Say you’re one of the countless artists in New York City struggling to find an affordable studio space. The options are pretty limited: You could Bushwick-ify an unsuspecting neighborhood in the outer boroughs, or you could move to the greener, cheaper pastures of Detroit. Or, you could take the James Powers route: buy a trailer-sized, used shipping container, plop it down in a parking lot in Brooklyn, and get to work.
With Fastnet, billed as New York City’s “only waterproof art gallery” and studio space, Powers aims to provide artists like himself with an alternative to the hellish studio real estate market. “I was looking for a hermetic space — an outpost,” Powers, who has an MFA in painting from the Art Institute of Chicago, says. His 5,000-pound, transportable waterproof steel container isn’t just hurricane-proof — unlike the many New York waterfront studios destroyed in recent years — but rent hike-proof, too. “I want to create a space that was insulated from the toxic atmosphere that proliferates across residential and studio real estate,” Powers says. “With this in mind, I named the project after the Fastnet, a remote lighthouse off West Cork, Ireland, where I lived until 2003.”
Powers bought the shipping container (20’ x 8’ x 8’ in dimensions) through a broker. Including shipping, the container cost him a total of $3,500 — less than a couple of month’s rent on a typical Brooklyn studio space. Powers is now raising funds on Kickstarter to transform the container into a viable studio and project space. He plans to install a skylight, a clear front door, and a tiny Sardine stove.
Fastnet is now set up in a parking lot at 700 Columbia Street in a flood zone of Red Hook, Brooklyn, but the waterproof container can be moved quickly with a flatbed tow-truck. “Both Irene and Sandy gave NYC at least 5 days of warning time,” Powers says. “I just have to be willing to spend money on a false alarm.”
The waterproof element of the studio also reflects themes in both Powers’s artwork and Fastnet’s first exhibition, which opened last month. “From a larger perspective, and with the show, the politics of the environment, shore,and water are entrenched in the discussion,” he says. “For instance, Ben Thorp Brown has been scanning and 3D printing oysters, imagining a future where we print our oysters, while Sarah Weisberg from the Biobus is presenting live oysters from the Billion Oyster Project. And I accidentally/on purpose ordered 19 rubber ducks.”
Powers thinks it’s too early to tell whether Fastnet could serve as a model for other recent MFA grads looking to avoid both studio flooding and bankruptcy, but he’s convinced the current approach to studio real estate is unsustainable. “There are only a finite number of old type window warehouses that lend themselves to the arts,” he says. “Post-WWII industrial businesses use completely different structures, basically shells, which are inconvenient for reuse or repurpose if they are even left standing.” While traveling in the midwest, he found himself thinking that recently abandoned shopping malls might make a good replacement for these dwindling warehouse spaces. “Artists might have more bargaining power,” he says. “They could return to their old role of paying a little rent and keeping the lights on in an otherwise disused building.”
All images courtesy of James Powers.
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