Waking Up and Having Today Be Tomorrow
I sit writing this on a Saturday. I’m doing my time at Practice, keeping the place open from 2pm-6pm. It is overwhelming dull as usual. I had a group of kids–maybe undergraduates, and one lady in her mid thirties—early forties. No one had a smart phone, which is a problem as the entire installation this month consists of seven large-scale QR codes. The QR codes linked to live performances for a couple of hours on the first Friday in February but now most of them link to nothing. The group of kids stand through my explanation, — I have a nice one that explains the feeling of standing in a brightly lit gallery space with a recently re-done floor while live-streaming Takehito Etani (Dreamscape, 2013) reading a dream journal in a dark room in Oakland, California. Something was happening somewhere else and you were connected to it via this technology but the thing you were connected to didn’t know you were watching . . . something that was highlighted nicely in the link directly across from the once-window to Takehito which used to show a performance of Ben Kinsley in Washington DC asking a pair of tuning forks (Tuning Forks, 2013) whether or not someone was watching the performance. The forks responded with a “no” both times I watched.—the lady did not and was off like a shot after a quickly murmured “thanks”.
So yes, I am spending my Saturday keeping a gallery open that basically doesn’t have anything in it to see. You could call my performance just as engaging and pointless as any of the other ones performed on that first Friday in February. I am sitting in an empty room, typing—I do this all the time at home, but at Practice it feels like more of a thing. Maybe everything we do in a location we designate “gallery space” is a performance, maybe that’s why we feel like it’s important, maybe that’s why we continue to do it. Today I opened up the gallery to the public and six people came by to see that there was nothing to see.
My Saturday means a lot to me. I have a full-time job. I work for a living.
319 N 11th St
At Practice I am not alone. The gallery is on the second floor of an industrial-type warehouse in which there are five or six floors (I am constantly saying the wrong number and may continue to do so forever). On the second floor alone, there are five or more spaces (depending on your definition of space), and in the building there may be as many as eleven. The biggest and best known space is Vox Populi on the 3rd floor. Vox is an actual non-profit that has been around (though not in the same location) since 1988. The only other actual non-profit is Marginal Utility across the hall. My best guess puts them at two years old. Everyone else just kind of acts like a non-profit—at least in the sense that they aren’t out to make a profit.
What other people say
Paul Galvez’s essay “A Philadelphia Story” published in the rather self-effacingly named Vox Populi: We’re working on it to celebrate that institution’s 20th birthday, begins by proclaiming:
“I do not think I would be alone in claiming that there is such a thing as a Philadelphia complex. Like all cities living in the shadow of former glory and of a newer, shinier, nearby metropolis, its inhabitants suffer from a split personality that swings between an extreme love of everything the region has to offer and a bitterness bordering on self-loathing.”
In that same book, Amy Adams, once director of Vox and now Director of Adams-Ollman Gallery in Portland, Oregon begins her essay this way:
“It was early 1988, and like today, Philadelphia had plenty to offer to those who weren’t asking too much.”
“In this city, the art world doesn’t dance to the beat of a hyped-up market. Unlike New York and Los Angeles, where there are waiting lists for paintings with six-figure price tags and dealers pick and choose whom they’ll deign to sell to, the art scene is more accessible, and certainly more fun.”
-From the article Liberal Arts in Philadelphia by Steven Stern, published in the New York Times on November 19th, 2006
Nicole Wilson writes on the great turn-over of people and places in Philadelphia in her article The Longevity Conundrum, published on The St. Claire on the 8th of July in 2012:
I love you but I started thinking of myself. And for that I am sorry.
I found myself in a pattern. I was repeating the same day every day. Worse off, I saw myself living here for the place and not for myself. Most mornings (you know this); I roll over and whisper softly, “I can’t believe that this is my life.” Some days I unintentionally wake you. Some days I am not even next to you. Most days you don’t even hear me. The mere thought of the obligations that I have for the day and the very tangible dislocation from my body as a means of self-preservation… at this point, does verbally reminding myself that I have a college degree do anything?”
And finally, because what I really want to be writing about is the artist-run-space-collective-thing that we have a lot of in Philadelphia, because as everyone will tell you, we have no commercial scene, I leave this section with the words of Alan Moore—writing about artist collectives in General Introduction to Collectivity in Modern Art, a paper for “Critical Mass” at the Smart Museum, University of Chicago, April 2002:
“Artists’ collectives do not make objects – they make changes. They make situations, opportunities, realizations, understandings. They work with our desires, and these have profound implications for the objects of art. Collectives work on the public relation to art. They work on the problem of the audience. They work to keep the experience of art collective, rather than ceding all territory to solipsistic reverie and the reification of investment capital.”
My Philadelphia Story revolves around the potential for the artist-space in Philadelphia. My story is the adventure of going out to art spaces at night that are hard to find in the light of day—like that ghost story about the hotel the traveler visited and returned to the next day only to find a burnt-down foundation—Philadelphia can be an art playground unsung in fancy art publications, mostly because you actually have to be here or it mostly doesn’t exist. The scene here is ephemeral. People often set-up shop for a period of about three-five years and then move on. Small spaces press the boundaries of the paths of travel through the city ever-further as artists take up residence in the most torn-up blocks and then host happenings that beacon the people to follow.
The small-space community in general seems to have these goals:
1. To show the most original and experimental projects possible
2. To raise the caliber of the art in Philadelphia by supporting local artists
3. To expand the world-views of local artists by hosting exchanges with groups from outside Philadelphia and bringing in artists from outside the area
By default, because each artist-collective is paying their own rent, a goal is also to do all of this for the lowest possible cost. Necessity is the mother of invention and Philadelphia needs a living arts and culture. To fill the gap between staid art institution and everyday art culture the artists in Philadelphia keep creating and reinventing the artist-run space. I have personally been a part of the creation and destruction (eventually) of three artist-run spaces; Black Floor (2003ish-2006ish), Copy (2007ish-2010ish) and now Practice (2012-?). Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I have to keep living the same things over and over until I get it right. I like to think of my personal experience as a microcosm for the entire situation.
Waking up and having today be tomorrow
In Philly, we may always be just on the cusp of something and never get there. In November of 2013 all of the collectives in the city (really nine spaces so far, but we are adding more) are planning an exhibition called Citywide. The basic premise of the show is that each space will trade spaces with another and put on some type of thing there. There will be panel discussions and maybe a catalog—but the point is that everyone is sitting in the same room talking about this, which means that something may happen and change may occur.
At a to-be-decided date and time, Practice is going to ask every artist in Philadelphia (even if you are just visiting) to meet on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (you know–the ones Rocky ran up?). We are going to take a picture of everyone, every art-worker-artist living and breathing into this city, working hard to create a culture of art, doing it every day—even if nothing ever changes; because our work is never done.
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