We are fast approaching the longest day of the year. On the other side of the 22nd of this month, the days will again stretch, grow long. As one day expands past the last, our definition for its bounds nevertheless remains the same. There is something about categorical tidiness that seems especially important to the theoretical order of our species. I want to ask, then, what happens when those borders start to bleed into one another? What happens when languages mix up and churn into hybrid concoctions? And what about something as sticky as race or sex — where do we locate identity when bounding frameworks are under duress? Muddled with unknown elements. Under this light, the scaffold of our taxonomies become brittle, even arbitrary, for even the border plotted between species are suspect. In the forthcoming series I will talk to a number of artists about their ways in which they investigate hybrid forms of performance, language, science and art. At the moment the series is on-going, but as a kind of initiation I have asked a friend of mine (and Green Lantern author) Erica Adams to write a series of spells for hybridity. It seemed appropriate to use her words as an introduction to interviews I’ll be posting over the following weeks.
Spell to Swim a Great Distance
In the sign of Pisces, in the month of March, acquire a fish with scales the same color as the hair on your body. Place the fish next to your bed, so you may look at it upon waking, and it may look upon you as you sleep.
For one year, you must care for this fish, and for one year you must not shave or cut any hair upon your body.
Additionally, every night before sleep, you must tell the fish something you have told no living soul. The fish will become greatly sympathetic to you.
After one year, take the fish to the body of water you wish to cross, and let it free.
If the fish swims to the right, you must begin the operation again with another fish. But if it swims to the left, you may get into the water as well, while saying:
My mother’s water brought me to land
Your water brought me to sea
May I be unto you, and you unto me
The fish will swim beside you, and you will see that its scales have turned to hair, and that your hair has turned to scales. And you will move through the sea as a finned creature, until you reach shore.
Spell to Change One’s Face
In the sign of Capricorn, on a Saturday, go to a field where three goats graze: one white, one grey, and one black. Pull from them three hairs and tie these three hairs to three hairs of your own, saying:
When I join one, I become one.
When I join two, I become two.
When I join three, I become as thee.
Bake these hairs into a cake which you divide equally among the goats and yourself. When the goats defecate, collect this in a jug and leave it nine days to dry to powder. Mix this powder with water and apply it your face at sunrise, saying:
When I join one, I become one.
When I join two, I become two.
When I join three, I become as thee.
Do not wash your face or speak to any living person for three days. The mixture will dry on your face, and on the fourth day, you will wake with the face of a goat. This transformation will last for nine days time and cannot be repeated with the same goats.
Spell to Move about in Secrecy
This operation must be performed on a Thursday in spring-time, after fasting for three days. Find the burrow of a snake that has just lain eggs. Take seven of these eggs, and boil them. Remove the shells, so that the insides remain undamaged. Upon each egg write the words:
What was becoming, I will become
So I may move, perceived by none.
Each egg must be inserted whole into the mouth. The following evening you will feel the top of your mouth itching, and there you will find a seam. Pull on the edges of this seam, and your body will split, revealing itself as smooth and pink, with red eyes and no arms or legs.
In this way you will be able to move about undetected for one night’s time. In the morning you will wake, restored to your original form. You must return to the snake’s burrow and leave seven gold pieces to replace the eggs you stole, as the snake will find you and kill you otherwise.
**all drawings were made in response to Erica’s texts by yours truly.
“How do norms move on cat’s paws, silent and unthought?” Ken Corbett
I’ve been trying to articulate what I want from aesthetic experiences; usually I don’t think about it, I only know I like them and seek them out, but the thought came to a head after seeing Drive. It’s gorgeous. The colors are lush, the music hypnotic; electro-pop voices coo about “Real Human Heroes.” The movie hit each of one of my hot spots. It was totally seductive and for the most part I was absorbed in this post-modern dérive of LA Contemporary Cowyboy-Yakuza. But. Here is the thing: There is no transformation — even further, there is no possibility of transformation in Nicholas Winding Refn’s cinematic frame. At the end of the movie you’re just as stuck as you were in the beginning, you just happened to go for a scenic drive.
While not often achieved, I want to find myself at a different spot at the end of an aesthetic experience. I want to see my house and life differently. I want a moment when my expectations were not fulfilled because they were destroyed and in being destroyed are surmounted by a new recognition — you see, here it is — the moment of transformation. Where old expectations are confounded and unforeseen consequences ensue, consequences that challenge prior convictions. Such paradigmatic shifts have happened before — consider the Copernican Revolution, or the discovery of a non-Euclidean geometry, wherein the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line (suggesting that space is not flat but fundamentally curved). Obviously that’s a lot to ask of a single work of art, but it’s also worth reaching towards as an artistic agenda and, to my mind, the best work does so.
