(an almost edited text from the publication)
El Mundo – All Brand Names - A Haunted Houses Project.
After moving to Spanish Harlem in 1997, I have been shopping at El Mundo for ALL BRAND NAME toilet paper, laundry detergents, batteries, light bulbs, wrapping tapes and other stuff typically sold on Third Avenue between 103rd and 110th street. At one point in the late 1990s, a person working for El Mundo offered me even an expensive bicycle for 20 dollars that was not part of the official shop’s list of merchandises and had no information about it’s provenience. Due to the fact that neighboring discount shops on this strip upgraded their appearance and repertory better than El Mundo, I more or less stopped shopping there. Only sometimes I was lured in with the false assumption that because of its unorganized appearance, prices were better than next door. Third Avenue is defined by discount shops typical for low income areas now about to disappear in Manhattan.
What is special about this mile on Third Avenue is that many buildings are only occupied on street level leaving the rest of the often residential structures unoccupied, boarded or even bricked up. A New York Times article about this area quotes some housing advocates calling these vacant buildings throughout Spanish Harlem simply “Haunted Houses.” This reference I used for my 16 mm film Haunted Hauses - Vacant Buildings on Third Avenue
Between 99th and 120th Street and a small ad hoc project space I call Haunted Houses Projects for collective readings and other stuff I run out of my studio from Third Avenue.
The reasons for the underutilization of these residential properties in a Manhattan market that has an average of only 1 % vacancies at a time when you have a striving Latino population and lots of people moving to Harlem attracted by lower rents are complex. Most likely real estate speculations, mismanagement, bad experiences with non-paying tenants and general distrust by elderly landlords in the neighborhood are overwhelmingly to blame. Looking through New York City property records, I discovered that only a few real estate companies own the majority of these underutilized addresses on Third Avenue and throughout the area of Spanish Harlem. To give a very concrete example, I got a peak into the affair of the landlord of my studio on Third Avenue, just a few blocks higher than El Mundo. His company has acquired a big portfolio of buildings around the area during the very bad years where the city basically offered properties for symbolic prices in order to collect real estate taxes. This landlord in his eighties still distrusts tenants and remembers vividly the bad old times, when houses were burned down by tenants and other people for benefits, scrap materials and myopic tricks. He has not forgotten that one of his employees was gunned down in front of his office on Third Avenue coming to work.
According to public records and the Marshall’s eviction notice currently on the entrance door, the owner of the physical structure of El Mundo is listed as 1852 Third Avenue Reality LLC - a 10 year old company - with a mailing address of a national super market chain. El Mundo has now been evicted and the building is been completely emptied out.
It is not yet clear what will come after this but the new nearby Second Avenue subway line going directly to Chelsea will soon be completed which is already attracting a long row of new condominium buildings pushing the Upper east side into Harlem.
When shopping at El Mundo I was always admiring the theatrical details I discovered after a while since all their stuff was standing, lying and hanging throughout the place, thus hiding the original function of this old theater space. Over the years I found myself day dreaming of a Werner Herzog’ Fitzergeraldo kind of performance. El Mundo stands in my imagination not for a series of discount shops around down but for this particular messy, now gone discount business housed in this former theater which now risks to be torn down for redevelopment. Working on my fashion project Karl Marx dressing UP and some working class songs I have written and recorded, El Mundo became more and more an imaginary stage. Last fall after meeting Rachel Koblyakov, a violinist who just graduated from Julliard School of Music, I got convinced this dream of staging on opera in this still functioning retail mess might become true. But when the sign Closing in 14 days went up in January I had to act very, very quickly and so I did.
My first call was to Rachel asking her for a program and musicians who could play a concert with such short notice and under such poor conditions for no money. My second step was to negotiate a price for a specific evening with the store manager or store owner. He asked for 1500 dollars but we finally settled for 500 dollars, a sum that was immediately offered and paid by Matthew Higgs of White Columns. This old New York City non for profit space also helped me to promote the event. The costs of $1200 plus tax for the grand piano rental I had to pick up myself. On top of this, the grand piano represented a certain liability problem for everybody involved and it was not sure whether the lender would leave the expensive concert piano in such a place that didn’t resemble a site for the recital of music. Confronted with such an unprepared environment the instrument handlers were calling the rental office weighting in whether I - arriving on a bicycle, dressed in a day glow yellow safety jacket common for street workers - could be really entrusted with a grand piano that costs tens of thousands of dollars. I also had to do some explaining to the El Mundo people what such a big piece of hardware was doing at their door since nobody really had an idea what I was trying to do with my concert. The tuning person arriving an hour later too was slightly shocked since shoppers already started to use the piano to pose drinks, bags, coats and other stuff on it while watching and trying on their products.
