New Yorkers who once thrived on chance encounters and interconnection with Manhattan’s pace and energy are beginning to find creative footholds in the abnormalities of pandemic life.
Expressions are varied, but each point to the embrace of a profoundly altered state and a DIY punk ethos featuring a partial rejection of commercial imperatives, branding, the internet and politics.
Years after the demise of alternative newspapers like the Village Voice, two of those expressions have taken form in print: the NewNow, from thee former Paper magazine editor Kim Hastreiter, and the Drunken Canal, a self-described “biased news source”, that treats Brooklyn as a foreign land, runs a horoscope of mostly bad omens and a column entitled: “Uh-oh … sorry to hear you’ve been cancelled”.
The founders of the Canal, Gutes Guterman and Claire Banse, both 23, said the concept came to them in July while sitting on a park bench.
“Covid made everyone feels so separate, and we wanted to create some kind of community that people could recognise,” Guterman told the Guardian. “We ran with it in the hope that for someone out there it would better their day. With the chaos and total depression of the pandemic – and we’re not making light of it – the only thing we could do was laugh.”
With four issues to date, and print run of just 1,000, the latest being the Valentine’s themed Love & Life issue, the Canal is a hotly anticipated downtown print that eschews the internet and its discourse – or lack thereof.
“Are we meant to keep retweeting, liking, reposting, and sharing echo-chamber content that honestly becomes boring and dangerous after a certain point?” reads Canal’s manifesto. “You can, but we don’t want to.”
The decision to abandon the internet and the frenzy of social media came as a relief, Banse said. “By the time we came out, we’d all been online too much with its rules about identifying that you’re on the right side. Putting stuff in print and saying fuck it was a big relief. It’s detached, like tunnel vision, but a little soft and malleable.”
Like many, Hastreiter, 69, found herself housebound and creatively paralysed last March. “I thrive on meeting people. I was just lost. Everyone was alone. So I wanted to make a community, and to address what we’re living through,” she said.
Months later, as the weather warmed, she set up an informal office on a bench in Washington Square Park and came up with a concept: what is the new now? Hastreiter gave her writers one stipulation: no mention of the 45th president.
“Time feels like it’s either standing still or sped up, or both, churning and spiralling on itself,” REM’s Michael Stipe writes in a meditative entry. “There’s a before and after. We’re in the middle of what happens after the before and before the after.”
In another contribution, the psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster writes about the patients returned to their earliest traumas by the pandemic.
Last week, 5,000 copies of the publication – not a newspaper, according to Hastreiter – were published free of charge, free of advertising and free of the internet, and distributed to friends and small booksellers.
“The most exciting thing is to have no money involved, no brands. That meant I could do anything I want and be a complete lunatic. It’s like the annual soup party I do, only it’s printed.” (The NewNow includes soup recipes – an obsession describes as a “coping mechanism”)
Nearby, the DIY ethos has found other adherents. Leo Fitzpatrick, who appeared alongside Chloë Sevigny in Larry Clark’s skate-punk coming-of-age film Kids, has opened Public Access, a tiny gallery on St Mark’s Place, in August.
He, too, said it was a community-building project, free of the internet that had played a part, via Instagram, in creating copycat art and its attendant burnout.
“There’s an overall vibe in the art world that you don’t belong if you’re not a collector. With high rents dictating who could survive, the idea of communal space got pushed aside. So I wanted a gallery where kids felt invited and included.”
That attitude has also found its way to music. Throughout the summer, a small local band, the Pinc Louds, played in Tompkins Square Park to crowds of 200 or more. “They’re strange in what they do, but it was amazing to see them create this community out of nothing,” Fitzpatrick said.
The message is that you do not have to wait for a gallery or a studio visit, said KO Nnamdie, an independent art curator. “We’re realising we don’t need institutional approval or the dopamine kick from a ‘like’.”
Publisher and bookseller David Strettell, whose store Dashwood Books acts in part as community drop-in, also detects “an anxious need in people to move away from the distaste of consumerism”.
Among his offerings are Jason Eskenazi’s Dog Food, Chime, a zine supporting transgender people and discreetly supported by Gucci, and a photo magazine by a leading fashion figure that is neither titled nor authored. “This is it. The Big Time, The Real Thing,” reads the preface.
“There’s a move away from things being a commodity and the idea of launching something and promoting it on social media,” he said. “It’s a ‘bubble up and be there without making a big pitch’ [thing]. Everyone wants to be cult, but they don’t want it to be so planned and contrived.”