IMAGE ABOVE: Detail of the decay of the “NevADA Art Fair” from New New Berlin by William Powhida and Jade Townsend, 2014. Photo by the Galveston Artist Residency.
The extra “new” in William Powhida and Jade Townsend’s New New Berlin at the Galveston Artist Residency is like a pre-emptive superlative. All the frenetic searching for the hippest and shiniest locale can end; it doesn’t get newer than New New. Sardonic twists of phrase and a satirical skewering of every group from the art world to the church to the media abound in this exhibition. The “town” occupies the GAR’s seasonally-sweltering concrete courtyard from end to end. There’s a jail, revival tent, bar, model home, newspaper office, and artist’s studio. In case you run low on funds, there’s even a tiny (non-operational) ATM vestibule of nightmarishly-cramped proportions. The interior of the GAR is part art-fair, part paintball shooting-gallery. On opening night, more than a few Houston art-world regulars could be spotted on social media taking paintball pot-shots at the gallery “booths.” New New Berlin isn’t the first collaboration between the two artists, but it is their first in the Lone Star state, and their send-up of both the art world and society at large takes on a distinct Texas twang. A+C Writer Casey Gregory visited with Powhida, Townsend and curator Janet Phelps regarding their latest endeavor.
A+C: Your previous projects together were drawings. What moved you to create an interactive installation this time?
WilliamPowhida (WP): Our first collaboration was actually called “Bill n’ Jade’s Lemonade Stand” that we built for the first edition of the NADA County Affair, PULSE Art Fair, and Socrates Sculpture Park. It was a legitimate lemonade stand but it was also a bootleg bar serving a special ‘brown’ lemonade. The illegal bar portion was shut down at PULSE after the first day. It got a little real.
That collaboration led us to “ABMB Hooverville”, which began and stands as a public art project proposal for the parking lot behind the Miami Beach Convention Center during Art Basel. I think for me, after our last large-scale drawing “Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes”, New New Berlin was both a return to the interactive, participatory nature of the Lemonade Stand and kind of extension of our proposal for “ABMB Hooverville”. Once Janet Phelps proposed the idea of doing a project at GAR, and we saw the space and considered the audience, mostly Galveston locals and a few Houston art world die hards, we drifted towards something that would poke fun at spectacle of art as entertainment. I was thinking about my friend Carolina Miranda describing her trip to the James Turrell retrospective as like waiting in different lines for amusement park rides. Also, being in Galveston, the history of Texas and the frontier became a way to visualize the saying that the art market is the “wild west” or the last unregulated market where anything goes; like flipping or no-resale royalties. The idea of the west or the frontier is part of the American mythology of re-invention or the promise of the new, which resonated with the art world is constantly trying to ‘discover’ the new thing, whether it’s a new artist or city. In some ways, it seems the art world would rather move on to the next thing (even if it’s not so new) rather than deal with the problems or issues at hand like gentrification or income inequality.
Janet Phelps (JP): When Eric invited me to curate a project at GAR I jumped at the chance for a number of reasons. GAR is a place where anything can happen. It has a gorgeous exhibition space and is primarily a residency so they are not hindered in what they show. I have always wanted to see Jade and Bill do a big installation – sort of a build-out of their drawings, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Jade Townsend (JT): I think that in addition to what Bill said, the space itself led us to create a large interactive installation. The layout of GAR and the amount of physical space that was available to us offered an opportunity to try something a little more ambitious and different than our past collaborations. I don’t think either of us felt much like making more drawings at that time, but we did want to see if we could bring elements of the drawings into another practice.
A+C: How do you think visitors to the GAR will experience NNB throughout the run of the exhibition after the performance on opening night has ended? How do you anticipate visitors will interact with the “town?”
William: We spent most of our time building a set that will degrade over time through exposure to the extreme elements in Galveston and an art fair that will also accumulate layers of paint and shell casings over the next two months. I expect most visitors will experience a decaying ghost town or to borrow the name of a collaborative duo I know the “Ghost of a Dream” like the perpetual promise of growth, prosperity and hope that is central to America’s self-image. I certainly didn’t set out to only comment on Texas’s complicated political relationship to immigration, guns, education, abortion, ‘energy products’ (I could go on), but what the idea of Texas represents as a symbol; a promise of freedom and mobility which in my opinion has become a necessary lie that we tell ourselves so we don’t slip into destructive nihilism at this point. Jade and I had a lot of discussions about how specific to be about the state and local politics and in some ways still differ on how to far to take it. Having family from Texas, Jade was more sympathetic to the complexities of life in the state, whereas a carpetbagging New Yorker, I was perfectly comfortable taking shots wherever I could such as the church, organized-religion, the media, or conservative values. So the resulting town was the result of an ongoing dialog about how to create an installation that would resonate on different levels without falling into complete political and social satire. I also hope as the town falls further and further into a state of disrepair, that the audience will have a parallel experience with the art fair as it accumulates more and more layers of paint, and perhaps guess at how art and society are connected.
JP: I’ve lived in Houston for over 8 years and I still feel like a carpetbagging New Yorker! So it is interesting to hear feedback from Texans vs non-Texans, art world vs locals, and variations of all those groups. They didn’t set out to build a perfectly finished structure or to give the viewer a Dollywood experience. We wanted the opening to be fun for anyone and I didn’t really expect that most visitors that night would think about the nuances – although I had conversations with several who did. I think that by visiting post-opening, as it becomes more and more of a ruin, the interactions will be more honest – there will be time to absorb everything and think about the connections to something bigger.
