Wikipedia, 2007. [A diagram showing the mathematical concept of displacement. A meandering purple line shows “path taken” and “distance.” And a straight, much more direct green line shows “displacement.”]

This piece was originally published in the 2024 Are.na Annual.

I am going to (unfortunately) start by quoting Wikipedia on “displacement” at length:

In geometry and mechanics, a displacement is a vector whose length is the shortest distance from the initial to the final position of a point P undergoing motion. It quantifies both the distance and direction of the net or total motion along a straight line from the initial position to the final position of the point trajectory. A displacement may be identified with the translation that maps the initial position to the final position.

Displacement describes the resulting distance when something is moved from where it was to where it is. It is the shortest path, a straight line, a vector. Displacement doesn’t account for how it got from where it was to where it is, and it doesn’t account for time.

In my basement studio at 38 Ludlow Street in Lower Manhattan, I regularly get people stumbling down my steps and entering through my glass door asking, “Is this ENTRANCE?” I say no and point them a few storefronts up.

The confusion is easy to understand: ENTRANCE also occupies a basement on the same side of the street of the same block. At 48 Ludlow Street, a small blue acrylic sign marks the art gallery:

ENTRANCE Gallery, 48 Ludlow Street, 2023. [A diptych showing the storefront window of a gallery on the left, and on the right a zoomed-in crop of the tiny sign at the door, which says ENTRANCE.]

I’ve been strangely fascinated by this sign for a while now. Since the gallery was initially only in the basement, the sign was needed to mark its unexpected and therefore easy-to-miss, below–street level entrance. The sign has a double function, both marking the entrance and identifying the gallery, ENTRANCE. I like that.

The sign has a particular typography, and that was also surely some of the attraction. The type registers for me somewhere between 1898 and 1998, feeling at least equally plausible in either time. This double register also makes it feel perfectly right, now. I like it and I said so to Louis Shannon, cofounder of the gallery, who told me the typography was “borrowed” by his brother Jack from signage at a parking lot on Broome Street.

395 Broome Street parking lot, 2023. [A diptych showing a parking lot payment kiosk on the left and on the right a zoomed-in crop of a sign to drivers parking in the lot. The sign has the same typography as the ENTRANCE sign.]

I thought this was pretty brilliant, displacing the particular type from a parking lot a few blocks away to a basement art gallery. On the surface, this is simply vernacular or found typography. But for me, the typographic displacement leaves a marked trace. The movement of these letters from one sign to another links those two sites, as if the Ludlow basement now has a light overlay of the Broome Street parking lot. Things change, and things move. And things leave a trace when they do.

I’ve had my basement studio at 38 Ludlow Street for seventeen years. The space started out as Dexter Sinister Just-in-Time Workshop and Occasional Bookstore, and for the first five years, we opened the “shop” on Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., selling copies of a journal we produced (Dot Dot Dot) and a collection of other small publications. We also convened events in the space, from artist performances to professional haircuts (to mark the inauguration of Barack Obama and the White House’s political transformation from right to left; if you switched the side of your hair part, the haircut was free). I have continued to run regular events in the space over the years and it has subsequently become home base for later projects, The Serving Library and O-R-G Small Softwares, which also ran a one-day-a-week “Software Shop,” slinging screen savers and other useless digital products as packaged postcards with unique download codes. The basement continues to be my daily working studio space.

We originally moved into 38 Ludlow Street at least in part because of our immediate across-the-street neighbors. For one year, 41 Ludlow Street served as the offices of Scorched Earth, a publication and project space set up by Eileen Quinlan, Sam Lewitt, Cheyney Thompson, and Gareth James. Scorched Earth ran a regular lecture series, which was excellent, in the space on Sunday afternoons. We figured proximity was a good idea or at least a nice benefit of the studio location we’d found. And so, for The Opening Party at Dexter Sinister, we explicitly linked the two spaces by asking a musician friend, Alex Waterman, to perform in both spaces, carrying his cello back and forth across Ludlow Street, playing Bach at Scorched Earth and bluegrass at Dexter Sinister.