When I interviewed Irina Botea for Art21, we spent a long time talking about reenactment and what it was for, why it was important: reenactment is a construct, but it presents an original point of view. That contemporary-present-view layers on top of our learned perspective of historical events. By reenacting a history, we embody the past, and enable new possibilities latent in historical events. Recognizing those new possibilities highlights other new possibilities in everyday life. I don’t think a civil war reenactment is anything necessarily different from genre writing. Within genre certain expectations must be fulfilled. Drive is a genre film and like many films meets the expectations determined by its genre. But it does not expand beyond those expectations. If anything it reinforces them. It is still just a Yakuza movie and, look, I love Yakuza movies, but I tend to give the old ones (c. 1960) certain leeway because of their age: they’re grandfathers and great great grandfathers, and whether or not nostalgia is dangerous in its capitulation, I forgive its offense. I cannot do the same for contemporary work, at the very least because it falls short of its highest potential: to transform the genre it inhabits.
In Drive the gender roles remain fixed — the mother figure (Carey Mulligan) is helpless, virtuous and needs protection against the dangerous world around her. Hero, Ryan Gosling — her only salvation — is trapped in the obligations of his auto mechanic/moonlight-race-car-driver life. He is a loyal man of few words. He wants to protect the innocence of the virtuous mother’s son (like his alter ego or anima). Protecting them (the idea of a nuclear family which he might then endear himself into) he appears justified in doing great violence. Aside from a flock of bare breasted strippers who lase about in a mirror-addled waiting room, the only other woman in the film (Christina Hendricks from Mad Men incidentally) serves as a bad girl-foil; there is a perhaps-too-pleasurable sequence where Gosling, with the gloves on, beats her in a hotel room. She dies shortly thereafter.
The most interesting moment in the film occurs when Gosling’s profile fades into the figure of a stripper. In the ensuing scene he forces a mobster bad guy to eat the bullet said mobster gave to the movie’s son (of the virtuous mother). The whole scene marks a defining point in the Gosling’s character, because he has determined to take matters into his own hands. Its preceding fade, where Gosling and stripper blend into one another, is the sole challenge of normative gender throughout the film, and even while it’s fleeting, it suggests Gosling’s character is not so much a self-directed hero, but a cog in a performative machine. Suddenly there is a visual parallel between the “Driver’s” hero complex and a service industry job. While the moment was too brief to bear the weight of the film’s purpose, it underlines an otherwise scarce possibility for transformative thought.
The careful cinematic style of Drive reminded me of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Here too, we see the study of an inherited, male paradigm that remains in tact and Romantic at the end of the film, despite its intended study of that paradigm’s imperfection. Brad Pitt stands at the helm : a 1950s patriarch with a beautiful wife. He calls her naive often enough to make the audience uncomfortable; similarly his reactive sons highlight the limited harshness of Pitt’s aggressive upper lip to remind anyone in the audience that he is an anti-hero. (What is likely enhanced by the overall nostalgic decadence of the work as seen through a boy’s eyes). The critique however falls short of catastrophe. Nothing actually falls apart. The characters continue, and continue to suffer. The mother never finds her voice and in ever instance wherein one of the family members tries to speak out against Pitt, we see him overcome (and forcefully suppress) their efforts.Pitt’s flaws become a testament to his humanity. He is forgiven despite himself (thus echoing larger Christian themes in the film). Beyond that, from the glimpse of Pitt’s grown son (Sean Penn), the paradigm has only continued. Penn is a chip off the old block — a professionally successful man with a beautiful wife whom he seems alienated by/from.
Both films are unusual Hollywood blockbusters (Malick takes this insane side tour visual montage wherein he tries to explain the meaning of life, beginning with the an astral-vaginal slit that leads to the big bang, that focuses on lava explosions, into amoebic life forms, into secreting canals of live-giving fluid and seems to peak (after ages) with the grace of a benevolent dinosaur (wherein, I think? we are supposed to intuit the grace of God). That part is amazing: I mean, what?!). Both films are crafted with such deliberate love for the medium of film. They are incredibly seductive. The music, in both cases, is mesmerizing. The performance of its cast is also spot on. The shots themselves are almost so saturated as to feel drowsy and heavy with color. They are totally luxurious films, Romantic and romanc-ing. Nevertheless the allure of craft and aesthetic pleasure only reinforces predominant and historical archetypes of male machismo.
But of course all of this raises the question: is there a need to rethink masculine archetypes? Certainly paying audiences seem to applaud our familiar white middle aged patriarchs. Alec Baldwin has made a career out of cameo appearances where he knowingly espouses power — he’s 30 Rock’s favorite CEO. Don Draper and Tony Soprano are also beloved portraits of masculinity; we enjoy the spectacle of their self-interested and often misogynist behavior, either pitying the women who put up with them or applauding the strength of their female counterparts for surviving a constant barrage of infidelity and sorrow. Indeed we may even critique these leading ladies for the shallow pleasure they take in material compensation. Both Carmelo and Betty enjoy the status of a husband’s material success. Perhaps one might suggest (with fair reason, given the proliferate examples of cowboy heroes) these binaries are Natural. The Oedipus Complex has been repeated again and again, an intrinsic propaganda, in an attempt to derive access to some universal meaning, i.e. all men are essentially driven (unequivocally) by x. Unfortunately, women tend to suffer from this paradigm. But what is to be done, if in fact, it is the natural and inherent consequence of humanity? The tragic flaw of our species, if not Nature In General. (We can at least wait for the end of days when, like Malick’s cast, we’ll frolic on the beach of redemption).
As one who assumes a great length of time between now and the end of the world, I am unwilling wait for a seaside picnic. Ken Corbett’s book, Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, writes at the length about how the common expectations of men and male psychology exclude and limit not just women but men as well. Differences in male psychology are glossed over in contemporary society. “Culturally ordered masculine ideals corral the emotional landscape called masculinity. The fantastic underbelly of masculinity is pinched and policed. The complexity of masculinity goes largely unrecorded; the variety that makes for complexity is only recorded as pathology” (p.9). Corbett examines the foundation of this “corral” before going through a series of case studies — from his own psychoanalytic practice — that defy traditional stereotypes (and in their defiance create friction with their affiliated family units). In the first chapter he examines the source of the Oedipus Complex, “Little Hans,” pointing out Freud’s subjective conclusions that are, themselves, based on a fantasy of masculinity.
“…the failure to include consideration of the intimate family surround is to leave Hans an oddly romanticized boy, one who is untroubled by the intrapsychic vagaries of relations, other than those that occur in his pursuit of phallic sexualized relations. The flavor of this romance seeps into Freud’s proud description of Han’s ‘energetic masculinity with traits of polygamy,’ a boundless heterosexual desire that Hans ‘knew how to vary…with his varying feminine objects — audaciously aggressive in one case, languishing and bashful in another.’ Hans pinned as a cad. This problematic romance results in Freud’s underilluminated general theory of masculinity: men and boys are cast as desiring, but the relational yearning that shapes their desires goes unexplored,” (42).
Corbett goes on to pose new interpretations of the very dream (belonging to Hans) that established the Oedipal complex in the first place. The implications of such a discovery are huge, in so far as they would tip a number of foregone conclusions, conclusions deep at work in popular culture and family mythology. (One of the threads in Tree of Life, for instance, depicts the oldest son wrestling with the desire for his mother and his recoiling efforts to undermine his father). “Hans is the Ur-boy, and through his construction and acts of consciousness the psychoanalytic construct of masculinity is endowed with meaning” (p.19). With new evidence having come to light ( Letters and interviews from Freud’s case files were only recently made public), speculation about the mother who, “Freud [did] not position as a speaking subject,” (p.35) and the dynamic life of their family, Corbett suggests that then is that Hans is responding primarily to an unpleasant and unstable home life — something specific to his family structure, not necessarily intrinsic to his sex.
What happens, then, if we reexamine these archetypes? What happens to the stories we tell ourselves? Tree of Life is an homage to an American masculine identity. Brad Pitt is the hard-edged father, with a nearly silent but supposedly naive wife and three sons. The sons are competitive with one another for their father’s affection, just as they are competitive with him for their mother’s primary attention. The moment of Pitt’s paternal failure is also fleeting: He admits to his son that he has nothing, that all his life he focused on the wrong things (wealth, not family). But his offspring seems to have learned nothing from this admission. Gosling’s character admits, in some way, that he isn’t a hero: he has to put on a mask stolen from a Hollywood make up both in order to shoot up all the bad guys, but he doesn’t seem to accomplished anything between sacrifice. If anything, Gosling seems even more hemmed in at the end. Both Tree of Life and Drive seduce the viewer into an empathic relationship with the film’s subjects without providing any transformation in contemporary views of gender and heroism. Of course, that’s not an easy task. It’s probably the hardest thing in the world to rethink archetypes, but that’s also what good art does. It makes the impossible seem easy. And, I’ll be honest, I want to see new heroes, new paradigms, new shifts — there is a popular push for this reexamination in the air. Occupy movements are pressing against the organization of wealth and rogue millionaires are storming congress asking for higher taxes (can you imagine?). We all know there will be no social security in our futures. We know that student debts are too high. It seems fair to assume that addressing these concerns properly requires we also reexamine the underlying social expectations that engendered our present system, open them up and give them new light. Why wait for a glory bream redemption if we can build its foundation now?
I never interviewed Founding Director Bert Crenca directly about AS220, so what follows is my recollection of a conversation we had, along with a description of the organization’s structure. This is the final segment of what has been weekly series of interviews and essays about artist run spaces in Providence, each of which I’ve posted here on BadatSports. My particular interest in Providence — the purpose of my residency — was to study via conversation the relationship between the city’s politics, it’s social/historical geography and the respondent culture of artist community and action. You can access my collection of writing on the subject by going here.
I visited AS220 for the month of July as an artist-in-residence. During my stay, I lived on the third floor of the Empire Street building (above), the first in a series of three buildings that AS220 owns. With each building positioned less than a five minute walk away from one another, AS220 takes up 100,000 square feet of downtown Providence real estate. Every space represents a project of historic restoration and, with its mixed use status, contains 3 restaurants, 3 bars, a locksmith, a photo lab, a robot lab, a print shop, a youth program (with every opportunity you could imagine from a separate dark room to a recording studio), 4 galleries, a performance space and live/work studios for artists. The operation is massive. It sustains an operating budget of 2.6 million dollars a year, with a staff of 50 employees. To begin to conceive how a non-profit arts organization can maintain such a privileged place in a downtown commercial hub is to begin to understand how AS220 has influenced not just the cultural climate of Providence but also the city’s vision of itself as an artistic center.
AS220 is not simply an art space. It espouses a philosophical agenda as well. Every member of the administrative staff earns the same salary and health insurance; the minute you are hired for an administrative position, you get the same income as Founding Director, Bert Crenca, who’s been at the helm of this ship for the last 25 years. If you live in one of the artist residency studios, you are expected to volunteer up to 5 hours of your time every week. Volunteering offsets your rent while ensuring everyone share in the responsibility of the space. AS220 is also doggedly unjuried and uncensored. It is a platform for work to be exhibited, not a space with a pre-determined aesthetic vision. Anyone can show here. If you are from Rhode Island you sign your name on a list and so long as you are willing to wait (at this stage the wait is three years long), you get to share your work with a public. The mixed-use aspect of the organization’s structure is also part of its larger agenda: Crenca wanted to create an art space in a city that, 25 years ago, had more or less given up on itself.
AS220’s origin story is contextualized by what was then a particularly bleak post-industrial setting. It has made a point to champion ART — both as a vehicle for individual expression and as a means to develop a visible local community (via the shared experience of artistic production) — in order to transform its depressed surroundings into a viable social opportunity for youths and old folks and everyone in between. To accomplish that goal, it was in everyone’s best interest to create a space that facilitated community and discourse, not criticality. It had to promote an open place of nourishment, one that did not base its success on the whims of commercial art markets belonging to less intimate cities far afield. In other words, the focus had to be on a local level if it was ever going to improve local conditions. Of course the culture has a number of success stories: Shephard Fairy, for instance, and the constituents of Fort Thunder represent members of the Providence community who have had a tremendous impact on a national contemporary art dialogue. Yet also, there is a very concentrated local aesthetic, an often messy, sometimes Bacchic and excitedly peculiar scene. From my glancing view this seemed to manifest in costume parties, printed matter, a vested interest in education on all levels and the deep pleasure in idiosyncratic DIY culture, wherein high and low art (if those distinctions still exist) mix around in a big, impossible-to-parse soup of personality.
One evening in July, I happened to sit at the same table as Bert Crenca outside the AS220 restaurant. He told me he’d had to defend his non-juried agenda over and over again to board members. “They want to know how we ensure quality,” he said. He grinned, obviously confident in his forthcoming punchline. “I told them ‘We don’t know. Nobody knows. But at least we ensure the possibility of quality.’” It is that confidence which is so contagious. He is a warm man and I had the distinct impression that he was used to talking to a wide of range of people. He is totally game for any kind of discourse. He can swear like a sailor, indulging dirty jokes as though to see where they land, and seeks out the different interests or capacities, whether philosophical, practical or biographical, in a conversation. Almost every night he was out, I saw him talk to different people at the space, people eating food or drinking or hanging out. Regardless the subject he was always engaged. No doubt it takes that kind of person to build a project from the ground up: someone affable, flexible and sure with conviction.
Just as he is proud of his artistic practice, Crenca is proud of his working class roots. Somehow the marriage of those personal interests have lead to his path as an arts administrator. The project began in 1985 when Crenca received a terrible review about his own work. As is the case with many DIY spaces, he responded through a positive action. He turned around and wrote a manifesto with peers Martha Dempster and Steven Emma. “We realize that no artist can survive and grow without the support of both his peers and the public regardless of the artist’s unyielding belief in himself,” they said. “We challenge the pervasive notion that complete, unbridled, uncensored freedom produces mediocrity and that excellence rises out of repression. It does not!,” and then finally, “Art has been removed from being an integral part of our society and has been relegated to mere processes which had lead to the production of dry, academic, pedantic, superficial, mechanical, and mass produced works of art devoid of all integrity, honesty, and meaning and has stripped art of its physical, psychological, moral, and spiritual impact necessary for the thriving and indeed the very survival of human culture. Art must be allowed to flourish unhampered because art is one of the last areas of culture where man defines his spiritual nature.”
There is much more to the manifesto, but the vigor and vim underlying its message is clear — something still palpable in the various constituents of AS200 today. As an example, I remember meeting two floor mates for the first time in the kitchen. I think I was nervous and feeling like the new kid, I tried to make a joke with more swagger than I possessed at the time. “Oh!” I said, instead of introducing myself. “So this is where the cool kids hangout.” Both joking and earnest, one of them replied, “There isn’t anyone of us who is cool here, everyone is just good.” In other words, open acceptance is in the water. And, indeed, everyone living at the space is creative. Many of them teach classes at the youth program one floor below. It’s a utopic vision: here you can still be a painter. You can inhabit a structured bohemia, one still complimentary to capitalism. It is sustainable. It is user-friendly. I realized upon arrival that had I moved here after college, I would have embarked on an entirely different artistic experience. (Isn’t it amazing when you discover the possibility of a parallel life?) Instead I moved to Chicago and had to answer questions about my own artistic approach: Why was I painting from photographs? What about my figure painting was different from or contributing to the canon of figure painting? And, even further: Why was I painting at all? Wasn’t painting dead? How did my own practice recover Painting’s Drowned and Beautiful Body from the river and bathe its corpse uniquely? (I’m thinking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story, The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World). Keep in mind, I feel especially grateful for the path I’ve come down thus far. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but gazing into the ecoculture of Providence, I stumbled upon the important realization that my artistic path thus far was not the only path. (It sounds obvious to say, but here : think about your own aesthetic positions and judgements, imagine conceiving another, auxiliary framework through which to engage with the world. Imagine, then, its ensuring consequence, some things difficult in the old regime will occur more easily, just as other things once simple encounter difficulty). Occupying the possibility of these two realities at once is like being a polyglot, to discover the shortcomings in one language while simultaneously appreciating its tremendously varied and peculiar (by contrast) vocabulary that opens up new worlds. For instance, I’ve heard the Inuit language has a huge index of nouns fitted to depict thousands upon thousands of kinds of snow.
From its original manifesto, AS220 was born with an $800 check that paid the first months rent of a shared loft apartment. 2nd floor space above the Rocket, a local nightclub on Richmond Street. AS220 eventually took over the third (top) floor, which became studio space). Originally it was an illegal, unheated, living space but because the city needed something and because Bert possesses a convincing charisma, he was able to solicit the ever infamous mayor “Buddy” Cianci’s help. “Cianci understood the potential of art and entertainment so he was open to suggestions.” Which is how Crenca secured AS220’s first space on Empire Street — a 22,000 sq foot property which, at the time was in great disrepair, surrounded by prostitution and drugs to such an extent that most locals avoided Empire Street altogether. Via whole sweat equity, constant fundraising and a countless number of events, AS220 provided a visible, above ground activity. Interestingly enough, a number of the original businesses that leased the space before AS220 bought the building remain. Crenca took them on as tenants and, in some cases, even helped rehab the business so that original tenants (for instance a locksmith, a barber shop and a gay bar) could move back in and carry on with updated working conditions.
It’s important to remember that projects like this aren’t simply acts of social service, selflessness or charity. They are necessarily self-serving and there is a way in which each member of the AS220 crew is committed to the project because of how it fulfills (and I’m sure sometimes frustrates) their own ideals. Crenca will say he had to “create a place for his own survival,” it just happens that identifying that need applied to a population larger than himself; his survival is contingent on the community he inhabits. As part of that testament, a handful of AS220 members put together a AS220StinkTank_Compost, How to Keep the Arts from Dying of Old Age in 2004, ”You can grow things in a petri dish,” they write, “but they need special care, and may not survive on their own. If you want to find something healthy, lively and strong, don’t build a lab to grow it in; grow it in the dirt you make from your compost.”
