A current gaining more wave: 25 Years of Artist Development at Brooklyn Arts Exchangeby Jess Barbagallo
Upon entering the bright red doors of Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) located at 421 Fifth Avenue, it is not uncommon to see a bevy of baby strollers—the quintessential Park Slope trademark—before ascending the stairs to be greeted at the reception window. Up-and-coming dance theater artists brush shoulders with kids just arrived in movement gear, heading upstairs for tumbling class. There is a never ending cascade of activity. The studios where so many different bodies play and experiment are blond, clean, and bright with natural light. Nestled on the top floor of the complex, one can walk down a short hallway to find the BAX theater, or Studio D as the rental calendar describes it. It’s my favorite room in the building: the heavy black curtain on its metal runner, large windows that don’t quite keep out the sound of street noise, the tiny tech booth I have gleefully sat inside, just behind the risers of the seventy-seat house.
In 2012, I had the honor of being fully inducted into the BAX community as an artist-in-residence, so profiling the space feels like a bit of a homecoming. I remember it as a thrilling time in my art life. Not since the days of my luxurious collegiate conservatory actor training had I been granted such access to studio space without the gnawing consideration of how I might pay for it alongside the pressure to produce something great. Like many young creators, my postgrad years were lean and efficiency-driven. The margin for error felt small and antithetical to the freedom I needed to fail in order to get better. It was at this moment that BAX invited me in, offering two years of support, including an annual stipend and 300 hours of free in-house rehearsal space.
These benefits have attracted a long list of fantastic artists over the past two decades—RoseAnne Spradlin, Faye Driscoll, Young Jean Lee, Dean Moss, Erin Markey, to name just a few—yet, in my mind, rather than forming an elite club, these folks constitute something more akin to a family. Many awardees return to BAX well after their AIR tenure is complete: to seek out artistic director Marya Warshaw’s coveted ear, teach a class, or mentor a fresh crop of residents. (This year’s artist advisors include AIR alums Nia Love, a choreographer and teacher, and Abigail Browde, co-founder of 600 Highwaymen.) While admission is selective—Warshaw tells me they took four new residents from an applicant pool of 165!—the aim is not to create an atmosphere of exclusivity, but rather to foster a community of individuals interested in a depth model of personal development.
This year at BAX is particularly special because the organization is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. On November 19 and 20, the incubating institution will swing open its doors for the artist-in-residence Open Studio Series. Participating first- and second-year resident artists include Kristine Haruna Lee, Marissa Perel, Tanisha Christie, Mariana Valencia, Catherine Galasso, and Ni’Ja Whitson. Their practices are wildly varied, but in correspondence with several of these individuals, similar narratives emerge about the impact that their time at BAX has already had on their practice: quieting the pressures of career expectation and anxiety in order to explore what they do not know. Advisor Nia Love describes the group affectionately: “The mentees are all different and smart and proactive, and for the most part willing to be wrong about things. […] That’s a really good attribute for art, life and [a] better understanding of humanity.” Studio showings promise pure experimentation on display, while in some cases “display” appears to be a secondary consideration, following the primary need to interrogate. I asked the artists: What is the value of the Open Studio for you this November? What are you testing out?
The artists’ answers are as varied as is their art. Mariana Valencia, a dancemaker so versatile she makes her own sets and costumes in addition to creating choreography, tells me her presentation will be “a candid assemblage, kind of like a performance salad.”
Marissa Perel, an interdisciplinary artist who works as critic, curator, and performance maker, is now entering year two of the residency. “I’ve been living with a disability for most of my adult life. It’s what got me into dance in New York in the first place,” Perel tells me. “But it has been hard to find ways of reflecting that in my artistic work. In the past few years, I’ve been choreographing aspects of my limitations, and of queer desire, on able-bodied dancers. While I wouldn’t trade the experience of working with amazing, talented, sensitive dancers (i.e. Jumatatu Poe, Lindsay Reuter, Tess Dworman, Justin Cabrillos, etc.), I’ve become more interested in working with and making work for other artists with disabilities.” Perel’s upcoming showing, “a loose framework for dancing and talking about these issues,” is titled Tell me the parts of myself that I might not yet be able to name. That phrase is taken from something that Dr. Aimee Cox said about working with artists with disabilities in the panel Disability, Race, and the Practice of Dance, created by Dance/NYC this past September. As Perel traverses the room with a cane, two friends (Jerron Herman and Keke Brown) will read letters that Perel has written to them, letters which are invitations for collaboration. “Over the course of this open studio, they’ll be reading these letters out loud, referencing points of intersection and points of difference in our relationships, and what I hope working together can be, what I hope to find, experience, and finally be able to share with them, as fellow crips and fierce performers.”
Tanisha Christie’s work, bathtub, promises “a series of multimedia performance events of radical intimacy and surrender by inviting an audience to experience a bath with a Black Woman.” She greets my question about her immediate showing with refreshing candor: “I don’t know yet. I’ll be able to answer the first part of the question when it’s over. I can’t answer this [second] question right now, either. I guess folks will have to come and see. I can say that the experience will be documented.”
