Orange bulbs hung from the naked branches of a solitary tree on the corner of Morgan Avenue and Grattan Street in Bushwick. The air was crisp as fall had officially set in, and as groups of people streamed through the typically half-deserted streets, their eyes turned up towards the little lanterns, which boldly stood out against the blue Brooklyn sky.
This tree (part of the series, A Tree Grows in Bushwick, designed to draw attention to the lack of nature in New York City) was just one among hundreds of art pieces on display all around the Bushwick area during the second annual BETA Spaces event last Sunday. Put on by Arts in Bushwick, a non-profit arts organization, BETA, or Bushwick Exhibition Triangle of Alternative Spaces, is a day-long event during which neighborhood artists are invited to open their galleries, lofts, apartments and studios and feature collaborative visual art shows, performances and installations of all kinds.
The overarching theme of this year’s BETA Spaces was creative experimentation, collaboration and the experience of space. Over 150 local artists displayed their works in more than 20 different locations within a 10 block radius and, in addition to using their own private spaces, artists were particularly encouraged to utilize public space. The resulting array of colorful and diverse outdoor installations created an atmospheric blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the urban and the artistic, and seemed to turn Bushwick, at least for one afternoon, into a sort of dream-like cityscape.
“At last year’s open studios, we looked around and noticed that one of the most interesting and exciting things going on were collaborations, when artists worked together to create something,” said Laura Braslow, founding member of Arts in Bushwick and one of the chief organizers of BETA Spaces. “We also saw a number of artists who were taking the time to actually create their art spaces as opposed to creating their art within a predetermined space. They were making their artwork, as well as a place for it to live. And so we decided to really try and expand those themes for this year’s BETA Spaces.”
One collaborative art piece installed in a small park on the corner of Flushing Avenue and Forrest Street and curated by Maggie Pounds, another BETA Spaces organizer, was entitled Summer Home—Exported, and showcased a fully-functional living room, reconstructed outdoors. The room contained a range of different types of furniture, mostly all of which pieces of art in and of themselves: the ottoman was a sound sculpture, the free-standing walls and wallpaper were hand-crafted and the artwork hanging on them was specially made for the exhibition. Throughout the afternoon, passersby were invited in and encouraged to directly interact with the space by sitting on the couch, playing the keyboard set up on the coffee table or simply having a cup of tea.
“I’m really interested in the social scope, the social relationships that emerge through and within art,” Pounds said. “I also really like the idea of having an actual living space filled with pieces of art by those who inhabit it.”
In addition to experimental art pieces, BETA Spaces also happily included slightly more conventional forms of exhibition and collaboration. Paul D’Agostino, an adjunct assistant professor of Italian and Interdisciplinary Studies at Brooklyn College, decided to turn his first-floor apartment into a makeshift gallery and curate a group show, entitled Entanglement is Good, Entanglement is Great. The show featured select serial pieces created by several of his friends and students, as well as a sampling of his own work. D’Agostino, like many of the other artists and curators, also had a hand in organizing the event.
“Bushwick has really acquired a reputation of having a friendly, open-armed arts community,” D’Agostino said. “Artists are always happy to talk to you about what you are doing and what you are making. People who come to Bushwick know that they are coming to a completely different scene than SoHo or Chelsea, or even Williamsburg. Artists here like to be involved in organizing and planning the events where they show their work. It’s about collaborating.”
Chris Harding, founder of English Kills, one of Bushwick’s most established art galleries, also emphasized the tight-knit nature of the Bushwick art scene.
“95 percent of the artists featured in this gallery are Brooklyn-based,” Harding said. “I mean, in Bushwick alone, I can throw a rock and hit three talented artists so why would I want to branch out to other boroughs? Everything is right here in the neighborhood.”
Arts in Bushwick was founded two years ago, when a small group of dedicated artists and volunteers decided to begin planning a summer open studios event (which now happens annually). Since then, the organization has grown exponentially, attracting more and more volunteers. The organization is non-hierarchical (or as Braslow says, “radically egalitarian”) and 100 percent volunteer-run.
As the themes present in so many pieces displayed at BETA Spaces suggest, Bushwick, like most neighborhoods in New York City these days, is facing serious changes and challenges, such as gentrification and the imminent threat of displacement, as it becomes a more popular place to live. In response to these challenges, Arts in Bushwick is dedicated to bridging the gap between newcomers and those who have lived in the neighborhood for decades through arts programming and community development initiatives.
“You’ll notice in the program that there are lots of works overtly dealing with gentrification, it’s absolutely something that’s on the minds of artists in the neighborhood,” Braslow explained. “In addition, there are lots of shows trying to re-imagine space and re-imagine interaction, which are undoubtedly informed by our experiences of our neighborhood. The more we as artists think we might be displaced the more we think about our space: how to frame it, structure it and hold onto it. When you are working on re-imagining a space or using public space to fill art, it’s about our own investments in our geography. Artists here are trying to build awareness and increase the dialogue.”