In Bushwick, there is a very small cube of an all-white space that is equal parts dancer’s oasis and asylum (the walls are intentionally padded). Called Otion Front Studio, it houses rehearsals and performances for artists who are working at the intersection of dance, performance art, and modes of expression that escape and defy definition. More than just a physical space, Otion Front Studio serves as the nucleus for Otion Front collective, a group of artists whose work doesn’t conform to societal standards of what dance or performance art should be.
Founded by Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren, who perform together as FlucT, the collective is united in their commitment to nurturing one another and their community. Since forming almost three years ago, it has expanded to include Tara-Jo Tashna, Gina Chiappetta, Sarah Kinlaw, Kathleen Dycaico, Jerome Bwire and Ciara Clements. When the studio first opened, it was forced, for financial reasons, to host yoga classes and other events, but its current incarnation is the best representation of what it was originally intended to be.
“We wanted to have a space for experimental performance and sound that has a culture and community surrounding it,” Monica explains, to which Sigrid answers, “or to create that culture and community, because other dance studios don’t have that and are more technique based, there’s already a structure in place, whereas we just wanted to make our own new world.”
While the thread of movement underlies all the art that comes out of the space, they’re explicit about the fact that it’s an art hub unto itself. “We’re not all dancers, Mirabile explains. “It’s not about a dance space, it’s a body space.” In addition to providing rehearsal space for Otion Front Collective, the studio provides a monthly artist-in-residency program, monthly dance-video screenings, special performances, and is available for rent as a studio space at a highly affordable rate.
For a small space, the collective’s impact is wide reaching. This past May, Mirabile and Kinlaw directed a 150-person production at the Knockdown Center called Authority Figure. Self-described as a “Social psychology experiment,” they coordinated all rehearsals piecemeal in Otion Front Studio before moving to the production space at Knockdown Center. As with much of the collective’s output, it brought to light socio-political issues such as race, gender, and, of course, authority. If you’re familiar with the work of FlucT or have ever watched a video of one of Otion Front’s performances, you’re aware that the work has the singular ability to take an emotion that most experience over large swaths of time, and pack it into one revelatory, mind-bending experience. One might argue that that’s the function of most great art, but their medium-blending work achieves it in a refreshing way.
In addition to its programming, the space has become a platform for members of the collective to evolve in ways most artist programs do not support—even those in a borough full of artists. Sarah Kinlaw notes that “One of the more interesting things I’ve noticed in being involved with the studio for a while, is watching people have the opportunity to become a leader, to curate, to direct, to organize, and do it with the support system.” Unlike more competitive, hierarchical organizations, Otion Front Collective encourages all of its members to step up and explore their roles as leaders and directors. The monthly residency program is meant to incubate just this, which Kinlaw notes as a “really cool transformation” to witness.
When it comes to defining the art of dance in 2017 the collective shirks all paradigms. The world of dance is notorious for reinforcing unhealthy body standards, rigorous audition processes that inhibit creativity, and even perpetuating racial stereotypes. While not all of the Collective has a dance background, the studio space inevitably attracts and helps dancers from a classical background to find a new outlet. “One of our really good friends, a trained ballet dancer, was looking for an outlet to escape exactly what you’re talking about, these established rules and paradigms,” Jerome explains, adding “And was introduced to OFS through FluCT, and like myself she was able to find something else.” OFS was Jerome’s first foray into performance art and dance, thanks to what he describes as its “welcoming” community without any established entry points.
Otion Front remains committed to egalitarian values despite Brooklyn’s rising rents and the sweeping socio-economic changes this brings about. Their deep and thoughtful understanding of what it takes to nurture art pervades all aspects of how they run the space, including keeping rental rates at $10 an hour. They understand that artists have off days: “You don’t know what’s going to happen when you come in to do something. You don’t know if you’re going to have a productive day. You might have a day where you feel like shit and you just need to sit down and stretch,” Monica explains. In doing this, they hope to relieve some of the pressure New York City-based artists feel to maximize every minute of time in spaces they’re overpaying to occupy.
The Collective emphasizes that Otion Front Studio is really an all-encompassing space for performance. While it’s not a music rehearsal space, per se, it has incredible acoustics, as noted by musicians, including the Collective’s own Sarah Kinlaw, who also sings. One collective member, Tara-Jo, adds that it carries the DIY ethos of a Brooklyn she experienced years ago as a teen, who flocked to the borough for shows. She recalls that when it comes to music or art shows, “You can go to a bar. Or you can go to a gallery. It’s just become very limited and I feel like this is kind of a rebirth,” she reflects. “Music is still happening in Brooklyn, there are almost no DIY spaces where you can see anyone and everyone. You have to go to this place where you have to spend all this money at the door and all the drinks are really expensive.” In her eyes, Otion Front is a resource for more people to create freely, unbounded, with a bit of the reckless energy associated with Brooklyn’s early aughts DIY scene.
The Collective remains on the cusp of exploring socio-political issues with their programming and performances. They’ve also been active in taking a stance against recent pressing issues, hosting benefits for Standing Rock, and one workshop donated its proceeds to Planned Parenthood. Most recently, Monica and Sigrid were involved in a prankster-ish music video along with another friend of Otion Front, Rebecca Fin Simonetti, at The Metropolitan Museum of art. Filmed semi-secretly on iPhones, the performance calls to question the power structures (aka donors) who have such a heavy influence on our culture.
In addition, the Otion Front’s programming continues to evolve, with an emphasis on exploring the ways artists can learn and interact. Next month they’ll introduce a new open forum performance panel called “Haptic Feedback.” It’s designed to facilitate dialogue around pieces old and new, and artists are called to present work and engage afterwards in a discussion moderated by Monica Mirabile.
As my interview with the collective wraps, I glance again at the sign they keep on the wall that says “trust yourself.” It’s comes as no surprise, then, when they generously suggest I stay and have alone time in the studio for the next hour, as it was not being used till later that afternoon. As a former ballerina who lost her love of dance due to many of the same pressures the collective eschews, I gladly obliged—and will also attest to the space being infused with some kind of magic.
OFS: 1196 Myrtle Ave., Bushwick
Upcoming performances and workshop at OFS:
March 9: Movement workshop with Thomas House.
March 17: Sigrid Lauren and Emil residency performance.
March 21: Incriminate the Intimate, video screening curated by Jerome Bwire and Gina Chiappetta
March 31: Sarah Kinlaw performs Palm to Aux, 9pm