Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront

Dr Fiona Anderson

University of Chicago Press


Review by Tess Charnley

Cruising, to me, is a word that conjures ideas of purposeful aimlessness, a sense of autopilot on high-alert. Somewhere between the flâneur and the hedonist, I think of cruisers as those walking through empty landscapes in search of something, not sure what exactly, until it is found in the form of fucking or maybe just watching, an ethereal gliding resolved by an elusive orgasm. In Fiona Anderson’s ‘Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront’ she examines the dilapidated and abandoned piers and warehouses on the waterfront of 1970s/80s New York, considering these places not only as those of queer space but also of queer time; the cruising that occurred within them as preservationist, an activism against the demolishment of queer histories - an archiving of sorts.

Divided into four chapters, Anderson considers this landscape through various lenses including the practice of cruising; the queer visual culture of ruins; hauntology; and protest and preservation. The thread that runs through the book is the figure, the spectre, even, of David Wojnarowicz - artist, activist and writer, who died of AIDS in 1992. Frequenter of New York’s piers in their abandoned state, Wojnarowicz was drawn to the romanticism of the waterfront’s ruin, writing about his encounters there. He both facilitated them as a collaborative workspace for artists and sought pleasure in their erotic state of liminality. Following Wojnarowicz’s example of nonlinear narrative, Anderson’s account of the waterfront, its eroticism, danger, and its associated artists and writers, is non-chronological. She places Walt Whitman alongside Wojnarowicz, the waterfront’s maritime past alongside its queer appropriation. The piers, as ruins, are imbibed with co-existing histories, their present impossible without the archival traces of their past, peeling and unfurling - spaces of contestation in a city that resists its own archiving.

Anderson’s book is rigorously researched but she manages to employ this with a light touch, weaving references from Derrida to Catherine Grant, theories of hauntology to theories of fandom, alongside anecdotal accounts of the piers’ activities and close readings of individual artworks by artists such as Peter Hujar, Gordon Matta-Clark and Emily Roysdon. The theory activates rather than distances our visualisation of the waterfront and those who cruised and worked there, making art and selling sex, hanging out in the ‘no-man’s land’. The artistic and the erotic intertwine in this book, as they so often do, but they are altered by what we know of New York now; the AIDS crisis that ravaged the queer community in the 80s and 90s, the gentrification that has transformed New York’s waterfront since, an echo of what it was before. Describing the waterfront as the place ‘where the city’s heteronormative fabric fell apart’, Anderson explores the gentrification of this landscape as an act of homophobic oppression, a repressive silencing of queer histories. The cruising that occurred here functioned to preserve these ruins, an act of resistance in the face of a society that feared bodies existing outside of its heterosexual parameters and sought to reduce queer histories to a singular narrative. In Anderson’s writing of this book, in ‘cruising the archive’ and recording these histories in all their complexities and contradictions, she conducts a form of activism and preservationism, in line with the similar acts performed by Wojnarowicz and his peers. As Anderson caveats in the book’s introduction, ‘Cruising the Dead River’ ‘isn’t a memorial, it is a demonstration’ and one that is vital in resisting the erasure and flattening of queer histories.

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