Night/Life: The Clocktower and Joe Ahearn

Post Author:
Joe Ahearn

On a rainy day of thunderstorms and lightning, The Clocktower’s just the place to be. Tucked away like Batman’s secret getaway, suspended above the rest of downtown Gotham, The Clocktower—founded in 1972 by legendary curator Alanna Heiss—houses Art International Radio, as well as Clocktower Gallery. Joe Ahearn, known for his hand in underground DIY projects in and around New York City and as one of the key founders of Ridgewood’s Silent Barn (now closed), is The Clocktower’s Performance & Installation Curator. I sat down with Joe to talk about The Clocktower’s new directions, and to learn more about what it means to harmonize music with contemporary art practice.

The Clocktower is infused by your particular vision, Joe. What has changed over the last year, what is your goal in making use of this space and how you see that in relation to your previous work, within shows that are DIY but still large in scale. Has this been difficult or has it been a meeting in the middle?

It's never really occurred to me to think of me as different at all. To me every space has its own limitations and opportunities. I've always been excited about working with alternative spaces and I'm always been excited about collaborating with different people. I actually never intended to end up in any curatorial situation.

Would you even consider yourself a curator?

Well that's my role here!

That's literally as a title, but how would you define that? In contemporary art, the role of the curator is becoming this vast space, and the definition is often defined by the context in which it is used. What does curator mean to you?

Well I'm not too concerned with the label. To talk about what I have been doing and what I do here, I've always been interested in working with my friends and making friends with people who interest me, and working with them to make with the spaces to create platforms in which they can showcase things and other people can discover it. It seems very natural to me that I would be drawn to this space, and I've been very honored that our director Alanna [Heiss] saw those tendencies in me and was interested enough to invite me to start working here.

In many ways The Clocktower aims to be as cross disciplinary as possible to try and take as many different outlets as possible with exhibitions, performances, residencies, radio outlet and try to blur all of them together and encourage people who would normally be doing exhibition work to try to think how that might translate to radio. These are crossovers that are not obvious, so the goal is to push people . . . in some ways it’s not that different than trying to take a band who might normally play in a theater space and try to convince them to play in some gazebo space in Brooklyn. Or in the same way try to take a space that is difficult to access like a basement or a rooftop, and then saying, “Well those same obstacles are also the strengths.” With all of that in mind its not even a transition at all, and this space makes perfect sense to be exploring those same ideas.

Yeah there's a feeling of real exploration here. It’s interesting to know because The Clocktower is either very much so on people's radar or not, because it's not a storefront in New York and you can't witness it by walking around. That noted, is this space considered private or public?

The big thing in NYC is that there is rapidly decreasing public space, and I think pretty much every aspect of the things I work on . . . Silent Barn was a private warehouse building, a private warehouse living space, that was endlessly opened to the public but without any sort of signage or anything. So it was accessible but also very inaccessible. That inaccessibility had to do with fears of legality. With Showpaper, we have to constantly figure out ways to distribute the paper. You should be able to put newspaper boxes anywhere you want but there's in fact an enormous system that makes that almost impossible, and only allows that for people who have lots of money or have corporate backing. So this space is a private space which Alanna has been working for 30 years and has been made public in so many weird and experimental ways but still has to play within this rubric of limitations.

You know, I don't think this space is any more private than anything I've been working on previously, but it’s just a different way of playing with those distinctions. I think the more you can blur private and public space the better, the more room for unexpected things happening. For me the idea of private space is about control . . . but as soon as you break down private space, open the door, the more that you let in the public the more that unexpected things happen and this is sort of a theme that I'm focused on that creating enough a structure so that things don't collapse but I don't want to know the end result of any project I'm working on from the start. The whole thing that's interesting to me is to not know, and the more the public has access to it, the more that that occurs.

Another interesting thing to note is that the radio station started in the wake of 9/ 11. Before then, this whole building, you could go all the way up to the clock tower, and up inside the gears.

Yes! Someone told me that this is one of the only clock towers in New York where someone still comes and actually tunes it.

