Sometimes it happens that you meet someone briefly and then say to yourself, “I want to get to know that person better.” Usually, though, it doesn’t happen. Maybe you’re too shy to follow up. Or the person just inexplicably disappears from the scene. Something similar can happen on a less personal level: You read about someone who strikes your imagination, and you think to yourself, “I must find out more.” But maybe your research leads to a dead end. Or, more likely, you get distracted by other things; your resolution fizzles, and you regret it later.
In 2015, when the Whitney Museum opened its new building in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, among the works that caught my imagination in its first show was Hans Haacke’s notorious conceptual piece Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. When this collection of photographs and text was originally set to be shown, at the Guggenheim, the museum canceled the show and fired its curator, claiming that this documentation of more than 100 slum properties and their tangled ownership couldn’t be art. After seeing the work at the Whitney, I went to view some of the tenement buildings whose facades Haacke had photographed. A number of those on the Lower East Side, where I lived at the time, had disappeared; some had changed with gentrification; and a few looked pretty much the same as they did in 1971.
I became curious about something that Haacke had bracketed out of his documentary project: the life behind those facades. Who’d lived there? What had their lives been like? When Haacke made the work, it must have seemed self-evident that the slumlords who owned those buildings were ruthless exploiters of their impoverished tenants. But the subsequent upscaling of the neighborhood is unlikely to have dramatically improved the renters’ housing conditions, or those of their children.
Unfortunately, in the time I spent preparing my response to the Whitney show, I wasn’t able to find out much about the individual inhabitants of the tenements whose ownership Haacke traced to the Shapolsky organization, but I did find something striking. It was an announcement from 1972: “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries meet Friday at 6:00 p.m. at Marsha Johnson’s, 211 Eldridge Street, New York, N.Y., apt. 3. For information write: S.T.A.R., c/o Marsha Johnson, at the same address. Power to all the people!” I particularly liked that final twist on the famous slogan: not “all power to the people,” as the Black Panthers used to proclaim—which seems to imagine the people as unitary—but “power to all the people,” which recognizes that the people are many rather than one.
Who was this Marsha P. Johnson, I wondered, whose ideas of power and of the people were so much more forward-looking than most of those in circulation then (and now)? I found out a bit: that she was an activist and drag queen, a fixture on the downtown scene; that she was involved in the great uprising at the Stonewall Inn in 1969; that she died under mysterious circumstances in 1992, when she was just 46 years old. Her death was initially declared a suicide, but later the cause was changed to “undetermined.” And that’s where my investigation trailed off. There was plenty more information out there, but I had other work to do, other research to follow up on, and Johnson slipped to the back of my mind with a note attached: “I’d like to know more about her.”