Crimson Article: The Vessel in Construction

 
 

By J. X. LI, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

2 days ago
SOURCE UPDATED: October 1, 2017 at 4:33 p.m.

 

“There is an absence of open, flexible, and inclusive social spaces for students at Harvard college, especially in the arts. The organization and initiatives we currently have are oftentimes highly discriminatory and do not prioritize the interest or voices of the artists. So while a lot has changed since “Clubbies” of 1958 , some parts of the Harvard art scene holds to this sort of past. Not to mention the engagement of the greater student body with the arts is minimal at best... Change starts local. I hope to build a place fill that void.”

Vessel –a receptive holding device for ideas and discussions a canal to support conversation and exchange
a conduit to navigate and explore new territory

– is the name and philosophy of the new art establishment on campus founded by Essa L. 

The student-centered experimental art space shares the roof with Linden Street Studios, an eclectic VES building that previously housed a cluster of indoor gallery squash courts . This fact is not lost on the vessel’s founder, who hopes to adopt the unconventional nature of the space, and attract visitors from next door to stop by at see what’s happening.

Essa admits that the studio-exhibition space is limited, but does not mind that works may overflow into the rest of the building as well as the open-air courtyard, “it will be a great gathering place for art-enthusiasts or undergrads curious about what their peers are doing throughout the semester... sharing ideas directly and cross disciplines, in a casual setting and outside institutional walls.”

As the ausstellungsmacher , she will be directing and operating the venue as a  o n e -woman-show. And while she looks to the work of star-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and his now famous inaugural Kitchen Show – which was held in his apartment’s kitchen over the course of three months and visited only by a handful of rather influential people – Essa expects her own inaugural show to accommodate a greater public. 

Part of that effort would be to render the space more open and accessible – she will be operating the gallery in three hour segments, four days of the week. The other part is to ensure that works are shown in their best light, made site-specific and placed in a relevant context, meaning that works are placed in conversation with  o n e  another and the space of the vessel. This is also the extent of the “curatorial” role she considers to be in her practice. Rather than excluding, she seeks to include all artists and in the best of her ability to show all feasible works. She also looks to engage visitors directly in the exhibition space; specifically, through organizing a series of participatory pop-up shows.

Taking inspiration from Walter Hopps and his 36 Hours show at the Museum of Temporary Art, Essa will assemble a string of pop-up shows – where anyone can directly contribute and participate in the exhibition. These open-to-all shows will be spontaneous, interspersed amongst the more formally organized shows throughout the year, which are  o n e, Work in Progress, In-Person, The Second Harvard Society of Contemporary Art, and RE:. Together, these shows form the core exhibition structure of Vessel Gallery. The very last year-end show will take place in the Carpenter Center and consist of a retrospective of these past show, ultimately culminating in a performance involving audiences in the space.

In addition to the exhibition portion, the vessel will host a range of additional components and scheduled programming. For instance, the Sharing Shelf will be a community-based library that allows visitors to freely browse, borrow and lend books within the honor code. The main gallery space, also known as the Living Room, will host student-produced sound works and music listening sessions “Soundscape” every evening Tuesday through Sunday.

Much in the vein of Walter Zanini’s project J ovem Arte Contemporânea which promoted the living experimental methods of young artists, the Vessel will embrace new media and unconventional modes of art-making, whether that be audio works, performance art, virtual reality or more. The space will also hold an assortment of small scale recurring events such as film screenings, poetry readings, artist talks and other performances, often directly corresponding to the works on view. These measures borrow from the events at the heart of the 1955 San Francisco Beat Generation at King Ubu Gallery .

With community at center stage, the Vessel will be home to a loose affiliation of members who want to have greater input into the operations of the place. The group will be known as The Corporation and consist of a President, a league of Fellows and a Treasurer. Specifically, they will engage with questions of long-range strategy, policy, and planning as well as transactional matters of unusual consequence.

