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.