Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scen

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Before lofts became a dirty word used by realtors and property developers to lure in unsuspecting bankers, this New York-specific phenomenon described the kinds of bare, open-plan spaces first colonised by artists – as studios, rehearsal rooms and party venues – when rents were low and spirits were high. The cross-streets south of Houston, known as SoHo, were uniformly dilapidated in the early 1970s and in danger of being bulldozed for a Lower Manhattan Expressway, but groups of avant-garde dancers, sculptors and installation artists stood in the way. Indeed, one boldly walked down the side of a building in 1970, the grainy tape of his slow-mo saunter only revealing his climbing-cord support as he neared the ground – the deception being further broken by a dicey moment when someone seven storeys above gave up the slack in the rope a bit too soon.

In another early performance recorded on video in 1973, a woman in red flexes her muscles and bounces up and down on a panoramic rooftop, otherwise populated by water towers and grey slate. Slowly, more larking semaphorists appear, mimicking and mocking the architecture, while signalling to each other like beacons from neighbouring peaks on the skyline.

Both these pieces are the work of choreographer Trisha Brown, who took her frequently untrained troupe off the stage and into the streets and lofts of SoHo, making their presence felt simply through synchronised or improvised movements – by piling up in a line together, taking one another’s bodyweight, or performing prone on sidewalks or park pathways. Three of her performances are being restaged eight times a day at the Barbican, where you can watch as dancers literally walk on walls or clamber in and out of clothes tied to a suspended metal frame.

Rather than stage static sit-ins or placarded protests, Trisha Brown and the other two ‘Pioneers of the Downtown Scene’ featured here – musician Laurie Anderson and sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark – worked and intervened directly in the urban structures around them to create radical sociopolitical art, with messages that still reverberate today.

Given all the current talk of recession, artist-led regeneration and the reclamation of empty space, you could draw historical parallels with now, but powerful creative lightning like this doesn’t strike twice and our own recent generation of YBAs were, by comparison, far less intellectually rigorous and expansive in ambition.

Brown is the most sensual, playful and elegant of this triumvirate, but her staged skewings of the horizontal and vertical axes still feel edgy and even dangerous – on my visit, one performer fell while negotiating the tricky corner of his wall-walk, but floated weightlessly instead of plummeting from a height. If Brown proved that dance could occur anywhere, then Anderson showed how music could be anything and Matta-Clark that sculpture could be made any old how. Their lack of constraints allowed them to move freely between disparate fields of enquiry and produce the kind of interactive, relational art we take for granted in post-millennial practice.

Long before her multimedia musical career took off, Laurie Anderson slept semi-rough in a library, on a Coney Island beach or on the ferry, in order to try dreaming differently (‘Institutional Dreams’, 1972-73). She also prowled rough neighbourhoods in 1973 with her ‘Fully Automated Nikon’, capturing lewd men and street gawkers with her lens to see how they liked being objectified by her gaze. Eventually she graduated to audio-visual pieces: feedback-heavy recitals in which violins were modified with record players (‘Viophonograph’, 1975), or to her kinetic audio installations, like the discordant ‘Electric Chair’ of 1977 that buzzes and flickers so wondrously at the Barbican.

But despite Laurie Anderson’s undoubted longevity and Trisha Brown’s fantastic tableaux vivants, Gordon Matta-Clark is the sadly absent star of this show. He died of cancer in 1978 at just 35 years old, but not before he’d transformed any number of New York’s disused wrecks and empty shells into gallery venues, colossal works of art and even a restaurant, simply called ‘Food’ (that served ‘used car stew’ and ‘city chicken’). Some of the timber slices and corners he excavated from those buildings lie here, forlorn and strange remnants of homes and the lives lived therein, yet his legacy remains the temporary rips in reality that allow us to see everyday routines and neglected spaces anew. Go and get educated, lifted, inspired.

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