This weekend the New Museum celebrated its third year of IDEAS CITY, a collaborative initiative that seeks to use the arts to revitalize urban space as a forum for discussion and culture enrichment. Among the hundreds of participants, two women, Meenakshi Thirukode and Jasmine Wahi, push the mission of the three-day event, truly challenging the concept of art and space, and art in space. Brought together serendipitously and slightly prophetically, Thirukode and Wahi have combined their art world/business savvy with their passion for the expansion of art in public urban spaces to create the timely Project for Empty Space (PES). The foundation, brainstormed by the partners in 2010, focuses on transforming under-utilized or typically non-art spaces into temporary performance art venues. They seek to change perceptions and to stretch the impact of art in an urban environment, making it more accessible to the city’s entire population. As a second act to this weekend’s collaboration with The Other Theater, Etiquette for Lucid Dreaming, PES will host the event again, this time at Brooklyn Fire Proof in Bushwick on Tuesday May 7th.
If you build it they will come. This clichéd and overused mantra of a bygone generation of baby boomers speaks volumes for a certain, outmoded way of thinking about the art world. This phrase might have justified the proliferation of certain art-centric neighborhoods like SoHo, Chelsea, and even Williamsburg, as these neighborhoods were transformed from down-and-out artist slums to the glitzy and glamorous dealer-centric art meccas that they are today. As the art world shifts, artists, gallerists and other art professionals are in search of new ways to open up the frontiers of the city, and rather than finding new neighborhoods, often they are finding usable space is the unlikeliest of places – right under their noses. Thirukode and Wahi have recently sparked the interest of the New York art world, both in Bushwick and beyond, as they seek to shift the focus away from pristine “white box” art spaces to more organic, raw, and unused spaces all over the city. While discussing Etiquette for Lucid Dreaming, the phrase “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” comes more to mind. The partners have taken their knowledge and expertise of art and art business and used it to help revitalize buildings forgotten within the urban environment, transforming them into dynamic performance art venues.
If you had asked Thirukode and Wahi four years ago if today they would be running a nonprofit arts organization, they might not believe it but they probably wouldn’t be surprised either. Both women come from an art business background, specific to the South Asian art market, crisscrossing each other’s paths at Christie’s Auction House. Looking back at how PES got started, Thirukode reflects, “We [both] wanted to function outside the commercial realm, and focus more on enabling artists and doing work that engaged the community.” They saw the commercial art world as somewhat disembodied from everyday life, and wanted instead to work with art “in a way that empowers communities and creates a valuable connection between the city and its people…[art is] actually the catalyst for real social change.” What started as a casual conversation about the accessibility of art and its ability to truly effect social change quickly transformed into what would become the mission of PES.
One great thing the two women have learned from their collaboration is, if you don’t have a rulebook, you can take a project anywhere without fear of doing something the wrong way. Without a whole lot of thought of future projects, endowments or the “right” way of executing their concept, less than a year after their initial conversation, PES opened its first installation at 181 Stanton Street. And while the they both agree the organization has matured and grown, their initial mission has remained the same. “We are still very committed to the artwork, but now our interest in social justice and betterment has really become a primary focus that we achieve through the artwork,” says Wahi. “Our social consciousness both as individuals and as a team has just strengthened with each project we do.”
One thing that makes PES so unique is its flexibility to work with artists and collectives and adapt with the needs of each group they work with. They have the ability to match a venue to an artist or artists, ensuring that the collaboration is mutually complementary. “We are very open and we don’t have too many restrictions from the start. It’s a collaborative effort once the open call is out. We work on a proposal-to-proposal basis and see what works best. That’s worked for us,” says Thirukode. This flexibility allows PES to continually adapt to the changing tides of the art world, a fact that can be seen in the team’s chosen venues for their collaboration with The Other Theater (TOT) – The Old School in the Lower East Side, and Brooklyn Fireproof East in Bushwick. The dual-venue model used this time fits perfectly with TOT, a collective whose work, according to Wahi, is about “immers[ing] oneself into the performance as a way to understand the idea of space, city, body and all the contexts that entail[s].” Each performance will be, in many ways, determined by its location and the people who participate, thus investigating the role of place and the site-specificity of performance. Wahi is particularly interested in seeing how the different venues play out. “Every neighborhood in New York is so different that there is no doubt that the locations will play a key role in the uniqueness of each performance experience. We intentionally chose not only different locations, but also varied times, to further diversify the types of people we get to come.”
With this new collaboration, Thirukode and Wahi have expanded their original concept of “un-utilized space” to include “interesting, unusual spaces.” To them, “Bushwick is still raw in terms of a neighborhood that has a large artist community. There’s a lot of talk in terms of engaging the local community and some artists are really doing that with intense dedication.” As the first event that TOT has executed in America, Thirukode and Wahi are excited to see how “NYC audience[s] will interact with the neighbors from across the border!”
The current collaboration, Etiquette for Lucid Dreaming, is a performance involving interaction between participants all wearing iPods who are then asked to create their own performances based on what they are hearing in their headphones. No one, not even Thirukode and Wahi, know what they will hear on the MP3 players. It is unclear exactly how the event will play out, which is one of the things Wahi is most anticipating. “I’m excitedly curious about what we, the audience and participants, are going to hear…As a curator it’s really exciting for me to get to experience what my artists are working on in the same way that the audience does – it’s an entirely new discover that is eye-opening and, for lack of a more sophisticated way of putting it, just fun!”
Project for Empty Space and The Other Theater’s collaboration, Etiquette for Lucid Dreaming was part of the New Museum’s IDEAS City event this weekend and will take place at Brooklyn Fireproof East (119 Ingraham St), Tuesday May 7th.