When You Cut Into the Present the Future Leaks Out: An Interview with Regine Basha and Rachel Gugelberger
When You Cut Into the Present the Future Leaks Out is the title of the exhibition curated by Regine Basha for No Longer Empty at the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse, a neo-classical building, built between 1905 and 1914 and attributed to architects Michael John Garvin and Oscar Florianus Bluemner. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Bronx County, the Courthouse has been shuttered for 37 years. The exhibition, which runs on three floors of the building, is a rather complex project that contemplates a constellation of many narrations within a bigger one. This articulated structure is indeed able to engage with the space – the building itself as well as the territory and the local community – and the artworks on many levels.
Regine Basha is an independent curator based in Brooklyn, New York. Basha was born in Israel to Iraqi parents, she grew up in Montreal and Los Angeles and attended New York University, Concordia University (Studio Art and Art History) and graduated from Bard College, Center for Curatorial Studies’ inaugural class of 1996. She has worked as adjunct curator at Arthouse in Austin, TX and independently curated exhibitions at Sculpture Center, New York; Ballroom Marfa; Cabinet; Mass Moca, among many more. Her exhibitions have received grant awards from The Andy Warhol Foundation, The Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and The National Endowment for the Arts as well as critical press in The New York Times, Artforum, Modern Painters, Art Papers, Wire, Bidoun, Art Lies, Artforum and NPR Radio. She currently sits on the board of Art Matters and Aurora Picture Show.
Rachel Raphaela Gugelberger is Associate Curator of No Longer Empty. A New York- based curator, she is co-founder of “1@111,” a series of process-oriented conversations that focus on a single work, text, curatorial premise or proposition. Recent exhibitions have focused on the intersection of information, data and art, in particular the digital transformation of books and libraries. Curatorial projects include “Once upon a Time, There Was the End” at Center for Book Arts (New York, NY); “Data Deluge” at Ballroom Marfa (Marfa, TX); and “Library Science” at Artspace (New Haven, CT). Rachel has served as co-director of Sara Meltzer Gallery and curator at Exit Art, where she organized the final exhibitions “Every Exit Is an Entrance: 30 Years of Exit Art” and “Collective/Performative.” Publications include monographs, exhibition catalog essays, and contributions to “Art Galleries International: Post-War to Post-Millennium” and “Unfinished Memories: 30 Years of Exit Art” (forthcoming). Rachel received an MA in Curatorial Studies in Contemporary Art and Culture from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.
Claudio Zecchi: I would like to talk about this exhibition as if it was a book. A book with a preface and an appendix, but also with ghosts and side traces to be discovered from time to time; a book with many chapters that you can open as you wish without necessarily respecting a strict order. A sort of 21st-century novel in which the “fil rouge” that grasps the exhibition, lighting up the entire structure, is a diachronic, narrative tension between past, present and future as already warned by the title chosen by the curator (a quote by beat generation poet William S. Burroughs).
How does the exhibition intend to deal with these three different tenses: the past, the present and the future?
Rachel Gugelberger: Employing the structure of the book is an interesting proposition. However, there is no narrative arc being presented here. While the Courthouse is taken as both theme and main character, the exhibition deliberately counters the possibility of a single story or history pertaining to the Courthouse, the neighborhood in which it is situated and the Bronx borough at large. If anything, yes, the works in the exhibition can be perceived as an appendix; “a section of additional matter” to an account of past events.
Regine Basha: It’s interesting that you bring up the book as a model because for me it’s quite the opposite: a non-linear structure motivated along the lines of cut and paste, hence the title’s significance. It’s about a reshuffling of content to create new meanings, new possibilities. Burroughs considered this method a portal. Physically and architecturally one can also consider the sculptural practice of Gordon Matta-Clark, who coined the term “anti-monument” as he literally cut through physical space to create new time, space and perspectives. And then of course there is hip-hop, which emerged in the South Bronx, and is rooted in the oral, aural, physical and visual, speaking truth to power.
In treating the physicality of the Courthouse as the theme, past, present and future collide. You have an early 20th-century building that is a time capsule, witness and symbol existing within a plurality of narratives about its future role in the neighborhood.
CZ: When visiting the exhibition, you can immediately sense that the narrative mechanisms triggered by it are such that you may see different portions without losing the overall sense. Not surprisingly, some of the guides NLE organized occur by them, but once in the building, there is no infographic to indicate a precise itinerary to follow. From a formal and narrative perspective, this seems to make the exhibition a participatory project, capable to give the visitor back its centrality, becoming a sort of co-creator. Quoting Henri Lefebvre: “The content is not more determinable without taking in consideration the use the audience made of it.” Do you agree with this proposition? Can you talk about this process, by tracing some of the possible itineraries?
RB: Curatorially, I intentionally did not want to address one theme. The title was an open-ended invitation and by extension, a non-chronological viewing of it as well. Combining works that dealt concretely with the history of the building, works that abstractly addressed the architecture of the building, as well as works that in more subtle ways unearthed single a component or anecdote of the building’s history allowed the building to be the main character.
