with the realtors before it was sold, to a former Goldman Sachs executive. They said it was gaudy. The most impressive house I saw, I had to agree not to write about before I was allowed in. But visiting these glass-walled apartments in the sky, these huge palaces of contemporary art, I saw this whole other art world that I don’t think exists anywhere else to the extent that it exists in Manhattan, and having gone to these places I feel like I understand contemporary art better. Art that’s designed to look good in a wealthy person’s beautiful house, it turns out, often does look really good in a wealthy person’s beautiful house.
It was a terrible year for writing in New York. Giancarlo DiTrapano, the founder of New York Tyrant Magazine and underground publishing house Tyrant Books, came to visit from Naples and overdosed and died alone in the Bowery Hotel. A couple months before, huge billboards for the film adaptation of Nico Walker’s Cherry, which DiTrapano had helped edit and bring into the world, were up all over the city. So, his death marked the end of a literary moment, perhaps, and happened during a point in the summer when overdoses seemed to peak, and fentanyl was allegedly in everything. Everyone warned one another to test their drugs; although, I never once saw anyone remembering to test their drugs, and now it’s not mentioned anymore.
When everyone wants to be heard, wants to talk about themselves, and people don’t care so much anymore, you can say whatever you want ...
But it’s also been a good year, a great year for writing here. Civilization launched a Letter Service when everything else was shut down, delivering letters and postcards from Amalia Ulman, Aaron Maine (Porches), society photographer Patrick McMullan and others right into mailboxes, and then the paper came back with a new issue, the God issue, with a big cover story by Honor Levy, for the first time in a couple years. Fiona Duncan’s reading series Hard to Read has come back too, in the park. A lot of new publications were launched as well, like The Drift, which has published four issues online and is about to publish its first print issue, and The Drunken Canal, which has conjured a whole new scene around itself, and prompted some good quotes by Honor Levy in the Times, and Dirty, which is pro sex work, spanking and personal nitrous oxide dispensers, which has soirées with pornstars and poetry readings, with hooker laureates, and Heavy Traffic, which is a daring and ambitious literary journal, and published this fantastic story by Honor Levy.
There are great individual projects, like Sean Tatol’s relentless “Manhattan Art Review”, which does what no other critic will and pisses people off, particularly artists, very much so, and Rachel Seville Tashjian’s invitation-only, admirably elitist fashion mailout “Opulent Tips”, longform captions covering social etiquette, romance, the restaurant trade and family life on Keith McNally’s Instagram, and Drew Ohringer and Lauren Teixeira’s slacker literary podcast “Our Struggle” has recently arrived in the city also, to teach high school students about Norwegian angst and golden brown cheese. And there’s the Substack Enlightenment.
Many great Substacks are written in, or nearby, or have a lot to do with, New York: Annie Hamilton’s “Words”, which is the best writing on modern romance, Walter Pearce’s “walt’s Important thoughts”, also good on romance, contemporary attitudes and God, Nick Pinkerton’s film blog “Employee Picks”, Alice from Queens’s politics blog “Her Own Devices”, the style and nature newsletter “Blackbird Spyplane”, which published this brilliant end-of-year essay on “Cursed Gorp,” and Honor’s “My Blog”, and the influential “Angelicism01”,
An artist spoke to me, over soup dumplings in Chinatown, after a day of shows (we bought Peter Wächtler’s book from Reena Spaulings and Reza Negarestani’s theoretical astrophysics comic from Miguel Abreu, and those were the things that we liked) about Angelicism’s writing, which I find in places hard to understand. He said it made a lot of sense to him, when he read it closely, on the subway. And sometimes, he said, eyes widening, smile creeping over his face, he felt like all of it might make sense.
New York remains at the heart of the world’s media, and this past few months media was really turned on its head. It feels more usual now to visit a writer’s blog than go to a magazine site looking for something to read; if you were doing that anyway, which you probably weren’t. On those blogs, you’ll find more honesty and sincerity, more of an effort to have a distinct voice, even when writing anonymously. You’ll find far more esoteric, uncanny or experimental modes of writing. And on Substack, in particular, different blogs feed back into one another, quickly, and produce their own messy styles and languages together. Blogging is going through its deconstructed moment.
“A year ago,” says Heavy Traffic founder Patrick McGraw, “that’s where I went to read Ribbonfarm-esque posts from Silicon Valley types, and now it’s a platform for schizo alt-lit (sometimes literally gibberish). It’s like a text-based Tumblr with all these microtrends. A giant fiction.”
This is a golden age for contrarians. But Substack, which I’d assumed was ideally calibrated for edgy opinions that wouldn’t be welcome in most publications, is instead producing new forms, new styles; which also wouldn’t be welcome in most publications. The standardised voice can begin to feel dead in the water. The formal, reasonable, edited voice feels boring and untrustworthy. Over the 2010s many lost faith in the media’s honesty and integrity; but over this past year, it’s been hard to make out what the message is even supposed to be. The message seems lost, there’s only confusion. There’s none of the clarity or allure of good propaganda.
The publication of Tao Lin’s Leave Society, which is in part about rejecting mainstream media, and leaving New York as well, this month felt like a bigger cultural event than any recent exhibition I can think of. It’s a story with a clear message (“leave society”). And maybe art shows aren’t capturing our broken attention because they don’t contain clear messages; or maybe they really, really do, but those just aren’t the sorts of messages anyone believes in or is interested in hearing anymore.
When everyone wants to be heard, wants to talk about themselves, and people don’t care so much anymore, you can say whatever you want; in times like these, it makes sense that so many are starting their own publications, secret writing projects, blogs, columns, podcasts of making calls, or writing novels, organising readings, that music and dancing are less of a part of nightlife, for now, that nights out are lots of rushing around and talking, lots of people who just make talking their whole thing, who just can’t shut up.
So it’s been a good year for writing. And Honor’s story collection, which was going to be published by Tyrant, will still be published somewhere great, and Sean Thor Conroe’s novel Fuccboi, which was Tyrant’s next book, has been picked up by Little, Brown and Co. And last night I saw Isabela, whom DiTrapano had recently convinced to start writing, and she was still writing, still going with her book, and I’m excited to read it.
They say the vibes are off in New York. Yeah maybe because of the unstable street entertainers, collectors with too many millions, clubs on fire, Catholic-accelerationist bloggers, casting directors gone rogue, chimera denialists, I mean –
They say the vibes are off here. Yeah maybe. I think a lot of people just miss last year. I have a good friend who was riding the underground into London one morning in July, in 2005, it was the morning of the London bombings, when all the trains were stopped and everybody was evacuated. He said it was terrifying but also exciting, that many of those around him seemed quietly thrilled to have a change from the ordinary, deadening routine (he’s joined a sort of self-realization cult now). Most were happy just to have a day off work. It’s hard to overstate how many of us don’t like going to work, are tired of our lives.
Those who stayed in the city last year had a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience of stalking fear, collective mania and slow, gentle release, watching the hours come back, and those who fled to the country, many found they loved their rural idylls and didn’t want to return. So many of my friends, particularly those collecting unemployment, had one of the best years of their life, they say. We said it at the time, and miss it now that it’s gone. I know people who had terrible things happen, but they’ll also say it was bliss to leave behind their old lives, and step outside of time, and now we’re returning to normal and that’s a shame; except I don’t think we are, because so much has changed and it’s not coming back.
DEAN KISSICK is Spike’s New York Editor. The Downward Spiral is published online on the second Wednesday of each month. Last time, he wrote about Tao Lin's Leave Society.