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Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York's Ruined Waterfront

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Fiona Anderson

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Abstract

Monks of the Dead River explores the queer sexual and artistic cultures of Manhattan’s abandoned waterfront in the late 1970s, when hundreds of men cruised the ruined warehouses of Manhattan’s derelict Lower West Side waterfront - vast, crumbling structures known as ‘the piers’ - in search of anonymous pleasure. The piers were, the novelist Andrew Holleran wrote, spaces of ‘peculiar magic’. The ruined Manhattan waterfront appears in the early work of the American artist and writer David Wojnarowicz as queerly magical and powerfully erotic. Wojnarowicz documented his cruising experiences there in journal entries, poems, photographs, films, and in large-scale site-specific arts projects, both public and private, known and unknown. Monks of the Dead River takes his work as a guide to the erotic and creative re-uses of the piers by queer New Yorkers in the years that preceded the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It traces a material history of the waterfront area as a cruising ground, from historic bathhouses and empty trucks in the 1960s to the warehouses and piers in the 1970s, rooting through archival ephemera and photographic fragments of this queer sexual culture. Monks of the Dead River examines how and why the ruined buildings that dominated this queer landscape assumed a powerful erotic role in the cruising that took place there in the late 1970s and how a sense of erotic connection between past and present was generated through writing and art-making in or about the piers by artists such as David Wojnarowicz, Emly Roysdon, Peter Hujar, and Alvin Baltrop. Monks of the Dead River also documents histories of violence, regeneration, and LGBTQ activism that developed in and around this pier cruising scene in the late 1970s, histories that have been obscured as these neighbourhoods have been gentrified in the present. As I explore the diverse erotic and political histories of the abandoned waterfront in the 1970s that have slipped from view or have not been historicised publically at all, ruination, and the complex and achronological histories that it points to, emerges as a queer model for thinking about the recent past in a city known as much for its queer pleasures as for its tendency towards restless redevelopment. Monks of the Dead River is the first in-depth study of the cruising scene on Manhattan’s abandoned waterfront. It is the first book to explore Wojnarowicz’s waterfront work and among the first in-depth analyses of the connections between art and the gay cruising scene in New York.


Publication metadata

Author(s): Anderson F

Publication type: Authored Book

Publication status: In Press

Year: 2019

Acceptance date: 16/02/2018

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


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