For example, Skowman Hastanan’s Timeline (2015) consisted of parallel histories with a timeline about the building, a timeline about the architect and artist Bluemner, as well as a timeline of perhaps one of the most notorious cases of the 20th-century, the Lindbergh Case, which was tried in the building. Ellen Harvey’s Alien Souvenir Stand (2013) imagined a speculative analysis of our neo-classical ruins by aliens. And in one simple reflexive gesture, Michelle Lopez’s Smoke Cloud I (2014) held up a mirror to the building itself, at once reflecting and isolating details of the architecture that made you look both forward as you entered the Courthouse and back from whence you came.
CZ: One of the exhibition’s narrative levels is a symbolic one. The building itself, even before the artists’ work, has a strong symbolic value that can connect at the same time the territory and the local community by digging out all sorts of stories that have to do with personal experience. The Courthouse can be considered in this sense a monument, a symbol of a specific social function linked to the local community, but also a symbol of a whole territory and its democratic life. In the Courthouse was signed, for instance, the independence act between the Bronx and the Westchester Country. The building is thus a large-scale monument that, getting down from the pedestal, is able to embrace the entire territory.
This symbolic level can be focused even in some of the works in the exhibition. For example, I’m thinking of the temporary graffiti piece created by Bronx-based graffiti artist Lady K Fever, reproducing the forgotten icon Lady Justice (All Rise, 2015) hidden behind the scaffold; Pillar builder archive (2013) by Ellen Harvey, an archive of postcards of neo-classical style buildings coming from all over the world; as well as Onyedika Chuke, The Untitled: 1998 – Rudy, Henry and the sale of 878 Brook Ave. (2015), an installation that refers to a specific case related to the Courthouse during the Giuliani administration.
Do you also think the symbolic-monumental line is one that we can, eventually, trace? Is it anachronistic to talk about what a monument is and the symbolic level that it evokes?
RB and RG: Most definitely, we consider the building a symbolic monument.
In addition to the works that you mentioned, Paco Cao’s Prohibition-Lady Justice (ongoing), filmed in collaboration with the Ghetto Film School, explores the symbolic role of Lady Justice, the building’s main architectural and archetypal feature. On the other hand, Nicolás Dumit Estévez performed ritual “cleansings” of parts of the building, documented by court sketcher Ducina Abréu and compiled in the video document Wake-Up Call (2015). But stripped of its original function and facing an uncertain future, the Courthouse stands as an anti-monument able to house errors in chronology.
CZ: Another chapter of this hypothetical book is its social background. The exhibition has activated strong response with and within the local community through two levels: the exhibition itself, on the one hand, and the responses it has provoked, on the other.
RG: It was a misstep in the planning and language of a particular event early on that triggered protests at the opening reception, not the exhibition itself. But the exhibition and the presence of No Longer Empty at the Courthouse, due to the contentious history of the building, is perceived by some as a sort of gateway to gentrification. We are experiencing a volatile economic moment in New York where socio-economic inequality and dislocation as a result loom large. I can assure you that dislocation is not our objective. Our goal is to engage art in a site- and situation-specific manner, in conjunction with collaborative programming, in order to unearth hidden narratives and personal testimonies that reflect on multiple histories and communities.
In fact, little to no attention has been paid to works in the exhibition that, in both subtle and direct ways, confront the specter of gentrification. For example, the conceptual works of Melissa Calderón explored social and political landscapes, and drew upon historical and philosophical references to power, fragility and perception through the symbolism of the Bronx River. The South Bronx River Goldrush (2015) overtly references the Bronx as “the last frontier” in real estate development in New York City. And as you mentioned, Onyedika Chuke’s The Untitled 1998: Rudy, Henry and the sale of 878 Brook Ave. (2015) directly, albeit somewhat inaccurately, references facts related to the sale of the building into private hands. It’s also important to note that all artists very early on received a document that rendered the history, controversy and demographics of the area.
CZ: While the work of the NLE education department helped to build and develop a dialogue with local art schools in the Bronx, creating a small but significant “exhibition – in – exhibition” installed on the ground floor of the Courthouse, it seems that this long process, which lasted for months, has not been enough to stop the protest of a small group of local activists.
On the opening day, yelling “do not use art to pimp us out,” they asked for more significant attention to a very delicate situation: that art is, in fact, one of the most efficient tools to trigger a gentrification process capable of generating domino effects such as the rising rents and the cost of living. Obviously, this situation needs to be understood in relation to the specific history of Courthouse and the local territory.
Can you tell us more about the work you were doing before the exhibition’s opening? What happened exactly on the day of the opening day? How did you work to then recompose the rift with the local community?
RG: It is part of our exhibition model to conduct research into the history of a site and the neighborhood, and in so doing, meet local residents, artists, community members and organizations, local business owners — anyone in the neighborhood really, to introduce ourselves and our mission and to listen. It’s all part of the process from which curatorial ideas and programming are shaped and informed. In fact, there were several people at the open house who became an integral part of the exhibition, such as the artist Skowman Hastanan. At the open house, we also met April de Simone and Braden Cooks of Designing the We, who created the interactive exhibition workshop Undesign the Redline to unpack and combat structural racism.
