Art In Conversation
HANNE TIERNEY with Alex A. Jones
Twenty years ago Hanne Tierney founded FiveMyles, a non-profit art space in Crown Heights. To readers of the Rail who go back a long time in New York, perhaps those have a shared history with Tierney in the SoHo art scene, FiveMyles is a familiar and highly regarded establishment. But many others will not have heard of FiveMyles, which operates outside many of the familiar patterns of commercial galleries and artist-run spaces in New York. Currently, the lights in the sprawling, street-level industrial space are turned off, so that it's lit only by a psychedelic labyrinth of LED lights and translucent walls, an environmental installation by the Brooklyn-based artist Barbara Campisi. To really see this work activated, I will need to come for one of the performances where dancers will animate the maze with moving lights. Or, as Tierney tells me, I could simply come back later in the afternoon, when the neighborhood kids often come to play in the maze after school.
This idea that FiveMyles is activated by the people who come through the door is a central theme for Tierney, who is a performance artist known for multi-media theater productions that often involve puppetry and experimental mechanics. She works out these complex pieces in the large, darkened studio space in the back, but she's also busy facilitating a sort of theater in the gallery space, a theater without actors but with neighbors and friends and artists. Tierney talks about what she has forged here in a nonchalant way, as if the palpable hospitality and creative energy of FiveMyles is just how it's done. But very few art spaces attain the warmth of real site-specificity that radiates from FiveMyles, which Holland Cotter once called "one of the city's few unimpeachably utopian art spaces." Here Tierney and I talk about challenges to that utopic pursuit, particularly the loss of community space to the tide of gentrification, and navigating the politics of non-profit funding. Tierney talks about the importance of being good guests in the neighborhood, and speculates about what it means for FiveMyles to "grow" twenty years on—not bigger, but deeper.
Alex A. Jones (Rail): There's a lot of questions I'd like to ask about your art practice, especially just having seen the beautiful puppets that are in progress in your studio. But seeing as it's the 20th anniversary, which is really a huge achievement, I want to keep this pretty focused on FiveMyles.
Hanne Tierney: Yes, I would appreciate that.
Rail: It is all intertwined though because it seems like your studio and the gallery spaces are deeply intertwined, even beyond existing together in the same physical space.
Tierney: Totally. When I first started working here, the whole space was my studio, and I performed here a few times. It's all very open, people are always in and out of my studio. The kids from the neighborhood often come in the afternoon, and they will look in at what I'm doing. Sometimes the neighbors come in. They'll say, "Why are you doing this? It doesn't look that great."
Rail: [Laughs] A constant stream of feedback. Can you describe more about how things are set up here?
Tierney: Well first you come in and, on the left, is the old FiveMyles garage, which I, being a good person, gave up for the sake of art, so we could do exhibitions in there. It has become an important part of our programming that we call the Plus/Space.
Rail: You mean instead of parking your car in there?
Tierney: [Laughs] Yeah! I park on the street. It's fun to have that space open. Right now, there's a lovely floor installation by Dionis Ortiz. Then there's the main gallery, which is relatively large for Brooklyn and, in the back, the Haiti Cultural Exchange rents like a third of my studio space; we're all very good friends and they've been there for eight years. And then, in the very back is my studio, where I work out my performance pieces.
Rail: Right. You also have a kind of partition, on the other side of which the estate of the sculptor Herbert Ferber [1906–1991] is stored.
Tierney: Yes. Herbert and my son and I found the space together. You probably know that my son was killed in Africa. He was working on a film for the Human Rights Commission with kids that were child soldiers in Rwanda. They were keeping these kids in underground caves, pretending they were reconstituting them to join the society, and he was the only Western journalist who had access to them. Anyway, when he was beginning to work on his film, Herbert said to me, "Look, you need a studio, I need storage, and Myles needs a space for post-production work in New York—let's find a place." And Herbert's half is still entirely his sculptures.
Rail: It was after Myles's death that you started showing art here. The place is named for him.