Yeah, every Wednesday morning. They used to just do performances in behind the clock face and in and around the gears. There didn't used to be airport security downstairs, all of this is post-9/11 in the sort of rapidly diminishing amount of public space that there is and the radio station was started to address the loss of this public space. One of the reasons why there's this gap where people know this space and there's all these people who don't and a lot of that gap is just strictly generational. There was a period between ’92 to almost 2009, this space was very hard to access unless you were an invited guest for the radio station, and it was only around 2009 when things started to loosen up that it was possible to do the type of programming we're doing now. In the same way that it had been for 30 years. But the radio acted as a greater way to share things to get to a greater audience. It was created in a way to get this to an audience who couldn't get to it, but then allowed for us to share it with people all over the world who normally wouldn't be able to access it at all. So by exploring a new way around we ended up opening it to an audience who never would have been able to access it.

Can you tell me a little bit about Showpaper and how it was started?

That was started by Todd P and he founded it in 2007 and I've been the managing director for the last four years, since 2008 and its pretty straightforward its a newsprint we print every two weeks and another alternative outlet to explore artwork and also to share information about events and the network for DIY spaces, publicly accessible spaces for people in New York City for all ages available in a tangible format that's not completely governed by mammoths like Facebook.

Do you do announcements via that network as well?

Yeah, well, everybody does. It’s like, do I use the telephone?

[Laughter] Are you a musician yourself? Have you ever played instruments?

I played the bass in high school, but, like, not even. I played the clarinet in high school. I can play “Tequila” and the “Jurassic Park” theme song.

So how did this romance for show production get started, what was the genesis for that?

I left high school and was really sick of New York City.

You from New York originally?

Yeah—I grew up here. And I was pretty sick of New York in that way that only if you grew up here would. I didn't think there was anything particularly wrong with NYC it was just general high school malaise. So I traveled around a lot, almost for two years, stayed certain places for a few months came back to New York for a little bit, left again and was flapping around all over and ended up visiting every state in the country.

During this time I fell into a network of mostly musicians and venues because those are the type of people who have to travel around all the time. There are many exceptions but predominantly if you were in town for the first time and nobody knows you the best place to socialize was at a show, especially if you're 18 or 19 at an all ages show and then you talk to the bands afterwards and either their on tour themselves our they've been on tour and so they're more likely to be like, “Sure, you can crash on the couch!” So I kind of racked up two years of favors that way and when I eventually decided to come back to New York and settle down here for a little bit, my friend offered me a job bartending in DUMBO and the place wasn't doing very well—it was doing well on the weekends but no one was there during the weekdays—so I asked if I could do some programming and all these people who I had made friends got in touch with me and asked if there was any way to set up a show and I was like, “I can try at this bar I work at!” So, it was sorta just a way to return favors. It wasn't out of a way of, “this is what I have to do,” it was like I know these musicians who are super talented and people should see them and there's this space that's empty all the time and they want musicians in there . . . well it seems like these two things should go together!

Eventually it became clear that place wasn't the right place — I got noise complaints from the neighbors and did it for a year and had to focus on bluegrass music and jazz and even that I'd get into trouble for stuff like that being too loud. That's when someone recommended I see someone called Todd P and see if he needed any help. And then the rest is history.

It sounds like you guys are doing something this evening.

I have something every night.

[Legacy's commentary:I love it! It is amazing to me to see the idea of night-life and “social practice” sorta turn of phrase, its a hot turn that everyone is talking about. And it seems very obvious, and very true to New York’s history—a 24-hour city, speak easies, cabaret laws, underground parties—hidden in plain sight there’s the idea that night life space, especially in New York where everything has become increasingly regulated, has become one of the only places to experiment. It’s challenging because night life spaces are also very regulated and there are a lot of terms and conditions about noise. But having grown up around the corner from CBGB's, you know that space was my own personal first foray into understanding how performance can operate in a way that's not strictly musically or not strictly in the art realm, but rather a strange space in-between.]

I’m wondering what you think about that as a transition—like for example the Museum of Art and Design has its FUN fellowship which has its projects that are just for nightlife . . . it seems like the artists are capitalizing on the fact that they are allowed to get messy in a space and have an outcome that's not as predictable as it might have to be in the light of day. And as the gallery or museum as controlled, daytime space, but then the nightlife space is this dream space, presenting possibilities for radical exploration.

Silent Barn has been hosting these meetings that are “public meetings” and these panel discussions are about things we've been addressing internally and these discussions are opportunities to open these discussions to a group of people. At first we were talking to people professionally and individually and then we were like, let’s make this something that people can attend, and we're learning a lot from the experience. So the distinction between a gallery opening up at 6pm—is that nightlife, or is that daytime space? I'm not entirely sure. I know it’s hard to book shows on weekdays because the only people who can come are the people who don't have regular jobs and I've certainly been one of those people for a long time. But at the same time that's limiting. I've never been interested in late-night-dance-party stuff. And there's this huge scene in there that I don't know much about, but most stuff that I do has been 8PM to midnight. But now all the shows I do here are like 6PM until 8PM. I'm not really sure how to comment on nightlife as . . .

