Lucien Zayan on the Birth of the Invisible Dog Arts Center

Lucien Zayan. Photo by Randy Duchaine

“I didn’t know what was this invisible dog,” said Lucien Zayan over the summer, as we sat under the shade of trees in the garden behind the Brooklyn art space of the same name that he runs. He was recalling the first conversation he had with the building’s owners, back in 2008, when Zayan, seemingly on a whim, got the idea to turn a decrepit old factory in Boerum Hill into a multi-purpose arts center.

“So with my bad English, I heard in the conversation, invisible dog, invisible dog, invisible dog–I thought it was this kind of sentence you use, to say that ‘a train can’t hide another one…'” He trails off lightly. “And then I ask him, what does this mean, invisible dog? And he looked at me like I was the last guy on the Earth who doesn’t know. ‘You don’t know what’s the invisible dog?’ I said, ‘No!’ He said, ‘It’s something important here in America, everyone knows that!’ And then he showed me the leash. And for sure the first question was, ‘Where do you put the dog?'”

Sitting and chatting with Zayan, it’s easy to see how even a skeptical Brooklyn landlord could fall under his spell and entrust a massive four-story building to a man with a lot of vision and almost no money. Charming with a sing-songy French accent, Zayan exudes a cool confidence when speaking about the project that’s wound up taking his life on a radically different course than he would expected even a few years ago.

In France, Zayan spent years as a producer, working at large national and regional theaters, producing theater, opera, and dance. In 2007, though, he had a disastrous experience (“For the first time in my life, things happened very bad”), which he declined to relate, and this led him to withdraw from the arts scene for a full year and reassess his career, including a three-month visit to New York in the fall of 2008. His only previous visit had been in 1992, for a week; he knew no one and, more importantly, no one knew him.

It was a propitious moment to arrive. On the one hand, the economic crisis was exploding. Aside from the broader social consequences of the financial crisis, the arts were in a sour mood. Staffs were downsizing and seasons were being cut, leading to a cynical mood in which it was difficult to conceive of adventurous new initiatives. But the presidential campaign was also coming to a close, with the historic election of Barack Obama, who’d run on a relentlessly positive campaign of hope. On election night, Zayan went to Harlem and wandered through the excited throngs celebrating the victory.

The exterior of the Invisible Dog when Zayan acquired it.

A few weeks later, on the recommendation of acquaintance he’d made in the city, Zayan went to see an exhibit in a storefront art gallery at 51 Bergen Street, and was immediately struck by the space, a beautiful century-old four-story brick factory building. When the gallerist explained that the space was otherwise completely empty, he visited the building’s owner and asked for a tour. The space was filled with rubbish and debris. Over the years it had served as a garment manufacturer, a belt and bead factory, and, for some three decades, the place where the invisible dog leashes were produced, until Disney cancelled the contract to supply its theme parks and the factory closed up shop. Each former tenant seemed to have simply locked the door when the business shut down, leaving layer upon layer of office furniture, boxes of old-new-stock, outdated machinery, what have you. More than a hundred pigeons called the upper floors home, space they shared with the makeshift custom auto shop one of the owners ran. Part of the roof was missing and papered over with plastic tarps.

While he was touring the space with the owner, Zayan conceived of the art space that he eventually built there, and pitched the owner on the spot, improvising handily. Zayan readily admitted he had no money, but after suggesting that he’d call the space “The Invisible Dog”–which seemed to charm him–the owner agreed to keep in touch. Shortly after, Zayan flew back to Paris and set about trying to figure out how to pull it off. Friends were not exactly supportive, offering typical Gallic cynicism in the face of such an entrepreneurial venture. And Zayan wasn’t a curator or gallery operator. He was a product of France’s well-funded national theater scene. “I didn’t even know how to change a lightbulb!” he said airily, of the huge staffs he used to help manage. He attempted to draft a business plan for the landlords with a friend who’d attended Harvard Business School, but gave it up as a lost cause and just submitted a two-column budget instead. But one thing led to another, and after only several months, Zayan was back to collect the keys.