Tierney: Yes. See, when he died, America hadn't lost a journalist, so it was all over television. People were outraged: "We Americans don't lose our people." The whole neighborhood knew. The neighbors came in—many of them had known he worked in Africa— and said, "So, what are you going to do now?" It seemed clear that something had to be done here, that it had to be, in some way, his place. We started using it as a performance space with a friend of mine, Phil Soltanoff, who did a Peter Handke play [The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other] and I performed here several times as well. We got an Obie grant, actually—oh my God, you have to read the citation they sent with the award, I think it gives you the whole picture of how FiveMyles started:
Avant-garde theater, some critics like to argue, is elitist and self-absorbed, speaking only to a narrow upper-class audience. These critics obviously have not been to this exciting new theater space, where magnificent contemporary works fully engage the folks in the neighborhood. The work may be a stunning, symbolist version of Salome or a bustin' block party of a performance fest, or an imaginative space of Peter Handke play, but it is always masterfully crafted, driven by a generous spirit and produced on a shoestring. So the judges are happy to present an Obie Grant to Brooklyn's FiveMyles.
Tierney: That is exactly how it used to be. This part, where they say "and the folks in the neighborhood"—I'm right there. Everybody came in, everybody saw everything with everybody else. It's exciting for people to see things they don't always see. I also show totally unknown local artists, so it's a very comfortable space for the neighborhood.
Rail: One of your first shows was on African photojournalism, right? And you continue to show a lot of artists from Africa and the Caribbean.
Tierney: We show easily about 40 percent artists of color. And not because we're looking for it. It's really just because from the beginning, this has been a Black neighborhood. So it was sort of natural. After doing the show on photojournalism from Africa, I began to know the art world in Nairobi pretty well and showed contemporary work from East Africa. Even in New York there's still a huge divide between the Black art world and the White art world, it's shocking. Many people really aren't even aware of that.
Rail: Surely not, when the outward discourse of left-leaning White politics in the arts is all about inclusivity and diversity. I think many White art venues in New York at this point think they're doing a lot to be inclusive. But it often feels kind of, like, "token," the rhetoric around that.
Tierney: I'm not belittling sincere efforts to widen the playing field, but there is kind of a deep truth there that needs to be spoken. In the world of nonprofits, that token "good liberalism" extends to the big push to have diverse board members, but, for one thing, why would a Black person spend time and money to help improve a basically White run organization when they could join the board of a Black-run organization where they would matter so much more. And Black people obviously know that when they're invited to be on a board, as one friend whom I asked to be on the FiveMyles board told me, everyone knows they're needed to attract more money from the foundations. We don't have enough honest discussions like that, mostly because White people don't ask people of color how they really feel. I would love to organize a conference about that, but I'm not that good of an organizer.
Rail: You've told me a little bit already about how this neighborhood is changing around you, having been here twenty years. Reading the Obie grant announcement just now you said, "This is how it used to be." What is changing?
Tierney: Well you can see the residential development next door, brand new. That was an old garage. But what the community really lost was the big wide sidewalk, which included the block in front of FiveMyles. It was the community hang-out in the summer. People came in, got out chairs, played dominos, drank beer if the cops weren't around. That's what people lose with gentrification. The community spaces and the community feeling. Now the police show up at 4:30 pm, walking the streets because people are coming home from work.
Rail: Yes, you've lost the commons. The neighborhood I lived in, in Baltimore, experienced a similar change. The block had always been about everybody "stooping," each row house had these beautiful marble steps, and it was a very friendly way to encounter people out on the stoops at night. But one day a sign appeared on that street saying something to the effect of, "It is illegal for groups of more than ten people to congregate here." Cops began to stop me to ask if I knew where I was, a few doors down from my house. This was all very disturbing, it was an education.
Tierney: Yes, that's it Alex. It is all to make the developers comfortable, they want to know that the neighborhood is "safe." Crown Heights had such a bad reputation for years and years. I have been here for 20 years with that door wide open. I'm in my studio in the back. I don't know who's coming in here. I've never lost a screw.
Rail: Of course not.
Tierney: I mean a lot of it is mythology. People just like to mythologize a certain neighborhood or a certain people or whatever. In 2007, we did an exhibition called There Goes the Neighborhood and we got a bunch of cheap recording devices and all the neighbors interviewed each other to talk about how they felt about the changes that were just starting. The kids weren't that comfortable playing outside anymore because there were too many White people around looking like teachers! [Laughs] We had radios all over the space playing these interviews. It was heartbreaking what people were saying. Just heartbreaking. And they weren't even talking about themselves. The worst was, "Our neighbor was kicked out. She had to leave. We were friends for 15 years and we never heard from her again. What do they do with the people they kick out?"
Rail: I feel like as artists we have become more self-conscious of the role that artists play in these cycles of gentrification. We move to cheap, working class areas because we don't make much money, and we want our time more than anything. But then eventually commercial galleries follow, and developers follow them. What to do about that as artists is difficult.
Tierney: Well, you can be aware of it but there's almost nothing else to do, because living in the city is expensive. I mean when I moved into SoHo in '69 we bought like a $5,000 loft and fixed this whole building for years; we wanted an artists' community living and working there. Now I'm being priced out.
Rail: Right. It's bigger forces at work, but I do think most people fail to make a connection with the community when they move to a new neighborhood, especially white artists moving to neighborhoods where there are mostly people of color. That's clearly not the way you've done things here.
Tierney: When we started, we were the guests here. I was the guest. It wasn't my community—my community is SoHo. In that case, you have to do what guests do and make sure everybody shares. You've got to share.
Rail: That's a beautiful way to see it, but it's just not done that way very often. How was the scene in SoHo different? To me, having moved to New York just in the last couple of years, I am interested in that time when artists were more concentrated in one area.
Tierney: It was pretty exciting in the beginning, let me tell you. It was great. We came of age during Minimalism, because it was invented in SoHo in these big lofts. For the first time you could actually see a two-by-four or a plumbing pipe cutting across the floor of a big space, and we were all in awe. [Laughter]
Rail: Right, that kind work comes out of having ample space.
Tierney: Absolutely. It did also have like that tribal feeling. Somebody showed something and everybody was there helping to install it. But on the other hand, it was also extremely competitive. It has been nice to grow older with the artists that still live there—and there are still quite a few, but we're getting old—because now that we are all successful in our own ways, we are friends. But back in the day it was fiercely competitive, everyone in each other's business—even who was sleeping with whom! But that was being young.
Rail: You know, it's a bit surprising to me how little I feel that sense of competition within my own generation, artists and writers in our twenties and thirties I mean. For one, there are so many art spaces to show in now, more than back then, but I also think it's something to do with all being part of the same struggle trying to make a living in New York today while being an artist. Even when I encounter people from art school or something who I thought I never liked, my consistent reaction is something like, "Wow, how are you? Are you eating? Are you in the studio? That's so great!"
Tierney: That's very interesting. It makes sense, it was much easier for us back then. Much less expensive, you could focus more.
Rail: Of course, that's just my experience. I also know plenty of young artists trying to be the coolest guy in town and for them I'm sure the competition feels more pointed. But the other thing is that we live all over now, all over the city. I often wish there were a neighborhood bar where I could reliably find other artists. We just have the internet. [Laughs]
Tierney: It's not the same as drinking a glass of wine or two, or three, and everybody is opening up.
Rail: Not at all. To get back to FiveMyles, I am curious to hear more about the art you show. You say it has a lot to do with the neighborhood, the artists you end up showing. But you exhibit so many types of work here, in all media, all styles, people from different countries, different backgrounds, as you've said. What is it that you're looking for?
Tierney: I think it's totally organic. Basically, I like the ideas behind work. And when I think that's exciting, then I sort of go with it. I explore it.
Rail: What was it in the case of Barbara's current show?
Tierney: With this work what really interested me is that I saw it in her studio, I saw how she worked it out in a very small space. She had the ambition to really do a large piece, and I had no idea if it could be done. But I thought, "What an idea. Yes, I'd like to see this done." Pieces like hers, that are all about light, work extremely well in this space. And then it becomes very interesting to see audience reactions to walking into a dark space where there are fascinating things happening with light.
Rail: Well, I think it has some relation to theater. It feels like a theatrical encounter when it's dark, not like a blinding white-cube gallery, but more like a movie theater.
Tierney: But you know what, sometimes it's also just an artist you want to work with, either because the art is fascinating or it's a person who you just want to see at work, doing their process. The whole thing is actually quite interesting. I like having this gallery a lot. [Laughs]
Rail: Did you ever expect to end up doing this?
