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 â€” the purpose of my residency â€” 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.Â
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 cityâ€™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, whoâ€™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 organizationâ€™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.
AS220â€™s origin story is contextualized by what was then a particularly bleak post-industrial setting. It has made a point to champion ART â€” both as a vehicle for individual expression and as a means to develop a visible local community (via the shared experience of artistic production) â€” 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 everyoneâ€™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 heâ€™d had to defend his non-juried agenda over and over again to board members. â€œThey want to know how we ensure quality,â€ he said. He grinned, obviously confident in his forthcoming punchline. â€œI told them â€˜We donâ€™t know. Nobody knows. But at least we ensure the possibility of quality.â€™â€ 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,Â 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. â€œWe 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,â€ they said. â€œWe challenge the pervasive notion that complete, unbridled, uncensored freedom produces mediocrity and that excellence rises out of repression. It does not!,â€ and then finally,Â â€œArt 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.â€
There is much more to the manifesto, but the vigor and vim underlying its message is clear â€” 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. â€œOh!” I said, instead of introducing myself. “So this is where the cool kids hangout.â€ Both joking and earnest, one of them replied, â€œThere isnâ€™t anyone of us who is cool here, everyone is just good.â€ 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 utopicÂ 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 Â possesses a convincing charisma, he was able to solicit the ever infamous mayor “Buddy” Cianciâ€™s help. â€œCianci understood the potential of art and entertainment so he was open to suggestions.â€ Which is how Crenca secured AS220â€™s first space on Empire Street â€” 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.
Itâ€™s important to remember that projects like this arenâ€™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 Iâ€™m sure sometimes frustrates) their own ideals. Crenca will say he had to â€œcreate a place for his own survival,â€ 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,Â How to Keep the Arts from Dying of Old AgeÂ in 2004,Â “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, donâ€™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 â€” perhaps even a larger sense of mortality â€” 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 â€”Â discussing the bleak potential of an abstract future that entertained global warming and economic crises. â€œMaybe thatâ€™s what humanity is actually best at,â€ he said. â€œDestroying itself.â€
â€œItâ€™s interesting to me that you would sound so resigned to the end of the world, but then at the same time youâ€™re putting all of your effort into this very idealistic organization,â€ I said.
â€œYou gotta do something,” he shrugged. “You might as well.â€
â€œYes, but youâ€™re not just doing something, youâ€™re specifically invested in the idea of a future because of the Youth Program,â€ I said. â€œIâ€™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 arenâ€™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 theyâ€™re around a host of people already converted to the idea of art and expression.â€
â€œThatâ€™s right,” Bert nodded. “Thatâ€™s it, exactly. Thatâ€™s our insurance policy â€” the youth program. I mean, Iâ€™m getting old. Maybe I donâ€™t know what good art is. I might have lost touch a long time ago, but theyâ€™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 donâ€™t have opportunities, and you know weâ€™ve got 150 kids engaged a week. The youth program is our insurance policy.â€ He cleared his throat. â€œAs long as the base continues to swell, contrary to elitist notions around art.â€
â€œWell I have to imagine too, I mean even just me in my life, I think itâ€™s really hard to get outside of standard ideas of what one needs to feel OKâ€””
â€œSure, sure. Itâ€™s absurd. All that garbage on TV it really just makes you feel lousy. Itâ€™s impossible to find places where you just feel good for being who you are. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m trying to do here, with these kids, with everyone. You got to build something thatâ€™s independent of all that other stuff.â€
â€œBut then thatâ€™s the thing, thatâ€™s like this big irony,” I shook my head and probably guffed a little. “I mean itâ€™s like culture is kind of just fucked, and you know that, but then here you are trying to promote culture. To facilitate it.â€
â€œYou have to. Itâ€™s not fucked here.â€
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 â€” 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.Â 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 â€” even looking at the video â€” 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 â€” 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. InÂ the Artists Run Chicago Digest â€” a book I put together with threewalls that examines artist-run art spaces in Chicag0 between 1999 and 2009â€”Â 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 feelsÂ something noticeably underrepresented â€” nine times out of ten it’s “good art” â€” 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:Â 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 â€” 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 partnerâ€™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 awayÂ from HIV in the mid-90s.Â 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 â€“ Â 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:Â As a nomadic exhibition project, how do you feel the unique architecture of Providence complements the specificity of individual projects?