The Opening Party, Dexter Sinister, June 30, 2006. [A blurry photo of a crowded basement.]

Scorched Earth was only ever planning to be in that space for one year, and I was somewhat surprised to see that when they left, the space sat vacant for a good while and then became a lighting supply store, Chuang Ye Electrical Supplies, which still occupies the space. Below left is a picture back then and below right is today:

Scorched Earth, photograph Eileen Quinlan, 2006 (L); Chuang Ye Electrical Supplies, 2023 (R). [Another diptych, this one with a line of people sitting in a long, narrow space on the left, and an electrical supply shop under an awning on the right.]

I suppose this was surprising as, after twenty-five years living in New York City, I had been conditioned to expect that the encroachment of art projects into existing neighborhoods was a one-dimensional arrow of rising rents and gentrification. It was extremely heartening to see a small particularly industrial business move in and low-key thrive. 

And this has been—more rather than less—the case for this particular block of Ludlow between Hester and Grand Streets. When we moved onto the block, there was another art tenant at 53 Ludlow Street, e-flux, the art publicity mailing list. e-flux also used this storefront as a project space, operating for a while as e-flux video rental, a free art-video VHS tape library. And then later, the space was occupied by Martha Rosler Library, which hosted the artist’s significant book collection and offered up a community reading room.

e-flux video rental, 53 Ludlow Street, 2006. [A glass window and door, through which you can see a pristine white space with white shelves and blank white VHS covers.]

When e-flux moved out a few years later into larger quarters, the immaculately renovated space also sat vacant. Again, instead of an art gallery or some other art world–adjacent business, the space was rented by Silk Cakes, a small bakery specializing in eccentric and decidedly homemade wedding cakes. 53 Ludlow is now a liquor store.

Across the street and nearly fifty years prior at 56 Ludlow Street, The Velvet Underground’s first album was recorded. It was in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment whose $25-per-month rent was split by Tony Conrad and John Cale, and where Lou Reed would stay for short periods. The setup was spartan, and the band would perform on acoustic instruments and with electricity stolen from other apartments, running a Wollensak tape recorder that collected the Velvet’s new sound.

Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder. [An old school tape recorder with different colored buttons and two reals of tape.]

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, John Cale described:

Lou [Reed], Sterling [Morrison] and I combined the music of Erik Satie, John Cage, Phil Spector, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan. The result was a new form of rock—more about art than commerce.

The recordings were released in 1967 as The Velvet Underground & Nico with a bespoke banana cover by Andy Warhol. If not necessarily a commercial hit, the record has had an entirely outsized influence. Years later Brian Eno described:

The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.

56 Ludlow housed a community of artists at the time, including composer LaMonte Young and filmmaker Jack Smith. There was a tea merchant on the ground floor with a single light bulb. Rather surprisingly, instead of luxury condominiums or some such, the building continues to house a community of artists in a cooperative arrangement. In a Wall Street Journal interview, John Cale describes the confusion of returning to the site:

I live in Los Angeles now and haven’t been back to this building in almost 50 years. Actually, I’m surprised it’s still here. I was just told it’s an artists’ co-op today, which is gratifying to know. Emotionally, I feel confusion returning here. I’m trying to appreciate what’s changed, but at the same time I’m feeling some nostalgia for the place. I remember the good times we had here, where we cracked some ideas. But you can’t recreate that.

John Cale (center right) on the rooftop at 56 Ludlow Street, from The Velvet Forum, ca. 1967. [A black and white photo of four people on a roof with tall buildings in the background.]
John Cale on the rooftop at 56 Ludlow Street, photograph by Philip Montgomery, 2013. [A colored photo of one person on the roof, older now, with tall buildings in the background.]

The sentiment might be familiar to Louis and Jack Shannon, a couple storefronts south at ENTRANCE. The brothers’ great-grandfather was Henri Matisse. Marcel Duchamp was related by marriage, and both of their parents are artists. In a recent interview, Louis talks about how he deals with the legacy:

You choose how you want to interact with it, so I’m choosing a very positive association with it.

The Shannons originally rented the basement space in 2011 as part of the art collective Luck You. In 2017 they took over the lease and opened ENTRANCE.

