Making Sure That One Person Will Never Speak for Everyone: 25 years of the Brooklyn Arts Exchange

brooklyn-arts-exchange25 years ago, in a large room in the Gowanus Arts Building that stands just outside the window of my Gowanus apartment, the Gowanus Arts Exchange, founded by Marya Warshaw (who remains the executive director), started hosting rehearsals, performances, and classes. It sat just across the street from the Daily News garage on 3rd ave. between Douglass and Degraw. My roommate, who through years of rehearsing there has collected stories of the Gowanus Art Building’s history, explained how the building, a former soap factory, was chosen to be an arts center because it would be easy enough for artists to run across the street to the Daily News garage’s ever present security guard if they needed protection. Running across the street now you’ll find nothing but exceedingly well built tech bros at the crossfit, a kidney dialysis clinic, and harness-clad rock climbers at Brooklyn Boulders. Gowanus was a very different place back then.

Warshaw confirmed this. “The block when we started was invisible. It was dark, the R train was several blocks away and ran infrequently, there was nowhere to eat, unlike now. It was barely known as the Gowanus; people would refer to the area as the Gowanus projects.”

This didn’t stop the then Gowanus Arts Exchange from becoming a hub of performers and students. Starting in 1993, it began hosting its first Artists-in-Residence, now known as AIRs. It turns out that the program’s origins were exceedingly spontaneous. Warshaw explains, “Our first two AIRs were George Emilio Sanchez and Reggie Wilson. They were creating work on Douglass St. and just declared themselves AIRs. They had powerful voices and remain vital artists.” It was at this moment that I had a brief daydream of walking into the Public Theater and declaring myself Artist-in-Residence of the Delacorte Theater for the next two years. The daydream concluded as I imagined the unimpressed faces of the box office staffers not even looking up from their facebook scrolling to acknowledge my coup.

In 1998, GAX became BAX when it moved further south, to the intersection of 8th Street and 5th Ave in Park Slope. “Putting ourselves two blocks away from the F train at the intersection of different neighborhoods changed what we did significantly,” Warshaw recalls. Despite the shift in location, the “exchange” remained a part of the name. I asked Marya what was so important about this word to BAX. “When you look at our mission statement dialogue among diverse communities, that’s the exchange, exchange of ideas, disciplines, ways of going about things, generational exchange, it’s in our DNA. Even more so now. Making sure that one person will never speak for everyone.”

The introduction of the application to become and AIR coincided with this move. “The reason that we did this,” says Warshaw, “was because some of the strongest artists were saying they were BAX AIRs. And everyone wanted to know how they could get that.” The list of strong artists who have become AIRs has grown longer and even more impressive since then. The current crop,Tanisha Christie, Catherine Galasso, Kristine Haruna Lee, Marissa Perel, Mariana Valencia, and Ni’Ja Whitson, is preparing for AIR Open Studios showing November 19-20.

I reached out Kristine Haruna Lee, downtown performer extraordinaire and founder of the company harunalee. Lee spoke of how she was pushed as an AIR when it came to her “comfort zone as a creator”:

“Through many conversations with these folks in Marya’s living room, and of course listening to what other people were going through as well, there was no other choice but to reflect on how I make work—where I stop in my tracks because I’d rather not get uncomfortable. And for me, to dance with the uncomfortable has meant forging relationships with artists I was afraid of getting to know, putting myself in rooms and in conversations with people who intimidate me, making my opinions heard when I can. I think that’s been an entirely unique experience for me here, to have the space to figure out how to communicate as an artist.” This space to figure out how to communicate has resulted in her upcoming showing on November 19 of a butoh piece she has developed with her mother. “[My mother] started dancing butoh in Seattle a few years back,” writes Lee, “and I loved talking with her over the phone about what it was like to be a performer, the adrenaline and the rush. She’s Japanese and Japanese is her dominant language. I speak Japanese at a third grade level, so we’ve always had communication issues, to say the least. The reality of working together has not been easy. Oh man. We’ve been coming up against very old habits, negative patterns, historical power dynamics we revert to when we’re in heated arguments, so in light of all the intensity and inherent and unavoidable miscommunication, we decided to call the piece Communing with You.”

Central to Lee’s journey at BAX has been coming to understand the (e)xchange that still lives within the acronym, even though Lee wasn’t even considering how she communicates as an artist when she first became an AIR. BAX’s 25th anniversary is a timely reminder that institutions, when run by passionate, generous people, can accomplish unique things in our ever-changing communities. BAX has been a hub for Brooklyn’s performance community for 25 years and shows no signs of slipping into the always growing fetid retention pond of institutional mediocrity. Maybe it’s the vigor of its staff headed by Warshaw, or maybe it’s the effervescence of the student performers, or maybe it’s the ever surprising work produced by its space grantees and Artists-in-Residence. But it’s most likely the exchange between all of these that keeps BAX the vigorous, vibrant community that it is.

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