Only after the piano made it inside, I myself started to fully believe in our enterprise and was able to also convince the shop manager that something marvelous is going to happen. This reality effect on the El Mundo manager was reinforced by my cash payment and distinguished me from the usual unusual patronage. The sale personal was accustomed to all kind of outspoken, story telling and stuff-soliciting people. Alone in the few hours I was spending at El Mundo I could observe a small variety of their colorful clientele. One particular man was ranting in a threatening manner inside the shop for quite some time and had to be forced out by the staff. The piano was also put to use by some who just hammered randomly on the keyboard. The store staff warned me of the nearby police station, forbid smoking and drinking and wanted to know whether “women” would attend the event as well.
Before the first visitors arrived soon after the store closed for regular business, all displayed merchandizes outside the full length of El Mundo were - to my surprise and against my wish - rolled into the already overstuffed indoor area which quickly filled up the already narrow walkways. This made it nearly impossible to free up any significant space for the public and left only little performing space for the musicians. The surprised audience subsequently not only was visually overwhelmed with all the stuff they saw but was also put in physical contact with the clothes, fabrics and all the things standing around. This unavoidable physicality compensated a bit for the increasing cold since the blow heaters fighting one of the coldest nights of the year had to be turned off. The concert started with the silencing switch of these old, loud heaters and set free the acoustic potential of this former performing space. When these brilliant musicians started the former theater rejuvenated and transformed everybody and everything into some kind of magic, melting the chaos and releasing the beauty of all things.
The history of the El Mundo building began in 1914 when some previous structure was modified for “motion picture shows,” to make it a so-called nickelodeon costing 5 cents per show - implying that it might have been already a performance space before. In the Film Daily Year Book of 1926 the theater was listed as Eagle Theater accommodating 600 places which explains why there is still an eagle prominently displayed on top of the performance area. The property records of New York City list the structure as built in 1926. According to cinematreasures.org the movie theater closed in 1981 with 1294 seats and was subsequently converted into a meat market. Their web site offers comments like this : “I remember the Eagle Theatre was the place to go as a child, where one can see the main feature, a grade-B movie, a comedy, and a cartoon … all for 35 cents. Those were the days!” On the building code violation 340679Z from 1992, I found the company name Hungry Jacks Warehouse, a food company. Soon afterwards, I become the discount store it was for sure since 1997 when I moved to the area.
The demographic information taken from an article of the New York Times entitled Another Cosmopolitan Colony Has Planted Itself in Eastern Harlem Within the Last Few Years 1904 writes about a large East Harlem based Italian population that “for quarrels, agitation on the part of laborers, crime and domestic disturbance has come to take the honors away from the Mulberry Street section” with which it was quickly linked thanks to the Elevated, a now disappeared above surface section of the Metropolitan Transport System. But the New York Times article also speaks about “a large, indefinite population of Germans, Irish, Jews, with a little pocket of negroes.” As it is known, the majority of these listed populations – most of them have moved on since - are to this day still an opera and song loving people lending ground to my imagination that classical music bel canto singing might have taken place on the site of the former Eagle Theater even though I couldn’t locate any announcements. A former opera house was listed in central Harlem on 125th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue.
