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A Short, Strange Occupation In Soho's Artists Space

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Matt Sledge

The reports started filtering in on Twitter Saturday afternoon: There was a new takeover in town. About 10 people had walked into a public talk at Artists Space, a mainstay on the Soho art scene, and declared it occupied.

"General Assembly at Midnight," blared an announcement on Saturday on the splinter occupation's instant Tumblr. "Bring beer."

Judging by the group's public pronouncements, they were fed up with the indignities of Zuccotti Park -- the cold, the lack of restroom facilities -- and with the increasingly organized tenor the park has taken on, with its profusion of committees and announcements about being good neighbors.

Since it was founded in 1972, Artists Space has been host to many controversial exhibitions -- on AIDS in the 1980s, on gender and identity -- but a hostile takeover like this may have been unprecedented.

The gallery was perhaps more hospitable than most for an action like #Occupy38, the hashtag named after the space's address, 38 Greene Street. Its last exhibition, called "Anarchism Without Adjectives," was about a "desire for a radical democratization of the production and reception of art."

"We're an easy target," the space's executive director Stefan Kalmar told HuffPost on Sunday afternoon, as the occupation was still in progress. "We're not a hierarchical monster."

So the occupiers came, scores more, and many slept overnight. 38 Greene Street, a YouTube announcement noted, would be "a place where police, bureaucrats and media are NOT welcome."

By Saturday night the occupation had turned into a dance party. By Sunday the occupiers had issued a manifesto of sorts on their own Tumblr:

"Like all contested spaces that call into question its institutional usages, the space did not come without struggle. Ironically enough, this struggle was not with the police, but with the supposedly politicized character of art world industry in New York [...] Amidst accusations of moral deficiency and political immaturity, the same accusations wielded by the owners of Zuccotti Park at the start of its occupation, the former administrators of the space have fortunately vacated from the premises."

What exactly this new occupation stood for was not immediately clear. Its members refused to talk to the press, and had even issued a rule barring the press, in stark contrast to the media-friendly occupation downtown.

By the time he spoke with HuffPost on Sunday afternoon, Kalmar's patience was wearing thin. The occupiers, he thought, weren't actually contesting the space very much -- at least not on any terms he could understand.

"Since the past 24 hours I haven't seen much work. People talk about how they want to use the space [...] the question of what an artist in society, an artist's role in society, hasn't been discussed," he said. "There's been a lot of discussion about how people should talk to each other without having anything to say."

After a few minutes on the phone, Kalmar said he had to go into a meeting with his board and staff to decide what to do about the trespassers. One thing he was sure of was that the police wouldn't be called.

By Sunday night, because the staff was "enduring physical threats and theft of property, and more so as a result of this being an agenda-less occupation," Artists Space asked the occupiers to leave -- and they employed private security guards to nudge them along.

In a truculent Tumblr post after the eviction, the occupiers -- still unnamed, and so far unresponsive to requests for comment -- lashed back at Kalmar: "If he did not immediately use police violence to evict the occupation, this was of course only because of his cowardly attachment to his so-called 'radical' credentials, status and image."

The crowd had a promise for New York's art world: "We will occupy everything." First, however, they would need to pick up their sleeping bags. A sign posted on Artists Space's front door on Sunday night announced that "those of you who left packs and other things in Autist [sic] Space can pick them up here after 10am Mon."

Now Artists Space will get back to work setting up for a show that opens later this week. "Ironically," according to Kalmar, "it deals with artists' exhibition spaces like MOMA and the Pompidou that over the last 15 years have become a brand."

The flash occupation and its quick end, Kalmar acknowledged, "reads as a good marketing" tool. But if anyone in the art world thought if the "too good to be true" tale of the occupation before the exhibition was somehow invented by the space itself, they were wrong.

"It's definitely not," he said on Sunday. "It's a very difficult situation."