We had not heard of Flexn until this week, when they were mentioned in a podcast with the phenomenal Peter Sellars (alluded to once previously in these pages, and linked to another time directly). Now we want to know more. And it looks like one way to learn more will happen at The Shed. Back in August, when we first heard about The Shed, it was a quick glance at the future. Now we have more detail, thanks to this early release of a profile in next week’s New Yorker:
How will the director of New York’s ambitious experimental cultural center change the city?
By Calvin Tomkins
Every so often, it seems, visual artists are stricken by the urge to perform. The “happenings” movement in the nineteen-sixties—young painters and sculptors doing nonverbal theatre—was explained as a response to Pollock, de Kooning, and other gestural Abstract Expressionists: it was the gesture without the painting.In the seventies, when skill, craft, and mastery went out of fashion, a lot of visual artists moved into performance works that were considerably less entertaining than “happenings”—live or filmed or videotaped presentations of oneself doing something not particularly difficult, like walking a straight line in the studio. Robert Rauschenberg, the most protean artist since Picasso, became so obsessed with dancing in the fifties and sixties, when he was creating sets and costumes for Merce Cunningham’s company, that he choreographed and performed in several extraordinary dance works of his own. His friend John Cage, the composer, philosopher, and Pied Piper to several generations of would-be radicals in all fields, had prophesied the new direction much earlier, in a 1957 lecture “Experimental Music.” “Where do we go from here?” Cage said. “Towards theatre. That art more than music resembles nature. We have eyes as well as ears, and it is our business while we are alive to use them.”
Since 2000, the number of visual artists doing time-based, mixed-media performances has expanded greatly, here and abroad, and their work has found a home in the festivals, art fairs, and biennials whose global proliferation now verges on the epidemic. (The first Antarctic Biennial—no kidding—takes place next spring, on a cruise ship and an ice field.) These artists—Philippe Parreno, Olafur Eliasson, Pierre Huyghe, Liam Gillick, Tino Sehgal, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Doug Aitken, and many others—are not widely known outside the art world, but they reach large, enthusiastic audiences on the festival circuit. Performance art has its own New York biennial (called “Performa”), organized and nourished since 2005 by the indefatigable RoseLee Goldberg. Nobody gets rich from these activities, and for many artists that is a powerful incentive. They see their work, in part, as a reaction to the overcommercialized world of the galleries and the auction houses, with its ever-rising prices and billionaire buyer-traders. “As the value of paintings and sculptures increases, some artists make things that can’t be sold,” Alex Poots, a leading impresario of the cross-discipline art movement, said to me last February. “The art walks off when the show ends.”
Poots and I were standing at the eastern edge of the Hudson Yards, a twenty-eight-acre tract of real estate that runs from Thirtieth to Thirty-fourth Streets and from Tenth Avenue to the river. This is where the Long Island Rail Road parks trains that are not in use, and it is now a vast construction site. At least twenty cranes were doing the heavy lifting for seven of sixteen planned commercial and residential towers, several of which had already topped out. “It’s all being built on a platform over the railroad yards, and the trains are still running normally underneath,” Poots said, in a tone of boyish wonder.
A new community—a new city, actually—is taking shape here, with thousands of offices and apartments, restaurants, a school, parks, and a new subway station for the No. 7 train, and at the heart of it, not yet visible but with the foundations in place, is the Shed, an experimental center for music, theatre, film and video, dance, and visual art, whose program Poots has been hired to create and direct. A six-story building with movable walls and ceilings and computerized lighting and sound systems, the Shed may be the city’s first example of performative architecture. It will have an exterior steel-and-glass shell that rests on gigantic rail tracks so that it can roll out over the public plaza in front, providing an enclosed performance area for audiences of up to three thousand people. “This will be the most flexible space ever made,” Poots said, proudly.
A forty-nine-year-old former trumpet player from Edinburgh, Poots lacks the flamboyance generally expected in a world-class impresario. He is compact, soft-spoken, and unobtrusive. He sleeps no more than five hours a night, has permanent circles under his large, expressive eyes, and keeps track of his life with tiny handwritten notations in a black notebook. Under the calm exterior, though, is a tough-minded, hard-driving visionary who founded England’s Manchester International Festival and ran it for ten years, and turned the Park Avenue Armory into one of Manhattan’s most exciting venues for new performance works. Everything that he has done so far, he feels, can be seen as preparation for the Shed…