The first challenge was to purge the space of decades of accumulated junk. Lacking the funds to more properly clear it out, he came upon a novel idea after seeing Martin Kippenberger’s installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” at MoMA, in which the artist had arranged a series of desks and chairs and lamps into little office-worker arrangements in the atrium.

“It was beautiful, really beautiful,” recalled Zayan. “I looked at that and said, ‘That’s exactly the sort of exhibition I would like to have at the Invisible Dog! But I’m sure it’s impossible, I don’t have money…’ I didn’t have even money for a dumpster. And actually all the stuff in the building would fill ten dumpsters. And suddenly, in the middle of exhibition, I was looking at the tables and the chairs, and I thought, ‘No, I should do that!’ So I came back here, and with all the furniture of the building, I did exactly the same exhibition as Kippenberger, but with crap.”

The interior of the Invisible Dog, before being cleaned

Zayan spent days creating the same sort of effect in the main space, then opened up a flea market. What was junk at first glance turned out to be a treasure-trove of vintage merchandise and furniture–particularly the thousands of belts on hand from the 1960s. By September 2009, most of the space had been emptied by eager shoppers, and The Invisible Dog officially opened with a show by Recession Art.

Fast forward three years and this month, the Invisible Dog’s fourth season is kicking off. Today, the space is fully operational and buzzing with activity. More than 30 artist studios are inhabited on the upper floors, and the fourth floor theater has become a sought-after rental among smaller companies. The day I interviewed Zayan, 13P was rehearsing their last show, Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play, the mellow tinkling of piano drifting down the massive elevator shaft–painstakingly decorated with text from Dante’s Inferno, courtesy of artist Giuseppe Stampone–into the main gallery space.

Partnerships have been crucial to the space’s development. Zayan still operates on a small budget, and stresses that he’s not a “curator,” anyway. He likes to meet with artists and decide who he’d like to work with and support; even rentals are curated in this fashion. The basement now serves as a youth art space, and community members have founded a film screening series in the main gallery on the first floor. In addition to visual art groups like Recession Art, who return in November, Zayan has begun partnering with key festivals and theaters in the city. September 15, the Invisible Dog plays host to a performance by Bill Frisell and an art show by William and Steven Ladd, both as part of FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival. Zayan has been working with the Ladds yearly since the space opened, and they were the first commission from the Invisible Dog, producing the massive “chandelier” in the gallery, made of thousands of belt buckles and beads scavenged from the space.

In February, friend-of-Culturebot Arturo Vidich will be doing an evening length onsite work as part of New York Live Arts‘ season, who are also presenting a revival of Yvonne Meier’s The Shining (also featuring Vidich) at the Invisible Dog in December. And in January, it appears the Invisible Dog will again play host to artists from Performance Space 122’s COIL Festival.

Sherri Kronfeld, the director SUPERWOLF and an occasional Culturebot contributor, will be directing a new play by Bekah Brunstetter, Take Her to See the Maco Lights, in November. The Catch performance series makes its way there on October 13, for their 53rd episode. And also in October, Walls and Bridges–a Franco-American arts collaboration series–returns with a long weekend of performances and discussions.

Today, after three years, the Invisible Dog is established and has found its voice. As a component of that growing maturity, starting the week of Sept. 17, they’re launching their first large-scale fundraising drive, via Kickstarter. While Zayan has always tried to offer space to artists to create, now he’s trying to raise the funds to more fully compensate artists presenting at the Invisible Dog, as well as fund residency grants to accompany the offer of space. It’s all remarkably straightforward in the campaign description, and we encourage you to check it out and support them.

The official opening of the Invisible Dog’s fourth season is this Saturday, Sept. 15, with William and Steven Ladd’s Shaboygen (free and open to the public), followed by Frisell’s concert (tickets $25-$35).

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