December 23, 1998

'ABC NO Rio'
by John Giglio

ABC No Rio reminds me of a Richard Scarry children's story book, the kind that show a cross section of a firehouse or hospital, for example, with coverall-clad rabbits, cats, and dogs in each room busily going about their particular jobs. On the afternoon I visited, I found a poetry reading going on one floor, a tiny print shop full of busy workers going in another, and students researching in the "zine" library somewhere else. The only thing capable of interrupting the activities of this four-story community art center, performance space, and gallery are the unbearably loud Saturday matinee punk-rock shows that ABC No Rio features, which temporarily drive everyone else from the building.

There are over three hundred alternative art spaces spread across the US, and nearly a quarter of them are based in New York City. Even so, ABC No Rio stands out because of its broad scope and sheer ambition; it's more like an artist's YMCA than a traditional artist's space. In addition to group exhibitions, there are open poetry readings, experimental music evenings, printing and darkroom facilities open to local arts and community groups, and a budding computer center. No Rio's doors are open as an available meeting place for any community group with a good cause, with a ridiculously low (try five bucks) donation requested. The New York chapter of the charity organization Food Not Bombs operates out of the building's kitchen. There's a dense fanzine library, and a popular series of afternoon punk shows that carefully avoids racist, sexist, or homophobic bands. You can get the best sense for the place by calling them after hours; their answering machine message goes on forever in describing their various activities, until the speaker seems to be getting hoarse.

Though the rooms of the building which ABC No Rio calls home are drafty and run down, the streets outside trashy, and the volunteer staff a bit tattered looking, stepping through its doors is the closest you'll ever come to entering into a utopian community. Various committees and subcommittees meet with diligent regularity, reviewing proposals, making practical decisions about maintaining the space, as well as those related to their show and exhibition schedule. Their press info stresses that they "are not only an art center but a place where people can congregate and share ideas. "Their literature is peppered with statements like" Art and activism should be for everyone", and "No Rio's predisposition and commitment to diversity ....draws interest from many groups and individuals...that might not have a free and autonomous space to call their own".

The organization's lengthy and persistent track record of shows and activities demonstrate ABC No Rio's commitment to collective ideals and its embodiment of a humanistic social and political stance more forcefully than any mission statement can, however. The space is eighteen years old, and has seen the East Village Gallery scene come and go. It has survived eviction attempts by the city, not to mention the crime, drug dealers, and physical disrepair that come with the neighborhood. And one can assume that within the next decade, the radical gentrification that has taken hold in many parts of the Lower East Side will make its way right up to their doorstep. With it will come a change in the way the surrounding community, with which No Rio so seamlessly meshes, lives and thinks. But Steve Englander, the organization's "Administrative Coordinator", offers a reassuring observation about the young artists, performers, and curators who hook up with No Rio. "Even when the issues that they're dealing with are more formal and there's less of a direct focus on political or social activism, there's still an instinctual commitment to the collective process and a strong tendency towards interactive art". He is surrounded by living proof, on the four busy floors above and below him. ABC No Rio has spent years cultivating a socially-engaged artist population, driven by something other than its own ego. At last those seeds have taken solid root.

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ABC No Rio: The Culture of Opposition Since 1980