A New Kind of Theater Space Opens BAM to More Aggressive Work

BAM’s new Fisher space (Photo by author)

Standing at the corner on which Jay-Z and Barbra Streisand helped anoint the new Barclays Center at the southern edge of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, it’s possible to feel an air of controversy around the 19,000-seat sports arena and concert venue that opened its doors for the very first time just weeks ago.

Meanwhile, over at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the 150-plus-year-old arts institution that has long helped to anchor the area, began inaugurating a new space of its own in September. But unlike the maximalist Barclays Center, this space is now BAM’s most intimate, and aims to be one of its more affordable spaces, both for audiences and artists. According to press releases and information on the web, the Fisher Building, and its main arena the Fishman Space, will offer artists subsidized rehearsal space and $20 tickets for all performances. (The similar names have already proved confusing for at least a few ticket holders that I saw furrowing their brows outside the building, but if your ticket says anything starting with “Fish” it’s all in the same spot.)

One of the early performance series I was excited to check out in the new space was Brooklyn Bred, curated by Martha Wilson, founding director of Franklin Furnace. This three-evening series consisted of performances by Franklin Furnace alums Dread ScottJennifer Miller, and Coco Fusco. I was particularly interested in seeing the series because of Franklin Furnace’s involvement. BAM is primarily known for bringing established artists who have achieved wide recognition for their work, while Franklin Furnace’s work is entirely focused on emerging artists, as it has been for over 36 year. While I’ve enjoyed my share of shows at BAM, its cavernous spaces and reputation for showing work with extremely high production values means you tend not to get very aggressive or rough-edged work there. I was curious to see if the new space would make room for and encourage less polished formality, and the artists that Wilson chose are three whose distinct and assertive styles run counter, in many ways, to the predominant ethos of much of the work that gets shown at BAM.

From Circus Amok’s Oct. 12, 2012 performance at Brooklyn Academy of Music (Photo: Rahav Segev)

Unfortunately I didn’t make it to Dread Scott’s performance on October 11, but I made it to both Miller and Fusco’s shows. Miller brought with her the entire troupe for the newly revived Circus Amok (back after a four-year hiatus due to funding issues and burn out). Fresh off their summer tour of city parks, where they perform for free to all comers in each of the five boroughs, the group rousted the BAM audience with the same show, adding two dance pieces by special guest Steve Paxton. Miller’s deliberately political subject matter and use of circus as a medium make her pieces precisely the kind of work that it would be rare to see in the larger BAM spaces, not just because it’s unlikely to be selected by BAM’s producer, but because her intended audience is the wider public and the work demands an interactivity and dialogue with the audience that is incredibly difficult to achieve in a formal theater space. Miller herself couldn’t help poking a bit of fun at the fact that Circus Amok had found itself at BAM, cracking a joke about it being in a transitional moment during the show.

It was great to see the house packed for the evening and it was a treat to see the costumes and action under colorful theatrical lighting. It must have been a treat for the troupe members to have access to quality equipment for a night — when I saw them in Tompkins Square a few weeks ago, one of their amps failed and it was clear a couple of their mics were struggling. But the shinier digs did beg questions about what it means to bring a show like Circus Amok into an institutional setting where people have paid $20 for tickets. My hope is that Miller & Co got some tasty green room snacks and a little cash out of the deal  certainly it wouldn’t compare to the rider and payout for Jay-Z or Babs, but theater folk have to take what they can get!

From Coco Fusco’s “Y el mar te hablará (And the Sea Will Talk to You),” presented Oct. 13, 2012 at Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Photo: Rahav Segev)

Coco Fusco’s piece, “Y el mar te hablará (And the Sea Will Talk to You),” again challenged the audience/performer relationship. Tens of large rubber inner-tubes made a kind of grid across the wide and deep playing area of the Fishman Space (which, for those who haven’t been in it yet, resembles a larger version of Dixon Place’s space — a wide deep playing area with flexible seating that can be configured in a variety of ways, with a thin mezzanine level above that wraps around the entire playing and seating area). You could sit in one of the inner-tubes, as I did, or you could sit back in either the traditional riser seating or up in the mezzanine. Above the inner-tubes hung a large projection screen suspended at a downward angle so that those of us low to the floor and close to the screen could both see and feel in some ways dominated or washed over by the watery imagery on the screen.

