See ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ before it has to 



Record store that never was loves what we’ve lost

Prowl the streets of New York with an eye for what was there not so long ago, and you’ll be hard-pressed to advance more than a few blocks without conjuring up images of a gallery or specialty shop you liked; or that record store that was always good for a lazy afternoon browse.

But when a business closes because the economy tanks — or a lease is lost — or a store’s product becomes obsolete — the whole neighborhood pays the price (via the blight of a shuttered storefront and the loss of foot traffic). There’s also the incalculable human cost stemming from loss of community.

When it closed in 2006, the retail behemoth Tower Records created a gap in the neighborhood that has yet to be filled. For a brief time, though, it’s home to “Never Can Say Goodbye” — an ambitious art exhibit by No Longer Empty (that nonprofit cadre of advocates, curators and artists who orchestrate public art exhibitions in vacated NYC storefronts and properties).

The exhibit takes place at “Never Records” — a fictional record store whose premise is equal parts parody, nostalgia and commentary on what we lose when downloading makes retail record stores utterly irrelevant (which was the subject of a January 26 “in-store” panel discussion).

That panel — “ “Disc to Downloads: New Directions in the Music Industry” — considered how the music industry can remain relevant as the Internet increasingly dominates music distribution and consumption. It also assessed “the social and cultural implications of the demise of the communal experience of the music store vs. a click on ‘download’ in physical isolation.”

These, and other meaty social/economic/cultural questions, are bubbling just below the surface of “Never Can Say Goodbye.”

Josh Jordan’s “Let’s Hear It For The Boy, 2000” imagines its creator as a pop idol — ironic, considering the work was created after Jordan faced romantic rejection. Here, though, he’s an unobtainable teen dreamboat whose image adorns the walls of a lovesick girl’s bedroom — and appears on the varsity and jean jackets that girl (or another like her) presumably wears to school with enormous pride.

NaamaTsabar’s “Untitled (Babies), 2008” is a video which covers the pop song “Babies” — by the band Pulp. Here’s an excerpt from the Tsabar-penned panel which accompanies the video:

“The band consists of only women and the once male-sang lyrics are now sung by the lead female singer (Chorus: ”I want to take you home/I want to give you children/yes you might be my girlfriend”). The turning point occurs when the singer finishes…she takes off her guitar and begins to slam it against the stage, in an attempt to brake it…In this video I deal with male dominant myths, raising questions about issues concerning female phallic roles, gender, violence, sexuality, and power.”

Like virtually every piece of art in “Never Can Say Goodbye” (with the exception of one so pretentious it will tempt you to run screaming), the accompanying text is an efficient articulation of the artist’s intent which still allows the viewer their own interpretation. What’s more, the works brilliantly accomplish the promise — and premise — of the intent.

Paul Villinski’s “Diaspora, 2010” is created from album covers, LP records, wire, and a turntable. The LPs have been cut to resemble several species of bird. From a stack of forgotten records (at the top of which reigns an equally obsolete turntable), those Freebirds fly away — never to return — from the place they once called “nest.”

The end effect of the exhibit is an overwhelming sense of loss — with a glimmer of hope thanks to the forgiving patina that glosses over a full glass of nostalgia given its cruel kick by a dash of melancholy.

Manon Slome — the creator of No Longer Empty — says “I’ve heard from people who come in thinking the space was occupied, and it opens the floodgates for them to reminisce about their experiences at Tower Records. It was such a community. They’d come in from the suburbs or from NYU to buy records. People who used to work there said it was the happiest time of their lives.” That longing for the not so distant past also struck a chord with Russell Solomon, former owner of Tower Records. He recently told Slome he’d like to bring “Never Can Say Goodbye” to the sites of other former Tower spaces which have yet to find a new tenant.

Although Slome is pleased by the reaction from those with a nostalgic connection to a commercial record store, she says the purpose “is not to ask the question why these spaces have gone. We’re trying to turn the absence, the emptiness, into some thing exciting — and to bring back liveliness and commerce into the space. For the people who are trying to rent the space, it can be seen in its best light; and communities don’t have to live with these empty spaces all the time.”

Another part of Slome’s mission statement is to make art both physically and intellectually accessible to the masses (that means free admission as well as placards which accompany the text and explain it in a way that even this reporter can wrap his head around — no small feat, and much appreciated). “A lot of people feel very intimidated about going into galleries,” says Slome. “This experience, we really try to make friendly; not intimidating, not elitist. But at the same time, we’re not dumming down on quality or content.”

A native of England, Slome cut her NYC art scene teeth on a fellowship from the Whitney Museum’s independent study program. Then, she spent seven years at the Guggenheim (working on special projects such as “Motorcycles.”). After time spent as the Chief Curator for the Chelsea Art Museum, she came up with the “No Longer Empty” concept “as a response to all the vacated storefronts in New York. I wanted to take this negative energy and come up with something positive.”

In a moment of not-so-rare urban serendipity, the notion of placing art in the former home of a beloved record store came to Slome when “A realtor came in and saw the show we did (in June, 2009, in two spaces adjacent to the Chelsea Hotel). She saw how many people were in the space and introduced me to the marketing director of Vornado Realty — who said they were having difficulty renting a space. It’s the former Tower Records; would we be interested?” About two seconds after immediately saying yes, the idea for “Never Can Say Goodbye” and its faux store, Never Records, was born.

Asked if “No Longer Empty” will become as irrelevant as commercial record stores (once Obama presumably waves his wand and fixes the economy), Slome vows: “I’m going to stick with this idea. In beginning, it was very much a response to the economy. But in the past six months, it’s opened up a whole new paradigm about what making and showing art can be about.”

You’ve got until February 13 to visit Never Records — which, like the real thing, has in-store concerts. It also sells records, posters and T-shirts. As of February 14, it’s gone and it’s never coming back. That means when I’m wearing my Never Records T-shirt, somebody will inevitably ask where I got it so they can get one for themselves. Sadly, I’ll have to say “Oh, I got it at Never Records. But it’s not there anymore.”