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Off the Grid: New York City Landmark Performance
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Off the Grid
New York City Landmark Performance
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Midnight Moment Happening. Yoko Ono, Imagine Peace, December 22, 2013. Presented by Times Square Arts in partnership with Art Production Fund. Photo: Lovis Dengler Ostenrik. Courtesy Times Square Arts.

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A few years ago I received an odd text message from a friend telling me to meet her at a corner somewhere in Greenpoint, Brooklyn at 10:00 p.m. sharp for a “secret” performance that would take place in the streets, inside some trucks — not to tell anyone as it was somewhat illegal and would only last that one night, around four hours to be precise. She could not give me more information. It turned out the event was The Lost Horizon Night Market, a “part 21st century street carnival, part Burning man-style artgasm,” as Wired magazine described it. Co-founded by Mark Krawczuk and Kevin Balktick, it lasted between September 2009 and February 2012, and for the time of its existence provided a sporadic venue in remote, industrial areas of Brooklyn for people to create installation projects inside movers’ trucks. Artists and creative teams paid their own expenses, roughly $150 a day plus materials; Krawczuk and Balktick organized the time and place for the event. Because this was a grass-roots operation, details were spread via word of mouth only: no advertising, listings, or postings on social media, no admission fees. There were no permits (though technically none were needed, except for liability). From the outside, a few blocks would have thirty or more unmarked box trucks parked on both sides of the street. Inside the trucks, all sorts of interactive environments and small theatres occurred ranging from the artistic to the carnivalesque, including an outer space scene truck, a surveillance truck, an old-time circus, even a petting zoo truck, all under the pretense of creating, as Krawczuk described it, “an autonomous neighborhood.”

The Lost Horizon Night Market is just one of a slew of immersive, participatory, celebratory, theatrical, word-of-mouth, often illicit, and sometimes off-the-radar urban performance-oriented events that have been occurring in New York City for quite some time now. As David Freedlander writes in his article “Urban Folk Art” (borrowing a phrase from Jeff Stark, featured in this section), there has been a “flourishing of public performances in recent years that began around the turn of the millennium,” whose emphasis has been “less on watching someone do something than doing it yourself.” 1 Some of these events explore the city’s edges, like Duke Riley’s art installation/party at Dead Horse Bay, and Ida D. Benedetto and N.D. Austin’s “Wanderlust” experiences in abandoned or remote places like The Candyland Trespass Safari at [End Page 14] The Domino Sugar Refinery and Atop the Woolworth on the Woolworth building’s former observation deck (closed in 1945). Others occupy the more official and central spaces of the city, like Madagascar Institute Goes Crazy Broadway Style on the steps of the New York Public Library, and their dueling re-enactments in Washington Square Park. Sarah McMillan, one of Madagascar Institute’s original founders and frequent collaborators — her Snow Migration event led a group of about forty people to a remote forest in Staten Island — explained how these events are meant to create culture, more a life-work than art for a living. Krawczuk, for example, had been with Madagascar Institute for many years before he came up with the Night Market idea. Wanderlust has also been greatly inspired by the work of Madagascar as well as The Cacophony Society, which originated in San Francisco. Madagascar events take place in public spaces and always last under seven minutes. “You can show a fake permit to a cop and distract them long enough to enable the show to go on,” McMillan told me in an interview.

What all of these events have in common is their deliberate choice to self-produce, to operate outside cultural institutions, and to circumvent the permit-granting process. They are essentially occupying land, albeit temporarily, sometimes illegally, which is why they are not widely advertised. Some, although...