Sunday marked the fourth day that artist Peter Clough’s new solo show at Haul Gallery in Brooklyn was open to the public, and possibly the last. A powerful and engrossing exhibition of new videos filmed during a residency in the space—an unfinished basement beneath a beauty salon accessed from the sidewalk via a steep staircase—Exaltation of the Porous Body continues Clough’s explorations of power, submission, architecture and embodiment. Its centrepiece is a 14-minute video calmly, hypnotically narrated by Clough in which he appears completely naked save a few accessories (including a leather hood) and confined in a dog cage.
Given the content, gallery co-directors Erin Davis and Max C. Lee had posted a content warning on the sign at the gallery’s entrance, but that may be what ultimately drew the attention of a man claiming to be a representative of the building’s owner, who visited the space on Sunday (1 May).
“I was told that they sent a photo of our signs warning viewers that there is sexual content to the landlord, and that the landlord was upset by that,” Lee says. “The next thing I know, there’s a different guy and about seven [Fire Department of New York] crew members entering the basement and citing fire code violations.” He continues, “I explained that we can address those, and then the representative of the landlord was like, ‘You are trespassing, I’m calling the police’.”
Whether or not the New York Police Department was also summoned to the gallery is unclear, but after a conversation via FaceTime with a man said to be the building’s landlord, Lee, along with Davis and Clough, decided to close early. The gallery has remained closed to the public since.
This alleged act of censorship by a landlord operating through intimidation is complicated by the gallery's rental arrangement, the building owner’s anonymity and the lack of protections for commercial tenants in New York City. The building in Downtown Brooklyn where the gallery is located, 368 Livingston Street, is owned by Livingston Street Realty Associates, an entity registered as a limited partnership that thereby has minimal public reporting requirements and is very difficult to trace back to any specific individuals.
Nevertheless, Livingston Street Realty Associates and their lawyers are quite active in court. The company is currently suing three of its tenants in the building for at least $192,000 in unpaid rent, much of it accumulated since the onset of the pandemic. (While residential tenants in New York were, until recently, afforded some protections by way of Covid-19 relief, protections for small businesses started being rolled back in March 2021.)
“We’ve always been interested in showing in unconventional spaces,” Davis says, noting that the gallery had signed a one-year agreement to sublet the basement space from another tenant in the building in February and that Livingston Street Realty Associates was aware that the gallery was operating out of the space. “We’re not lawyers, but we’re learning quickly.”
"The basement cannot be used for commercial use and it violates the Certificate of Occupancy," says Jeremy J. Krantz, a lawyer at Smith & Krantz, who represents Livingston Street Realty Associates. He provided a copy of the fire department summons from the 1 May visit, addressed to the business owner who sublet the basement to Haul Gallery, which states that in order to remedy the situation it must "immediately cease any commercial use of [the] basement".
The gallerists and Clough believe the actions of the landlord and their representatives were entirely motivated by the content of the current exhibition, not any concerns about the fire code. Prior to the gallery moving in, a tattoo parlour operated out of the space without issue. But the precarity of the gallery’s rental arrangement has left it in a vulnerable position with little recourse.
“The selective enforcement of rules means spaces like this can operate at the margins, but also means they can easily be shut down or pushed out,” says Clough, whose previous exhibition at Haul Gallery, HEAD in 2019, was similarly staged in an unconventional, unfinished basement space and was also very explicit (though differently so) but did not provoke censorship. For now, he, Davis and Lee are exploring ways to show the present exhibition and continue Haul’s programming in a new location.
“We were told to our faces that this shutdown is happening because of the content of the show,” Lee says, “and it was made clear to us that the landlord is not interested in negotiating or us staying there at all, so we’re moving forward.”
The gallery's very identity was formed, in a sense, by a previous legal dispute. In 2019 the gallery, then known as Uhaul Gallery, changed its name to Haul Gallery after the truck rental company U-Haul threatened legal action.