An Artist Lab Grows in Brooklyn

An Artist Lab Grows in Brooklyn|An Artist Lab Grows in Brooklyn

The avant-garde is alive and well and living, working at Chez Bushwick

It’s been more than a generation since artists rebelled against the standards, codes, and institutions of the establishment and began experimenting with new models, alternative spaces, and other anti-hegemonic devices. Of course since then, many of these same rebels and sites of rebellion have themselves become the new establishment; the historical relationship between art and commerce is ineluctable.

Still, thanks to many of the same classification structures that continue to marginalize those working in hybrid or non-traditional forms—including performance art and improvisation—young artists, in particular, continue to develop their own means and mechanisms for exploration and exhibition. So while yet another institutional space positions itself in the marketplace, the revolution quietly continues in Williamsburg. Art, like life, always finds a way.

Far enough from where the bulldozers are currently feeding, near the Morgan stop on the L train is a grand, warm loft studio and living space called Chez Bushwick. Jonah Bokaer, a young dancer in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, who is also a distinguished visual and performance artist, found this ideal environment in an artist-owned building in 2002. A live/work space shared by Bokaer, choreographer and performer Jeremy Wade, and musician and composer Loren Dempster—who tours with Cunningham and performs with Wade, among others—it is also a phenomenon in the performance community, not least for a monthly performance event curated by Miguel Gutierrez called “Shtudio Show.”

Unlike other showcases, “it’s as much about the congregation as the show,” says Bokaer. Typically, people are talking, stretching, eating, drinking, and otherwise hanging out, getting acquainted for at least an hour before the official show start time. The idea of the event is to foster community, not just in the realm of dance, but music, poetry, and other forms that can be construed as performance.

“How do we get these generations to talk to one another?” asked Gutierrez. “How do we strip away the strata that keep communities apart? Alternate spaces are neutral zones. The possibility for interacting in someone’s home is different from theatrical space.”

“It’s not necessarily a space for showing rep,” says Gutierrez. “It’s a place for experimentation. A space where failure is a possibility.”

“It’s non-evaluative,” says Bokaer. “It’s not for review.”

Wade, who recently amazed audiences at Dance Theater Workshop with his elastic-faced, post-heroin-apocalyptic white boy Butoh, started showings in late 2004. He would perform, jam with musicians, and invite small groups of people to see the work. Very low key.

“I loved the setting and the scale,” said Guiterrez. “After ‘Young Americans,’ [a show Gutierrez curated in January 2005 as part of the Food For Thought series at Danspace Project] Jeremy and Jonah approached me about doing something there.” Shtudio Show was born.

Using a curatorial approach that he says has as much to do with placement, and more to do with collecting then programming, Gutierrez assembles a monthly pan-generational line up of new performance. “Roulette and dance,” he says. “Pull it in and mix it up.”

Past guests include the likes of Eileen Myles, Michael Portnoy, Deborah Hay, Gus Solomons jr, anti-folk singer/songwriter Diane Cluck, and musician and composer Sean Meehan, whose drumming in darkness invites “deep listening.”

Inspired by Lucy Sexton’s “The Lucy Show,” interviews with community figures have also been an integral part of the events, which are hosted by Technopia.

“This is about bringing the gate keeper down to the gate,” says Gutierrez. “Institutions are comprised of individuals we can approach.” Shtudio Show interviewees have included dance Juliette Mapp; curator and choreographer Dean Moss; critic Gia Kourlas—an event that attracted 200 people; Cathy Edwards, artistic director of Dance Theater workshop; and Vallejo Gantner, the new artistic director at PS 122, whose international perspective provoked outrage.

“Artists are embattled here. People got pissed,” said Gutierrez.

“It takes effort to create a free zone,” mused Bokaer. But there is generative power in people voicing their opinions—it’s not something to fear.”

Bokaer, who negotiated the yearly lease for the space is currently fundraising in order to buy the space. The building is privately owned, and the intent is to sell to tenants. More than playing host to the monthly show, Chez Bushwick helps fill a much-needed demand for cheap rehearsal space, at the low price of five dollars an hour.

“Charas [now defunct, in the East Village] was the cheapest space to rent when I first came to the city,” says Wade. “The huge gym with tons of light cost seven dollars an hour, but there was no heat in the winter. I remember rehearsing wearing so many layers of clothes.”

“We don’t have and office manager,” said Wade. “We do it all ourselves. Jonah writes grants. And I book the space.”

“It’s a communal effort,” says Bokaer. “Five dollars an hour for studio rental, five dollars admission for performances. The income from ‘Shtudio Show’ is divided evenly—five ways—among the artists, Chez Bushwick, Miguel, and Topiary, who acts as host.”

For space rentals, the group uses a key exchange. “It’s fragile system but it works because it’s community based,” says Bokaer. “Everyone is referred by someone else. We have a network all around the world.”

“It’s startling how it expanded the way it did,” he added. “We’ve gotten requests from as far away as Brussels. Obviously, it’s a service people needed.”

In addition to rehearsals, Chez Bushwick has served as storage space for Koosil-ja’s monitors. and has been host to improv festival events, a 24-hour sleepover, and a marriage as performance intervention.

“It’s a space of all possibilities, free of institutional pressures,” says Gutierrez.

“We’ve pushed the comfort level and tried to find new things,” says Wade. “There have been bodily fluids on the floor; and someone crawled through the hole in Loren’s room.” added Wade. “It’s a permissive atmosphere.”

“What’s scary about challenging ideas?” said Gutierrez. “You can go to Lincoln Center and see crap, and you can go to a toilet stall and see genius. The scale of brilliance or mediocrity is not aligned with space. The bottom line is you gotta show good shit.”