Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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TIDALINFLUENCE

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.

INTERVIEW: THEO KINDYNIS
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THEO KINDYNISYour latest project, which focuses on your recent explorations of New York City’s waterways, seems in some ways to be a continuation of your previous work, particularly I Don’t Warna Grow Up (2012) and DMYCC (2017). Looking back, IDWGU stands as a document of “urban exploration” just before its explosion into a global phenomenon, where the practices you’d engaged in quickly became formalized and commodified, evacuated of their subversive potential and appropriated by consumer culture. DMYCC was a breath of fresh air. In contrast to today’s superficial “like and subscribe” adventure tourism, the book documents your decade-long engagement with a singular cavernous underground space beneath NYC. Can you tell us about this new project and how it came together?
SEAN VEGEZZII do think that this project is a continuation of my previous works, but I don’t think the progression was one that I could have foreseen. My interest in the waterways stems from the same inclinations I had when I was growing up: I felt as if city spaces were exclusionary, oppressive, and unfulfilling, so I searched for ones that were not. If anything, that feeling’s only grown with time.

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.

TKThis theme of nature and the city colliding runs throughout these images. In some cases, it’s quite literal. In other images, this collision is less immediately obvious, yet still present. Some were taken during Hurricane Sandy, while others reference the pandemic. The temptation is to think of these events simply as “natural disasters” that happen to cities, when in fact we can no longer disentangle the two.

SVI like that you put “natural disasters” in brackets, because it underscores the hypocrisy that exists in terms like that. In a way, saying “natural disaster” prevents us from taking accountability for our existence. It makes these events feel sporadic, unavoidable, as if we were attacked by nature at random, rather than looking at our own role in things. With Sandy, it’s important to note that our destruction of oyster reefs and reeds, which would have otherwise acted as breakwaters along our estuarine shorelines, has left us vulnerable to strong storm surges. It’s actually our removal of these environmental features that’s more worthy of being called a “natural disaster.” Over the years, New York blew up reefs that made trade routes dangerous, pushed canals underground, and turned one of our most famous ponds into 100 Centre Street, the criminal courts building. Life-giving streams become life-taking power structures. Our “success” or “progress’ is inextricably linked to the destruction of natural features, but the removal of these features leads to destruction in our own lives. That’s an important part of this new project: the images don’t just look at water in overt or literal ways—they also touch on this larger history, this ongoing pathology.
TKAnother theme you’ve previously touched on in your work —I’m thinking here of Snow Cab (2016)—is how people respond to disasters. In the collective imagination, fueled by Hollywood representations, the human response in the aftermath of disasters is a Hobbesian war of “all against all,” with people panicking and competing for resources—just as we saw at the outset of the pandemic, when people were hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer. In truth, however, life just goes on: street vendors print commemorative t-shirts, kids pose for goofy photos on top of submerged taxi cabs. Moreover, we know from disaster sociology (and from our own personal experience) that people come together and help one another, even in a metropolis as atomized and anonymous as New York. These events reconfigure our relationships with one another and with our environment. I think there are parallels to be drawn here with some of the subcultures and practices that have informed your work.
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SVSnow Cab examines catastrophic events and the commercialization efforts that follow them. Before COVID-19, I’d never seen all of the systems and constructs that control our lives so threatened. Capitalism seemed to shut down for a moment that felt more sustained than the events Snow Cab examined.

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.

TKYou mentioned issues of privacy, as well as the rise of what has been termed “algorithmic policing.” Lurking in the background in many of your images is the specter of the security state. It’s rarely if ever referenced directly, but it seems clear that these kids trespassing in and taking photographs of critical infrastructure systems and national monuments—conducting “hostile reconnaissance,” in the jargon of counterterrorism—are engaged in a game of cat and mouse with law enforcement.

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?

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SVI remember a brief moment in time, from 1999–2001, in which I was just old enough to leave the house on my own. I could roam around and explore the city without a concern for “Homeland Security” issues—I was privileged enough to not even know what terrorism was—and my only knowledge of security systems was from the video game Metal Gear Solid. It might sound goofy, but that game is actually important to mention. This was a difficult, tactical game, an action version of the genre known as “survival horror.”
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.”

For example, when construction on a Montessori school began in the building, my brother and his friends completely destroyed it. Motion sensors got placed on all of the doors leading to the garages, and my brother figured out a way to rewire them, tricking them into thinking the doors hadn’t opened. Kids called 911 on payphones outside of the building and then shot fireworks and threw objects at the police when they arrived. Graffiti increased. All kinds of scrappy anti-security tactics were developed, but the NYPD and the courts dealt heavy blows to whoever got caught. Kids went to jail, including my brother.

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.

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TKI’d like to ask you about some of the specific sites that feature in these images: Rikers Island, Hart Island in the Bronx, and the USNS Comfort, a US Navy hospital ship. If we wanted
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?
SVTheir ambiguity is what first drew me to them. I learned about New York City jails from my brother, who’d been caught up in the NY “justice system” from an early age and did stints in various jails and reform programs during the ’90s and early 2000s. Getting phone calls from him while he was locked up was like getting calls from another dimension. The reality of life in jail and prisons was beyond my comprehension at that time. As my brother got older, and dealt with other cases, he wound up in Rikers. My mother and I went to visit him, but the process of getting there was extremely time-consuming and difficult. The MTA has a strange history of omitting vital information about Rikers Island from its maps: sometimes the island appears without a name affixed to it, sometimes it’s left out completely. As of 2020, MTA maps don’t show Rikers Island having a bridge —it floats mysteriously in the East River, without any indication that they even run a bus service to it. It’s basically rendered invisible, and that’s what stuck with me: all of this pain, suffering, and corruption was happening on this island that wasn’t even included on the map. On a later phone call with my brother, he mentioned that he’d been assigned a labor detail, which comprised of burying dead people onanotherislandcalledHartIsland. The people buried here were either too poor to afford private burials, unclaimed, or totally unknown.

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.

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Sean Vegezzi (American, b. 1990) is an artist who lives and works in New York. Vegezzi continues to explore and document waterways throughout theworld,examininghow they could be used for social art practice.

Theo Kindynis is a London-based criminologist and lecturer at Goldsmiths University, London.

IMAGE COURTESY OF THE ARTIST.

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