The Van Der Plas Gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side is nearing the end of its Doo Da! Forever! exhibit of E.F. Higgins III work, and its 10 Ton Show group exhibit. We were finally able to get to the gallery this weekend to see it and were quite excited to do so.
The relation between autonomist Marxism and these showings may not be readily apparent, and for the most part the connection is peripheral, but there are some connecting threads.
Higgins, who died last year, was a legend in the world of mail art, in which hundreds, possibly thousands, of individuals created an important international network (what would be called “the eternal network”) of autonomous artistic communication, with its heyday between the late 1970s and into the early 1990s (of course, mail art networks still exist). Mail art wasn’t a banner-waving form of politics, but the very act of subverting the entire gallery system to the extent these artists did, while crafting alternative networks of collective creativity, was an important example of circulating self-organizing and, perhaps, “self-valorization” or even “substruction” (to use a loose reading of p.m.’s concept in bolo’ bolo). It would be fundamentally wrong to make the argument that mail art, in its heyday, was a political project aimed at overcoming capitalism – it was not. However, the substance of mail art networks had important subverting and creating effects, and within the world of mail art there were some artists that incorporated autonomist and situationist concepts, including self-activity, class struggle, and detournement. (On the question of the possibilities for DIY to subvert capitalist relations, readers may be interested in this article we co-authored many years back, see p. 44-61).
In New York City some of the mail artists were also involved in what would be called the Rivington School. Higgins was one significant participant; so was Istvan Kantor – who began using the name Monty Cantsin in the late 1970. Cynthia Carr, in her stinging essay “The Triumph of Neoism. The Millionth Apartment Festival” (1988) explains:
“Monty Cantsin” – an “open pop star” – was a name, an identity, an idea invented in the late seventies by David Zack, a mail artists. Anyone could be Monty Cantsin. The name would then become famous, to the benefit of every Monty Cantsin. But the person most identified with the name is Istvan Kantor – construction worker, nurse, Canadian citizen, and native of Budapest. For this, Kantor/Cantsin has taken some neoflack in the neozine Smile (“Free to Shoplifters”). In a philosophy where nothing matters, it’s funny what does matter (p. 106).
Cantsin/Kantor is also the person often associated with “Neoism,” which as a provocative tradition (if it could be called that), which picks up inspiration from nihilism, situationist practice, punk, among other schools of activity and thought (notably, its participants would likely deny any of that). As a child, Kantor was a participant in the Hungarian Revolution and in a wide-ranging and important interview with Rafael Gonzalez he explained:
“Traumatic experiences are often the driving forces, the sources of motivation for making art. My most important traumatic experience was the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. I ran out from the air raid shelter where my whole family and other people stayed during the uprising, and in the street I pointed my toy gun to a convoy of Russian tanks. They stopped and a soldier jumped out from the leading vehicle and approached me. I ran back to the building and hid in a dark corner. The Russians surrounded the buildings and looked for me. In those times lots of kids threw MOLOTOV cocktails to Russian tanks and got killed. I only used a gesture but it was powerful enough to scare them. I was lucky enough that the janitor of the building could speak some Russian and calmed them down. And perhaps they were on some other mission anyway and so they left. People in the air raid shelter ritualistically broke my toy gun, that my grandfather made me, to small pieces. That was the first time that I confronted authorities at gunpoint using a gesture and it determined the rest of my life. I was 7 years old.”
The name “Monty Cantsin”, along with Karen Eliot and other ‘multiple identities’ would become commonly used among explicit participants in neoism in the mail art networks internationally (Stewart Home was another notable participant. Some of the works of these folks also show up in Cleaver’s listing of autonomist Marxist-related materials, here).
The exhibit at the Van Der Plas gallery occur on two floors – one at street level and one in the downstairs show room. The Higgins work is in the main gallery space, at street level, while the 10 Tons show is in the basement. Our main interest in the 10 Tons Show was Cantsin’s pieces. We include pictures of those here:
The gallery is on Orchard Street, right near Rivington Street, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The neighborhood is largely unrecognizable from what it looked like in the 1980s. The last remaining quasi-anarchist bookstore lost its space in the neighborhood due to rising rents, and there’s a CBD shop now in its place. The towers on Ludlow are overwhelming. One can’t help but wonder how an artist like Kantor experiences the area now. That curiosity aside, it was nice to see an exhibit of Higgins’ work, in particular. The gallery produced a small catalogue for the show and below is a picture of the opening pages, a picture of Kantor and Higgins and a short essay penned by Kantor about Higgins: