As told to Aleksey Stepanov: New York review

On New York City’s Lower East Side, a leather-fringed loft in the heart of Chinatown is a perfect location for a performance art project by Michael Chessum, which appears to be the least New…

As told to Aleksey Stepanov: New York review

On New York City’s Lower East Side, a leather-fringed loft in the heart of Chinatown is a perfect location for a performance art project by Michael Chessum, which appears to be the least New York of artistic endeavours. When the Guardian’s Ben Beaumont saw it, he found itself questioning his identity, both as journalist and participant, as the city stands on the cusp of a new, uncertain era.

Chessum’s simply titled The Fens lasts seven days. The facility isn’t for fainting, it’s for feeling – and, crucially, experiencing –. There’s a recording of experimental DJ Seth Rudetsky performing Tom Waits’s Ballad of the Sad Cafe (2009), which plays over a monitor that drowns out the reverberations of chess balls bounced against the walls, instruments banging and crashing (“barely out of tune, or out of rhythm”), and built into the sparse set are projections of the artist’s latest book on lookup.com – a visually interactive graphic poetry site.

Chessum, who lives in East London, said the installation was an extension of “another performance I did in 2002”. “[Frenzied) Art in the New York of Despair” took three weeks and involved 53 small events in the city, “all within one street”. Its broad themes are migration, urban reinvention, “how to free oneself from clinging to immigrant culture and identity”, and “the loud noise of the city”.

The final performance will take place the night of 26 October, when Chessum, who is known for everything from creating wildly imaginative installations and performances to establishing the co-op community Dirty Furniture, will meet different characters from his short story collection now circulating at the show and then announce his new book.

For his installation, he’s no longer looking back, but forward. The Fens represents “a slightly paranoid imagining of tomorrow”. Chessum believes the kind of projects he and others take part in will only flourish if more people see the “high art that’s there in the everyday”. That idea squares perfectly with the Guardian’s own “Truth and Fiction” page, which spent this year investigating one of Chessum’s subjects, the L Mag-editor-turned-vogue-editor Carine Roitfeld, the most influential new voice in fashion today.

While the Guardian may be based in London, New York can hold a fascination for all kinds of expats, from street artists to the occasional mime artist. The city offers opportunities for creativity and self-expression, but also a constant encounter with vulnerability and loneliness. Out of curiosity, I wandered down 69th Street, an area I hadn’t realised was not only one of New York’s most diverse neighbourhoods, but also marked by a number of recognisable, now-iconic artists.

I found a few, including the New York illustrator Naoko Sawara, who I met at an exhibition of the Japanese street artist Yokohama Mamoru. A piece entitled

Bloom

was displayed at the entrance to the Skyscrapers photography exhibition at the PEN American Center. It seemed to be in response to the New York artist’s own brushstroke. (Monochrome Picasso-esque for decades, the type was supersized and receding in the photograph, present only briefly on the mannequin flesh.)

But, similarly, within seconds of viewing the piece was realised: Sawara, standing right next to me, staring straight into the camera, increasingly agitated as the camera encouraged her to apply a brush to her face. Which I, as a journalist, preferred to the lettering she’d left in the vast print of her brushwork.

Post-modernism and artists who celebrate their outsider status are nothing new in New York. But the qualities that have made the city a leading cultural destination must be realised in the wider conversation.

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This article first appeared in the Observer Magazine, with the headline As told to Aleksey Stepanov

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