. . . a medium…

As a medium.

Is there an activism in the larger practice of producing shows or putting together these different gatherings, regardless of the time of night?

I don't really like to make distinctions between my activist versus my curatorial tendencies versus my social tendencies. Essentially, all of these are collaborations with people. I think this conversation we're developing together right now is a collaboration between the two of us and impacts both of us and will end up impacting people around us and end up impacting the space around us.

I think the most important things in life are the little things you do and it has to do with the choice of where you go to buy things, the choice of where you work, it has to do with the choice of who you spend your time with, and I think it is exciting to put a level of importance on the space you go to after work and the people you see after work and what you do with that time is incredibly powerful and there's an enormous power of energy and effort and hours in ones life that one puts into that if you recognize that energy there's a massive of amount of leverage that something can be put towards.

I was being kind of flip it before but it’s true, every single night I do something and whether I'm being conscious of it or am not conscious of it’s impacting everything else around me and I might was well be conscious of it. And I've sort of set up this structure of people who I work with on a variety of different projects in such a way that if its not something that I directly produce then I'm going to a space in which I've helped.

I have a weird question: when you're there are you there to participate or are you there to watch, how are interacting with the space?

It depends on the space. I went to this space, saw a show with these two musicians from Sweden who performed as soon as I entered the space and there was only one chair. It’s very interesting to me to see that the time I spend at night or after work with different people can help leverage all of these other interactions. And so in that sense there's a massive potential for activism . . . In some respects its like Duh! It’s this huge chunk of time that spent collaborating with people, whether it’s drinking a beer, or playing a show, or working in your studio.

I wanted to asked you about the idea of “all ages.” I think that it's something equally in the concert realm or the arena, or at least in my experience about coming in to understanding music that's been prevalent and that I've felt that presence and been grateful and thankful for it. The idea with the contemporary art world as well and looking at all ages and looking at artists with different ages interacting and coming into contact, how do you engage with those different audiences? Do you feel the need to bridge the gap between people who are super young and are just experiencing things for the first time? With the shows you have produced, do you feel the need to initiate young or new audiences into the process of this public or private experience of looking at artwork and responding to it?

I don't think that there is necessarily an intention for initiation so to speak for younger people, but I do feel that there's no way for people to develop ideas without having an idea of what other's around them are doing. Like looking at myself when I was young one of the reasons why I was annoyed with New York City, was that I really wasn't exposed to a lot of this stuff that was happening in New York at the time. There was this whole 2000 through 2004 in Williamsburg, a crazy time for like arts and shows and stuff and that was while I was in high school and had no idea, I had never been to Williamsburg.

I was always like, “I'm not going to Brooklyn!” And then calling my dad from a pay phone and that was when 718 would show up and you could call the pay phone back and my dad would be like “You're in Brooklyn! Are you kidding me!” I didn't always know where I was. It was years later where I realized, “Oh, I was in Williamsburg at this show,” or, “Oh I was in Bushwick those times!” Through my young eyes, I wasn’t able to see everything all at once, it was too abstract and expansive for me. But the experience—that journey—changed me, still.

Yeah, and yet you know an enormous amount of my focus is on music, stemming from of a complete obsession with music in high school, which is when I really think a lot of people get—well high school in general is an obsessive period—but music is one of those accessible forms of expression because it’s immediate and captivating in ways that other media can be difficult to muster as a young person. And the art world, while potentially accessible, isn't sort of marketed or explained; yes, kids could walk to Chelsea but they certainly aren't encouraged to do this, or the type of artwork that's fed to kids at that age is like pretty cookie-cutter-Warp-Tour-type-design-formula stuff, basically market bred as “kid appropriate”, as opposed to something that's going to surprise them and push boundaries.

