Brooklyn artists live in marketing house, are marketing product


Before you read this New York Times article about a communal house in Brooklyn that is also a new media company, you should know that the first person you encounter will be named Dickerman Cade Sadler III. Keep reading. It is important that you complete the article, in the same way it was important that the first Marines who entered Saddam Hussein’s palace search every room. Someday, history will need to understand this decadence. Welcome to the Clubhouse, a three-story house in Ditmas Park where “eight roommates, most of them musicians and artists, share meals and expenses, use a Google doc to keep track of their chores, and pitch in to shop for groceries and stock the bathrooms.” That probably sounds like a normal house to you, but it’s actually a brand/new media startup/final step in the substitution of lifestyle for art.

The house part of the Clubhouse is rented, but the club is owned by BKLYN1834, a “new media company” founded by real estate brokers and financiers from the Upper East Side. I put “new media company” in scare quotes because it’s difficult to say what BKLYN1834 does.

It is definitely about Brooklyn. The “1834” refers to both the year the borough was incorporated as a city and to the 18-34 year-old demographic the company targets. Converse has hired them to make videos about its sneakers. But the question of what product or service BKLYN1834 is selling—or why selling it requires a house where eight hip “mostly artists” live together—remains unanswered.

That approach to production is the product, it appears. BKLYN1834 has invested in the Ditmas Clubhouse, but it doesn’t own the building, and the people who live there pay the rent. They are musicians and videographers, but BKLYN1834 does not sell their music and videos, exactly. In supporting the Clubhouse, the company has essentially put a group of young Brooklynites on retainer: as musicians and artists, yes, but also as extras in whatever social media products it might produce about cool young artists living the dream.

BKLYN1834 is selling the dream, in other words. Probably that will not work from a financial standpoint, since it is a brand without a revenue stream, but whatever. That’s pretty much the entire new media industry. What interests me is that BKLYN1834 is selling “Brooklyn” while simultaneously embodying the critique of contemporary New York City.

From an artist’s perspective, the problem with the cultural epicenter of the United States is that it has become so expensive that living there leaves you with fewer opportunities to make art. I left New York in 2009 because I could write full time if I lived anywhere else.

As the rental market pushes the $1000-a-month line further into the outer boroughs, artists with day jobs lose more and more of their days to commuting. The trip from Ditmas Park to Manhattan is about an hour, so even the musician who only takes the train for work loses ten hours a week. Probably, you will want to go to a restaurant sometimes, too. You move to New York to write, to start a band, to paint, but the rent is so high and getting to work so exhausting that just paying the rent and having drinks starts to feel like an accomplishment.

The city has stood as an icon of American bohemia for six decades, but now it is the place in America where bohemia is least possible. I told people at parties that I was a writer for years before I made a living at it. Why wouldn’t I? I had moved to New York to pursue that dream. It was the identity that made hanging lights and tutoring rich kids and riding the train cohere.

From an objective standpoint, I was a semi-professional working full-time and acquiring incrementally nicer clothes, but from my perspective I was an aspiring artist. It was just that the economy of the city encouraged me to use the time and money I might have spent on my art to simply live in New York. New York—certainly Manhattan, and increasingly Brooklyn—may be a bad place to make art, but it’s still the best place to be an artist.

The city is at the forefront of the substitution of lifestyle for craft, the artist for the work. It’s a bad place to make anything, but it’s a great place to be the kind of person who might make something. I quote the Times quoting Clubhouse president Andrew Thomas Reid:

“For our generation of artists, we realize that we are each our own brand, but not everyone knows how to manage this,” Mr. Reid said. “Our business is to equip artists with these tools, which feels like a natural, organic progression of what we already do at the Clubhouse.”

The Clubhouse isn’t equipping young people with the tools to make art but the tools to brand themselves. BKLYN1834 isn’t selling paintings or songs; it’s selling young Warhols and Lous Reed. In the company’s construction, Brooklyn is not a place to make art but a place to be an artist.

I love the city, and I miss it when I’m not on deadline. Leaving was a choice I made when I realized that my craft was more important to me than my lifestyle. BKLYN1834 appears to be selling the opposite fantasy. It is no more appealing for being the same fantasy I bought in my youth.

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  1. The lifestyle-art paradox is wound even tighter in the NYC theatre world, as you can imagine. Theatre requires real estate and people. And yet we have as our theatre capital the one chunk of earth where real estate will always be prohibitively expensive. Add to that scarcity the downward pressure on wages from all the unemployed actors and … you get exactly what you describe here: a lifestyle in place of art.

    That lifestyle, as best I can tell, is about a) youthfulness (18-34!) because no other demo has the energy for this kind of masochism and b) some rather thuggish turf warfare about Williamsburg, Brooklyn, etc.

    I’m happy the digital revolution lets writers like you continue to work outside this orbit — the written word being free of time and space and all. Sadly, the performing arts are still beholden to it. I fear it won’t change anytime soon since the first step to self-branding … is to make yourself a performer.

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