Tierney: No! No! And I think everything I know about running a gallery—not running a gallery, but installation—and how to look at art within this space, I learned from Marian Griffiths, who was the director of the Sculpture Center. She came here early on and said, "You know, I'm going to curate a show here, but you have to paint it white." And I said, "Well, don't curate a show here then because we're not going to paint it white." But she curated a beautiful formal sculpture exhibition here, and she was furious because she didn't think it would work. Afterwards, she said to me, "I don't think I'll ever do anything in white again."
Rail: You converted her! I think paintings look fantastic on gray because the white in the paintings comes forward.
Tierney: It'll always be gray. But anyway, Marian taught me carefully. She told me things like, "Never install with the artist in the place," and she also said, "If you have a clunker, put it out in the front because people will walk past it!" [Laughs] She was one of the best eyes in New York, when they had that old Sculpture Center. But that was well before your time.
Rail: Who helps you here now? I imagine all this is more than a full-time job.
Tierney: Certainly. Well, I work with Marine [Cornuet], a young French poet, and she knows this place inside out. She's great. We just run it together. I think it's the only fair way to say that.
Rail: It's got to be a lot of fundraising, as FiveMyles is funded almost totally by grants, right?
Tierney: Yes, and it takes a lot of time, but that's part of running FiveMyles. I just take any time I can and go into my studio. Sometimes I just go very early in the morning before anybody else comes and work a couple of hours. You get to be disciplined. You know, when there's something you want to do and need to do, before you know it, you're actually quite a disciplined person!
Rail: And how does being an artist inform the way you run this place?
Tierney: Well, I think the one thing I really know that makes a difference is I find that I understand artists so well, even if other people don't like their work, or if I don't like their work. I kind of know what they're aiming at. I know they're often after things that can't be explained. I can see that because I can see it in myself.
Rail: I think that we often underestimate the value of that common ground. Anybody that calls themselves an artist, you know that is somebody you have something fundamental in common with.
Tierney: Of course.
Rail: The other thing that's important about the way you do things here has to do with how long FiveMyles has been around. Not many art spaces manage to last as long as 20 years. What has made things work?
Tierney: For one thing, I think I'm one of the Brooklyn spaces that really gets regular Manhattan audiences because I've been living in SoHo for 50 years in the same place and everyone still likes coming out to FiveMyles. But FiveMyles has also never been in an "art ghetto," like Williamsburg. It's always been on its own. The fact that it's street-level is important too, it has a lot of odd walk-ins. People come in who have no intention of seeing art, but it's easy to just come in. A couple of times we've gotten really nice donations from people who just walked in and enjoyed the place, so they gave us money. All I can say is that we always manage. We don't manage well, we don't get good salaries, but it's fine with us because we sort of know what we want, what's important. We just could use more, especially for another person to work with us, but the foundations that do support us really like us a lot. Although one foundation did refuse us recently, even though they gave us money a couple of years ago. They said, "You're not growing." And I thought about that a lot: you're not growing. We're doing a job that's necessary. Why can't we just continue doing that job? But this is one of the demands.
Rail: Well, the imperative of growth is very capitalist. The need to always be growing is actually quite unrealistic. Sustaining and doing good quality work is more important, and it's hard enough already.
Tierney: It's not easy. Especially because most foundations have to get money from other foundations as well! They're all up against their own troubles.
Rail: Yes. It's a very complex ecosystem that's developing. And a very political one.
Tierney: You're right, and that goes back to this politics of having a diverse board for a non-profit. Ecosystem is the right word for it.
Rail: Another sort of art ecosystem is the movement of galleries, and I'm interested in your idea that the longevity of FiveMyles has something to do with not being a part of that cycle. Art spaces tend to move in kind of herds around the city, colonizing neighborhoods—and acting as a very influential force in that way—but the spaces themselves tend to have short lifespans.
Tierney: Well, yes, and I think the neighborhood has managed to keep FiveMyles open, in an odd way, because of their need for FiveMyles. Neighbors come to check in, saying, "You're not leaving, are you?" FiveMyles validates the culture here. It's an affirmation. I think that's a truth.
Rail: I hope that a big part of why this place has lasted so long is because it is authentically rooted here. I like the idea that roots hold both ways—you have to establish yourself with strong roots in a place, but once you do, the place won't let you fall away so easily. That sounds kind of utopian to me, at least, having lived a pretty transient life so far.