JT: My interest in this project has always been with the larger issues at play. We set out to create a fictitious cultural boomtown that would have a raucous opening night and then be left to wither away like so many boomtowns do. In creating a scenario where this boomtown appears, feeds off the resource of cultural wealth and opportunity (in this case the visual arts) until it is depleted and left to deteriorate, we hoped to create an allegory of the worst elements of sensational and disposable American culture. Cities all over the country and world jocky to become the next cultural hotspot as rents climb and living as an artist becomes impossible in the current cultural capitals. Even Berlin is losing its cultural street cred as the cost of living goes up and artists move out. Sustaining the vibrance of its heydey in a capitalist society is next to impossible. That is what we are mainly poking fun at here. The idea of the next cultural hotspot, or becoming the “New Berlin”, is so similar to the phenomenon of a mining boomtown in the Old West, that it created for us a window through which to question this system. The art fair and boomtown of New New Berlin are intended to reflect one another throughout the duration of the show, in all of its sad beauty. It is a relic.
After the opening night, visitors will experience New New Berlin as a ghost town left to ruin. In ways, it can be likened to the Olympic facilities built all over the world that are now left to rot away in the elements (Beijing, Sarajevo, Athens, etc..) or abandoned mining towns of the Old West.
A+C: This is not the first collaboration in which you’ve taken on the topic of the “art fair,” and in this one participants get to literally “shoot” up gallery booths. Is it safe to say the “art fair” is a theme in your collaborative work, and if so why?
William: The art fairs, as we know them today based on the Miami incarnations, haven’t been around all that long relative to the gallery system. In fact, Janet was involved in the first iteration of the Scope Art Fair in Miami in 2001. Now the art fairs account for more primary market sales than traditional galleries (you might want to find a statistic on that) and have become an important context for experiencing contemporary art, whether you like that fact or not. While I spent a great time railing against the fairs for their homogenizing and limiting effects, I’ve come to accept them as commercial trade shows designed primarily for the wealthy. So, as a phenomenon, I don’t think the role of institutional critique of the art fair is relatively young as well. The art fair is going to continue to play a powerful role in the production, distribution, and reception of art, so I hope our parody of the way in which the art world conforms to the art fair wasn’t lost on everyone.
JT: I would add that I think in this case, beyond pointing out the homogeny of the current art market and the change in how art is experienced, we are drawing a connection between the art fair and the conception of a boomtown. To me, the two are analogous if not two sides of the same coin. And, yes, in this exhibition, the viewer is invited to shoot at the art work. We hope to create a disquieting and uncomfortable catharsis, which, if anything, is the exact position we find ourselves in daily.
JP: Art fairs are so homogeneous now; they really exacerbate the culture of lazy, predictable art produced today so I’m glad the art fair is a reoccurring theme for Jade and Bill. I was involved in producing fairs before we had such a glut of them and have a lot of guilt over what they have done to art, artists, galleries, collecting…
A+C: Texas culture and history seems particularly ripe for satire (i.e. overt religiosity, “gun culture” and the way it ties in with the “wild west” history of the state) NNB takes on all of these themes. How do you manage to create effective satire without stereotyping?
William: Satire depends on stereotypes, which come to exist because of specific social and economic systems and relationships. Obviously stereotypes are deeply problematic, which is why satire can be powerful comment on the ways in which people use stereotypes to put complex issues and relationships into easily defined categories. I don’t know if we escaped all the traps of stereotypes in New New Berlin, but we were using Texas’s culture and history as a metaphor for broader social and economic problems from the privatization of prisons in America to social media saturation. Texas’s social and political divisions are to put it mildly, well known, and we didn’t want to create a liberal version of an evangelical ‘hell house’. We tried to create an experience that would also make the liberal art world uncomfortable with the presence of guns in an art fair and the positioning of art as spectacle inside major museums. We also realized that we were making something that would be experienced primarily by the people of Galveston and tourists, like ourselves, who might not be deeply aware of contemporary art. We tried to make something that would feel familiar, even inviting, through a comic, cartoon feel, but with unsettling and possibly challenging details within the overall structure. As far the NevADA art fair, I don’t think the art world is lacking for terms to describe a lot of art fair art; zombie formalism, neomannerism, neomodernism, post-minimalism. They might be stereotypes or they might be the way in which art fairs are influencing the production of art; sameness.
JP: It was interesting to see how their ideas about the show changed from our first conversations months ago. As Bill put it, it became much more about the spectacle of art and not so much about Texas – but what a perfect place to make a spectacle – and with a Texas twist! JT: Texas history and culture are definitely ripe for satire, but not necessarily more than anywhere else. Not having lived in Houston or Texas, I never had a lot of interest in or feel qualified to tear apart the Houston art world or dive headlong into specific state socio-economic or political issues. I find it irrelevant. What I do find interesting are certain issues that identify Texas as a microcosm of the United States. I wanted to treat this project as such. Sure, we took some jabs at Texas, but the intention was to draw attention to the larger shared issues of America. People may misread it as being entirely about Texas and the Houston art world in particular, but only inasmuch as Texas and Houston are indicative of the the rest of the country. Texas and in particular the Houston art world, function as a conceptual springboard for our imagined boom town, but I think the larger target is missed by some. Texas has the Wild West, but doesn’t own the Wild West..
A+C: Do you have plans to continue this partnership? Any “Newer” New Berlins in the pipeline?
William: We probably need a break! Working in the summer heat in Galveston was just awful and I have an enormous amount of respect for anyone else working outdoors in Texas in 104 degree heat. People explained it would be hot, but I’m not sure I really understood what they were talking about until we got there. If there are any future large-scale, outdoor installations in our collaborative future, it will probably happen in a more moderate climate. I think the amount of time the two of us had to build out the town and art fair in the crushing heat of Galveston really tested both of us artistically and personally, but I’d do it again anytime. Particularly with a team of set-builders and an absurd production budget.
JT: Probably not for a long while.
JP: I hope so!