TP:Â Itâ€™s different for each project, because the existing architecture (in a physical/historical/economicÂ sense) in each location weâ€™ve conducted our project \ is so very different and unique to the particular section of town where it resides. Â 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 â€˜Providence Piersâ€™ 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 â€œConleyâ€™s Wharf” building which houses studios and offices for creative businesses. The exhibition was a solo-show of my partnerâ€™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 â€“ 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 didnâ€™t expect â€“ 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 Providenceâ€™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 districtâ€™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:Â Absolutely, every property weâ€™ve chosen to work in has presented itself as a space that could be activated by the presence of an exhibition â€” or vice versa â€“ 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 â€œArt Is Shit Editionsâ€ â€“ Frolic, Frolic, Irresistible â€“ was organized around the premise of consumerism and art as commodity. The property we chose for it was a downtown property on Westminster St â€“ known as the â€œHeart of Providenceâ€ â€“ itâ€™s primarily a restaurant and shopping district.Â 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 Providenceâ€™s history of sex-trafficking and how long indoor prostitution remained decriminalized in Rhode Island (it wasÂ made illegal in 2009). Â 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 weâ€™re trying to do with the project.
CP:Â How have your curatorial strategies developed over time?
TP:Â 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.Â Throughout the project Iâ€™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 Iâ€™ve conducted the curatorial strategies for the project.Â Kwon puts it perfectly when she identifies the purpose of her book asÂ â€œto 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. Thatâ€™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)Â 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 DavidÂ Ciccilline called: “[In order to build] on one of [Providence’s] finest assets â€” its large number of artists, designers, student and faculty innovators at such schools like Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design â€” the city recently re-branded itself asÂ 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.
October 26, 2011 · Print This Article
CP: How did you start teaching comics?Â
One of the ways we started off creating a dialogue between kids and adults was to try out our lesson ideas with a group of our friends. We would sit down and try out what we wanted to do in class with a couple of friends, this provided us with some feedback and refinement for our plans, but it also generated some awesome examples.
One of the critical story-develop tools and the primary visual vehicle between adults and kids is the series ofÂ character booksÂ we create. There are a variety of prompts and exercises we have utilized to start the germinating a character. My favorite thus far has been a process ofÂ hybridization where we start off asking the kids to draw two types of things. A pretty typical pair is “a food” and “a type of job.” The kids make these individual drawings, we put the drawings into bags and everyone picks a pair which they have to combine into a character. This abstract visualÂ mathematicsÂ can be confusing, but inevitably leads to good places… a memorable example is “The Apple Wedding Planner.” The boy who drew these from the bags was confused at first, somewhat uncertain about what a wedding planner does… but that didn’t matter because he could make his own meaning out of the random pairing he had drawn. The next phase in the character-develop is typically drawing a short strip using this character. After that little bit of narrative exploration with the character, we give them a worksheet with prompts to list the character’s friends, enemies, special powers, height, weight, fears, and a little bit moreÂ narrativeÂ about the characters origin story. We end up retyping these stats and combine all the drawings and write-ups into a booklet. Compiling and re-distributing that book has two effects: One, it gets the participants super excited because they see there work in print! And two, the kids get super inspired by each others’ creations. They start to utilize other students’ creations, creating other characters in response.
Then we give those books to adults, who are equally as excited. We ask them to create adaptations using student characters. Soon we are going to put out our first anthology which features the student work and adult adaptations, so keep an eye out for that. (You can visitÂ Secret Door Projects, to see how Ian G. Cozzens developed the Scar character).
AS220 is a special place. In last week’s conversation with the Dirt Palace, you can already get a sense for how it has influenced the culture of Providence. In the following interview, I talked to Meg Turner, a former RISD graduate, who helped build and share AS220’s print shop. Rather than focus on AS220, however, we spent most of our time talking about her life after Providence. About two years ago, she moved to New Orleans to start and run Art Works’ non-profit print shop. It didn’t work out and she has since embarked on another coop print shop project. To me, the whole story is valuable: what does it mean to think of an arts organization as an ethical parent? Â What does it mean to keep the passion of your interest safe from the specifics of a bad experience? And, perhaps most of all, how do you balance one’s personal creativity with administrative, communal work? Meg Turner is also a print maker dedicated to crumbling, abandoned buildings. She’s just as handy with silk screens as she is employing (and teaching) older,Â photopolymer gravure,Â techniques.Â The second part of this interview will carry onÂ here, where we talk more about her work and what was like to move her creative practice to New Orleans.
Caroline Picard:Â Iâ€™m curious about Noe, the print shop you’re running in New Orleans, and how you came to be there.
Meg Turner:Â Right now I donâ€™t run the print shop. Right now I’m part of an amazing co-op that is totally existing because of every person putting in an insane amount of hours. I am the least part of running it because I left for 2 months.
