What is the difference between performance art, contemporary dance performance, and experimental theater? Ask that question to twenty people and you’ll get twenty different answers, though in general there is a split between people who think these kinds of differentiations are vital and useful, and those who find them limiting or beside the point. Underlying the discussion—and what is actually interesting about it—is the fact that no matter how much artists working in performance may cross disciplines, collaborate, or seek to be heard outside of one or another particular historical framework, the actual locations in which they are working all come with different potential and different baggage. They just do; they always have. No matter how much a curator might want to support a particular artist’s concept, some locations just cannot afford to have a big wet mess ruining their newly installed hardwood floor. Alternately, a slow, introspective piece might need an audience’s quiet attention, in which case certain non-traditional locations would be as likely to ruin the work as to expand its meaning.
So it remains a truly great thing that New York has so many distinct places to present and see pretty much every strain of what in the U.K. is called “live art.” At the same second floor location where it has been since 2006—on Broadway in Bushwick, underneath the J train, next to a liquor store—Grace Exhibition Space is the sole gallery in this city that shows specifically, in its most intentionally narrow definition, Performance Art. Jill McDermid and Erik Hokanson, the husband and wife who curate the space, and who host visiting international artists in their home, are fairly clear about what that term means to them. It’s the kind of thing, as Hokanson says, “you know when you see.” Explaining is a little more difficult. Here’s what it is not: 1.) Dance 2.) Theater 3.) A catch-all phrase for performers in general. Hokanson elaborates, “People say Ann Liv Young does performance art, or the Vaudeville thing people do in Brooklyn is performance art. They say about the guy who kicks a drum and plays clarinet while wearing a diaper, ‘Oh yeah that guy’s a performance artist.’ They think what we’re doing is a freak show, like a circus side show or fire twirlers. No. All those things are not performance art.”
McDermid, who has an MFA from the University of Iowa in Intermedia and Performance Art, remembers that until recently, introducing oneself as a performance artist would elicit people “rolling their eyes, kind of embarrassed for you but not knowing how to tell you.” The increasing visibility in the art world for everything that falls under the umbrella of contemporary performance has made people more comfortable with the idea of this kind of work. But the newly found mainstream appeal may be misleading when it comes to those dedicated to the international performance art circuit. As McDermid and Hokanson curate it, this kind of work is far from a sanitized spectacle, more reminiscent of the raw and dangerous 1970s version than the glamorous theater-housed works that Performa presents. “Seeing performance is like watching a horror film,” McDermid says. “I don’t know which way it is going to go. I don’t know if people are going to get hurt or if we’re going to have to call an ambulance. It can happen; people push things.”
A writer friend I respect likened one evening at Grace Space to being in Andy Warhol’s Factory; there’s definitely a collective craving for a bygone, less professionalized New York that the location intentionally seeks to satisfy. The part of Bushwick it’s in is definitely no stranger to eccentric art spaces: The Bruce High Quality Foundation had their first location a little further down by Kosciusko Street, right across from Goodbye Blue Mondays, an experimental music venue and hoarder’s paradise. Other little galleries line the elevated train-shadowed street, along with a fair number of diners and 99¢ stores. Although the location can make it more difficult for people to get out to performances (crowds generally range from about forty to sixty people), the visiting international artists tend to love it. “If they are foreigners, this funky neighborhood is so exotic. Everything you need to make a performance is all within ten blocks. And you know, we try and maintain a no-rules policy. So here: go nuts.”
Before she opened Grace Exhibition Space, McDermid was already traveling all over the world to see and to perform in festivals of performance art. Her continued travels with Hokanson have made their gallery well-known to artists from Canada to Serbia—in fact, there’s much more interest in Grace Space abroad than among local artists. This may have something to do with the local performance world trending more toward experimental offshoots of dance and theater and the small but growing number of locations that are being built to support these artists in showing boundary-crossing work. Another explanation, according to a lecture-performance by Marilyn Arsem, an artist who teaches at the Museum School in Boston and who performs occasionally with her collective Mobius at Grace Space, has to do with funding. Arsem recalls that when artists started losing their NEA grants in the 1980s, four out of five of them were working in performance. Performance art became a blacklisted form for a while, she says, because if you had a space that received grants and you showed this kind of work, you were likely to lose those grants.
Even though Grace Space was overlooked in Exit Art’s recent Alternative Histories show, which featured many of the city’s alternative art spaces, when McDermid and Hokanson traveled to China for the 10th Open Art Festival in Bejing, their names, or at least their gallery, was known to almost everyone. While having late-night drinks with a bunch of artists who were performing in the festival, Hokanson mentioned that he was visiting from New York to a performer from Hong Kong. The artist told him, in a thick Chinese accent, “In New York I know Grace Exhibition Space. I will apply and I hope they accept my application.” Hokanson’s response, since he had seen and loved this artist’s performance during the festival, was “Dude, that’s us. You’re in!” While no one in this particular performance art world is making a ton of money performing, they have developed a strong community, where everyone takes very good care of visiting artists, arranging places to stay and making sure everyone eats. McDermid and Hokanson might host this artist from Hong Kong in their spacious Williamsburg apartment one week, and the next week, they might be off to Italy, where they would perform, see new work, and get taken care of by other members of the community.
Grace Space does not have official non-profit status, but as Hokanson says, “if ever there has been a non-profit entity in the world, we’re it.” However, the lack of funds for performance art of this kind (and really of most kinds) isn’t something they believe needs to last forever. Their potential business model favors the sale of documentation and, until recently, they had a second gallery in Williamsburg, the Alice Chilton Gallery—McDermid’s given name—that showed more installation-based, durational work and was dedicated to selling performance documentation. This gallery, which lasted about two years, was essentially a project to locate collectors and develop the market for performance art. As McDermid sees it, despite its difficulties in the market, performance art has the potential to be a very blue-chip kind of art form. Taking Fluxus as an example, there are very few objects from those performances that remain and now, with the resurgence in popularity of performance art, they are selling for a lot of money.
Though the Chilton gallery closed—it was just too difficult to maintain two spaces—the idea of saving and exhibiting ephemera and documentation from performances is still alive, and not simply to have something to sell. “We’re going to try and bring that gallery into here,” McDermid says of Grace Space, “so that hopefully when people come to see performances, there is actually a context for them to put the work in.” Performances happen most Fridays, though in order to support the other art spaces in Williamsburg, they are generally not scheduled when the galleries are open late on the second Friday of every month. For the donation-based cost of admission, you can usually get keg beer or a glass of boxed wine at the bar. People sometimes drink too much, and for the most part, do as they like—there’s very little of the preciousness one usually finds in the infrastructure around the presentation of art.
Sometimes, as the husband and wife artist-curators think about the future, they imagine moving Grace Space to a bigger, more convenient location, but they know that there is something about this particular loft that fuels a certain kind of originality and energy, which is something they want to maintain. Hokanson explains, “If you have a good night where the energy is really flowing, then people in the audience start doing crazy stuff they wouldn’t normally do. They might get involved in the performances in much more connected ways, like when artists started inviting audience members to take their clothes off, and they were like “fuck it, this is awesome.” This is really great and may be harder to do in a cleaner, formal environment. There is a safety and anonymity to having it be in this banged up loft.”
PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.