The grand piano was not standing on the former stage area which was fully boarded up but in the middle of the open front space in a narrow aisle between bulky standing racks and moveable clothing hangers. Those, I pushed as much a possible aside to gain some little space in front of the instrument. The audience quickly found its way in and around the theater wondering all over the place including the balcony. Up there, I moved two cabinets and dismounted a barrier to open a full view onto the grand piano just below for a handful of people. The balcony area was open to shoppers and housed the furniture department thought intermixed with so many scattered boxes, fabrics and stuff that one really got the impression of being in a junk yard waiting to be finally disposed. The view from this elevated gallery was stunning and revealing as it allowed for a more or less unhindered discovery of the architectural details above the light fixtures. One could admire the eagle, the columns, the demarcations and decorations with the historic stucco work so similar to a European opera house though it was conceived for a moving picture theater rebuilt in 1926. Up there in the disorder of things you found not only children toys, mattresses, lamps, microwaves and fish tanks intermingled with textiles and pure junk but also images of voluptuous flowers, idyllic landscapes, cheap Christian Madonna icons, pictures of naked women, Hebraic objects mixed with bags and things you wouldn’t even expect hanging on walls.
Below the fluorescent green sign signaling LINEN DEPARTMENT the music emerged and made you forget that you were not in a classical music hall but standing between cheap clothing, other wares in a freezing cold. In fact, due to the turned off noisy heaters the cold kept brutally creeping up to a point the very old violin was difficult to control. As a result the violinist excluded one of her solo segments from the vinyl record and the video. When the dressed ladies in concert outfit were not playing you could see them cowering down with gloves and shaking behind the aisles. The professional quality of the musical performance was in stark contrast to all the peculiar surroundings. This messy mix featured “handcrafted Art glass Shark Designed in Murano,” decorative elephants, crafting supplies, underwear, shoes, bathroom fixtures, outdoor clothes, kitchenware, Chinese made slippers, cooking and flower pots, shower curtains, food, toilet papers, furniture, microwaves, CDs, TV screens and DVDs, buckets, cleaning items, toys, glasses, towels, writing and drawing materials, dresses, linen, and lots of FOR SALE signs. The entire space was covered with hanging, standing and sticking signs saying EVERYTHING MUST GO, YOU PAY LESS THAN WE PAID and 5 FOR 10 $
As long as there is a contrast between today’s socio-economic reality of Classical Music and the regular clientele of the El Mundo shop we shouldn’t forget that Georges Bizet’s Carmen was a proletarian Spanish woman working in a tobacco factory surrounded by smugglers and bandits. Early industrial production was with only little exception dealing with colonial wares appropriated on an industrial scale for emerging industries and markets. European and American industrialization was intrinsically linked to colonization, slave work, slave trade and imperialist politics and famous for brutal wars over raw materials and markets. Carmen becomes a fatal victim of lawlessness and immoral treason in a style called Verismo typical of late 19th century opera with a gusto for the real on stage as well as in the arts. Today’s Spanish Harlem too is still low on income and high on crime with definitely a different reality principle at work than by the population in possession of subscriptions to the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Most of the wares sold at El Mundo were produced in China and other low cost countries from the southern hemisphere who are all in a race to the bottom. The industrial sweat of cheap oversea labor of all ages is whipped off, heat-sealed away so the shoppers are not in touch with the pain of production but only left with the hassle of consumption. Ironically enough, many people shopping at El Mundo work – if they are not unemployed – most likely for the various service industries that cater directly or indirectly to those who are setting up, administering and profiting from today’s production, trade and consumption on a global scale. Big financial and trading firms and transnational businesses based in Manhattan typically are day and night long serviced directly and indirectly by workers who live in low-income neighborhoods of which East Harlem is part of.
Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly is based on a short story by John Luther Long, an American who wrote about the colonial route to Asia involving Methodist missionary work and Orientalist fantasies. When taken up by Puccini at the end of the 19th century he was in touch with the Orientalist taste of his time completely in tune with the highest stage of colonialism and imperial practice. Today, capital and communication, designs and production orders circumvent the world in micro-seconds and the big ships to move raw materials, finished merchandises and products do not need any colonial officers with American passports anymore. The original story of John Luther Long’s Puccini opera heavily borrows from Madame Chrysanthème by the French novelist and naval officer Pierre Loti with a goût for Orientalist mannerisms who very successfully married facts and fictions with his two jobs at the high days of French Imperialism. Loti was so successful that the Parisian Boulevard crossing the Champ de Mars underneath the Eiffel Tower was named after him. The very local dreamer and famous painter Henry Rousseau eternalized him in a portrait in 1891. Loti is also subject of a beautiful Hermès carré issued only a few years ago catering to its high-end international consumption base with very deep pockets that does not shop at places like El Mundo.