Tierney: I do believe that. I sensed pretty early on that the neighborhood liked FiveMyles to be here, it added a kind of stimulation and excitement, and after a while even a sense of being proud of it. With the summer festivities on the sidewalk, you could see much more than an area known for drug dealing and homicides. There was one guy the first summer, called Pope [Bolero Chambers]—you wouldn't sit next to him on the subway, he was usually quite a mess. When we did that first outdoor performance event, he had put on a very nice outfit, and he stood up there and recited Lord Byron!—a very long poem. He ended up being a character around here. It's these kinds of things that even the neighborhood discovered itself through. Although it's funny that the new white people who have moved into the neighborhood can be a little standoffish if they see too many Black people here. It's not like they're anti-Black at all, but they feel awkward. What I keep hoping is that we can continue to bring all people together.
Rail: Yes, people are just afraid, and not necessarily even for reasons of race or class, like you said—mostly they're more timid than they'd like to think. But it seems like FiveMyles has a family here.
Tierney: If you were here later, you would see the kids come in and go into the maze, and go in my studio for a minute. Even when the artists are installing and a kid needs help with homework, they'll sit down for a bit and help. Matt Freedman, a very beloved old Williamsburg artist—and a Harvard graduate—used to come in every week to tutor a young girl to get her through high school and into college. Just to make sure that kid knew she had someone expecting her to do it, and she did.
Rail: That's what every kid needs, that sense of accountability, knowing someone will care if they succeed.
Tierney: We went to her graduation a few years ago—it was one of those miserable failing high schools—and we were all sitting there weeping. And now she has long graduated from college.
Rail: Well, talking about this imperative of growth, even if you're not growing with the number of units or infrastructure or shows you're doing, when you have human beings that are continually coming through this space and benefitting from it, they are growing.
Tierney: As an artist you're made to feel like you must keep having huge ideas. You don't. You can work out one idea to its perfection, and take a long time doing it.
Rail: Many ideas are worth a whole lifetime. That's the central challenge of being human, right, that you only have so many years to get something done.
Tierney: And sometimes an idea is worth it to dig in, but the demand to do something new is so ingrained in us in the West. It's not so much in other cultures. Look how long Chinese brush painting kept exploring what the brush can do on paper with ink.
Rail: Endless variations on a relatively fixed visual language, for millennia. And of course it's as interesting as it ever was, we just get distracted by new things. Eventually we'll go back to do brush on paper, and it'll be just as much a revelation as the first time.
Tierney: I love that.
Rail: You are doing a theater production based on a Chinese epic poem, which I saw the very beautiful puppets for in your studio, right?
Tierney: This poem, "18 Stanzas Sung to a Tartar Reed Whistle," was written by the woman poet Ts'ai Yen during the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago. She tells of her life in a nomad camp to where she was abducted by the victorious Tatars. I have known and loved this poem for many years, and finally we—my long-time collaborators the musician Jane Wang and the video artist Hannah Wasileski—decided to dramatize it.
Rail: When do you expect to produce it?
Tierney: It'll be in September. It'll be a gallery installation during the day, and then three times a week we'll perform it in the evening with live music and video. That was one of the things we wanted to do for the anniversary because so many of my pieces start out here and are worked out here.
Rail: And do you have kind of a sort of street festival planned for the summer, despite losing your sidewalk?
Tierney: No, I'm going to have to be so busy getting my piece in shape and also because Marine may or may not go to graduate school in the fall, so it may be a pretty bad summer! But we have two artists in residence. We have this residency program in the summer. In July, the artists can work in the space and in August they have a formal exhibition. July is good because the kids are around—nobody has money to send them to camp—so they hang out with the artists and that's good for everybody.
Rail: That's a fantastic model, the open studio/residency. I feel like with kids—with anybody of course, but especially young people—if there were more opportunities to see the very fun and rather absurd but also very serious things people do when they become artists, that would be very influential.
Tierney: Eye-opening. The residency is actually also a good idea because no artist wants to do a show in July! And it's a good space for artists to work with. It's always been a space for sharing. The neighborhood took care of that. We let people perform here in between exhibitions, or if there's only wall work. If someone wants to do poetry readings, or only music. We just say, "Okay, do a try-out, invite everybody you want to come see your work." We call this program our SpaceProgram. It's especially requested by young people passionately performing works that address race and social justice issues, often performed on the sidewalk for everyone to participate. A lot of galleries could do that, if they wanted to. It would be a good thing.