Imagine the unimaginable, the uncomfortable, the unexplainable
There is no designated stage area, blurring the line between audience and performer, and seating is sparse, as participating in the performance is encouraged. The unknown terrifies you, and yet something, maybe this very feeling, pushes you inside. Welcome to Grace Exhibition Space.
I consider myself to have a fairly open and high tolerance for the unimaginable, the uncomfortable, the unexplainable, and the bizarre art movements that make this city so unique. That being said, my experience at Grace Space was like no other.
At Grace Space, I have seen a beautiful and moving recreation of a traditional Korean funeral, a piece that made me question the definition of beauty and affection, and a piece that made me laugh about our societies importance on “goals” and dreams that was demonstrated through the smashing of eggs. However, at Grace Space I have also seen, in the name of art, a woman urinate in her pants in front of a room full of at least 70 people. I have smelled things burn that I never want to smell again, and I have dodged more than one dildo fight. I’ve seen a man eat dirt, a woman light her clothes on fire, a man shoot a laser pointer out of his behind, multiple people get physically branded (like cattle!) and more flaccid penises than I care to see ever again. When I tell friends of my experience, they ask me “Why?” “What’s the point?” “You’re telling me that’s art?” And the truth is, while all of those bizarre events made me uncomfortable, the fact that I couldn’t answer these questions, that I couldn’t put words on what I had seen, scared me most of all. And that’s why I went back. And back again. And back again. And back again.
Performance Art, welcome to Bushwick
Grace Exhibition Space is a venue located in a big loft space on Broadway (that is the Bushwick Broadway) dedicated to hosting performance artists or performance art groups, and sharing an accessible and regular performance art schedule with Bushwick. The space opened in 2006, and draws crowds of 80 to 100 people each weekend.
The space came to be because Jill McDermid-Hokanson who co-directs the space with her husband, Erik Hokanson, simply wanted to see more performance art, something she studied at the University of Iowa. She realized if she wanted to see it in Brooklyn, she would have to put the events together herself, which was clearly no easy feat, as she describes the process of submerging herself into the community and finding groups to bring to Brooklyn to perform.
“I would get invited to festivals and find a way to go, and I would feel really renewed each time about this really cool art form.” Jill said, and went on to explain she made friends with the performance art communities around the world, which is how she gets the opportunity to know and pick artists she would like to bring over, granted they got the funding. She went on to describe this community’s norms and customs. Among performance art festivals and events, when you travel to see work the community takes care of you. They help you find a place to stay, make sure you can get around by teaching you the transportation, see that you’re fed, etc. The process and devotion for the form and for the people involved goes even further. “What you see on Friday night, the artists would have arrived a week earlier and they spend a whole week being in the space, looking for materials, eating together, setting up the work, trying to put the word out, and then we do it all over again,” Jill clarified.
After realizing that some of the spaces were hard to confirm, or not accommodating to the kinds of space and work her performance art groups were comfortable with, she locked down a permanent home for Grace Exhibition Space near her residence, at it’s current home of 840 Broadway.
“We’re working on becoming a non profit and are working on getting some grants in the future,” Jill said, struggling to sum up what the space is all about (and we can’t blame her!) “But in the meantime it’s a pretty low budget thing so it’s just about showing respect to each other. It’s a really beautiful international network.”
While Grace Space seems to be a revolving international door of a number of different performance groups from around the globe, we can look at the space as a whole through the group NON GRATA. During October and November of 2012, Grace Exhibition Space hosted the “NON GRATA” series, a series of performance art events curated by member and performer of the NON GRATA group, Al Paldrok. “NON GRATA is an international performance group from Estonia with a floating membership.” Paldrok defines in for Bushwick Daily. “In NON GRATA there have been more than 500 members during last 15 years from all over the world. The main characteristics are anonymity within group work, ignorance of the local art world and mass media. The group has performed in Asia, Europe, South and North America with street actions, chaotic spaces, context specific performances and long lasting ghetto marathons.” Each Friday for the two months, NON GRATA drew crowds of local artists, writers, and other curious folk from around the city.
It seems natural to say a space that hosts events that are risky and daring can only exist in an area where there is a thriving artist community like Bushwick, Al made a great point about how artists shape a community and not the other way around:
“Grace Exhibition Space was here before this neighborhood came to be what it is now.” Al explained. “In 2006, when Grace Space opened with a NON GRATA exhibition and performances, the locals stopped us in front of the space and told us to go back to where we belong. Grace Exhibition Space is an independent art space and its true value is right there. These kinds of places form the environment in which they exist, not the other way around.”
Take off your clothes, loose your funding
“And while we agree the art does contribute to the shape of a neighborhood, there are benefits to having the space in Bushwick specifically,” explained Jill.
“Performance art can be political and sometimes there’s nudity because it’s all based on the body, and if you showed that kind of work [in Manhattan] you would lose your funding,” Jill said after referencing the infamous 1990 Karen Finley vs. the NEA case, where the artist was forced to send back her grant after her performance piece was considered “lude.”
“So you couldn’t present the work,” Jill continued, “and it kind of disappeared for a while and it’s starting to come back now. I think the thing about where we’re located is, we can be political and we can have some nudity and its not that shocking and it’s fine, but in Manhattan the liability insurance is much more expensive, and you have funders that you can’t offend, and I think it’s a lot harder when you’re dependent on that enormous amount of money to keep you going each month. It’s harder to take a risk. That’s the other nice thing about being where we are, in Bushwick.”
This is hardly a fair summation of the events that transpired in the two months I was exposed to Grace Space, and what I imagine it takes to put on a show. But as I continued to feel drawn to the spot, and as I got to know the welcoming regulars, characters, alternative art space owners, and artists, who make up the performance art scene in Bushwick and beyond, I realized it isn’t about how limitless, abstract, lawless or beautiful a performance can be. It’s about having a place to go as surely and regularly as you can attend a gallery opening every Thursday in Chelsea, for an (unfortunately) rare and unusual art form.
What I learned most about this community is that it’s a gift to have a space where one can be out of his or her comfort zone. While I realize everyone’s experience is different, and perhaps I may be in the minority here, I think it’s safe to say Grace Space plays home to truly unique art experience. I have found Grace Space to be a breath of fresh air, and a new way to see and experience feelings you may have not faced in a long time. It’s a place to let yourself be exposed, amused, delighted, and terrified all at the same time, and I can say I haven’t experienced this combination of emotions at any gallery or theater I have ever stepped into, and that’s a wonderful thing.
The space provides a refreshing perspective on an art scene that has been somewhat shackled and restrained for quite a bit of time now. Grace Exhibition Space is a brave pioneer as it puts Bushwick, as well as New York City, on the forefront of exploration and exposure into the minds and bodies of artists who are truly gifted, fearless, and unique.