Performance art gets a bad rap. When mentioned in conversation, or an invitation is extended between friends or lovers or acquaintances, one typically thinks of the notably eccentric—an acquired taste, to be sure—Karen Finley rolling around naked covered in honey; GG Allin beating himself over the head with a broken bottle and defecating onstage; six-foot-six-inch drag queen Vaginal Davis doing snarky celebrity impressions, and the list goes on and on. Though, what most people don’t realize is that “performance art” is not, by nature, definition or necessity, freaky or outlandish or designed to make onlookers uncomfortable. In fact, performance comes in a wide variety of forms, all of which were showcased and celebrated last weekend at Arts in Bushwick’s SITE fest, which managed to lure hundreds of performers and arts-enthusiasts to street corners and gallery spaces, warehouses and black-box theaters to do their thing, however adventurous or conventional that thing may be.
SITE fest is put on by Arts in Bushwick, a North Brooklyn non-profit arts organization, which puts on two other festivals throughout the year—Open Studios in the summertime and BETA spaces in the fall. This year, SITE spanned two days, occupied 37 spaces throughout Bushwick and featured more than 120 performers.
“We do two large festivals throughout the year that emphasize visual arts, but there was really a void. A festival that focuses exclusively on performance was missing,” said Lee Mandell, a dedicated Arts in Bushwick volunteer and co-organizer of SITE fest. “We really want to let people know that there is a thriving and diverse arts community here that includes not only visual artists but performers as well. And to not be scared of Bushwick! It’s just a train ride away from Manhattan!”
SITE fest is formatted much like Open Studios and Beta Spaces—artists, curators and galleries are invited to participate and collaborate with one another to prepare some sort of installation, while visitors are encouraged to hop from gallery to gallery, navigating the art-saturated neighborhood with a handy site map equipped with a key, time-table and descriptions of each destination. However, SITE is designed to be slightly more regimented than its predecessor festivals in that the majority of performances run on a strict schedule, requiring onlookers to plan their visits more carefully than they would otherwise. There are, however, certain advantages to this: visitors will be expected to stay in one place for longer, creating an opportunity for community building.
“This really is a time-based festival,” said Steven Weintraub, a gallerist and longtime AiB volunteer. “Because it’s all performance art, we want people to go and participate in these spaces, and engage in a dialogue. We want to provide an environment in which you are coming with the inclination to sit and watch something, but also create a larger engagement with the arts, and with each other.”
In addition to engaging with one another, as well as with the performers, SITE—like BETA and BOS—places a heavy emphasis on the geography, culture and arts community of Bushwick in particular. The fact that the festival happens on a street level—essentially asking all visitors to take on the role of the eternal flaneur (the very concept of which suggests the participant-observer dialectic)—breaks down the barriers between gallery and street, art and life.
On the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Suydam Street stands a gallery space called Norte Maar. The window, which takes up the majority of the storefront, is slightly obscured by a twisted chain-link fence protecting the little house from harm. On Sunday, the glass was lined with speakers, out of which music and poetry leaked out onto the sidewalk, out into the street and down the block, sound echoing between the gallery and the row houses, the parked cars and passersby. The installation, entitled Transmitted, involved nine performers, standing inside the gallery space-turned-recording studio and performing for a small audience assembled on the sidewalk, peering through the glass, systematically breaking down borders and eliminating the divide between public and private space.
“So often arts are put on display in big white spaces like museums and it can be daunting and not very encouraging,” said Jason Andrews, founder of Norte Maar. “But with something like Transmitted, it becomes impossible not to become an unexpected audience member, because we’ve lined speakers along Wyckoff Avenue and are physically blasting it into the neighborhood.”
Paul D’Agostino, one of the Transmitted participants, read original translations of two poems, one by an Italian poet, and the other by a Puerto Rican poet—both demographics that used to populate the Bushwick area—in an effort to linguistically engage the community.
“If we are projecting this project into the streets, it should reflect the community that exists out there,” D’Agostino said. “This is a small attempt to communicate through language a certain sense of the historical vicissitude of this neighborhood. I want to engage passersby, and break down the language barrier.”
Similarly, musician Andrew Hurst expressed the importance of breaking down physical boundaries between inside and outside, safety and danger, public and private, especially in a neighborhood like Bushwick, considered by so many to be unseemly, unfriendly and largely inappropriate for such a sophisticated and burgeoning art scene.
“It’s funny, usually people are scared that criminals will break into their apartments, but this installation is the exact opposite,” Hurst said. “It’s people inviting strangers into their space, everything is out in the open. It’s like an inverted poetry reading.”
At times, the Transmitted installation was interrupted by waves of feedback, which was perhaps the most fitting element of all—a screeching reminder that, in the end, the SITE festival and Arts in Bushwick in general is a truly grassroots effort.
“We want to create unique performances in unusual spaces. In most cases, we can’t rent theaters or galleries, so we come up with concepts of bringing art to the public in very imaginative way,” Andrews said. “It’s all about developing the community beyond just the artists, living in their big lofts. It’s total community integration.
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