These are extraordinarily difficult times, requiring creative minds to take risks. “Engaged” or “social” art is gaining traction in contemporary art as a way to collectively reimagine and reshape our future. This overlap of art and activism is less about disciplines and traditions —what is and isn’t art— and more about affecting change in new and surprising ways.
As both an artist and curator who has worked in theatre, film, and photography, I invented The Play House, a transparent, nomadic 8’ X 8’ aluminum cube, as a way for me to merge each of my disciplines into one practice. As a conceptual work, The Play House is layered; it functions from the inside out. Designed to activate neglected spaces, it doubles as a studio by day and video installation by night; an odd satellite recording data and people in a particular space in time.
The geometry of the cube frames space into an artistic realm; the practice inside is unpredictable, allowing for spontaneous and intimate interactions. Every once in a while, something transformative occurs; a falling into a sense of life that is not separate, where “l” and “you” merge and become something indefinable, mysterious, and immense.
Installing The Play House in The Lot (812 Chapel Street) is literally a return home for me. Fifteen years ago, I helped transform what was then a needle strewn lot cut off from the street, into a temporary public art space. Since then, Artspace has mounted many wonderful installations. It’s a busy, problematic, colorful place. Hundreds of people wait for the bus daily and many people from the shelters hang out there. Yet there exists an invisible line. Upper Chapel Street attracts the “haves”; one block south are the “have nots”.
I invited artists Darwin Nix and Keliy Anderson-Staley to create work in the cube with one intention: to call attention and activate The Lot at lower Chapel Street, in the most personal way possible.
Keliy Anderson-Staley was raised “off the grid” in Maine. Currently living in Arkansas, she has been making wet plate collodion tintypes for eight years. Almost half of Keliy’s tintype portraits on view at Artspace were made at Liberty Community Services earlier this summer, a wonderful place in New Haven where anyone who is homeless can find daily support and shelter. The other images, interspersed among them, are drawn from Anderson-Staley’s ongoing project [Hyphen] Americans. Composed of thousands of portraits, the project is a broadly inclusive and diverse portrait of America.
The reason I decided to include other portraits on the wall for the exhibition, was to resist stereotyping. Gazing outwards as if looking at themselves in a mirror, each individual asserts their selfhood and resists any imposed or external categorizing system. There is no way of knowing who is from Liberty (homeless or in the throes of drug addiction), nor does it matter. At once contemporary and timeless, they are in a state of becoming, just like you.
Darwin Nix grew up in Alabama, and currently resides in New Mexico. Moving seamlessly between high and low culture, an ambassador of both worlds, he brings the street to the gallery through a series of modernist abstract paintings based on drug packaging. Street brand names of narcotics, beckon from the walls: Double Jeopardy, Eternity, Spider, Lady, Passion, Viagra, Silk, Diesel, Hotshot, Batman, Blue Magic, Lexus, Ultimate, Window, Nike. By highlighting drug advertising and marketing techniques, Nix demonstrates that the tactics and techniques of mainstream and underground culture are one and the same. Respecting both worlds, and this overlap, Nix allows for the poetic possibilities of language, escape, and transcendence; slyly mirroring our own addictions and escapism.
Both artists remind us that the current world of art is one of multiple practices. Designated “practice,” “audience,” “curator,” “space,” and “exhibition” are subject to disorientation of expanded meaning with the potential to flip over into something entirely different. New possibilities and modes of operating await in imagining a kinder, more vibrant future.
Marianne Bernstein, Curator