The piece consisted of projected images of water, presumably the Straits of Florida, and a weaving together of narratives related to making the journey from Cuba to the US, or back. Read as voice-overs atop the undulating imagery the narrative threads included, among others, the story of a woman journeying back to Cuba with her mother’s ashes, which she feared would be confiscated at the border or in transit; a male refugee’s grueling and unpredictable ride with others across the Straits; and a female refugee’s encounter with sharks while floating in the same waters. At some point during the unfolding stories, Fusco and others helping her walked into the crowd providing tiny cups of water. Many people drank them right away, others held onto them or sniffed them, trying to discern what exactly it was they had been handed. That hesitation and the small amount not only spoke to themes in the stories being told, but also evoked a similar hesitation that some felt in choosing the inner-tubes as their seats. Jennifer Miller and Martha Wilson were sitting not far behind me in their tubes and Miller joked with Wilson before the show began, asking whether or not they were going to have water thrown on them. Again, it called attention, for me, to the fact that Fusco’s work is often presented outside of traditional theatrical spaces, that it carries a deeply challenging perspective that illuminates in creative and sometimes confrontational ways the prejudicial niceties of American society.

Performance art, outside of a theatrical context, is known for being not only unpredictable, but also for setting up tensions or unexpected relationships between audience and performer, sometimes subverting or altering those roles entirely. Audiences to performance art understand that they are being made vulnerable, just as the performer is vulnerable — it is rare in a lot of performance art to feel that you can simply slip into passive observation, and great performance artists understand and make use of that vulnerability in interesting and productive ways. And, to my mind, it’s that very relationship between audience and performer that’s most at stake in the larger conversation happening around more performance art being brought into institutional settings these days.

Martha Wilson (Image courtesy

Prior to seeing the Brooklyn Bred shows I had a brief phone chat with Martha Wilson to learn more about her work with BAM on this series. As Wilson is someone who has been an integral part of performance art’s growth and recognition by the mainstream art world since the 1970s, I was glad to have a chance to speak with her, even if briefly, about the work.

She told me she was “very happy to be invited” to curate the series by Joe Melillo, the executive producer at BAM. Wilson talked about wanting to bring Franklin Furnace alums in for the series as a way of highlighting the role of an organization like hers in helping to encourage artists at the very beginning of their careers so that they can build up to greater success later. “There’s a very critical function in having arts organizations of small, medium, and large sizes so that there’s a progression — a place where artists can start at the bottom of the food chain and work their way up,” she said.

In the description of Franklin Furnace on its website, it’s stated that the organization’s mission is to support and present work that among other things “may be vulnerable due to institutional neglect, their ephemeral nature, or politically unpopular content.” Given the opportunity to present work at BAM, and the choices Wilson made to bring in these specific artists, I was interested to better understand the use of the phrase “institutional neglect” in that description. This was her reflection on the term:

The way I understand that term is — we’re back in the early days, it’s 35 years or so ago, and I’m pounding the pavement and trying to get the uptown institutions to understand that the downtown artists are creating these ephemeral publications and doing these ephemeral performance works, creating ephemeral installation pieces, and the uptown institutions are saying, go to hell, we really don’t care what you’re doing. So, institutional neglect was the order of the day in the 1970s. Now it’s quite the opposite, if you’re a commercial gallery and you don’t show installation work then you’re an idiot, because that’s what is done now, because the Art Space Movement has had a real impact on art discourse, and specifically on contemporary art forms.

We talked a bit more about RoseLee Goldberg’s work and Performa and large art museums bringing performance work into their galleries, and ultimately, Wilson felt positive about the work being brought into those settings. “I don’t have any trouble with the fact that performance art as a field is now widely understood and accepted by everybody as a happening thing,” she said. “That’s totally great for me.” As someone committed to providing support and opportunity to those at the “very bottom of the art world food chain,” as she put it, she seemed to be glad that the successful among them would not be consigned to a complete lack of recognition in the larger art discourse, particularly given that so many of those who take up performance as a form are often already outsiders to the art world for a variety of reasons. In other words, I surmised from our brief chat, that for her, institutional embrace of performance meant further opportunity for artists who were often marginalized, not only for the form their work takes, but also for its content.

For a great, long interview with Wilson that covers the history of Franklin Furnace, check out the oral history that’s available as an audio file or a transcript on the Art Spaces Archives Project site. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping my eye on the new BAM space to see how it’s relationship with a new strain of work and performers develops.

BAM Fisher’s schedule can be found on its website

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