South Street Seaport / Pier 16, 1972
World Trade Center, 1977
This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
Charlotte Moorman was a visionary performer, cellist, and event producer who significantly impacted New York City’s avant-garde scenes for decades. She founded and coordinated the Avant Garde Festival for experimental music, performance, and art, presenting 15 Festivals between the years 1963 and 1980. The festivals featured cutting-edge performances and artworks by hundreds of artists, and brought widespread public attention to lesser-known artists and practices.
The sporadically annual Festival’s diverse, populist locations included Central Park, Shea Stadium, the Staten Island Ferry, and Grand Central Terminal. The Festival took place twice in Lower Manhattan, in 1972 and 1977. Moorman encouraged participating artists to respond to the sights and sounds of each location specifically, and as a result, the Avant Garde Festivals stand as some of the most involved, large-scale, collaborative, site-specific events in New York City’s history.
The 1972 iteration, the 9th presentation of the Festival, took place on October 28 at Pier 16 near the South Street Seaport Museum, where the festival was in-part presented aboard the historical Hudson River Alexander Hamilton side-wheeler steamboat. The event featured over 200 artists with performances by Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik and video screenings by Alan Kaprow and Jud Yalkut, among many others. Tom Buckley’s 1972 New York Times review, titled “Electrified Spaghetti on Avant Garde Fete Menu” provides an appropriate sense of the experimental nature of many of the works presented through Moorman’s platform: The article’s title was inspired by Elizabeth Phillips, who “served platters of electrified spaghetti that squeaked and hummed as it was eaten.”* Buckley also details a work by Franklin E. Morris presented in the engine room of the steamboat, as “comprised of a Sousaphone mounted on a wheelchair, a bass violin in a baby carriage, from which protruded a pair of mannequin’s legs, a trombone that dangled from an overhead beam, cymbals, a siren, and a police flasher. All were played, or at least caused to emit a variety of amplified arhythmical snorts, shrieks and bleats, by a remote control run by a computer.”** The quotidian nature of materials and objects such as spaghetti and baby carriages were given new, musical meaning in the context of Moorman’s “Avant Garde Fete.” During the 1972 Festival, Moorman herself performed a work composed for her by Jim McWilliams titled A Water Cello for Charlotte Moorman. For the piece, Moorman played her cello after dark while submerged in a spot lit tank of water from the East River; the five minute performance was facilitated by Moorman wearing a helmet, oxygen tank and orange diving suit.
In describing the Festival, Moorman stated, “I think everybody is lucky that we’re here, but not everybody thinks that way.”*** This comment speaks to her vision to bring avant-garde performance to the broadest possible audience, even though wide acceptance of the forward-thinking experimentation was far from guaranteed.
1977 marked the 13th presentation of the Festival, and over 600 artists from more than 25 countries presented work on a single day, June 19, at the World Trade Center Plaza and within the Twin Towers themselves. The World Trade Center was dedicated in 1973, and the determined Moorman worked fastidiously over the intervening years to be granted the proper permissions to mount the festival at the site, saying, “This is the most beautiful and prestigious location we’ve ever had.” The festival that year saw an audience of approximately 30,000 attendees for the day.**** A highlight of the day’s events was Ay-O’s Rainbow Environment no. 11 (aka Cleanse Manhattan or Towers Love), for which the artist dyed his clothing and hung the items from a rope that stretched between the 41st floors of the Twin Towers. Joan Rothfuss, author of the Charlotte Moorman biography Topless Cellist, describes the work as “a reminder that international commerce is inextricably linked to the daily labors of individual people, including the thousands of workers who toiled inside the towers themselves.”***** A demonstration of the value and importance of the festival, a message of gratitude from two of the era’s best known artists was written in the sky above the towers by an airplane: “Love to the Avant-Garde Festival from John and Yoko.”
Described as “The Jeanne d’Arc of New Music,” Moorman’s lasting influence was a widening of the audiences and venues for avant-garde performance. The art world continues to benefit from Moorman’s efforts as museums, exhibition spaces, and public spaces in New York City and throughout the world embrace and consistently program performance art, dance, and music at an increasing rate.
– Alex Fialho
*Tom Buckley, “Electrified Spaghetti on Avant Garde Fete Menu,” New York Times, Oct. 29, 1972.
**** Rothfuss, Joan, and Yoko Ono. Topless Cellist: the Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014, p. 326.
*****Ibid, p. 328.
Charlotte Moorman performs Jim McWilliam’s A Water Cello for Charlotte Moorman
9th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival
South Street Seaport, New York City, 1972
©Estate of Fred W. McDarrah