Sunday, February 7, 2010

Barclays Center is Just Another Death Star and Donald O'Finn is Lando's Fish Taco Side Kick.

New York will be a wonderful place to live if we ever finish building it – but lets hope we never do. Build it higher, pack it denser, squeeze more of us in - there’s still plenty of room. May the hammers never stop.

That said, Bruce Ratner’s aesthetic has proven to be a monumental anti-urbanism and the best indication of future behavior is past behavior. But whatever ends up being building over the Atlantic Yards, my current favorite bar is going to get knocked down. Here is my advise: wherever you are, San Francisco, Berlin, Queens, whatever, bust ass down to Freddy’s Bar & Backroom before it gets the wrecking ball. Do it right away, because tomorrow it could be gone.

And if you go for no other reason, go to watch Donald O'Finn’s movies as they are meant to be seen. He is a hidden master. His video Dancing on the Ceiling is as good as anything I've seen in New York. O’Finn bartends at Feddy’s, but he is also a first caliber video artist - the only artist who presence I missed in PS1's awesome 100 Years survey. (After all the hand wringing about what would happen to PS1 when the Modern took over, it turns out the combination of MoMA wealth and PS1 poverty makes for the best video show I have ever seen - Whoever would have guessed that Klaus Biesenbach is Jedi?)

In addition to bartending and making art, O’Finn is an activist. He is an outspoken opponent of Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development scheme. And while no one ever talks about the fish taco guy in Return of the Jedi, he's the one who blew up the second Death Star – I predict he will be revealed as the most powerful Jedi ever and will be the central character of Episode 7-9 – but even if I am wrong, and fish taco guy isn’t a hidden master, that should take nothing away from my point: Donald O'Finn is a Jedi.

There is nothing slick about O'Finn’s videos. He started out making them using two VHS recorders (or at least that’s what I remember, he is always serving me too much beer when we talk). He has upgraded since then, but his stuff all looks very DIY. He combines old commercials, porn, black and white musical numbers crap monster movies, on and on. O’finn is the anti-Ratner- there is nothing monumental about what he makes, and its ALL-urban.

O’Finn is a latter-day Situationist (AND a Jedi). His aesthetic of video collage is paranoid, which is to say, in them, everything is connected. Visually they are a rabbit hole akin to a conspiracy theory (JFK to Anne Truitt). O’Finn’s videos are a product of city life akin to Guy Debord’s collage of postage stamps, engraved soldiers and map fragments. But for O'Finn the ingredients are Children’s TV, Burlesque, 1930’s musicals, and 1970 commercials; what he produces are 4D psychogeographique.

I’m not a big Situationist International guy – its an intense and fairly particular body of literature that attracts a loyalty not unlike certain science fiction franchises that will remain unnamed, but I have read Simon Sadler’s book The Situationist City (twice), so I have some sense of what Debord and Lefebvre were up to. Likre the art and literature of the SI, O’Finn’s videos are a celebrations of the congestion and confusion of city life and his resistance to Ratner’s desire to rationalize Brooklyn is akin to the Situationist’s resistance to the Modernist's efforts to rationalize Paris.

Sadler points out that Paris emerge from War II undamaged, but that a third of the old city was destroyed in the post war years in the name of modernization. O’Finn's loyalty to his love-worn sliver of old New York echoes the Situationist's defense of the Beaubourg in Paris:

"The decrepit Beaubourg (literally translated it means 'beautiful village,’ an irony that doubtless delighted the Situationists) and marketplace of Les Halles, [are] placed at the very center of Situationist maps. At the time, the spectacle of modernization has bypassed this part of Paris. It was recognizably a working-class area, where pedestrians rather than motorized traffic had priority on the streets, and where commercial exchange still took place over transitory market stalls, or in small shops, rather than in the chic boutiques or monolithic department stores a little further north and west. Here is the center of late-fifties Paris, Debord and Jorn correctly identified a gap in the Parisian spectacle… It was surely no coincidence that 1968 also found President George Pompidou personally throwing Beaubourg’s fate open to an international architectural competition for a ‘happening’ library, gallery, and cultural center… Were it not for the authoritarian supervision of the Centre’s construction by Robert Bordaz, a state councilor whose previous work included the evacuation after Diaen Bien Phu, Beaubourg would still be a hole in the ground. Or it might harbor the sort of radicalized population that had put its head above the wall in May 1968, just prior to Pompidou’s announcement of the Beaubourg competition.” Simon Sadler, The Situationist City: 65-6

O’Finn’s YouTube channel is great, but at least part of the pleasure of watching these videos is leaning against the bar they were made to play above while listening to whatever mixed tape the bartender happens to be playing at the moment. (Seriously, I don’t think there are any ipod lists – I’m pretty sure they are playing tapes.)

This place, the art it inspired, and the little worlds it contains should not go out with a whimper. I am not urging you to go to this place because I have been hanging out for years (I haven’t – I’ve been there maybe a dozen times). I want you to go because a dying bar has its own strange beauty and because this one has fostered a culture of congestion that is everything Ratner's Metrotech and Atlantic Center were built to barricade its tenants against. Ratner's aesthetic is wrong headed and anti New York. Freddy's should not be knocked down, but it very much should be crowded right up to the end.


  1. John....
    If you only knew all the associations and connotations that the name john Powers has for the Ghosts and other denizens of Freddy's. 10 years ago no one drank it (except in Ireland it is the #1 most popular whiskey) It is even hard to find in the city now, but in this neighborhood it is huge. I feel some alcoholic responsability for that...a lovely lady turned me on to it one late night when i used to work @
    O'Connors a thousand years ago, and i didn't look back, (or up) until recently.
    (The Dew is Back)

    Anyway ...thanks for the appreciation, i appreciate it!!!
    Donald O'Finn

  2. Also videos are on public access show "TV Dreams" on TV Channel 56 (& others) Thu in Manhattan @ 10:30 and in Brooklyn @ 12:30.

  3. Yeah one of the bartenders shut down the music and announced me to the bar when he was told my name. We did a shot together. Unfortunately, I can't touch brown liquor without going to the Dark Side, but folks love feeding me John Powers. From my perspective it's a perverse joy, like feeding chicken to pigeons. Glad you like the post Donald.