Williamsburg’s Arcadian Past: Composer Billy Basinski Stars in Robert Wilson’s Quasi-Opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

We toured his old Williamsburg haunts, and reminisced about the area’s bohemian past

At one of the events a man in a scuba suit sat in an aquarium and read The New York Times before emerging to throw himself into a forest of fluorescent light tubes. The artist Lauren Szold did a piece called Medea’s Period, consisting of a huge lake of “menstrual blood” made out of eggs, water and red food coloring.

“I was one of the people who wallowed in it,” Mr. Pettit said. “I was a transvestite having her first period.”

Mr. Pettit attended the events as both participant and observer. For years he edited a small newspaper called The Waterfront Week, an amalgam of proto-blog message board and Gossip Girl. Anyone could send in materials to the Ship’s Mast, a local dive bar; if it fit, it was printed.

One contributor to the July 1-7, 1993, issue wrote a surprising take down of Organism, a large party that had taken place several weeks before. “I’m not against having fun,” he wrote, “but is that all there is? At some point don’t any of you creative types intend to step forward and reveal some kind of luminous truth in your work? Org struck me as a decent enough warehouse party, but is that why you left Kansas?”

Into this environment stepped Mr. Basinski, who had run a music series in Downtown Brooklyn before moving to Williamsburg in 1989. He and his longtime partner, James Elaine, found the space on North 11th Street, fixed it up and began hosting concerts.

“There was a big steel door and you’d come into this mysterious palace with golden-looking floors and decaying columns,” Mr. Basinski recalled. “‘The Ballroom,’ we called it, and it was 20 feet wide and 70 feet long, with a recording studio on one side and a little stage on the other.”

The first party was a surrealist ball; other themes included “Angels, Demons, and Birds of Paradise” and “The Dying Salon.” (Antony performed at both of those; Mr. Basinski encouraged him to move away from his early experimental theater work and concentrate on his music.) The formidable avant-garde musician Diamanda Galas performed on Halloween 1992.

Arcadia was featured in a 1993 New York magazine article on “The New Bohemia” happening in Williamsburg, but as it got larger and larger, Mr. Basinski eventually tired of it.

“We had neighbors and we were all getting older,” he said. “You start something, you do it by the seat of your pants. That’s what artists do. They start something. It really does create economic development. The arts are the engine for economic development. Except artists are expected to keep moving to the next waste dump.”

Mr. Basinski now lives in California, the reason being that he can’t afford New York. The rent on his enormous loft crept higher and higher until his landlord was asking for $10,000 a month. The Williamsburg of 20 years ago is unrecognizable. The Lizard’s Tail is now a bike shop, a few doors down from the restaurant Fatty ’Cue. Mr. Pettit recognized the building only by its distinctive second-floor terrace, off of which an odd hanger-on to the scene nicknamed Evil Jim once fell.

“It’s inevitable,” Mr. Basinski said. “Money and the real estate boom. It’s just the way it goes, I guess. You’d like things to stay the same but they never do.”

Which is not to say that he’s overly sentimental. As it happens, while he and his partner are in town for the Issue gala, they’ll be staying with a friend who lives in the old neighborhood. Not in an unheated loft, mind you, but in one of the looming glass condo buildings on the river that together represent the end of Arcadian Williamsburg.

He laughed. “Crazy, right?”


Williamsburg’s Arcadian Past: Composer Billy Basinski Stars in Robert Wilson’s Quasi-Opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic