Empire Drive-In is a full-scale, twelve-night, outdoor cinema and social spectacle. Hosted by the New York Hall of Science, and brilliantly programmed and designed by artists Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark, this project is an ambitious statement on upcycling and participatory culture seen through the defunct theater of suburban drive-in entertainment.
On the surface, Empire Drive-In has plenty of nostalgic charm, but it doesn’t take long to see how the project redirects retro sentimentality into much more nuanced conditions of creative re-use. Made entirely from re-animated waste, including cast-off lumber and 60 wrecked cars salvaged from a Brooklyn scrapyard, the project’s junk aesthetic offers up a critical interrogation of our culture’s throw-away mentality, and the tremendous value that can be recaptured with artistic reconsideration and a little bit of elbow grease. Chandler and Stark offered their impressions this conceptual overtone:
“One of the things that we’re saying, or that we’re trying to get at, is that this kind of place – a place that is built by hands and is brought alive by living artists and performers – offers a type of critical alternative to the safety of theme park nostalgia. […] People love nostalgia. A lot of us have an almost emotional attachment to the romantic idea of a drive-in theater. So we use that as kind of a set-up. People come to Empire with that romantic idea, and what they experience is on some level quite different: It’s a bunch of dirty old cars in a parking lot. We’re not trying to trick people, but we are deliberately looking for a little nuance – a little questioning.”
The creation of public and private space is another big picture idea that plays into the experience of Empire Drive-In. Sitting an early aughts BMW on the evening of my visit, I found traces of the previous owners scattered around the car, purposefully left behind by the artists. A wallet-size studio portrait of two young children and an ATM receipt with a balance for little more than $9.00 created a humanizing and intimate fantasy of these earlier occupants. The private narrative unfolding in the car was met on the other end with the larger, public narrative taking place outside, as people moved around, socialized, bought popcorn from the snack bar, and lounged on the hoods and roofs of cars. This division between public and private has always been part of the haphazard choreography of the drive-in theater, though here these narratives feel more direct and curated for personal discovery.
In addition to the social concepts it tackles, let’s not forget that Empire is essentially a series of film screenings; a program that is thematic, collaborative, and diverse – including a Bollywood Bash, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), and silent films. I attended the Teenage Wasteland double feature, with screenings of Over the Edge (1979) and Suburbia (1983), both about the uprising of white youth in the face of oppressive and alienating suburban communities; a rebellious delight. The films were preceded by a presentation of Stephen Mallon’s impressive documentary photographs of scrapped subway cars in the process of becoming artificial underwater reefs, tying into the space’s larger theme of industrial re-use – though hanging somewhat awkwardly in relation to the rest of the evening’s programming. RVIVR, an energetic punk foursome from Olympia, WA played a set during intermission, giving the crowd another opportunity to gather before heading back to our cars.
While participation plays heavily into the artists’ thinking about this work – as it also does with Stark’s other “unauthorized” events in which complicity is an unambiguous, horizontal requirement – true, active participation at Empire feels optional. Interaction is certainly encouraged here, but some may simply go for a controlled, car-bound experience. “There’s been a lot of talk about the tyranny of participation, and yet it’s true that Claire Bishop and a lot of ideas about social practice have influenced some of our thoughts about Empire Drive-In,” remarked Chandler and Stark.
“What we’re after is a space that compels participation in the face of spectacle – one that allows for both at the same time. We’re hoping for an almost a civic impulse. But at the same time, we would never force people to join in a Bollywood dance lesson, or demand someone to climb up on top of a car. We talk a lot about the distinction between public and private space at Empire, and about how the drive-in is an American institution that allows for both. We often celebrate the public aspect, and work on encouraging it, but private space is important too.”
There are several big, concurrent messages at Empire Drive-In. Perhaps this is an effect of it being a multivalent product of many collaborators, or perhaps it’s a resistance of reductive categorization. One thing is for sure: if all art-going experiences were this inclusive, a wider public might start to recognize themselves in the visual culture that represents them. Museums take note.
Empire Drive-In at the New York Hall of Science closes on Sunday, October 20.
Jeff Stark is a Brooklyn-based artist whose site-responsive work emphasizes the significance and spectacle of collective experience. Although it resists easy categorization, Stark’s work has a particular closeness to participatory modes of art, theater and DIY culture. His diverse and wildly ambitious projects range from street events, secret dinners in unlikely and hard-to-access locations, full-scale theatrical productions that make unauthorized use of public and private spaces (like the subway, or an abandoned factory), and collaborations with collectives like The Miss Rockaway Armada and Madagascar Institute.
Stark is also the publisher of Nonsense NYC, a “discriminating resource for independent art, weird events, strange happenings, unique parties and senseless culture in New York City.” If you live in New York and haven’t signed up to receive the weekly Nonsense email, just go ahead and do yourself a favor and opt in.
For my first contribution to Bad at Sports, Jeff and I chatted over email about the importance of cultural participation, the challenges of assessing non-object-oriented art and what he calls “trespass theater.”
Empire Drive-In (2010), in San Jose, California. Photo by Tod Seelie.
Juliana Driever: How would you describe your artistic impulse?
Jeff Stark: I’m not exactly sure what that means. I think you’re asking, “What makes you make art?”
JD: Yes, exactly. What gets you going?
JS: That’s a fairly complex question. But to take a crack at it, I suppose I don’t really think I’m special: I think everyone is creative and everyone wants to communicate. “Everyone is an artist,” just like Joseph Beuys said. So for me too: Making art is about living, about asking questions, about creating a dialog with others — not just those who live near me, but also those who live far away, and, in some cases, those who live in different times.
JD: Different times?
JS: When I’m working on something, I’m thinking about the past, the present, and — in the way that I am deliberately trying to invoke myth and story — the future. And not just in a general way, but of particular individuals. For example, I love the work of theater artist Reza Abdoh. I never got to have a conversation with him, but, in small ways, I hope my work speaks to his.
JD: You’ve published Nonsense NYC, a weekly email listing independent and quirky happenings and art for over 10 years, and have built a community of people around these events in the process. Do you view Nonsense NYC and your work as an artist as mutually exclusive?
JS: No. It took me a long time to realize this formally, but Nonsense is one of my art projects, and the values and ideas expressed in it are the same values and ideas that inform most of my more traditional art projects, some of which are easy to understand as creative works — like performances or large-scale installations — and others that are not as obvious — like secret dinners in unusual places.
The Sweet Cheat (2010), in Yonkers, New York. Photo by Lauren Silberman.
JD: Your projects are typically very active, social experiences and require the willing participation of the audience.
JS: Most of my projects look at the different ways we think about participation. I like projects that are open, that allow audiences to bring something to the work. Marcel Duchamp wrote about this in The Creative Act: It’s the viewer who completes an artwork — not the artist. So one of the things that I’m always trying to do is to make audiences aware of their own place in a performance, or in a space, or — in the big picture — in culture itself. And one of the ways to do this is to ask them to take a risk with me. When an audience makes an investment in an event by bringing their own creative being to it, or they put their body at risk — real risk, legally and physically — they are participating in culture, they are not simply being entertained.
JD: So, who typically shows up to take a risk with you?
JS: I always like to think of my audiences as my friends and my community. This isn’t always the case — I love it when strangers show up, and they do, or when someone is just going about their daily schedule and bumps into a project on the street. But I suppose I start from a place where I am making work for people who care about the same things that I do. Who are smart and creative and patient and generous and curious. When I was learning how to write, I would always read the same two pieces of advice: think about your audience; find your voice. Those are deceptively difficult instructions. Eventually I had to just think about my friends and how I would talk to them. It’s the same thing in art. Anything else comes off as pandering or pedantic.
JD: Your work relies heavily on its context. What kind of spaces do you look to occupy with your work?
JS: The answer is simply spaces: I’m looking for spaces to work. That can be any space, from a street corner to a parking lot to a ruin. The ones I end up making work in are usually found by paying attention, by living, by looking.
Art can do two things: It can show you something that you’ve never seen before, or it can show you something you see every day in an entirely new way. I’m always trying to do one or the other, and I’m constantly looking for places and projects that let me do that, one or the other. So, if I’m exploring an abandoned factory, I might think, “I’d really love to bring people to see this space,” and then go about devising a project that will allow me to do that. But I could just as easily start with an everyday place, like the subway, and try to develop something I’ve never seen before — like make a play with sets and lights and costumes. My work isn’t site specific as much as it is site responsive.
Tea (2012), at ICA in Boston. Photo by Jeff Stark.
JD: Some might say that one of the challenges of creating artwork that results in a specific social situation is the question of assessment. What are your criteria for judging the success of your work? Are there certain outcomes you strive for?
JS: This is a tricky question. On one level, success is simply doing a project, pulling it off without injury or arrest. But I am trying to communicate with others, to participate in a broader conversation. And it’s not always clear the way the work is being understood or being judged. I get a lot of press coverage, but it’s rarely critical, in part because it’s difficult to make connections among all my projects (partially my fault), and in part because art and theater critics are trained to write about very conventional work (partially their fault). So I look for other signposts. One time I organized a Secret Dinner in Barcelona. It actually failed because we got caught by a security guard on our way into an empty factory. But I talked about the ongoing project at a conference, and a few months later some Barcelona kids sent me pictures of a secret dinner they pulled off in an ancient fortress. That felt like success.
IRT (2009), in New York. Photo by Tod Seelie.
JD: The act of serving others is a gesture that appears in many of your projects. What does it mean to you to conceptualize what are often thought of as practical social transactions into an artwork?
JS: I’ve thought about this, and I’m not entirely sure what it’s about. I think part of it has to do with my belief that art and culture are things we do, more so than products or objects. And so when I create a situation in which I am serving — dinner, tea, advice — I am creating a situation in which I have something to do. It’s one of the ways that I understand what it means to be an artist: Artists serve art.
JD: Like a film or theater director, it’s obvious that group work appeals to you. Do you ever just want to lock yourself in a studio and work on an idea in the modernist, individualist tradition?
JD: On the whole, the art world tends to take itself very seriously, and for me it’s refreshing to see any suggestion of humor or playfulness. You often use absurdity in your work, and in a particularly subversive way. Would you agree that humor in art is underrated?
JS: Definitely. And I think the best artists are terribly funny going back to the Renaissance at least. I looked at The Night Watch yesterday, and it seemed to me like Rembrandt had painted in at least a half dozen dick jokes. Artists have always valued a good laugh; it’s the cultural institutions that formalize this stuff, that steal it away and insist we take it seriously. And it makes sense: Rich people are often uncomfortable with laughter; they’re worried the joke might be on them.
JD: Speaking of Rembrandt, you’re currently doing a writing residency in Amsterdam. How does writing fit into your larger creative activity?
Secret Dinner (2011), in Miami. Photo by Jordan Seiler.
JS: I used to be a writer. I studied journalism in school and had a career I quit because it made me miserable. But writing is a useful skill. It’s a tool that I’m willing to use to serve a larger project. And so I’ll do it when I need to, but it’s incredibly difficult and, I think, somewhat unhealthy for me.
JD: What are you working on next?
JS: I’m working on a few things, including a new play, another piece of trespass theater called the Dreary Coast, and a New York iteration of Empire Drive-In, which is a project that I’ve done a few times with Todd Chandler and several other artists. I’d love to make more work in New York City this year. It’s my home, and the place I care about most.