Feeling that city spaces were exclusionary and oppressive, New York artist Sean Vegezzi turned his attention to alternate geographies. After a decade-long engagement with a cavernous underground space, his recent explorations of NYC waterways reveal the city as a suppressed natural environment, with the specter of the security state lurking in the background.
When I began kayaking about two and a half years ago, I realized that a lot of my issues with the city could have been
handled differently had I discovered the waterways earlier. I don’t regret having spent so much time looking through
spaces on land—the tunnels, the rooftops—but the waterways
provide a lot of the same fulfillment. They’re strangely
unregulated and aren’t subjected to the same surveillance
as the rest of the city, but the best takeaway for me is that
they offer a more profound nature experience. I used to think
of the “city” and “nature” as separate, but the waterways
made me realize that cities are really just suppressed natural
environments. I now see them as some of the most progressive and evolved bits of nature, with organic and man-made elements co-existing in sometimes frustrating
but also fascinating ways.
My works have survived off a togetherness that comes from collective trauma: almost everyone can tell stories of treasured spaces being obliterated for some form of commercial or industrial project. I think a lot about not moving on, getting stuck in the name of properly examining something. I don’t like the idea of rushing back to a sense of normalcy without addressing the issues that existed in the old system. Certain subcultures have been prescient with their criticisms—graffiti writers always predicted a dystopian future—but they also knew that this future had already existed for the most oppressed.
What’s so important about this moment for me is that
all of these interests that were once “subcultural” are no
longer “sub-” anything anymore. It’s not just graffiti writers,
cyberphunks, or journalists who see the importance of
privacy, autonomy, taking down the private prison industry,
and defeating security technologies. It’s not so easy to
label people now, and it’s beautiful. The algorithms that both
society and law enforcement have used to label people
are crumbling, and we’re getting closer to a wordly model as it relates to social action.
With the coincidence of mass unemployment due to
COVID, and then the recent surge of Black Lives Matter protests
in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, we’ve seen
the sudden politicization of hundreds of thousands of people. Meanwhile, we have seen police forces—particularly in the US—using an array of new tactics and technologies to suppress dissent. Could you speak more broadly about how you’ve dealt personally with these architectures of surveillance and control, public space and privacy?
It required you to sneak past all kinds of alarm systems, sentries, and CCTV cameras that moved around on algorithms—the kind that are now in use all over London.
After I first played that game, my brother and I would do these training missions around the apartment tower in which we grew up. It was one of a three-building, low-income housing complex with underground tunnels and parking garages connecting them, and we’d try to get from one end of a garage to the other without being seen. This often meant getting down on the floor and crawling underneath cars, or throwing noisy objects across the garage to create diversions. Then my friends and I started trying these sneaking missions in other spaces around my neighborhood, which at that time still had a few industrial sites left. We’d make our way into the offices of trucking companies, crawl- ing around on the floor and throwing coins to confuse guards—all just for the sake of seeing spaces that were withheld from us. If and when we got caught, nobody cared—we would just get yelled at or, in one case, be invited to hang out with the truckers and drink soda.
This carefree exploration went on until September of 2001.
Suddenly, there was a massive shift in consciousness.
There was a proliferation of security technology and legislation like the Patriot Act. Things changed quickly from
there: rents were raised, tenants were forced out of buildings
(often illegally), security systems started popping up everywhere, and the NYPD began patrolling the complex—the
staircases, the garages—and were arresting kids for smoking
weed, giving out tickets for drinking, that kind of petty
“broken windows” policing. I was still young, but for my brother’s generation, a serious battle for sacred space began.
“The underground is really just this block of land that hasn't been turned into luxury housing yet, and the police hardly know how to wrangle it from anyone.”
Within a few years, I had learned all of my brother’s methods for dealing with security systems that encroach upon your way of living, but I wanted to stay out the system. I took all of this frustration over how my brother and his friends were treated, how my neighbors were treated, how my whole neighborhood was treated, and literally went underground with it. Sure, I’m interested in underground spaces for aesthetic reasons, but in truth, a project like DMYCC needed to happen underground because of the privacy and freedom underground space affords you. The underground has the same draw to all demographics who visit it, including homeless people: you’re left alone. For me, the underground is really just this inverted block of land that hasn’t been turned into luxury housing yet, and the police hardly know how to wrangle it from anyone.
The specter of the security state is there in my work because I’m always thinking about the brutality it exerted on my building and its inhabitants, and how it destroyed the joy and freedom I briefly enjoyed as a child. DMYCC is a logical conclusion of this trauma.
to indulge in “art speak,” they might be considered what Foucault termed “heterotopias,” but in more democratic language, these are spaces that are somehow “other”—intense, contradictory, ambiguous. What drew you to them?
I’d always wanted to visit the island, in hopes that I would feel even a fraction of what my brother must have felt while working there. In the past, it seemed like a sure way to wind up in jail, so I never attempted to visit. However, in autumn of 2019, I finally mustered up the courage to go. Later, I had a feeling that the Rikers work detail would be out on Hart Island during the beginning of COVID-19. Sure enough, when I flew a drone over the island in late March, inmates were carrying out burials without PPE or social distancing measures in place. I sent this footage to the artist Melinda Hunt, whose organization [the Hart Island Project] is directly responsible for a recent change in visitation rights that now allows family members and friends to visit gravesites. The footage was subsequently released to major news outlets, and led to city officials ending the 150-year practice of having prisoners bury the dead. This felt like a very personal win for me, given how frustrated I felt when my brother was on that detail many years ago.
Finally, as for the USNS Comfort, I’d read in late March that this ship was on its way to New York. I thought of Noël Burch and Alan Sekula’s film The Forgotten Space (2012), and how although the sea cargo industry carries most of the world’s goods, it remains invisible to most of us. New York City is a huge archipelago, and the waterways are what built this country up—and yet, save for people riding ferries and the exclusive boating community, it remains this largely unused space. I was excited that the USNS Comfort was bringing so many people to the waterfront: while I was driving to Coney Island, I saw people lining the way with American flags and fold-out chairs—it felt like a “Paul Fusco RFK funeral train” moment. Of course, in the end, the ship was caught up in a lot of bureaucracy that kept the staff from filling the 1,000 beds aboard the ship. That story arc feels very American to me.
2020 has brought about a collective sense that we are living through a pivotal epoch. Much like the pandemics of the past, COVID-19 highlights and accelerates all of the pre-existing social, economic, political, and ideological problems in our respective countries. Paddling around the city during the early months of the pandemic made it easy to acquire the kind of information that is usually obfuscated or withheld by the press and or elected officials.