Luck You Collective, from left, Carmen Hall, Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Victoria Cronin, Tristan Reginato, Jack Shannon, Louis Shannon, Lorenzo Bueno and Adinah Dancyger, Photograph by Deidre Schoo, 2013. [Eight young people, let’s say early to mid-20s, posing together in a line, leaning against the white walls behind them.]

But ENTRANCE doesn’t run exactly like a typical commercial art gallery. They are careful about not inflating the prices of the artists they represent, believing that this only leads to shorter careers. In another recent interview, Louis explicitly described their approach:

We grew up in New York around artists that have been working here for 60 years. We work with lifers and are in it for the long haul.

In 2006, when Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey and I went looking for a studio space, we found a For Rent sign posted at 38 Ludlow. We immediately thought to ourselves, “Wow! A storefront in Manhattan—that would be amazing.” We promptly called the number, and when the agent arrived we were surprised as she led us down the stairs into a six-and-a-half-foot-ceilinged basement space instead. It was in a pretty rough state, previously used for food storage. We were surprised to find the space felt quite right to us, and at least equally important, the price was also very much right. We signed a lease, which I still hold. It comes up for renewal in 2024.

For rent sign and basement interior, 38 Ludlow Street, 2006. [Yellow and green sign that says Loft Rent in English and Chinese with a number to call.]

I just spent the last week and half scraping, brushing, and applying multiple coats of DryLok primer to the basement walls in an attempt to cover the ongoing water damage. It was exhausting work over a very hot New York summer, but it also afforded me plenty of time to think—about what I was so eager to cover up, about the permanent change that is the fundamental baseline of New York City, about what remains when one thing replaces another.

38 Ludlow Street, 2023. [A bare basement space with white walls, a white tin-tiled ceiling, and a few wooden structures still being assembled. The beginning of something...]

While painting back by the large drainage pipe, I came across a good-sized hole covered over by criss-crossing pieces of wide masking tape that form an asterisk of sorts. I’ve always liked this thing.

38 Ludlow Street, 2023. [A white wall and a white pipe. Beside the pipe, barely detectable, is an asterisk made of masking tape that has been painted over with white paint.]

When we took the basement many years ago, there was just this unexplained hole in the wall. It wasn’t so big but clearly was better covered than not. There must have been some masking tape around. In the meantime, that asterisk shape populated quite a few projects that came through the basement.

A similar asterisk graphic was originally borrowed from a poster made by Muriel Cooper at the MIT Visible Language Workshop:

Asterisk exhibition poster, printed at the MIT Visible Language Workshop, 1974. [An orange poster with handscrawled writing. In large letters is the word Asterisk, and below it is a many-sided asterisk made of thick black lines.]

That was then repurposed and silk-screened for the cover of a book made with Shannon Ebner called The Sun as Error (or The * as E//or).

The Sun as Error, Shannon Ebner with Dexter Sinister, 2009. [A white book cover with a bright yellow asterisk.]

In a full-circle moment, Shannon later made a photograph of the taped asterisk in the basement.

Photograph by Shannon Ebner, 2009. [A close up of the painted over masking tape asterisk on the wall.]

I’ve grown very fond of the ad-hoc graphic that results from that original patch job. Yet, painting this time, it was a question whether to keep or not to keep the taped star. If you’ve been paying attention, I suspect you can guess the answer.

I won’t be in this studio forever, maybe not even for so long. Someone else will move in, and they’ll find the carefully painted-over graphic and perhaps they might wonder for a minute why it’s like that.

I hope so, anyway.


David Reinfurt is 1/2 of Dexter Sinister, 1/4 of The Serving Library, and 1/1 of O-R-G inc. Dexter Sinister started as a small workshop on the lower east side of Manhattan and has since branched pragmatically into projects with and for contemporary art institutions. The Serving Library publishes a semi-annual journal, maintains a physical collection, and circulates PDF texts through its website. O-R-G is a small software company. David currently teaches at Princeton University and his work is included in the permanent collections of Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. David was the 2016-2017 Mark Hampton Design Fellow at the American Adademy in Rome.