The start of Bushwick’s first art exposition was dreary. Rain poured down on Thursday and walking from gallery to gallery, we encountered people who were either holding their breath or tapping their foot—a spectrum of nervously not knowing what to expect on one end, and impatiently awaiting expectations on the other. We occasionally encountered the artists whose work was on display, but just as often encountered people watching over the artwork who had little to do with it.
But the somewhat sputtered start of the inaugural Exchange Rates was understandable, after all, organizing well over a hundred artists, many of them visiting from overseas or outside the state, and hooking them up with either appropriate collaborators or fitting local galleries willing to host them, is nothing less than an impressive feat. Not to mention that Exchange Rates Bushwick also included a full weekend of programming, parties, panels, and performances.
And a few things did go wrong. Studio 10, had some really killer work by Queens-based artist Jude Tallichet, including a jaw-dropping sculpture, U Turn, a life-size forton cast of a smushed Hyundai. But the walls remained bare due to an unforeseen fumble by the Post Office, which lost Postcards To America, a work conceived of by Class1 Gallery in the UK, consisting of about two dozen postcards covered with paintings, drawings, and hand-written notes. Annelie McGavin, the director of Studio 10, explained how the cards had been lost in the mail. “They have no tracking number,” she explained. “They’re just gone.”
We skipped the big party at Beat Nite on Friday, and there were plenty more celebratory events to partake in that we missed as well. But even without all the extra schwag we ended up having a great time. When we returned on Saturday afternoon, it was bright and sunny, and despite the lingering hangovers from Friday’s “rammed” party—as one artist from Manchester described it—all the participants we spoke with were in seriously good spirits, and even the art itself seemed to have settled in.
Which, we gather, is a pretty good indication that the “fun” parts of Exchange Rates were non-essential to there being an “event.” Call us crazy, but we felt the art and artists were actually the centerpiece of this art expo, unlike some other arts events in Bushwick that come to mind.
The aforementioned unmentionable events, in recent years at least, despite their rhetoric, seem less concerned with showcasing art and more concerned with promoting a Bushwick brand (and possibly, probably creating a larger market for those $81 Bushwick candles) or putting on an event that can be easily hijacked by bars and restaurants selling slop to make mad money for time indeterminable, or at least until Bushwick is decidedly overrrrrrr. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this model, that’s exactly what a festival, or rather art fair, usually is, right? Actually, as it turns out, wrong.
In fact, not all art events have been co-opted by corporate interests, as Exchange Rates demonstrated. Based on our conversations, the artists here were minimally (if at all) concerned about selling their art and more wrapped up in showing it and networking with one another and embarking on new collaborative efforts.
Paul D’Agostino (art editor at The L) teamed up with Brooklyn-based artist and gallery operator Stephanie Theodore, and three more curators behind the London-based art fair Sluice: Karl England, Ben Street, and Charlie Levine. We met up with the crew for teatime and turtle greeting at Paul’s Bushwick home and gallery, Centotto, on Thursday afternoon.
“We came up with this idea about a year ago,” D’Agostino explained. The group modeled the event after Sluice, an art fair that spotlights emerging, lesser-known galleries and artists in London. What was at first slated to be an expo featuring London artists in Bushwick, expanded to include artists and curators from all over, including South Africa, Germany, Switzerland, and Tacoma, Washington.
“All the galleries have to do here in Bushwick is open up their place and share some wall space,” he said. “It’s not too much of a monetary sacrifice.”
The range of artwork on display was mind-boggling—examples of work from almost every medium were represented, from large, room-filling sculptures, to delicate yet architecturally attuned installations; improvisational performance art; video art and projections; bizarro, fantasy-based fashion; site-specific sound art; and paintings, drawings, prints, mixed-media works, tiny collages, photographs. If you have to dream it because you missed it, it was probably there. Despite the vast array of stuff to see, somehow Exchange Rates managed to make viewing all or most of the work doable.
When we visited Signal Gallery on Thursday afternoon, we were left to our own devices. The only guidance save for the standard press releases, was a sign on the door that read, “Keep door closed protect the kitten.” The space was at least partially governed by Bushwick’s post-gentrification bodega cat—the gallery cat, whose hair stuck out every which way from Keller’s rubber-lined ramp as part of Other hills have deeper cracks (2014), a serious piece of artwork, yes, but also a cat’s dream toy.
This was a reminder of the informal character of many of the Exchange Rates venues. Signal is a serious gallery, but it’s also an art space in Bushwick. And it was the showcasing of these non-traditional, non-stuffy galleries where Exchange Rates really shined.
We were totally taken by the work of Swiss artists Selina Grüter and Michèle Graf, Horizons But Multiple Horizons, a piece in their series of collaborative installations, Watch The Sunset, on display at Signal Gallery. The larger project is a collection of sunset replicas coded as projections cast onto materials via live stream. In this case, the computer modeled images of a sunset over Casablanca were projected onto thinner-than-paper organza into a dark, drafty box of a room sunken below the main floor. A crack in the old garage door allowed light, air, and sound to stream in, all of which became the incidental collaborators in Horizons.
It was a perfect example of how these sometimes post-industrial, and otherwise non-traditional Bushwick spaces transformed the artists’ work in unexpected ways, many of whom were in Bushwick for the first time. In a sense, Bushwick became a third collaborator in many of the efforts on display.
