This past weekend, attendees of Bushwick Open Studios had their pick of more than 400 participating art spaces around the Bushwick-Ridgewood area. The weather for the new October iteration of BOS– after years of holding the arts festival during the first weekend in June– was rather dreary, and we heard many attendees say that without the sunshine, the annual art celebration just wasn’t the same. Jan Van Damne, one of the many visitors wandering the private studios at 17-17 Troutman on Sunday, observed that things were “less chaotic” this year, but admitted to us that “springtime was an appropriate date” for the crawl. What was it, the weather? “No, no– it was just bigger before. New York City was waking up, so it was a great time for a creative festival.”
Others were positive about the new date. “It’s nice that it was cool this year and not as insane,” said Ray Cross, founder of Bushwick Print Lab, a silkscreen studio offering printmaking workshops, equipment, and space for artists making everything from small-scale screen-print shirts and “gig posters” to colossal fine art prints. “There were years when it was hellishly hot, like 100 degrees, and people would crawl in, looking for water and some sustenance. Bushwick’s pretty big.”
In many ways, this year served as a sort of test for the new leadership of Arts in Bushwick, the non-hierarchical, volunteer-run arts organization that has coordinated Bushwick Open Studios for the last decade of its existence. Recently, AiB underwent a major turnover as some longtime members peaced out. The current ownership has tried to regain control of its own festival by moving BOS from June to October and pulling back on the parties that served to distract people from its mission.
As the neighborhood became a real-estate hot spot over the last six years, prospectors likewise moved in on BOS, and it seemed that everyone wanted a piece of the action: party promoters, real-estate actors, even vintage stores, street vendors, and tech companies like Tumblr. Apparently when combined, millennials, art, and Roberta’s pizza smell like blood in the water.
According to the discussion heard at the BOS community outreach meeting held in April, many of the outsiders took advantage of AiB’s open-door/open-source policies and leeched off the organization’s hard-won reputation. One online real-estate guide even used BOS to encourage fellow investors to consider Bushwick: “Follow the art, and be ahead of the curve.”
Christopheer Stout, an artist and gallerist, recalled that prior to the overhaul, he’d come across photos of BOS online. “I looked at these pictures [of the festival] before and said, ‘Hey, that doesn’t feel like us.'”
While the organizers of Bushwick Open Studios argue that their mission never swayed, they acknowledged that some decisive changes on their end were necessary to make the event more welcoming to the community and less-than-appealing to would-be profiteers.
On Sunday, people streamed in and out of Bushwick Print Lab, chatting freely with the employees and moving through the rest of the building at 17-17 Troutman at a considerate, deliberate pace.
Cross has been involved as an artist each year of the fest’s decade-long existence, even before BOS was BOS. He first moved to the neighborhood around 2004 and co-founded Ad-Hoc, a street-art collective that focused on wheatpasting and postering– much of the work went up around the Morgan stop. (He left to start the Print Lab in 2009.) Cross recalled “the first summer Bushwick art party,” which was then called Bushwick Art Project (it was founded by electronic musician RJ Valeo and Ruth Garon). Ad-Hoc hired on Madagascar Institute– “this crazy carnival rides and welding collective in Gowanus”– to turn what was “just sort of a loading dock” at their warehouse space into a less precarious flight of stairs.
Though he had plenty of stories about the good ol days, it turned out that Cross wasn’t one of those curmudgeons who refuse to acknowledge that anything that went down after they turned 30 could be remotely cool. “It’s been great attendance this year, I think,” he said of Bushwick Open Studios. “I was really not expecting it to be as well attended– some people in the building didn’t even know it was happening this weekend.”
In a statement released to the press after BOS came to a close on Sunday, AiB wrote they were “thrilled at the outcome.” While the fest counted just 400 registrants this year– a noticeable decline from the approximately 550 official participants BOS counted in 2015– the organizers emphasized that the higher quality of 2016 eclipsed pure numbers. Overall, this year saw “a more thoughtful weekend” as artists found that they could have meaningful discussions with visitors who were actually “interested in their art and ideas.”
In AiB’s view, the focus of BOS has been restored to artist studios, which “have always been the centerpiece of this event.”
Even after the first few minutes of my Sunday visit, spent wandering around 17-17 Troutman, one of the larger dedicated artist studio buildings, I sensed a majorly different vibe.
As someone who’s attended the last four years of BOS, it was always the street scene that dominated the festival– for better or worse, but mostly just for worse. Eventually, it wasn’t worth attending BOS anymore knowing that you’d have to battle all the downers that stood between each hub and studio complex– obnoxious street performers, lame artwork, bewildering corporate tagalongs, overstuffed restaurants, gridlocked bars, and “block parties” that corralled confused, sweaty people only to torture them with loud music and just-OK keg beer.
In short, it was all a bunch of noise.
Back in June 2014, B+B spoke with Luis Martin, artist and founder of Parenthesis Projects at Brooklyn Brush Studios, just after BOS. He recalled seeing “a few Maseratis pull up” to the artist studio complex. Martin was equally elated and unnerved by BOS that year– it had “become this Miami culture,” which offered a pretty good indication of where Bushwick was headed.
Of course, BOS has never been fully won over by the German models, Batmobiles, and beer sponsorships. This year, these “distractions” had, for the most part, disappeared. Aside from the Friday night festivities at the opening night of Seeking Space, AiB’s annual open-call art show, there were no official parties to speak of. Even the unofficial ones appeared to be few and far between– 99 Sense, a warehouse that turns out parties on the reg, hosted a free, fairly visible “daytime dance party” that boasted “art, fashion, and food bazaar” plus “bands, DJs, installations, performance art, paintings, photographs” and extended through the night.
AiB attributed their success to not only the hard work of their volunteers and participating galleries, but to a “distinct lack of the party atmosphere that plagued recent years” and “distracted” from the art.
Stout, who experienced BOS for the first time this year as a gallery owner (you’ll recall the “Donald Trump Tombstone” exhibit he curated) was enthusiastic about the changes even though he estimated there was a 45 percent downturn in visitor traffic at the same time last year.
“It was actually a shockingly good thing, because you were able to have more one-on-one conversations with people,” Stout explained. “The quality of experience, I think, for everybody was markedly better.”
He was also convinced that because of the toned-down party vibe, the crowd itself included more people “in positions of art leadership from Manhattan” and art professionals from all over. “When you have a festival, and there are people in costumes all over the street, people who consider art a pastime respond in droves,” Stout explained. “When you have a Open Studios weekend and you say this is about the serious pursuit of art, people who consider art a profession respond to that. So it’s a totally different call to action.”
This didn’t necessarily make for higher quality artwork, however. Gabriel Brandt, a Bushwick resident and freelance photographer who I spoke with at BOS on Sunday, confided: “Most of it, I don’t really like–maybe 80 percent of it, but the 20 percent that’s left, I absolutely love.”
Some artists, on the other hand, seemed understandably pretty whatever about interacting with the hordes of invasive randos. When I asked Matt Logsdon, a sculptor and installation artist, about the impact that the new visitors and their feedback had on his work, he shrugged. “It’s good to have a deadline. [Feedback] can be encouraging to some extent.” However Logsdon did say that he was looking forward to next year, when he hopes to volunteer for BOS.
I heard plenty of praise for both AiB and BOS from all sides, but the fest was not without complaints.
At the very end of BOS, I found Michael Alan— the artist behind “Nude Thrift Shop,” a recent performance/installation involving birthday suits and junk on the loose– holed up inside his studio at the Active Space. He was sprawled out on his studio floor, looking pretty beat but sketching away languidly with his pal. Every inch of the room was filled with Alan’s whacked-out line drawings, colorful sculptural pieces of squished together found objects, and a wall-to-wall array of unreplicable weirdness.
Alan’s major grievance was the confusing map situation on the BOS website, which is either buggy or just plain incoherent. I know I couldn’t use it and had to rely on Google and Facebook searches for specific artists and finding studios based on memory and chance. Without a printed map this year, there was nothing to fall back on, so people unfamiliar with the neighborhood had a hard time, according to Alan.
“I’m not a meteorologist, or the weatherman, but I wouldn’t have people moving around in October,” he said. “It’s cold, it’s rainy, and Bushwick is a continent.”
Stout, on the other hand, wasn’t bothered by the “barebones” production. “There was an alternative infrastructure in place, so I don’t feel like anyone came or didn’t come because there was or wasn’t a printed directory to hold in their hands,” he said. “It might just have actually saved a lot of money.”
But for Alan, having to direct people, draw up signs of their own, and worst of all, monitor the building for safety issues (he was concerned about elderly people who have difficulty climbing staircases) made for a situation that “was hard on the artists.” For all his frustrations with the BOS website, Alan seemed to think that the minimalism and organizational hiccups of 2016 were preferable to previous years, when there was “too much focus on beer and tits.”
Personally, I was a bit concerned that, since AiB was exerting greater control over BOS and at the same time discouraging the party atmosphere, the fest might go too far in the other direction and would risk losing some of the weird spontaneity that’s made for some truly bizarro moments.
In 2015, it was the blindfolded angel boy that looked like he’d crawled out of a compost bin and made his way straight to my heart. I almost lost it several times during a serious talk on gentrification as the blindfolded angel boy lurched around the gravel-filled yard, where he’d somehow been trapped amongst people who didn’t seem to even notice his presence. He kept at his escape though, serenely trying to bust outta there but feeling around on hands and knees, delicately sniffing and groping his way around and looking for a porthole to another universe maybe.
Where did the blindfolded angel boy go?
My last stop on Sunday evening was a walkup industrial building, graffiti-covered inside and out, just across the way from the Active Space. It reminded me of some place I’d been to years ago for a party, or maybe it just reminded me of every Bushwick warehouse party I’d been to up until a few years ago.
Either way, handmade signs directed curious visitors up several flights of stairs there, and at the top was the Sky Fortress Cantina, a pleasantly messy live/work studio space where a collective of several young artists (Sky Fortress), all in matching jumpsuits, ran a “72-hour cantina and donation kitchen with art performances” out of their home, according to Russel Geler, the “science and operations” arm of the bunch. They were taking donations for the Thai food sizzling next to an overflowing pot of white rice, and handing out mismatched beers to whoever entered the hazy abode.
Geler pointed me to the room-sized installation, a rainbow streaked tunnel of intermingling jumbo-sized pieces of paper. “We invite everyone to come chill with us, eat with us, smoke with us, live with us,” he beamed. I slipped out quietly after a few minutes and the last thing I heard was a disembodied voice, maybe it was attached to someone shaking hands with Geler: “I just moved to Bushwick yesterday,” the voice laughed.
Update: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that this year was the first Bushwick Open Studios held in the fall, Arts in Bushwick notes that in 2006, the first Bushwick Open Studios event took place in the fall. AiB continued hosting open studios events throughout the year for the next few years. “Going forward we are looking to host more events throughout the year once again,” AiB said.