There seems to be a correspondence between the aforementioned dirt and a bed of pessimism. Despite the rampant idealism that oozes out of AS220, neither Bert nor anyone I met there is a Pollyanna. The Youth Program I mentioned is born from bleak prospects for young people and the more general difficulty of time’s advance (how to keep AS220 forever renewed?). Apprehending a flanking darkness — perhaps even a larger sense of mortality — led the organization to establish a program for youth. Each kid enrolled (mostly teenagers from what I could see, they lolled about the stairwells from time to time, sometimes playing guitars, sometimes flirting with one another, sometimes grumpy and morose) makes a portfolio in whatever field they are interested in. They can use it towards job or college or professional applications. But as I said, this program is not charitable. It is essential. A frank realism regularly took hold most of my conversations over the summer and with Crenca in particular, I found we quickly went down rather dark passages — discussing the bleak potential of an abstract future that entertained global warming and economic crises. “Maybe that’s what humanity is actually best at,” he said. “Destroying itself.”
“It’s interesting to me that you would sound so resigned to the end of the world, but then at the same time you’re putting all of your effort into this very idealistic organization,” I said.
“You gotta do something,” he shrugged. “You might as well.”
“Yes, but you’re not just doing something, you’re specifically invested in the idea of a future because of the Youth Program,” I said. “I’ll be honest, I feel like obviously everything works well here, but I think that program is like the heart of this place. Because the kids aren’t just taking classes, their education here is totally integrated into the whole organization. They are kind of brought up in community that reinforces and values all the stuff they learn, regardless of whether or not it’s important in any other part of their lives. Here they’re around a host of people already converted to the idea of art and expression.”
“That’s right,” Bert nodded. “That’s it, exactly. That’s our insurance policy — the youth program. I mean, I’m getting old. Maybe I don’t know what good art is. I might have lost touch a long time ago, but they’re the ones that can carry this on. And you know it comes from my own background, I was a troubled kid. I had nowhere to go. We particularly want to serve people who don’t have opportunities, and you know we’ve got 150 kids engaged a week. The youth program is our insurance policy.” He cleared his throat. “As long as the base continues to swell, contrary to elitist notions around art.”
“Well I have to imagine too, I mean even just me in my life, I think it’s really hard to get outside of standard ideas of what one needs to feel OK—”
“Sure, sure. It’s absurd. All that garbage on TV it really just makes you feel lousy. It’s impossible to find places where you just feel good for being who you are. That’s what I’m trying to do here, with these kids, with everyone. You got to build something that’s independent of all that other stuff.”
“But then that’s the thing, that’s like this big irony,” I shook my head and probably guffed a little. “I mean it’s like culture is kind of just fucked, and you know that, but then here you are trying to promote culture. To facilitate it.”
“You have to. It’s not fucked here.”
November 23, 2011 · Print This Article
During the last week of my time in Providence, I came across another arts organization called The Steel Yard. It is what it sounds like — an old industrial complex that has been taken over by an arts organization. In keeping with the land’s original tradition, The Steel Yard offers ceramics and metalworking classes that among others include welding, blacksmithing and jewelry making. As part of their annual fundraising, they host a yearly Iron Chef competition and an Iron Pour which (as you can imagine/see from above) involves a lot of flying sparks in the dark. (At such times — even looking at the video — I catch for a moment the wild Romance of light, its seeming mysticism, glowering in the dark. Imagine what it must have been like before the age of electricity!) The Steel Yard converted this all but abandoned property into a vibrant teaching ground for metalurgy — what stands out in my mind as another instance of Providence’s intriguing utilitarian edge. While it’s participants and administrators are focused on building a community in the present, they utilize the resources of an industrial, American past. I had a chance to ask Executive Director, Drake Patten, about the organization.
November 16, 2011 · Print This Article
Often art spaces emerge in response to rumbling (and specific) undercurrents in a given community. In the Artists Run Chicago Digest — a book I put together with threewalls that examines artist-run art spaces in Chicag0 between 1999 and 2009— almost every interview conducted with gallery founders talk about how they opened a space because of some recognized lack. Miguel Cortez, for instance, when asked about why he started Antenna Gallery said, “Chicago has long had a history of ‘do-it-yourself’ art spaces and I felt that the Pilsen neighborhood was lacking in contemporary art spaces. I have seen alt. spaces come and go in the Pilsen neighborhood over the years. So I reopened a space on my own after Polvo closed.” In almost every case, founders feels something noticeably underrepresented — nine times out of ten it’s “good art” — and suddenly they takes it upon themselves to fill the niche. In this way, artist-run spaces create corner stones in an ongoing (and usually undocumented) conversation. Very often, whether as an unintended biproduct or a focused agenda, they reflect back on aesthetic, political and economic issues of a geographical local. Providence of course is no different. In the following interview I talk with co-founder and organizer of RK Projects, Tabitha Piseno. RK Projects is a nomadic, contemporary, non-commercial gallery. Each curated exhibit creates a dynamic and reciprocal interrogation between contemporary art work by local artists and the (often unused) architectural site it inhabits. At the moment, RK Projects has a show, “ATLAS” with work by X.V. installed at the Granoff Center in Brown University. You can download the digital album the artist made to be released in conjunction with the exhibition here.