The “smaller” exhibition within the exhibition that you mentioned was not a response to the protests, but part of a standing educational program between ArtsConnection and No Longer Empty. The exhibition, part of Teens Curate Teens, was called Future Fix, and indeed it presented a significant consideration of themes pertaining to the Courthouse with an emphasis on social justice and the repetition of history. I do not agree that art is “one the most efficient tools to trigger a gentrification process.” One must bear in mind that artists too are displaced by development. Again, the protests at the opening reception and the controversy that ensued were not in response to the content of the exhibition.
RB: The opening of this exhibition ultimately shed light on these very issues, and what Bronxites may be facing in the future. We know very well that these exhibitions tend to illuminate some very hard realities, but one can say that the building had become a transmitter of ideas and issues, and that’s what art facilitates.
CZ: My concern, which is a provocation at the same time, is that, generally speaking, with the projects we produce – I’m also talking about myself as a curator – as curators or artists, we sometimes maybe only have an intellectual participation with the local communities and territories’ daily life. This might create a sort of distance in terms of active participation of what specifically happens in those territories: the ambitions, dreams and hopes that those people have. What do you think our role as curators should be?
At the Courthouse entrance there is a desk where people can leave a post on what they would like that building will become after the exhibition closing. What kind of relations, reactions and consequences do you think community-based projects, generally speaking, and this exhibition specifically, could produce in these communities? What usually happens when your projects are finished?
RG: I fully understand the provocation; however the question assumes a monolithic culture. Our structure does not. We are an arts organization that works precisely against a uniform interpretation of place. We are present and active on site, receive and engage all visitors, and collect stories and anecdotes that in turn, shape and inform or programs and oftentimes, incite us to respond quickly. In other words, the research is ongoing. It doesn’t stop when the exhibition opens its doors, but rather continues while we are on site, and beyond towards future projects, collaborations and partnerships.
The building and the works displayed within are always incorporated into our educational workshops. In one workshop at the Courthouse, children were asked to visualize what they would like to see the building become, and these works are now exhibited across the street in the windows of Delicioso Coco Helado. This business also provided support for the historic mural A Timeline of Hand Styles: Signatures from the 1960s to Present Day, curated by artist Lady K Fever. This permanent mural captures the energy, style, form and essence of over 30 artists’ signatures that refer to the history of graffiti in the Bronx.
At the center of the exhibition on the first floor, we created a zone called the “Open Square,” a space for public programs in which individuals and organizations were given a platform, and community narratives were made both visible and audible. In this space we presented the interactive exhibit Undesign the Redline and hosted events and programs that promoted Bronx artists, celebrated Bronx Fashion Week, held an open-mike talent show of dance, music and spoken word, and so much more. All of this activated the space as part of the everyday of the exhibition.
And the survey you refer to, which utilized Post-its for visitors to write their answers to the question “What would you like to see this building become?” emerged as a response to the questions visitors asked us about the future of the building. It became an immediate way to return the question to the visitors and ask what they wanted of the building, what they envisioned for the building. Remember that the Courthouse was shuttered for more than 40 years. Many shared their experiences in the building when it was active: One woman was married there, a few were processed there, and some broke into the building to party and play inside. And yet others only knew it only as a boarded-up eyesore and were entering the building for the first time. We learned that the majority of visitors wanted to see the space used for arts and culture, and that one in three visitors were from the immediate neighborhood, including many children and teenagers who made frequent, repeat visits with their friends.
RB: One of our deepest and most productive relationships locally was with the Bronx-based Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, which became a co-producer of two of the artist’s projects. In Parley (2015), Valerie Tevere and Angel Nevarez collaborated with female hip-hop legends Lady L (Lynne Saunders) and B-Girl Rokafella (Ana Garcia) to create a call and response conversation through cut-up techniques and sampling of song lyrics from the early days of hip-hop. And during the final weekend of the exhibition, Lady L curated her own talk show in the building and showcased a program of amazing spoken word, dance, rap and fashion. Relations with Casita Maria began during the 2012 exhibition This Side of Paradise at the Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx. So you see, these No Longer Empty projects aren’t linear either (opening, closing, then “disappearing”). Relationships are developed, seeds are planted for dialogue and then they take their own viral creative growth, often in ways that cannot be predicted. That is letting culture with a small ‘c’ do its thing, rather than implement or determine Culture with a big ‘C’.
RG: And if, as the desire has been expressed (on the Post-its and beyond), the Courthouse is to become a hip-hop museum, then the ultimate reclamation of this symbolically loaded anti-monument will have transpired.
When You Cut Into the Present the Future Leaks Out, curated by Regine Basha for No Longer Empty, was on view at the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse April 23 – July 19, 2015.
Images courtesy of No Longer Empty.