At the risk of generalizing, one might say that community spaces get short shrift in the art world. It’s not entirely clear why, but most likely it has something to do with their lack of marketability, their focus on engaging people rather than money — and perhaps more specifically, people without much money to spend on art. Community spaces are often seen as provincial, the official “art world” as — well, worldly.
But all it takes for that view to shift is living in and feeling like part of a community. Then you become invested in all things local, including the art. Then you recognize when a space appears to fill a void you hadn’t thought much about. This is how it went for me with Wondering Around Wandering.
Wondering Around Wandering is a two-month-long pop-up and community art exhibition space in a former iron-works factory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The project is the work of Brooklyn designer and artist Mike Perry, who, excited by the publication of his monograph this past May, decided he wanted to turn the book into something else, something bigger. He began thinking about mounting a show, which turned into a philosophical question: “What does a show mean?” he recalled in a recent interview. “I started thinking about what expectations I would have for the space: I’d want it to be communal, I’d want it to be open, I’d want it to be free.” Not quite your average solo show.
Perry said he knew the project would cost a significant amount of money no matter what, but the choice between investing everything he had in a one-night-stand on the Lower East Side or raising money for a few months in his Brooklyn neighborhood became an obvious one. “A good person in a community looks at what’s missing and tries to provide those things,” he said. Crown Heights has the excellent Five Myles gallery, the Crown Heights Film Festival, Launchpad, and a handful of other organizations, but art is not its major selling point (although community often is).
He felt uneasy about it at first, but in the end, Perry turned to that beacon of all community and artistic projects: Kickstarter. “It’s not about people donating,” he said, “it’s about people investing in your ideas.” (In truth, it’s probably both.) In a month, the project raised $31,560, just over the $30,000 minimum, and on August 15, he got the keys from the landlord.
“It was a total shit show,” he said of the space. “I think they’d just been storing and dumping junk in here for thirty years.” So he set to work cleaning it up, with the help of a lot of friends and volunteers, and Wondering Around Wandering began to take shape as a community project. In the interview, Perry stressed how important the work and support of other people had been, from the neighborhood electrician who wired everything to a friend who handled the architecture and layout of the gallery. “The idea of the artist — that the artist is the front person and how complicated that idea is,” he said. “The more complicated the project is, the more it’s a team effort.”
Wondering Around Wandering opened on September 16 with roughly 700 people in attendance, according to Perry’s estimate. The space is big and open and industrial — as so many art venues are these days, although because it’s temporary, it feels rougher around the edges than most. At the entrance is a small wooden shack that functions as a store, with Perry’s and other merchandise — books, zines, t-shirts, etc. — for sale. To the right of that is the area where events are centered — tables for drawing sessions, a platform for performances, a bar for drinks, plus couches nearby.
And then in the back half of the space, the art (which is, it should be noted, for sale). Two out of three partitioned mini-galleries are devoted to Perry’s playful, clearly design-influenced work, which ranges from porcelain sculptures of thickly stacked sandwiches to large, multicolored, wall-mounted pieces made of cedar roof shingles to black-and-white, cartoonish drawings. “Colorful, fun, happy, positive, uplifting,” with a “level of cartoonishness to it,” is how Perry described his style. A final corner of the room hosts rotating group exhibitions; when I visited, a show called Happy Accidents was on view, featuring a hodgepodge of media and a decidedly darker, weirder tone than Perry’s work.
Perry mentioned that he doesn’t see a lot of support or room for work like his in the galleries and institutions of today’s art world, and he connected that attitude to an absence of more zine, print, and t-shirt shops — alternative spaces, essentially, that function so often as both communal and artistic (and commercial) loci (Printed Matter being a standout exception). And it’s true: local doesn’t have to mean boring or provincial; much of the New York art world, however, has reached a point where its idea of community is simply itself. Or at least, that was the case before Hurricane Sandy. According to some predictions, the tide may now be shifting.
Wondering Around Wandering has been a wonderful experiment, but it can’t last forever. Many people have urged Perry to make it permanent, but in addition to the huge financial investment that would take, he’s been feeling a pull these past few months between being an artist and a producer. “It’s such a major commitment, but it’s so incredibly gratifying,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s really hard for me to go to my studio and do work. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t an artist because I can’t do both; I can’t be the advocate and the creator at the same time.”
At the least, then, maybe the experiment will serve as an inspiration, if hasn’t already. Maybe Perry will tackle something like this again one day; maybe someone else will do a similar project in her neighborhood; maybe the art world will began to reassess its biases. In the meantime, there are six days left — go buy a zine, look at some art, or draw with kids while it lasts.