When I first met Robert Anasi, author of the recently released The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he was doing handstands in the parking lot of a hotel in Orange County, CA. We were both visiting the UC Irvine campus as prospective graduate students, and as the shuttle to campus became later and later, the topic of handstands and one’s ability to perform them inexplicably arose. He could perform them, as it turned out.
Five years later I found myself in the kitchen of ANIMAL New York’s Jane-Claire Quigley, interviewing Robert about his most recent book, a personal account of the changes Williamsburg saw in the 1990s and early 2000s. Although we were both comfortably seated drinking tall boys of Budweiser, I knew the possibility of a rogue handstand was ever-looming. With Robert, as I’ve long known, you have to be prepared for the unexpected, whether you’re in a kitchen in South Williamsburg, a parking lot in Southern California, or—especially—when you’re reading one of his books.
I like the William Gibson epigraph that opens the book [“Authentic subcultures require backwaters, and time”]. Why did you start with that?
With The Last Bohemia my general theoretical groundwork is this: due to the way information is just so rapidly transmitted in the current moment, I don’t think there can be, as the Gibson quote says, that necessary incubation period—the period where bohemias cohere and establish their identity, where you have a community of young artists working and creating work.
In the modern era—especially in the visual arts—people are just looking for immediate success. You think of everything as a marketing scheme. And at the same time, developers see artists, and they get a total boner. They’re like, “I’m going to use this kid to help raise the values of my distressed property.”
But even Gibson’s metaphor implies an end, right? Incubation implies an end point: a birth or some kind of limit.
Right. But there’s no incubation anymore. As soon as the slightest hint of “cool” or “newness” or anything comes up, it’s immediately absorbed. The culture industry has gotten so good at picking up these trends and marketing them immediately, and so there’s much less space to just fuck around and try something new.
You also include a quotation from Sam Delany, and I became convinced that you were trying to make some connection between bohemian city space and science fiction. Is there an inherent relationship between bohemian city spaces and sci-fi?
Science fiction is making utopias. You’re projecting a utopian vision. Adorno says something really interesting in Aesthetic Theory. He says science fiction gives us all these dystopias of a ruined future, but the real value of it is the hope that there actually can be a future.
That’s interesting because you say in your book at one point that there’s a little glimmer of hope in the fact that there are tourists visiting Brooklyn—forgoing the South Coast Plaza Mall idea in favor of something else.
Yeah, the glimmer of hope is that, on some level, people aren’t happy with what they have. They realize that the culture that’s being marketed and fed to them is inadequate and inhuman and horribly limited. So there remains the hope that there can be something else, there can be something better. Unfortunately, what they get when they go out, is they end up on the north side of Williamsburg, and it’s a culturally degraded space.
So you’re saying that the hope lies in the fact that…
…that there’s simply hope.
People realize the South Coast Plaza idea is an empty one and they’re looking for something else. But it doesn’t mean that Bedford Avenue is going to supply that something else.
That’s the tragedy. Some of my main ideas come from that great essay by Deleuze: “Bartleby; or, The Formula of Resistance.” His idea is Bartleby is the representation of American utopia, but only as a kind of negativity. Bartleby won’t accept the Oedipal model of hierarchy that’s being forced on him. America is the possibility that you can live in a world without fathers, where it’s just a brotherhood.
So in some kind of larger sense, the theme of the book is that artists in Williamsburg were trying to escape that patriarchal order and find something new, and find something really democratic. And that hope lies in the idea of America from the beginning, even though it’s been incessantly betrayed since the first days of America.
On that same level, in a science fiction alternate reality, could the narrative of Williamsburg in the ’90s and early 2000s have been altered in any way? Can an artistic community just miles from the center of commerce on earth have anything different happen to it?
Well, something else did happen. I mean, the miracle is that, actually for a moment, there was this weird, anarchic community right across the river from the U.N. The fact that it actually did exist for a while is remarkable.
Could it have been different? Could things have turned out differently? Sure, I think things could have turned out differently. Bloomberg et alii, they want us to believe that our only options are New York of The Bronx Is Burning or luxury condo high-rises. Their vision of the world is either/or. Either you just live in squalor or you’re a servant of a rich person, and those are your only options. And I don’t think that’s how it has to be, but that’s kind of how it turned out.
Top image: Robert and me, poised for pratfalls at his reading in Williamsburg.