‘Being in residence’ a conversation with Holly Shen and Rachel Valinsky

Holly Shen, Curator of Visual Arts at BAM, Rachel Valinsky, co-founder of Wendy’s Subway and current PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Sonel Breslav, founder of Blonde Art Books, started a conversation in late October just after a public program called POLITICAL THERAPY, a workshop presented by artist Liz Magic Laser and Certified Professional Life Coach Valerie Bell with the intention to teach skills that may help evacuate pre-election pent-up frustration. The event was organized as part of the Wendy’s Subway Next Wave Reading Room at the BAM Fisher.

(Wendy’s Subway Next Wave Reading Room, BAM Fisher, 2016-2017. Photo: Matt Scrubb)

Initially BABS’ interest in this particular program was secondary to the idea of BAM hosting a small press organization – one that happened to have a brick and mortar location in Brooklyn as well, in which it was simultaneously hosting a residency of its own with The Free Black Women’s Library.

(The Free Black Women’s Library, founded by Ola Ronke, in residence at Wendy’s Subway, October 2016)

Being an artist or organization in residence is not a new form of collaborative engagement but this particular folding and sharing of space seemed especially interesting and even more so within the context of publishing. Following long breaks between responses due to post-election shock, extreme prep for family interaction, social media fatigue, and time dedicated to resistance and hopefully self-care, the conversation amongst the three friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators seems more relevant than ever. Today the idea of being a ‘resident’ is much more complex, and has come under extreme pressure, in ways that none of us could have imagined.

SB: Just following up after much needed recalibration. Feels like political therapy was a lifetime ago.

I’d like to continue the line of thinking around the idea of being a resident, sharing of space and ideas based on BAM hosting Wendy’s and Wendy’s hosting The Free Black Women’s Library. Here are a few immediate questions to get the ball rolling.

(The Free Black Women’s Library, founded by Ola Ronke, in residence at Wendy’s Subway, October 2016)
(The Free Black Women’s Library, founded by Ola Ronke, in residence at Wendy’s Subway, October 2016)

If we were to take a position today that our main individual responsibility is to be useful, that as a person but also as an organization we dedicate ourselves to sharing resources and to opening up every conversation not only to our existing and engaged communities but to individuals who we wish to learn from – how do we move towards this through our work and then help facilitate and encourage others to do the same?

First, it would be good to have a sense of BAM’s history of residencies – either with individual artists, writers, dancers, or musicians. I’m not very familiar with the structure of how organizations or individuals in residence may have access to production or social space within BAM.

HS: BAM has a longstanding tradition of residencies, both informal and formal, across many disciplines, and taking different forms. In more recent history (1960-present), the legacy of collaboration between Merce Cunningham and John Cage at Black Mountain College was the inspiration for our inter-disciplinary residencies. For example, in 1995, BAM launched a pilot program called Artists-In-Action, which placed visual artists in residence at major cultural organizations to allow them the space and resources to develop experimental performance art and theater works. Artists were hosted at institutions including the Queens Museum and DIA, with the final production presented on BAM’s stages. The program ran for 3 years and featured artists such as Vito Acconci, Kerry James Marshall, and Ilya Kabokov.

Giving a visual artist the chance to work in an unfamiliar or new medium is a vital part of their development. On a related note, I am personally dedicated to replicating this kind of program at BAM in the future. It’s been something I’ve been saying since I started at BAM over 3 years ago, and I hope to have things in place over the coming years to implement something of this scale and nature. Look at William Kentridge, Zhang Huan, Paul Chan, even Marina Abromavić (despite the eye roll)  – all artists who were able to take their careers and expression to new heights by segueing into more formal performance-art based work. Paul Chan is another great of example of an artist who has also crossed over to literary publishing with Badlands Press.

More recently in the realm of Dance, BAM established a program called Dance Motion USA in 2010, which sets up international dance residencies in underserved countries and cities across the globe, hosted by a rotating cast of major US-based dance companies, including Urban Bush Women, ODC, and Steven Petronio. It began as a cultural exchange initiative premised on the idea of bringing BAM’s intimate relationship and expertise on dance to places outside the US that were lacking in this cultural resource. The resident dance companies host workshops, master classes, participate in creative sessions with local artists, and offer free, public performances and artist discussions to facilitate greater communication and understanding. It was the first major international dance residency program supported by the US Department of State in more than 20 years and has been incredibly successful, reaching over 16 cities in nine countries within three world regions (southeast Asia, South America and Africa).

