I am trying to write about a city at a particular point in time. Today I look at a short book by Kathy Acker. There is a nocturnal creature in it called Janey who mostly dwells between nightclubs she cannot get into. ‘I want more and more horrible disaster in New York,’ she says, ‘‘cause I desperately want to see that new thing that is going to happen this year.”1 I write it down for future reference.
The book is called New York City in 1979. I have noticed that New York around this period is often described as coming apart at the seams, or something to that effect. The choice of metaphor interests me. It seems to nod toward the tangled relationship between dress and architecture in cities, how that relationship can be poisonous as well as intimate, forming a strange lexicon of excitement and disaster, sexuality and repression, nightclubs in ruins and suits built like scaffolds. I am told by a tutor that the only way to make sense of my thoughts around cities is with the image of someone walking through them, going where I need them to go. I think of where Janey is right now.
In the archive at The Glasgow School of Art, I look at early designs by Fraser Taylor, a textiles student who would go on to found 1980s fashion collective The Cloth. Across his sketches and mock-ups I see the figure of a stylised female body, faceless and statuesque, marching through a succession of gauze-like screens in different shades of dark blue. In some she appears as if framed by a doorway or the shadow of a light overhead, head turned and elbows crooked in scenes redolent of street corners by night. In others, she thrashes around to a song I cannot hear, body abstracted to pure form, knees bent, head thrown back and arms folded into the shape of wings. One design, taken from a collection made in 1976, is for a deconstructed patent leather jumpsuit with padded shoulders and shins. The outfit draws attention to those parts of the body left which are left vulnerable and exposed as much as those parts which are covered over. The two are held in tension as if in a process of demolition, allegorising the street, becoming a form of witness to it.
In the sites of the city I linger on, there is always a woman moving just beyond the frame. She is there, past the empty carpark strewn with an old furniture suite, fire raging up a wall in the shadow of a torn-out chimney flue. She leaves the fray of a heaving crowd at a rag market, piss stained coats and shoes snaking weed-like under a shopping centre set like a diamond in the asphalt. She ducks between streets of old warehouses, sheltering in their hollows, always half-dressed for dancing, dancing that looks like fighting, fighting like it is you that you are trying to undo. I am trying to follow her through this landscape in order to map it, but when I do she disintegrates, different parts of her flying into the wind. I become aware that my attempts to write the city more accurately chart my failed attempts to locate this muse and make something out of these wasted spaces. For a second, however, here Janey stands, skirting the ‘pit-hole’ of Manhattan as a lumpen, irresolute form, while ‘pleated black fake-leather pants hide her cocklessness… two round prescription mirrors mask the eyes.’2