Kristine Haruna Lee, an active performer on the downtown theater circuit, is a playwright and founder of her own company, harunalee. Lee’s story gives a good sense of just how mutable one’s use of time can be at BAX. Lee’s primary project has been Dog Gone Day, a play she’s been developing with her company, but this November she decided to try out a very new idea: collaborating with her mother (Aoi Lee), who started dancing Butoh in Seattle a few years ago. “I was really awestruck when she told me of her foray into performance, and all of a sudden we had a shared discourse, we could talk about practice, and most of all I loved hearing on the phone about the rush she’d get when performing. So I had this idea that she should come out to New York for a little while and we could create something together, collaborate beyond our usual mother-daughter relationship,” Lee writes to me. “My mother is Japanese, and I’m, well, it’s complicated because I’m half Japanese, half Taiwanese, and very American and I speak English pretty alright, but my Japanese is stunted at a third grade level. So we’ve always had communication issues, especially growing up. As we’ve been talking about how to work together, we’ve also been talking about creative language, or how to get around language creatively, and we decided to begin the process by sharing only visuals. We’ve been bi-coastal pen pals, but with images we want the work to look like, or images that are inspiring or terrifying to us right now.” Lee explains that they are also trying to weave in themes they’ve been working on individually in their art. Her mother’s theme is “female metamorphosis” and Lee’s is her spatial relationship to 欲 (yoku), or desire.
The diversity of these projects is living breathing testament to BAX’s commitment to create an inclusive environment that specifically fosters people of color, queer people, and otherwise marginalized artists. Over e-mail, Warshaw notes that themes of race and income inequality were prevalent in this year’s AIR application cycle. Interestingly, there was a decline in submissions focused on solo-based work. I wonder if this might have something to do with increasing calls in progressive communities for the mobilization of collective energies, a category I believe I can confidently ascribe to BAX. Warshaw and I decide to follow up our written communications with a phone interview in lieu of being able to meet in person, as she is currently in St. Louis with family for the year. It’s the longest time she has ever been away from BAX.
“We get applications from pretty developed artists who know who they are and who they’re not,” Warshaw tells me. “I am feeling more artists in their thirties and forties looking for context. Or, who do I connect to? [They realize] the need for storytelling is more than we can do ourselves.” Warshaw uses former AIR Katy Pyle and her art partner Jules Skloot, co-founders of Ballez, a company/movement/teaching organization that seeks to reclaim the ballet form for queer bodies, as example of this organic discovery. “Katy and Jules started this work with the two of them, but realized they needed a greater number of voices to amplify their own.”
Warshaw has worked in the field of artist development for forty years now, her experience rich and fascinating, her reputation as a nurturer unparallelled. (Artist advisor Abigail Browde, an AIR from 2008-2010, attests as much: “Marya remains the most constant, compassionate, and rigorous mentor in my life.”) In our first correspondence, I asked her to talk to me about the most important initiatives currently at play in the performing arts. “I think it’s crucial that the field is trying to deal with a lack of racial equity. I hope that it goes beyond a funding cycle and [doesn’t just provide] more seats at the table, but a change in ideas about leadership and representation.” Over the phone she follows up, explaining the problem of how too few cultural organizations have leadership by people of color, despite the amount of money spent trying to figure this out: “There are hard things that need to be understood and then acted upon, and then need to be understood and acted upon again and again and again. Race is so charged in our country. White people have a hard time understanding this and how the power base is maintained. I do know if you put a lens of race and racism on everything you do, it changes the way you think and your decision-making. You can’t describe a safe space as being the same for all people.” According to Warshaw, this topic of what makes a safe space has come up at the last two AIR meetings. It’s a priority for her not to mollify the players, but instead listen. As she succinctly puts it, “Not easy conversations … but you have to do this often enough that everything doesn’t have to be covered in three hours.”
Warshaw’s commitment to gestation and the power of slow time is a contagious ethos, by all AIR reports. But it can have its drawbacks. As Lee puts it, “We as a group don’t have a strong practice of assessing each other’s work objectively, and it’s become more about creating intimacy and talking about stuff that happens around work, that are bigger life issues.” And yet, Lee explains, this is also the strength of the group. “I haven’t had a space like this before, where I can be totally be honest about what I’m going through as an artist and as a human, so this has been crucial to me, for holding my own. […] I’d say BAX and Marya has a force like the invisible relationship of the moon to the ocean waves. She pulls you out! And pushes you forward. I’m maybe a current gaining more wave, or maybe I’m more comfortable swimming in deeper ocean terrain now. Something like that.”
BAX's AIR Open Studio Showings will take place on Saturday, November 19 (Mariana Valencia at 2pm, Kristine Haruna Lee at 4pm, Ni'Ja Whitson at 6pm) and Sunday November 20 (Catherine Galasso at noon, Tanisha Christie at 2pm, Marissa Perel at 4pm). Showings are free and open to the public, but reservations are strongly encouraged, available at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/965343. For more information about BAX AIR, visit http://artistservices.bax.org/residencies/artists-in-residence/ or www.bax.org. BAX is located at 421 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn.