I had a hard time believing I was in the right place, what with shattered glass scattered everywhere and the absence of a sign. I’ve been to a few galleries in my day, but none that looked like a party house from the outside. I was just about to turn around when a woman with neon yellow streaks in her dark hair, swung open the old door and invited me into the dark-red brick building’s castle-like space. Piril Gunduz– the founder of this Bushwick art space, The Hollows– apologized for the broken window downstairs. “What happened?” I wondered. She shrugged. Strange, but it was actually broken windows at a brand new development next door that inspired Piril to curate an ongoing program called Bushwick in Time.
“The next building over, it’s kind of a box,” Piril said, gesturing toward the dark gray blockish structure– a 37-unit, “4-story penthouse”– that’s been in the works at 39 Suydam Street since 2013. “When they finished it, one day we saw the windows being broken and there was pink paint next to the hall in the glass, so it was a protest obviously.”
It’s no wonder someone decided to bust the glass– the new development has caused the neighborhood a lot of grief (the building owners have racked up more than a dozen complaints with the Department of Buildings regarding safety issues and construction without proper permits). But it’s also a sign of the times. As Piril pointed, prospectors coat the neighborhood in flyers. “We receive them twice a week on the porch, like, ‘Call us right now, we’ll pay cash,'” she said.
“It’s interesting that people find creative ways to talk about it and fight the change,” she said. “But everybody has different opinions.” Piril noted that a “Spanish-speaking” church group gets together nearby every week, “and they’re really happy about the changes.”
Piril, a Turkish artist and curator who moved from Istanbul to Williamsburg a few years ago, opened this gallery slash live-work space called the Hollows back in 2014 to host a rotating cast of artists-in-residence. “Bushwick was always very interesting to me,” she said. “When you compare it to Williamsburg or maybe Greenpoint, Bushwick is very underground. I’ve been to many venues where there are no door signs, but once you enter you get to see many fascinating things.”
Bushwick in Time, then, became a way for Piril to inspire frank discussion and artistic exploration of the myriad changes happening in this neighborhood. Since the series’ first iteration in November, the bimonthly exhibition and artist residency program has attracted a great deal of attention from artists, and applications started to pour in. “This has been the most popular program for us,” Piril said. Already, the program is filled through May.
The participating artists come from near and far. Some have a great deal of experience with Bushwick– like April’s resident Rehana Esmail, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years– while others have practically none. Ana Laura Gindin, the March resident, is based in Argentina. Piril said Gindin started the residency on January 1, when she arrived in New York “having no ideas” about Bushwick. “She will have a completely different perspective, because she’ll spend just three months here,” Piril explained.
Cleary, Piril is not the only one who thinks that Bushwick is “New York’s most exciting town” (as the neighborhood is described in the exhibition’s pamphlet). Development in the immediate area around The Hollows is booming. Just down the way on Bushwick Avenue, a 19th-century church is being converted into condos; steps away on Evergreen a massive, 180-room rental complex will soon sprout out of the demolition rubble; and just a few blocks down Suydam, stands a building where one landlord bribed inspectors from the Department of Housing Preservation to help evict tenants.
Clearly, the ugly building next door isn’t the exception.
Given the realities, Piril’s choice in calling Bushwick “underground” might seem a little naive, an easy opinion for someone who’s from far away to have about a neighborhood they’ve never lived in. And my first impression after hearing descriptions of the artwork produced is that they’re based on outsiders’ pedestrian, knee-jerk observations of the neighborhood, rather than insiders’ deep research, personal experience, or visceral understanding. For example, Christina Cassone of Johnstown, Pennsylvania is opening the product of her residency, Elevations: an Exploration in Structure, tonight; Piril told me that it’s “focusing on the elevated M train and how it connects people.”
But Piril made a solid point. “Everybody can relate to it, because what’s happening here is the manifestation of global issues,” she argued. “It’s happening in Turkey, where I’m from, [where] there’s rapid change [happening] in the urban structure. Here people are at the mercy of the landlords and the construction companies, whereas in Turkey it’s more at the governmental level. It’s happening in Argentina, [and elsewhere] for various reasons.”
Cassone’s project has actually sought to construct a reality, through drawings and metal work, in which the M train is removed from the landscape.
The first artist to participate, Genco Gulan, was actually Piril’s undergraduate art professor back in Istanbul. She described him as “a very famous Turkish artist,” and said she was surprised that he agreed to come for a one-month residency. Genco had lived in New York in the ’90s. “He left after 9/11,” Piril explained. “He never came to Bushwick, only Williamsburg. So for him, it’s really interesting to see similarities and contrasts. He said something have not changed.”
I spoke with Genco, who’s now back in Istanbul, over email about his experiences. “Before coming to Bushwick, I had no idea that it was so different from Manhattan and the rest of Brooklyn,” he said. “The residency at the Hollows is quite unorthodox.” He described the program as much more “diverse and dynamic” than other residencies he’s been involved in. “The relationships are more intimate and fruitful,” he explained.
I wondered if he drew any parallels between Bushwick and parts of Istanbul. “We have cats and dogs on streets instead of rats,” Genco said. But one area specifically, Ortaköy, he explained, was one of the “first gentrified neighborhoods in Istanbul in the modern sense.” As an artist, he said he was working with others in the field, “fighting to get our town back by opening studios and making exhibitions. Wherever we are, as artists, we need to demand our towns and cities back.” He concluded that, “the wild urban economy puts a huge pressure on [the] arts but if you scare the artists away, than you have to live in a boring city.”
Piril’s ultimate goal with Bushwick in Time is to turn the project into a book. “I think the most interesting thing is to have artists come from overseas who know about Bushwick, and some are very much newcomers who have no idea, save for their own research,” she said. “[When they get here] all of the artists are upset by the gentrification– they’re critiquing this capital [situation], some people are optimistic, some people are furious.” The book, Piril explained, “is so you can see many different views all at once.”
Elevations: An Exploration in Structure (part of Bushwick in Time) opens tonight, 7 pm to 9 pm, Tuesday January 26 at the Hollows, 708 Bushwick Avenue, and is on view through Sunday, January 31.