Should we Build?

Originally published in Movement Research Performance Journal issue #48, spring 2016.

The moment things really got heated was when David Levine, growing increasingly impassioned, yelled “Fuck the Public [Theater],” punctuating his disdain for presenting institutions that act as the middlemen between audiences and artists, preventing them from engaging more directly with one another. Levine’s comment was part of the second of two panels on October 7, 2015 that opened PRELUDE, the annual theater and performance festival presented by the CUNY Graduate Center. This year’s theme: “What Could We Build, or Is The Future Already Behind Us?” — a meditation on the relationship between performance and architecture. The panels addressed the increasingly precarious present and future of performance spaces in New York City. Their focus on the pragmatic concerns of when, where, why, and for whom to create new spaces grounded what can often be a largely theoretical discussion concerning the dance between performance and architecture.

The first panel included three directors of new and/or newly renovated theaters in NYC who illuminated for the audience their missions and struggles. Vallejo Gantner spoke on behalf of PS122, whose renovations to its namesake home in a former public school building in the East Village are scheduled to finish in fall of 2016. Alec Duffy represented JACK in Clinton Hill, which has been holding a regular performance season since it opened in 2012. Susan Feldman discussed St. Ann’s Warehouse, recently re-located to a former tobacco warehouse in Dumbo. Together the panelists gave a snapshot of the state of budding performance spaces. It was a grim picture. Susan’s advice for anyone interested in opening a performance space: “I want to say it gets easier but it doesn’t. It’s always a struggle.” Vallejo’s re-cap of the renovation process: “It has been incredibly painful.”

In the second panel, artists Annie Dorsen, Ryan McNamara, and David Levine, along with Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson of Big Art Group and Alex Segade of My Barbarian responded to the prompt of imagining their ideal performance spaces in New York City. Among them, the dominant theme was that this proliferation of new spaces is the last thing they want. The malaise of Gantner and Feldman fueled many of these presentations with an air of despair: Stop whining — we didn’t want your renovation projects and new theaters to begin with.

Annie Dorsen advocated for keeping existing theaters that have a history and relevant connection within their communities alive rather than opening new spaces devoid of those ties. Her presentation featured a commemorative list of performance venues that have closed in the last year — venues that are being “physically replaced by condos and culturally replaced by large multiplex art centers that are funded through un-transparent public-private financing arrangements” and that, “don’t necessarily have a relationship to the neighborhoods in which they’re being housed. I believe that with time these places will grow a soul. But what kind of soul and for whom?” She advocated for political organization to develop and move forward legislation that can support existing spaces, such as small business rent control.

Ryan McNamara pressed the issue of creating new artist housing over new art spaces: “Artists need housing more than they need stages.” As an alternative to creating new performance sites, he proposed finding “interesting places to fill with people to watch me and my fellow performers do stuff. That’s a better use of resources…Just convince people to let artists use already existing spaces including their theaters.” To demonstrate his point, he had a dancer (me) dance through the room while he spoke, momentarily transforming the panel discussion site into an artistically charged space.

David Levine and Big Art Group coincidentally both presented ambiguously satirical ideas for apps that would displace many of the functions of theaters into cyberspace as alternatives to creating new physical performance spaces — Internet architecture rather than physical architecture. Levine went beyond advocating against opening new spaces to disdain the existing roster of NYC presenters. “It’s a disintermediation app for performance…It would basically eliminate presenters entirely which is I think only basically to the good. I mean seriously […] fuck all presenters.” Yikes. His app idea brings a cast of performers to your home to create a show. Speaking of his plans for the hypothetical future of this app, Levine said, “Here are our plans to destroy presenting institutions the way Uber is trying to destroy the taxi.”

Together the two panels painted a picture of poor communication between these theaters and artists. The elephant in the room was the World Trade Center Performing Arts Center — a multi-million dollar project to open a new performance space in Downtown Manhattan. Obliquely referenced by the panelists and Tom Sellars, co-curator of PRELUDE, the general discontent for allocating resources to new shiny performance spaces rather than investing in New York-based artists and the existing highly functioning art spaces in the city pervaded the atmosphere.

While this discontent is certainly well-founded and palpable, the conversation-at-large could benefit from a broader and more nuanced consideration of how forces of urban change and gentrification are shaping these tensions, as well as the other parties who have a stake in this issue. For instance, we need to hear from audiences who live and have lived in the neighborhoods of both old and new theaters. Are the aforementioned multiplexes an unwanted imposition or a welcome expansion of available cultural offerings in a given neighborhood? While these panel discussions raised the stakes of conversations about performance and architecture (or resources more broadly), they also revealed how much work needs to be done to account for a broader range of interests and perspectives when discussing the future and best interests of performance spaces in this city.

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John Hoobyar

John Hoobyar

John is a writer, dancer, and producer in New York. Find more of his work at johnhoobyar.com.