El Mundo was not averse to luxurious international labels and featured ALL BRAND NAMES on the outside just below it’s logo that sports a map of the world to illustrate in Spanish the global world. Their commercial canopy lists quite some international labels from Armani, Iceberg to Ralph Lauren but also brands like MECCA for clothing that caters to hip-hop communities. Brand name thinking is also very strong in disadvantaged communities where kids have actually killed kids for Nike sneakers. In these unfortunate cases, underprivileged teenagers have murdered not for love or jealousy like in our 19th century operas but for a relatively cheap BRAND NAME it-consumer item. The labels listed on the canopy alongside the entire front of the shop building were not necessarily what you got in the shop if you looked for a particular item. You might have encountered either fakes, faulty ware, merchandises that simply failed to sell anywhere else or nothing at all if you desired something specific. Some sweet online reviews of El Mundo shoppers addressing a different type of name recognition bring it to the point: El Mundo is “Harlem's answer to Target and Walmart,” or “the hood's Walmart without the perishables”
The opera Tosca by Puccini was the third aria played at El Mundo. Even thought it was primordially a story of love and treason, the background was again the world, i.e. world politics of the 19th century which was colonial and imperial in nature and dominated by France under Napoleon, England and Egypt. In short, it was Europe versus the Arab world. My associative game connecting unexpected dots could be extended, if I may refer to the provenience of the owners of El Mundo who were Arabic speaking Iraqi Jews who moved to the USA due to political circumstances. The program of the evening was decided entirely by what these Julliard students had ready and what they could play without preparations. I did not ask for something of Verdi’s Aida which was thoroughly analyzed for its colonial origin and context by Edward Said in his book Culture and Imperialism.
There exist many opera pieces that bring us back to politics, to the emerging working class culture in which slaves and exploited people played a role mirroring the emerging industrialization of Europe in the 19th century and the rather under-privileged context in which El Mundo was placed and functioned in Spanish Harlem. Without knowing much about the social and ideological history of opera, I have the impression this particular classical format was at one point an authentic expression of the then popular culture, ideology, misery, hardship and passion of not only the rich but also the poor. Thus, the ad hoc and spontaneous staging of this musical event in this precarious context of this dilapidated store awaiting an immanent eviction was not only my private shopping daydream come true but an attempt to reconnect some severed links. The implicit poverty of many things El Mundo is not just using the context as a prank, a radical chic effect, or an entertaining backdrop for some divertimento, some amusement for a bored art scene but a place of reflection and subtle awareness to East Harlem’s gentrification and still wide spread poverty.
When asked to replicate such a concert in Los Angeles, I simply refused since I prefer focusing only on this particular event with this particular history in a neighborhood I have been living for nearly two decades. Given the likely fact that this building will be sooner or later replaced by a tower with condominiums – they start going up left and right - I will remember this performance, which Carissa Rodriguez called “a magical event” as a closure to a legacy I could only experience in its final two decades. To make this all a reality, I would like to thank everybody involved: the musicians Rachel Koblyakov, Ken Oiishi, Jay Dref, Siyi Fang and Ok-Ja Lim; the sound technician Marshal Garbus; Matthew Higgs and White Columns; Nick Mauss, Anna Oberle, Friedhelm Brill, Gerhard Frommel and the various people to whom I spontanioiusly handed a camera during the performance who filmed and took photographs; as well as Ari Taub with his 16 mm camera. Many thanks also to everybody who attended the audience. I am very indebted to Andreas Baur, Villa Merkel who has enabled the production of the publication and its first presentation to an audience that did not participate in the event. I am also grateful to all the writers published in this volume. Also thanks to Nicolaus Schafhausen and the Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna that will subsequently include this project in the exhibition Salon der Angst (September 6, 2013 until January 12, 2014). Thanks also to Dominique Krauss who finalized my design ideas and put it into reality. I am also intensely thinking of all the underprivileged residents of Spanish Harlem who for so long have had to endure systemic injustice and will stay most likely on the losing end in the ever accelerating poverty and education gaps of our society in general and in this now enforced gentrification process in particular.