The rest of Signal was occupied by Daniel V. Keller‘s architectural installations. The artist cleverly draws on architectural tropes and makes use of not just banal, but exceedingly dull materials used in stuff like temporary construction barriers and low-budget public spaces—plywood, shredded rubber tires, blue plexiglass, netting, spray paint. But he’s taken the stuff of bland urban landscapes and transformed it through surprising rearrangements. Keller’s work is totally worth a gander, and if you have a half an hour to spare between now and November 16th, we highly recommend you check his stuff out because it’s squatting at Signal Gallery until then.
Norte Maar, which is housed in an apartment in a pre-war building on Wyckoff, was one of the more non-traditional spaces. On Saturday, we rang the bell and filed in, slowly skimming the walls in the sun-filled apartment and patting the old dog, occasionally peeking into the adjacent bedroom. The art space hosted The Great Wrong Place, an exhibition put together by David French featuring the work of LA artists. The curator was on hand to speak with us Saturday afternoon. He talked at length about the art and sang the praises of Jason Andrew, who operates Norte Maar. “It’s been great working with Jason,” French said. “It was his idea to do a survey of LA artists, but then we decided to just stick to our own program.”
French decided to stick with the people of Durden & Ray, an LA-based collective of artists and curators. “In LA we’ve got this bad rap for being superficial,” he said. “But obviously, we’re not.”
French explained the exhibition’s title was inspired by literary critic W.H. Auden’s assessment of the Los Angeles that appears in Raymond Chandler’s crime novels. It captures the thin veil of glamor masking a troubled city with a seedy underbelly, much like the work on display. French pointed to a painting by Tom Dunn, Love Remover Machine—discernible panties are hung to dry and a humanoid is violently scrubbing at more garments with brush in hand. “I like his work,” French said. “It’s a bit sleazy.”
There was something very chill and very real about speaking with a curator while crammed into a kitchen. Something so un-arty about it, dare we say approachable. French, like many of the artists and curators we spoke with, effused his excitement about Exchange Rates and the work involved.
Around the corner on Saint Nicholas, we found a more traditional white-walled gallery behind large, storefront picture windows, Schema Projects, which opened back in February 2013. Like many galleries in Williamsburg on the Lower East Side and increasingly around this neighborhood, the building’s history speaks to a changing neighborhood; the address once belonged to a barber shop.
David Miles, an artist from Paper Gallery (based in Brighton, England), was working the desk at Schema when we arrived. Exchange Rates has brought him to Bushwick for the first time. We asked Miles about the previous night’s event, Beat Nite. “It was really wild,” he explained. “But I had really interesting conversations with people, everyone is really knowledgable.”
Schema was one of the handful of venues where the work was visibly priced, ranging from under $100 up to several thousand dollars. One palm-sized acrylic painted cigarette pack by Conor Rogers was priced at $1600.
We asked Miles if any of the work had been sold. “Not yet,” he said. “But you never know.” He shrugged and continued to talk about the work on display.
Despite the pricing, it seemed his concern was not to sell the artwork. We gleaned the same thing from various other artists we spoke with. Yes, the idea of “exchange rates” played out literally on the walls of Schema—prices of the work in pounds were printed next to USD prices. But for most participants, the meaning of Exchange Rates was clearly about collaboration, discussion, and sharing rather than monetizing, selling, and courting potential buyers.
Suvi Lehtinen of GSL Projekt (her namesake gallery and collective based in Berlin) was holed up at Tiger Strikes Astroid (TSA), a tiny gallery inside REmerge Studios, when we found her on Saturday. Lehtinen, who lived in Crown Heights before moving to Berlin, was excited about the conversations happening between artists and had even made plans for residency exchanges. “When I moved away six years ago there were only a few galleries in Bushwick, but now it’s so intense,” she said. “It’s a good thing though, people can help each other out now.”
The incredible diversity of the work on display throughout the participating venues, as well as the venues themselves, was evidence of the potency of the art scene in Bushwick. But strangely enough, the work that excited us the least was that of Bushwick-based artists.
Most of the artwork at Brooklyn Fire Proof, for example, was yawn-worthy. Arts In Bushwick, an arts non-profit, put together an exhibition that featured a great deal of pieces that look like they were lifted from whatever the equivalent of a Trapper Keeper is these days. A sad stack of flyers for long-past Bushwick Open Studios 2014 were haphazardly and inexplicably piled on a small table.
Instead, Qwerty, a gaggle of weirdo Danes stole the show. Their collaborative effort with FBI (Frank Bobbins Institute, Worksop UK) was an improvisational performance. The artists made use of a cat walk and some hairy “house dresses” worthy of pearl clutching. Goofy yes, but weird and engaging, sure.
Time and again when Bushwick artists were underwhelming, the visiting artists engaged, intrigued, and impressed us. But overall we were relieved to discover that, unlike Bushwick Open Studios, curation was actually a part of the expo. In fact, Exchange Rates was one of the most expansive art-by-artists-for-artists thing we’ve seen in Bushwick, like, probably ever.
“For a lot of the artists, this is their first time in Bushwick,” D’Agostino explained. Let’s just hope the guests’ work left a lasting impression on the Bushwick artists.