Choreographies of collapse | Histories of use: Yve Laris Cohen's "Painting Space 122" | Olivia Michiko Gagnon (28.2)
The next day, M. texts me: “For the first 15 minutes, I was thinking: this is what it feels like when a performance collapses.” She’s referring, here, to the way space and time feel like they’re crumpling (or buckling) under the pressure generated in the opening minutes of Yve Laris Cohen’s newly commissioned “Painting Space 122.” On closing night, another friend insists that “it seemed like something was going to break.” Differently, both are referring to the ways in which the performance acts on space and time, and both are gesturing toward a felt intensity registered by and through the audience’s visible discomfort. For in this work, Laris Cohen—who works with, across, and beyond dance, visual art, and installation—administers a precise play with attention/distraction that makes those first minutes almost unbearable.
We sit, pressed tightly together, in a half-square along black wooden benches in Performance Space New York’s newly renovated 3600-square-foot black box theater—raw canvas completely covering the floor, two half walls of exposed brick, windows gazing out onto the surrounding East Village neighborhood—as five artists begin to work: Sally Eckhoff stands by the south-facing window, painting at an easel (slowly, a city landscape comes into view) and drinking a beer; Karen Eubel sits at a low table, drawing and weaving together strips of paper; Robin Tewes sketches while Andrew Glass poses, his face gradually becoming visible in scratches of pencil, and later, a shock of yellow acrylic wash; and Dominick Guida perches on an upper platform along the north-facing set of windows, shadowed by a large scaffolding and working diligently along the brick, scraping and painting. Laris Cohen whispers something into a walkie-talkie and then the sound of drums, droning strings, and guitars shaking with heavy reverb spills out into the space. We watch as the artists work. The music continues, without end, without climax, without resolution—each dip in rhythm nothing more than a quick tease followed by yet another swath of sound. And the room begins to come apart; you can feel it. Eyes flit nervously, some audience members stand up, clustering in small groups and chatting softly, some leave, others try to approach the artists, but Laris Cohen is quick to ask that they give the artists some space.1 At some point, this request causes an altercation with a man who, after several seemingly interminable moments of heated whispering, storms out. The rest of the audience seems unsure of what to do; perhaps he is part of the performance? The answer can only be: yes, and also, no. Throughout, Laris Cohen is calm. He tends to the artists—bringing them tea, collecting their material debris in a small waste basket, installing and adjusting lights when necessary, moving the scaffolding along the wall as the brick work progresses—with the same blend of care and stewardship that he uses to tend to wayward audience members. Kind but firm, he is somehow both perfectly in control of this tightly choreographed space—a stopwatch hangs from his neck—and open to the chance intrusions that cannot but unfold here, in this anxious surround of waiting, working, and watching. And it is with reference to this seemingly unending stretch of sound and work that M. describes the feeling of collapse (which risks, but tends to the risk of breaking).
Collapse, as in, to slip together. 2 A movement not simply in which things disintegrate, but in which things come together, come into one another, flow toward each other. The feeling of unease that comes from (the) mixing, layering, clasping, and collapsing (of distinctions).