Caroline Picard: What is your background and how did RK Projects start?
Tabitha Piseno: My partner, Sam Keller, and I started RK Projects in October 2010, a few months after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. While living in Providence, we had always been intrigued by the architecture of the city, the sense of its history, and how the urban layout of the city represented, or informed rather, the presiding social dynamics and economic development.
After making the decision to remain in Providence after graduation, we were immediately interested in engaging Providence outside of its academic environment; we wanted to create a socially engaged project that could speak to our interests in the city, be instrumental in responding to the lack of venues where young local artists could exhibit, while also retaining the ability to think and act critically. This was a very exciting venture for us, not only because of how stimulating we knew it would for own intellectual interests, but more so because of how it would fill a void of exhibition venues. There is a vibrant, and incredibly active, community of artists and musicians that truly thrives in Providence.(1)
We began with the intention of opening a gallery in a fixed location, but it was quickly brought to out attention that the cost of running a full-time space that would be solely dependent on sales, was not a financially viable for us. It was, in fact, discouraged by many people. From brokers of store-front commercial properties that had previously rented to galleries, to local curators who had previously run full-time galleries, to staff members of the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts and the Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism — many people made it clear how difficult it is to keep a gallery in Providence afloat due to the lack of collectors and connections to out-of-town buyers. It was clearly expressed that Providence had a track record of failed galleries, despite the profusion of local artists making work. With that in mind, the formulation of RK Projects really began; we were persistent in our interest in creating a new exhibition platform.
The first thing that came to form was our name for the project: “R.K.” which stands for Richard Keller who was my partner’s uncle. He was an outsider artist who expatriated to France in the 60s. He was a sort-of Francophile and was obsessed with the language; he taught Linguistics at the Sorbonne. While he was teaching, he continued making art prolifically. The work he made ranged from collages, drawings, and prints to bizarre Dadaist assemblage sculptures that he compiled entirely from trash he would find by dumpster-diving in the streets of Paris. After 30 years of moving to France, he became very ill and passed away from HIV in the mid-90s. He never exhibited his work. We felt naming the project in his memory was very important to us, and exemplified the purity of pursuing something you love doing no matter the means.
During our search for a fixed space we realized the extent of the economic deprivation that Providence has suffered from for many years. The abundance of vacant commercial and industrial spaces throughout the entire city sparked our strategy.
Ultimately, it was a solution and a proposal. It was our solution for creating a new exhibition platform that could invest itself in showing experimental work by local artists without having a tremendous overhead that a fixed location would have (most properties have been donated to us, or rented out to us at an extremely reduced rate). It became a curatorial proposal embedded around the idea of site-specificity – How could we utilize each property in a way that could inform the work within the exhibition? How does the geographical location of each property speak to the work and to what we do as RK Projects? How does the presence of each exhibition affect its surrounding social and public space? In what way does the project speak to the economy of Providence, real estate or otherwise? These are questions that we take into account as we organize each exhibition, and exploring/experimenting with those answers is one of the most rewarding and satisfying aspects of what we do.
CP: As a nomadic exhibition project, how do you feel the unique architecture of Providence complements the specificity of individual projects?
TP: It’s different for each project, because the existing architecture (in a physical/historical/economic sense) in each location we’ve conducted our project \ is so very different and unique to the particular section of town where it resides. We organized our very first exhibition, Nostalgia for Simpler Times, in the Upper South district of Providence in a double-wide trailer located on the historic ‘Providence Piers’ waterfront. The Upper South side of Providence is a section of Providence that was the last to undergo development with the rise of industrialization in the 19th century, and currently has the highest unemployment rate in the city. The trailer on the Piers was formerly a ticket office for a, now defunct, ferry route. It is currently managed by the adjacent “Conley’s Wharf” building which houses studios and offices for creative businesses. The exhibition was a solo-show of my partner’s work; at the time, he was using courageously silly methodologies for making sculptures, paintings, and installation work that bordered on being iconoclastic. The double-wide trailer, in the desolate context it was in, informed the work in an interesting way. Throughout the exhibition he had a 3-tiered chocolate fondue fountain on a white pedestal that was constantly pumping nacho cheese. Every morning while the exhibition was up, we had to boil over 6 pounds of cheese and transport it to the site. It was absurd – carrying these massive containers into a double-wide trailer in a parking lot while fisherman were going about their daily business along the pier. It definitely brought in an interesting crowd that we didn’t expect – people were coming in that had little or no experience with that kind of art and really appreciated. It seemed like the broadness (in a metaphorical sense) of the site kept the interpretation of the work very open. At one point we had a homeland security officer come to the exhibition because the particular area the trailer was in also housed a massive salt pile for winterizing all of Providence’s roads; there were also shipping crates directly adjacent to the trailer with storage for some equipment that belonged to the police department. He loved it; he took a good amount of time exploring the work in the show. The exhibition really exemplified the general feeling of that particular district.