But. I used to go on bike rides with my friend Morgan who ran the shop when we were at RISD and we would daydream about the print shops we would run someday â€” we would just think of the presses â€” we didnâ€™t really think of the form, just “Someday Iâ€™m gonna have a letterpress, and an etching press: Iâ€™m gonna haveÂ thisÂ equipment andÂ thatÂ spaceâ€”” the same way people decorate their kitchens and future homes. We didnâ€™t really think about structure or how it would work. When we heard AS220 was opening a print shop, we both called Susan to try to get a job. And she said, “No itâ€™s not like that. Come to the meetings.” The first meeting took place in a bare room and we sat on the floor and there were 10-15 people there asking, “What do we want in this shop?” Once that question came up, then we started asking, “Whoâ€™s going to use it? How does it work?”
The whole co-op structure and the way that it would work with volunteering, that wasnâ€™t instinctual for me, at least. It was an interestingâ€”for a good 6 months to a year I definitelyâ€”coming out of RISD atmosphere of fine art editioningâ€”I was thinking we would have to create the most beautiful print shop possible so fine artists could make beautiful work. Letâ€™s keep it clean and maybe it shouldnâ€™t be open to the public, maybe it should just be a small group of members that work together. But I got used to AS220’s approach. Because if someone asks, “Hey can I come to your shop and learn how to screen print?” and I have to say, “No, Iâ€™m sorry itâ€™s only forÂ theseÂ peopleâ€”” it’s too bad. I donâ€™t ever want to say, “This print shop is closed, you canâ€™t come here and learn.” Because the whole point was create something that is as good as a university but open to absolutely anybody to come and use itÂ in whatever way they can.
But it was funny how long it took me to appreciate that. When I started working for my boss in New Orleans [at LA Art Works], I went to her shop and thought, “Oh my God itâ€™s so clean! One person uses this space! Thereâ€™s an endless supply of paper towels!”
Â CP:Â Were you psyched at first?
MT:Â I was psychedâ€”I thought this is the best thing I could ever imagine! And then after 3 days I thought that if I didnâ€™t have open shop to go to and didnâ€™t exist in the chaos of the ink and people showing up that were 50 and 16 years old my world would feel small because IÂ wasnâ€™t spreading the love of this medium.Â Part of it is just that I love analog mark making and want everybody toÂ learn it. I want to make it as accessible as possible.
CP:Â Maybe this is a stretch but I feel like the silkscreening ethos is centered around production and dissemination.
MT:Â Yeah, itâ€™s totally about the democratization of art making and words and markmaking is the history of printmaking and I really love that. But you can also just make wedding invitations and other dumb things and you can make crazy political posters to wheat paste. Itâ€™s anti precious even when youâ€™re making etches.Â And the art scene that Iâ€™m involved with is way more dirty and punk rock so weâ€™ve created this really down and dirty silkscreen studio in a warehouse.
CP:Â Wait, you mean itâ€™s more punk rock compared to Providence?
MT:Â Well itâ€™s just a different scene down there. In Providence weâ€™ve got an art school that pumps kids out, kids that come from the bubble of like, “I take my art really seriously,” and our music scene is small enough that it doesnâ€™t divide itself. Providence is unique and thatâ€™s why I love it, because the art and the music scene are totally intermingledâ€”whereas down in New Orleans there are more people who want to be in galleries or work in non-profits, people who are cleaner in some ways, and then there’s the punk scene that screen prints but printing is very much a hobby or in service of the music scene, and itâ€™s a little separate. Thatâ€™s where a lot of the constituents of the print shop are coming from.Â Having been familiar with the punk scene [in Providence], thatâ€™s the part I plugged into [in New Orleans]. But a lot of the people I’ve met are amazing educators and there’s beginning to be more of a mix.
The struggle down there now is how to not lose the feeling that anyone can walk in off the street at any time â€”which I felt like was lacking at AS220 â€” once a week, no appointment necessary. New Orleans isn’t like New England â€” people donâ€™t have calendars, people donâ€™t want to sign up for things. They just want certain days a week when they can walk in. That has been by far the most successful thing. But I also want it to be a place where someone who wants to get a beautiful edition done can go, and it can be clean and organized and professional. And we also have no money now, no money at all. But weâ€™re going to do a kickstarter I think.
So thatâ€™s been really interesting and the amount of enthusiasm out there â€” because thereâ€™s not a printing or poster scene down there like there is in Providence. The poster scene is photocopies, still amazing photocopies, amazing drawings for shows.
CP:Â Do you have a sense as to why there wouldnâ€™t have been a poster scene down there?
MT:Â Well â€” I mean itâ€™s not that there completely wasnâ€™t â€” people have posters on the walls â€” but just not in the same way that I grew up seeing in Providence.Â I think a big part of it is RISD. New Orleans doesnâ€™t have an art school; there are art programs but kids don’t settle in town to keep doing what theyâ€™re doing. So itâ€™s not to say that thereâ€™s no poster scene down there, because there is a huge flyer practice â€” the amount of time and effort that people put into making photocopied flyers down there is insane, and gorgeous and amazing â€” but the tools are different, you know?