As a final example, when BAM Fisher’s black-box space opened in 2012, we established the Harkness Dance Residency, a more informal program that essentially gives free space and support to an emerging dance company or artist who will be presenting at BAM. I’m very excited to say that a visual artist who I am working with on a new work was recently awarded this residency and it will be immensely important to the development of the piece.

SB: Have Wendy’s Subway’s priorities changed since the cooperative was formed in 2013?  What do you feel are your community’s main concerns today? As both a resident and a residency how is this form of fluidity discussed? And how is growth or change discussed?

RV: Our priorities have certainly changed in some respects but I think we remain close to the core idea of the project, which at its most basic form involves having a space to read and write together. It’s a simple proposition, but when we first opened our space, it seemed like a convivial, flexible, and open setting in which this could occur was sorely lacking. And then, of course, this proposition immediately grew to extend beyond the immediate group of founders and members: we’re interested in this invitation resonating for a larger community of friends, of neighbors, of readers writ large. When we travel with the Reading Room, we have the opportunity to hear from ever more people and to engage readers, writers, and publics who might not be familiar with our space in Bushwick. Each of these encounters is crucial—it helps us to understand what we can provide to others even as we are constantly reshaping and rebuilding what we do as organizers, programmers, librarians.

The question of growth is an important one, particularly because, in some ways, it isn’t the central question for us. Of course there are forms of growth at play in what we do: our library is constantly expanding, we are seeking to grow our reach and audiences, to have more conversations, to develop new programs and collaborations. But I think what is more difficult and even more urgent today, across the board, is to maintain. To build strong structures that hold–in the face of personal and political turmoil, in the face of economic precarity, social pressures. The question for us is twofold. As a group of people who care about each other, each other’s work, achievements, and safety and equal opportunity, we are actively trying to build forms of support for each other. These are networks that are based on friendship and intimacy, listening, making space for each other. I’m not sure that an organization can have a successful public mission without enacting these politics of care on an internal level. Administration should encompass these qualities and activities, it should provide ways of holding space for others and maintaining the structures that enable us to turn our attention to our work and to the work of those around us. And this takes place on a human scale. By this, I mean that as a very small nonprofit run by volunteers, we are aware that the organization is only ever an extension of what we, personally, can contribute to it. This means time, this means funds, this means care and attention, and the (mental) space–bandwidth–to conceptualize programming and projects and complete them (even as we work several other jobs…). I think in talking about “growth,” you can’t not address the question of scale. The programs we organize–the residency program for instance, or the Reading Room–are ambitious in the publics they hope to engage, but take place on this intimate scale. For us, it feels more urgent to foster conditions in which these forms of participation are enabled and maintained than seek a kind of growth or acceleration whose pace we cannot keep up with.

SB: I’ve been thinking a lot of about education in a really straight forward way. Today I want access to good information. I want to know what my local government is doing to prepare for the next 4 years. I want information about my heath and my body – how I can take better care of myself, and how to best advocate for the protection of women’s health. I’ve had the privilege of attending events with people that have real answers and this has been comforting.  There seem to be a lot of people who don’t have access to immediate answers and instead rely on FB and Twitter.

Liz’s program is one of many recent art organization’s presentation of healing and self-care workshops including Women’s Healing Space writing workshop at the Brown Paper Zine and Small Press Fair facilitated by Giselle Buchannan, Aja Monet, and Meghann Plunkett, and Self-Care as Self-Preservation facilitated by KC Chaviano and Caitlin Quigley as part of New Museum’s Youth Summit Scamming the Patriarchy.

I guess I’m trying to find a way to emphasize this idea of a resident as a position of great responsibility – that by inviting and by sharing space you are required to be present in a way that is more open and generous and fluid. And rather than produce a saleable product in exchange for ‘space’ it is more interesting (at least for me) to make space useful in ways that reconfigure ideas of value.

HS: I think the use of residency-oriented programs in the visual arts is taking off in new and interesting ways. For example, I’m very impressed by the way Recess has focused their Session program in recent years to more “residency-based” exhibitions, instead of traditional art objects and installations. Black Art Incubator, Refuge in the Means, etc – it’s really about these various groups taking up residence in their space and sharing their values and ideas, as opposed to presenting objects or ‘artworks’ in the conventional sense.

The Wendy’s Subway Reading Room at been has been successful because we’ve found a way to engage and activate the patrons and audience members who frequent the space. Exhibitions run the risk of becoming passive experiences, overly didactic, or — especially to this type of audience– merely decorative. But with a reading room, you’re offering an extremely diverse range of subject matter and genres in a relatively small space, so it becomes an issue of efficiency as well. We also think the informal nature of the talks and performances has been refreshing – again, especially at a large performing arts institution like ours where the term “performance” typically evokes a formal structure – tickets, seats, commitment, duration. Instead, we’re offering something that feels more pliable and malleable – we can pivot more easily if dates or commitments from the artists shift; we can message the event via social media platforms and catch individuals who may be looking for something off-the-cuff to do. And most importantly, we’re introducing our audiences to a wonderful resource in the Brooklyn neighborhood they may not have otherwise been aware of, and vice versa.

RV: Just to second Holly here, the Reading Room does attempt to bring a range of materials to a wider audience, and there is of course a pedagogic mission in this. It’s clear that it’s never enough to assume that putting books in a space means they will be read, or means that the material itself is accessible. However, what the Reading Room I think does do is model ways of building knowledge together—and hopefully provides generous entryways into that material and process. For instance, when we are compiling a catalogue for a Reading Room, we are working together as a group to pool our references, our knowledge bases, our interests, as well as looking to others to complement the selection and bring to it their own influences and interests. Each time we’ve installed a Reading Room we’ve called upon the artists, speakers, or performers who are participating in the programming we have been invited to take part in (an exhibition, a conference, a performance festival) to build reading lists together. At BAM it’s been great for audiences attending (or not attending) the performances upstairs to learn more about the what performers are reading, what texts or influences go into their plays, choreographies, and works. But I also think these Reading Rooms, at their best, invite creative ways of engaging with the texts. A workshop by Marisa Perel, for instance, “Touching Into Text” focused on embodied approaches to understanding language. Participants chose texts from the library to write with during the workshop—books that they thought they would like, books they thought they wouldn’t like… And put their bodies in the way of, in the place of, and beside these texts. And then you have a workshop like Liz’s that makes a therapeutic resource available to participants. In a sense, what we are aiming for is precisely to bring workshop instructors, practitioners in various fields, to the Reading Room in order to develop other social aspects of the reading/writing paradigm, other economies less bound to “value” or “production” and more interested in experience, in exchange and dialogue taking place spontaneously, or over longer periods of time.

(Wendy’s Subway Next Wave Reading Room, BAM Fisher, 2016-2017. Photo: Matt Scrubb)

SB: Will Wendy’s Subway and BAM continue to collaborate directly in the future? I’m curious to know if there will be a post-election follow up to Liz’s workshop or if you’ve considered a way to check-in with individuals who have participated in the other workshops or Reading Room events.

HS: Yes! We have plans in the works for another collaboration ….so stay tuned for a full announcement in May 🙂

SB: Rachel can you tell us more about Wendy’s Subway future residents and how they will be structured?

RV: Each residency will inherently take a different form as we continue to work with organizations, publishers, artists and writers with very different practices. Our current resident is Makhzin, a yearly, bilingual English and Arabic magazine originally coming out the organization 98weeks in Beirut. Mirene Arsanios, who is its founder and co-editor, is working with us to organize a series of workshops led by female writers from the Middle East, who have also made special book selections we have acquired for the library: Mona Kareem, Marwa Helal, Yasmine El Rashidi, and Iman Mersal. Through these workshops, we’ve been developing dialogue and research centered on strategies and theories of translation, through looking at Mona’s interest in the poet and prolific translator Sargon Boulus, and with Marwa on using vernacular language as a form of resistance–two notions that I think really put pressure on each other in interesting and productive ways. For all our residency printed matter, we’re also collaborating with an incredible designer, Gerardo Madera, with whom we are compiling materials from the research and workshops for an upcoming publication. What we’d really like to foreground in the editorial process however, is how to imagine extending this dialogue with workshop participants, continue to engage it over time. Our April and May residents I think also take up some of these questions. The KAF collective, who will be organizing workshops that deal with pressing concerns to many of/around us: how can we together imagine a borderless community? how can we devise better strategies for transformative learning and teaching? In this way, each residency builds toward a publication–though its form will vary–but also toward the development of a collection within the library of publications selected by residents. And integral to it are the public programs we develop together, which so far have felt incredibly generous, and generative.

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