The subsequent projects went from the Industrial Valley district, where we conducted a 3-day music festival and a huge exhibition that spanned 20,000 sq. ft. of a historical industrial building that was being renovated, to Downtown Providence, to the West End, to Olneyville, and then we eventually made our way to the East Side of Providence in the Mount Hope district and College Hill where our current exhibition is on display in the new Granoff Center at Brown University. We tried to allow our exhibitions to speak to each district’s existing physical architecture and social space; we traversed a lot of territory and made a lot of noise in the broader area of Providence before making our way back to the academic bubble that is College Hill. I think that itinerary speaks well to how the unique architecture of Providence complimented individual projects.
TP: Absolutely, every property we’ve chosen to work in has presented itself as a space that could be activated by the presence of an exhibition — or vice versa – the space would activate the artwork that inhabited it. What has been really interesting, and surprising, for us is how each exhibition has sort of exhumed the past history of the property it resides in. For example, the third exhibition we hosted with “Art Is Shit Editions” – Frolic, Frolic, Irresistible – was organized around the premise of consumerism and art as commodity. The property we chose for it was a downtown property on Westminster St – known as the “Heart of Providence” – it’s primarily a restaurant and shopping district. As we were working on preparations for the show, we discovered that the property was formerly an illegal brothel. It ran in an Asian massage parlor where women were kept sequestered in the basement and attic. During the installation process, we came across remnants of this history and ended up utilizing leftover equipment and rooms, such as shower stalls, a sauna, and a massage table for installations as a way of engaging that history. For the audience that experienced the exhibition, it brought up the issue of Providence’s history of sex-trafficking and how long indoor prostitution remained decriminalized in Rhode Island (it was made illegal in 2009). It turned out to be a fitting context for the exhibition, not as the mainstay, but as a representation of how the exhibition had the ability to activate a particular history and bring a localized issue to light.
In terms of borrowing real estate, we choose properties that we notice have remained vacant for several years and are under-recognized. We always try to reach out to a very broad audience with the hopes that someone will see the space and be interested in purchasing or renting it. In priming the space for our exhibitions, we also make it a point to leave the space in better condition than we found it. This allows us to also maintain wonderful relationships with property brokers and real estate companies that we work with. It also helps them see the worth in what we’re trying to do with the project.
CP: How have your curatorial strategies developed over time?
TP: The curatorial strategy for the project has always been the same: to address site-specificity via a nomadic, DIY exhibition platform, and offer an alternative way for contextualizing the work of local artists. Throughout the project I’ve been particularly fond of two books, one written by Rosalyn Deutsche called Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, and the other by Miwon Kwon titled One Place After Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. The ways in which site-specificity is framed and iterated in each of those books have resounded with me greatly, and deeply affected me as I’ve conducted the curatorial strategies for the project. Kwon puts it perfectly when she identifies the purpose of her book as “to reframe site specificity as the cultural mediation of broader social, economic, and political processes that organize urban life and urban space.”
That approach to site-specificity is something I find incredibly important.
What is different for each project, and continues to develop, is how the premise for each exhibition, and the work within it, is successfully supported by the context of the project. That’s an overriding programmatic strategy as opposed to curatorial, but I would like to think that creating boundaries for the two is something for conceptual fodder that fuels the project and makes it better with each exhibition.
(1) In a city that was literally branded as the “Creative Capital,” it was surprising to see that there were no exhibition venues that could support young, contemporary, experimental work. There were a few galleries, but they were geared towards “tourist commodities:” New England kitsch-art that proliferates because of its accessibility. We were concerned about what work was actually defining our “Creative Capital.” The goal of re-branding this city was what ex-Mayor David Ciccilline called: “[In order to build] on one of [Providence's] finest assets — its large number of artists, designers, student and faculty innovators at such schools like Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design — the city recently re-branded itself as Providence: The Creative Capital.” Yet there was no bearing as to how this new identity was intended to build the city’s economy. At the same time the campaign disregarded the nature of arts activities initiated by RI residents who actually existed in the public community.