Part performance, part installation, “Painting Space 122” is a careful choreography that “maps aesthetic and political fault lines among the building’s tenants over the past 40 years, bringing discrete groups into ambivalent collaboration.”3 The work was commissioned as part of Performance Space New York’s East Village Series, which on the occasion of the organization’s (re)opening of its now heavily renovated space invites audiences to “[contemplate] the past, present, and future of [the] art organization and its immediate neighborhood […] [and] ask what kind of art organization [it] needs to become in light of an ever-more exclusionary social and political context.” And with this in mind, Laris Cohen’s performance stages its own kind of historical collapse, in which multiple pasts and this present fall into one another, that also articulates a dialogic relation between painting and performance.4 Inviting the Painting Space 122 artists to work in this—their former—space, the performance is both an enactment and a laying bare of the entangled social ecologies and histories of use that have shaped, fractured, and reformed not only this building that sits at the corner of 1st Avenue and East 9th Street, but of the specific fourth-floor theater in which the performance takes place. From the building’s origins as a public school built in 1896; to the 1970s use of the third and fourth floors by neighborhood artists who formed an organization called Painting Space 122; to the opening of Painting Space Gallery on the fourth floor; to the use of the first and second floors by the Rainbow Room Day Care Center and Mabou Mines; to the first-floor office space that became the AIDS Service Center of Lower Manhattan; to the formation of an independent organization separate from Painting Space called Performance Space 122, a site of experimental work and creative promiscuity that would eventually become its current iteration as an institutionally supported art center—the intertwined social, political, and artistic histories of this space are dense. Twenty minutes into the performance, Laris Cohen distributes a sheet of paper, which gives this history of Painting Space 122—in some ways, a pre- (and lesser known) history of Performance Space New York—authored by artist Andrew Glass. The sheet’s back is peppered with (heavily enlarged) funder logos, including our [Women & Performance’s] own. We, too, are now a part of this (hi)story, which is to say, a not-uncomplicated institutional arithmetic that allocates and distributes resources (or doesn’t). In the context of a drastically changing neighborhood, “largely erased and reshaped by the collusion of time and capital,” “Painting Space 122” stages a palimpsestic scene where people come to work—where people come to watch others work—but asks us to think it at the (collapsed) joint of painting and performance, of local histories of a (once) politically radical downtown art scene and the ongoing urban processes of displacement, gentrification, and (shifting) community use.5
The music continues. Laris Cohen begins setting up four speakers—left over from the space’s pre-renovated incarnation and stamped red with “PS122”—and a mic stand. And then, he emerges from backstage, his hand clasped tightly around that of an older man, dressed formally in a shirt and slacks. This man is brought up to the mic—again, half-hustle, half-care—where he begins to read from a page of notes. Announcing that he is the theater consultant who worked on the theater’s redesign, he tells this space’s most recent story, an architectural account of the half-blown-out ceiling, the non-sprung floor, the lighting grid, the exposed brick walls, the upper-level doors that conceal a lighting storage space near the ceiling grid, and we follow his description around the space with our eyes. Collapse, as in, to slip together. This new story, of a theater, laid atop that older one, of a painting space. This part of the story is, predictably, economic (some of his recommendations, he tells us, were not heeded because of cost issues; he was particularly concerned about the lighting storage space, whose lack of a safety bar and audience visibility caused him both aesthetic and safety concerns) and institutional (a familiar if rote clash of architecture and design, safety prohibitions and funding structures, set in a building whose renovation was hemmed in due to its status as an historical landmark.) But his story is also one that centers this space’s histories of use: he always consults first, he tells us, with user groups. How do they plan to use the space, how are they already using the space? Suddenly, Laris Cohen pulls open the doors to the storage space and there, up high and nestled where the unused lights should be, is Dither—a New York-based electric guitar quartet, with Shayna Dunkelman on drums taking the place of one missing guitarist. One more unexpected use of (this) space. The sound explodes into the theater. We can barely hear the man’s voice below. Laris Cohen returns to the floor, takes his hand—just as he finishes speaking—and brings him backstage. Dither’s drums don’t stop until they do. And then Laris Cohen opens the theater’s doors, beckoning us to leave.
On the closing night, the artists’ works were almost finished. This, too, had been its own kind of extended work session. A four-night jam session. A way of being in (this) space and (these) time(s). A choreography of collapse, in which things fall apart but also (or perhaps sometimes, precisely because they) come together, that is also a critical kind of historical—or historiographic—work.
1. In an email, Laris Cohen tells me: “I was unable to control the audience as I'd intended the first night; in the following 3 nights I had them contained to the risers—if someone wanted to stand, I asked them to hug the risers, citing fire code. This way, Sally's [Eckhoff] domain—the backside of the performance space—was more clearly delineated as its own performance space.”
3. “Yve Laris Cohen P.S. 122,” Performance Space New York, https://performancespacenewyork.org/shows/p-s-122/.
4. “East Village Series” (catalog), Performance Space New York, 2018.
5. “East Village Series” (catalog), Performance Space New York, 2018.