The collective around the Vessel will look to model itself on the 1950’s New York group known as Studio 35 , a community in which “participants grappled with questions about the conception and completion of their works, institutional and public reactions, artistic responsibility, interest 

or antagonism concerning mass culture, personal disclosures, professionalism, unions, emotional investment, and other issues fundamental to the act of creating and presenting work...”

The integration of these additional activities and functionalities at the Vessel embodies a broader trend in the museum and gallery world. Unlike profit-seeking establishments however, this student-run art center operates purely on a noncommercial basis and therefore may be better positioned to discover more genuine ways to building relationships with artists and thereby a community surrounding the arts. Essa believes that the expanded definition of the gallery space as well as processes of art-making together will welcome a wider public to stop by at 6 Linden Street.

To be comparable to real art establishments, the Vessel will also maintain a vital digital presence through two main platforms. The gallery website will provide up-to-date information on schedule/programming, student/artists, news/ events, while the gallery Instagram account @vessel.gallery will focus on announcements, live updates, and direct community engagement.

Both platforms will take part in documenting the transformation of the space over the course of the year, and therefore act as a form of a digital archive. In fact, rather than transcribing exhibitions in the form of a traditional catalogue text, each exhibition will be captured by videos, photographs, and other digital means from the perspectives of both the exhibition-makers as well as the public. This assemblage of collective experiences and viewpoints will together form the recorded history of a given show.

An ongoing experiment that challenge the distinct divide between individual exhibitions will be the gallery’s departure from the customary “clean slate” method. Instead, each show will retain certain visible pieces or traces from previous shows, with varying duration for certain pieces accordingly. For instance, a fragment of a sculpture from the first show “ o n e ” will act as a stand-in for its previous presence, and may remain for several weeks fading into the next show. This gesture may strengthen the flow, sequencing, and sense of continuity within the space while transitioning between exhibitions.

“The unilateral act of wiping out the previous show is not reflective of my experience in galleries. I find that I am always looking at the new show with a frame of reference to the past  o n e ... This accumulation of experiences and memories in the same space is important to me. Perhaps I can bring that back to the gallery setting.”

Essa looks forward to working closely with artists on shows which, to varying degrees, confront the norm. This can mean anything from disrupting conventional methods of mounting wall text, labels, and artist biographies, to unusual ways of installing artworks, since the Vessel will be  o n e  of the few places where undergraduates have unprecedented freedom to stage the presentation of their works.

With minimal bureaucracy and a spare touch, she hopes to fill the air with a liberating spirit reminiscent of that of Hopps at Ferus Gallery, and Harald Szeemann in his now legendary 1969 show “When Attitudes Become Form,” especially with respect to his approach in collaborative and nonconformist exhibition-making.

Like Szeemann, Essa will be taking on the role of artist-director. She too will make works to be shown alongside that of her peers. According to her, these works will concern the practices of curation, challenging...

  1. viewers to evaluate their role as spectators and co-producers of artworks

  2. institutions to reevaluate their role and responsibility to the public and to the past

  3. her own performance and persona in acting as a curator in contemporary context

Her background in image-making – working with light and form in relation to aesthetics – will be helpful in her new endeavor of exhibition making, which involve “filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, remembering” in the words of Obrist.

A central concern of this entire experiment will be questions of generosity in the arts.
Can art be truly generous? What are the parameters of definition that must exist for that statement to be true?
Is it possible to build an inclusive social space that houses an authentic collective around the arts? What does that look like in the context of Harvard?
When and why do barriers fail? Alternatively, what is the internal structure of an “open” space? How does  o n e  construct or deconstruct it?

In a campus environment where selectivity dominates as a primary driving force, and in a political climate where the artistic community is increasingly marginalized, the answers to these questions have never been more urgent.

Looking at the recent initiatives and new directions taken by the leadership of the Carpenter Center and the Harvard Art Museums, Essa is hopeful. “I have utopian visions. Coming together at this time of crisis, and really seeing and hearing each other in a tangible way – I think that is  o n e  of the most critical things we can do right now.”

 

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