I think that at this time when kids are discovering music it’s incredibly valuable for them to be able to see music in contexts that are not just accessible in ways that are cheap and available to them, but accessible in the actual format. There is something very empowering about the fact that you can go to a show and talk to a band after the show's done. There's all-ages shows like the Williamsburg Waterfront shows, but going to a show as a kid where there's thousands of people at doesn't really foster any real sense of accessibility. It’s true kids need lessons and access to instruments, but I know plenty of noise musicians and rock bands that are 30 years old and they don't fucking know how to play their instruments! The thing that empowers them is not that they have any sort of intellectual capacity, but that they can take whatever things they have available in their room and then share them with forty people and then those people are empowered, that forty people is a lot of people.

Again when we think of social impact, forty people talking to forty more people talking to forty more people is massive. So the problem is that there's a lot of these economic barriers for all ages access, because of insurance and legality, mostly insurance issues. There are economic barriers to running an all-ages space. It’s easy to make a space accessible to kids if there are thousands of people there because you are making so much money that you can spend all that money on security and you can spend all this money on insurance to be able to- you don't have to actually engage the kids you can set up something that is more or less kid-proof that you can throws kids into. If you are doing a show has forty people at it you have to engage the kids that are present if any are present. That's what to me is important about those shows is that those those kids are engaged, they're not passive watchers, the band standing on the stage sees everybody there including the kids and that the kids can talk to the band after the show. But that's what also makes people uncomfortable about doing shows, the kids become an active part of the event and all these concerns have to be taken into consideration to do so and its one of the reasons why Showpaper is so important to me is because I really feel like the tiny spaces that are doing shows that are all ages are really putting themselves on the line in a way that should be supported. It’s not that I don't think that spaces that are not all-ages aren't important, those are also important and there are lots of spaces that aren't all ages that I think are really awesome but I don't feel like I need to be putting my sweat and time into subsidizing their promotions. Which is what I'm doing at these all-ages shows—they've already got their hands full watching the kids, so the least I can do is help get the word out.

It's pretty amazing that concert spaces are still one of the places where you can meet your idols. There's that myth of a cafe site and that people think that when they go to New York they'll run into Ginsberg at the bar next to them. It’s really hard because it’s true, there are a lot of creative influences coming in through this space, but on the other hand those meeting sites have been sort of dissembled and I think its awesome that there are concert spaces where you can fill that gap where you're able to stand in front of forty people and watch a band and interact with them and get jostled and then being able to talk to the band afterwards. Artists don't have that same presence in most art institutions in New York.

I'm less interested in creating a space where one can meet your idols and more into an environment where you can redefine who your idols are. And I think that's what's so important to me, that people who idolize the character's they see on posters tend to be people who haven't had access to people other than those posters. I consider one of the things that I feel successful in doing in my own life, that many of the people I have the highest of respect for artistically are people I consider my friends. And that works in both directions, because I've done an enormous of work for people to have an opportunity to be friends to be that talented but it's also about me redefining who I respect. There are a lot of people who inspire me to work as hard as I can, and those are the people that I work with. Those aren't semi-fictional characters who I can never actually meet—I find it hard to get inspired by those people—I don't know who they are, or how they act, or what motivates them. Learning all those things about people is why I'm doing this.

Who are you listening to these days? Any albums you've been psyched about, any concerts you've been going to?

Most of what I've been listening to within the last two weeks are these ten Party Lab tapes. We're about to do Party Lab gift sets that we're giving to a number of supporters who helped us with our renovation budget. There are these ten tapes that we selected mostly by how cool they looked on the outside and I've been spending the last two weeks listening through them to see how decent the quality is. Its been this mix of nostalgic conversations and weird announcements you know that people snuck into different microphones and a number of different bands like Twin Sister, this band Pictureplane, this rapper from Houston called Fat Tony, and these kids called Phone Tag who are from Bushwick, as well as this hip-hop group from Bed-Stuy that I met while they were in high school, 9/11 Thesaurus. I think they're called Hieroglyph Thesaurus now. Oh—Phillip Seymore Hoffman and Emily Reo was one of the tapes I was listening to last night. Noah Kline, who is Phillip Seymore Hoffman, puts on this festival called FMLY Fest.

Do you see these groups and the experiences you’ve had knowing them filling the void of Silent Barn?

No, no there's no way to fill the void without having a new venue. So there are some musicians and there's a couple of different things; I'm obviously very interested in the print media and there is a series of publications that Showpaper has helped commission as part of this newspaper box project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music they gave us money to produce sculptures that act as newspaper dispensers. One of them dispenses Showpaper, but the rest dispense all these other publications.

So where can we find them?

Right along the sidewalk of BAM.

Starting when?