Thisisan Address I

"This is an Address," 2019. Directed by Sasha Wortzel. 17 min.

In 2018, Visual AIDS' Last Address Tribute Walk visited six lost addresses in the Meatpacking District—sites of AIDS cultural history that have vanished amidst the ongoing gentrification of New York City. Since then, the Meatpacking District and the adjacent waterfront has continued to transform. The Whitney Museum has broken ground on a large-scale public sculpture by David Hammons and a neighboring $250 million dollar public park on the Hudson River nears completion. Amidst this rapid change, Visual AIDS remains committed to supporting the cultural and activist legacies of this vital neighborhood. We asked artist and scholar Tara Mateik to reflect on This is an Address, an experimental documentary directed by Sasha Wortzel. (Note: This video was not commissioned by Visual AIDS.)
This is an Address screens at the Museum of Modern Art at 7PM on Thursday, February 13 as part of MoMA's Doc Fortnight. Wortzel will be in attendance. There is an additional screening on Tuesday, February 18 at 1PM.

In This is an Address, Sasha Wortzel (Director/Editor/Sound Designer) explores the rich meaning of elegy through a portrait of a space, the Hudson River pier. Juxtaposing archival and current day footage from the same coordinates, she constructs a pensive poem, a song for the dead (in particular the activist and former resident of the pier, Sylvia Rivera), and a celebration of lived community.

Wortzel closes the film with an acknowledgement of this land’s history: “This is an Address was filmed on unceded Indigenous lands, specifically the Lenapehocking, the homeland of the Lenape, which is, and always has been a place of multiple Indigenous movements.” This is not a perfunctory statement. It situates the film within a far longer history, one in which this address, once cared for by the Lenape, squatted by many, has undergone repeated colonization and renaming.

Footage from Randy Wicker’s 1996 interview with residents of the homeless encampment on the piers is intercut with views of a 2018 construction site for a new public park, situated across from multiple luxury high rise developments. Birds of prey enter and exit the frame. They’ve long shared the same territory. Before the encampment, before White settlement, a colony of seagulls, a raft of ducks, a roost of pigeons and a skein of geese navigated this terrain.

In the 1996 footage, camera operator and interviewer Wicker (a Stonewall veteran and member of the Mattachine Society and the Gay Activists Alliance) shoots from a distance, bearing witness. A resident sweeps. “We built all these houses,” John, another homeowner, explains. It’s a windy day and the sides of the houses, built from bed sheets and tarps, flutter. Micky Mouse and heart-shaped ornaments decorate the exteriors. Gleaned household items are stored outside: chairs, water jugs, food pantry, grocery carts.

Sylvia is introduced in profile, proud, pony-tailed, smoking, in a black cut off T-shirt, “this is the gay community of homeless people.” The property officially belongs to the city. The waterfront community is butt up against a yellowing NYC Department of Sanitation building. Sylvia explains, “The end of my house is the dividing line between that world and our world.” The archival footage of Sylvia grounds Wortzels’ project. It is a tour of a home, a place where people lived, an address.

Sylvia Rivera at her home on the waterfront. Still from "This is an Address," 2019.

In the midst of the escalating AIDS crisis, the residents of the encampment also navigated active harassment from the city. Institutionalized targeting of our homeless population is not new. But under the leadership of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Commissioner Bill Bratton, The New York City Department of Homeless Services (formerly the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, headed by Robert Moses) accelerated the program’s emphasis on profit and development over housing residents. The same administration that evicted the encampment from Gansevoort Peninsula in 1996 set the stage for later luxury waterfront properties.

Wicker sits down with John. He has been homeless for eight years. His partner, who was diagnosed in 1985, is in the last stage of AIDS dementia, “when HIV was called HTLV3.“ His most recent interaction with Gay Men’s Health Crisis was alienating and unsuccessful. John pleaded, “I have AIDS and need assistance.” GMHC responded, “You have to have an address.” Wicker is flabbergasted. “This is a spot of land. This is a place and every place has an address.”

Wortzel’s visual transitions are sometimes jarring, but isn’t that point of This is an Address? The opposing camera movements incite whiplash, as does the contrast of past and present waterfront landscapes. Wortzel’s cinematic repurposing of demolition footage at the piers serves as a particularly cogent critique. The hard shadow of a bulldozer serves as an analog for the lies of city administrators, touting plans for "urban renewal" while targeting existing communities for removal.

The demolition of the NYC Department of Sanitation building in 2018. Still from "This is an Address," 2019.

During the most intimate part of the 1996 tour, Sylvia pulls back a bed sheet. Someone is asleep, face down on her bed. Electric fans, a make-shift closet, and makeup caboodles decorate the interior. Sylvia elaborates what’s already clear, “we share amongst ourselves.” A dresser doubles as an altar for Marsha P. Johnson, the "mayor of Christopher Street.” In 1992, she was found dead in the Hudson River under questionable circumstances.

Sylvia would meditate on the river. “To me this is the River Jordan, the Hudson river.” The Jordan River, a promised land, the pathway to freedom from an occupied territory. “As I look at the river, [Marsha] gives us a lot of hope. I actually feel her sprit... you got to keep on fighting, girlie, because it’s not time for you to,” and here she sings in unison with Wicker, “cross the River Jordan.”

Sylvia, like Marsha, modeled feminist collectivity. The encampment was a place of mutual aid, where families were created, slept, and ate, and prayed. Wortzel reveals the spirituality of place in a textured chorus of otherworldly voices moaning and wailing, punctuated by deep bellowing booms and high frequency bells. This is an Address is a mourning song, and a petition for hope. As Sara Ahmed writes,

Hope is not at the expense of struggle but animates a struggle … Hope does not only or always point toward the future, but carries us through when the terrain is difficult, when the path we follow makes it harder to proceed. Hope is behind us when we have to work for something to be possible.1

As water levels rise, the chorus of sounds rises in pitch. The wooden support beams of the piers are almost invisible. This is an Address begins and ends in the same place, geographically. The past and the present share the same coordinates, the same history, even if the location is unrecognizable. But that history can help to carry us through.

Tara Mateik's videos, performances, and installations critically reenact pop cultural events where sexual, social, and economic power structures are in flux. Rather than passive recreations of the past, these reenactments pervert the audiovisual archive, and serve as political interventions into our understanding of history. His work has been supported by the MacDowell Colony, Creative Capital Foundation, and the Franklin Furnace Fund and exhibited at MoMA PS1, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Dixon Place, The Kitchen, Participant Inc., Reena Spaulings, Aurora Pictures (Houston), and the Oberhausen Short Film Festival (Germany). Mateik’s videos are distributed by Video Data Bank. He is an Associate Professor in the Media Culture Department at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.

[1] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 2.