Whatâ€™s been really exciting is how many people have been psyched about what we’re doing.
CP:Â Itâ€™s pretty awesome that you could even have walk in hours that people would use. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s necessarily the case in every city. Thereâ€™s also the whole thing of how you get people who would be interested to learn you exist â€”
MT:Â Yeah, and itâ€™s been funny how, even when we left Art Works and went to Noe â€” and Art Works was gorgeousâ€” then to go to this amazing but totally chaotic, dirty warehouse and have people follow us from one to the other, people who had never been in a place that weird and, say, punk; it was cool. Weâ€™ve had some amazing middle-aged people, some high school students have been coming, and small business owners who want to make t-shirts. Itâ€™s slow. Itâ€™s definitely small, we get maybe five walk-ins at a time.
CP:Â Youâ€™ve told me a little bit about Art Works; it sounds like in that initial situation you had a budget and Â a brand new facility but in that instance you had to work within a power structure that wasn’t the bestâ€”
MT:Â Yeah it was a strange experience. There was definitely a power struggle going on between the CEO and the Director. When I moved there [for the job] they had very different ideas, so I was kind of caught in between. And there was no budget at all, actually, so the whole challenge was balancing the fact that the facilities were amazing but half-built there was like a hundred thousand dollars worth of tackage presses but there was no budget for anything, paper towels, screens, emulsion, not a cent.Â So we had to create every dollar we could to spend on materials. When it started, we had a big meeting. “Does anyone want to do this? Who wants this? Who wants to get involved?” All these people came and our budget the first week came from the ten dollars we made at the first open shop. People donated equipment. People started paying dues immediately, it was 35 dollars a month and that let us buy our first bucket of emulsion. We could offer this amazing space, but the facility wasn’t what it needed to be. The organization wanted a gorgeous, functioning edition studio to attract artists from around the country. It seemed like they were not as interested in a local community. There was definitely tension there. And then the place was just crumbling, They had no money. When they hired me I said I could make it financially independent in two years, if they paid my salary and gave a small budget to finish outfitting the shop â€” originally 6,000 dollars would be made available to finish the shop, but I got there and they were just like, “Sorry, no.”
CP:Â Do you feel like itâ€™s easier now that youâ€™re sort of working on your own terms
MT:Â I think, itâ€™s gonna be a lot easier except that we donâ€™t have the same kind of facilities to offer the world, we donâ€™t have tackage presses. We donâ€™t have this like gorgeous room with 30 foot ceilings and glass windows, so, there are some there are some people who just wonâ€™t even pay attention to what we’re doing now, but I think in terms of the people who really respected what we were doing, theyâ€™re psyched, everyone is really supportive.
CP:Â I remember you mentioned procuring a lot of equipment for Art Works. Once a space like that sort of folds, you can’t take that equipment because it was donated specifically to the non-profit. How did you negotiate those issues of ownership?
MT: BecauseÂ we all knew it was a bit of a sinking ship, I drafted things for people to sign when they donated equipment. Â I made it very clear to my organization and the people that they were loaning the equipment and they could take it back at any moment. When we got kicked out, I said, “Everyone is taking back their equipment,” and then I talked to the people who had donated that stuff and said, “Weâ€™re gonna open again in a couple months if you feel like donating it again, that would be great.” But what we didnâ€™t get to keep were the things that we built ourselves. That was the really tragic because it was like our blood, you know. For instance thereâ€™s this rosin box that I got two local carpenters to build. Itâ€™s not to code, and they couldnâ€™t use if they open againâ€¦Things were ugly when they fell apart. What we took with us was the energy of these ten people and we met in coffee shops for months, asking ourselves, “How can we do this again by ourselves no board, no money, no bullshit?”
CP:Â There mustâ€™ve been an important period of time where you were meeting without a facility, where your relationships were gestating, and you could figure out how you wanted to work together without the pressure of immediate, practical demands.
MT:Â Right, right. Some people that are there now have been there from the very beginning and people took different roles â€” that was the most exciting thing. A couple of people teach high school and middle school and have been teaching screen printing in those places. They were like really excited about being able to bring their kids to this facility and show them like you can work in amazing spaces. Then other people were more psyched about having a place to print, which the amazing thing about printmaking. It forces you to be communal (unless youâ€™re loaded) because you have to share equipment. Whatâ€™s hard has been how much administration needs to happen now that no one person is the manager. The last month has been all about insurance, bank account, bylaws; we became a nonprofit. I think like any place, if we all knew how much work it was going to be we probably wouldâ€™ve been like, “Whatever!” Â But so weâ€™ll see, weâ€™ll see how it goes, see like what role everybody wants.
Read more about Meg’s visual work and abandoned building by going here.
Special thanks for transcribing help from Mallory Gevaert and Daryl Meador!