PROJECT FOR EMPTY SPACE
CO-DIRECTORS JASMINE & REBECCA SHARE STORIES OF PES’ HISTORY & JOURNEY- NOMADIC TO NEWARK
PES STARTED IN AN EMPTY LOT IN NEW YORK’S LOWER EAST SIDE. TELL US ABOUT THE ‘EARLY DAYS’
Project for Empty Space didn’t start out as a concrete organization: it started out as a hair brained exhibition idea between two former commercial-gallery girls, Meenakshi Thirukode and Jasmine Wahi. We were both navigating through the residual fall out of the 2008 financial crisis, and deeply dissatisfied with the commercial art world (probably in some part because we had both lost our jobs during the crisis). There was so much vacant and neglected space around us, so we thought, why not do a understated and community oriented public art project. Organizations like No Longer Empty (NLE) and Chashama were already occupying empty commercial spaces: we were interested in doing a one off project in very low profile, outdoor space. Through a series of very fortunate events, and sheer dumb luck we ended up with a space at 181 Stanton Street between Clinton and Attorney in the Lower East Side, which is where I was living at the time. We did a KickStarter campaign (this was very early in the crowd funding era) and raised about $5,000. Then we put out an Open Call to solicit proposals directly responding to the history of the neighborhood. From the call we selected Tehniyet Masood, a Pakistani American artist with a background in architecture and a love of architectural history and memory. Tehniyet created an installation using reclaimed wood from around the neighborhood and from Build It Green. The piece reflected the architectural history of the neighborhood from its heyday to the tenement era through the depression, the stock market crash of the 1980s, through the present. She worked day and night for almost three weeks, getting input, feedback, and coffee from other people in the neighborhood. Resplendent in hues of deep brick to emerald green, the final piece was a masterful life-size diorama. People described it as a historic playground and a Barbie Dreamhouse for the Lower East Side.
TODAY PES IS A NONPROFIT RUN BY WOMEN. HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN FEMALE RUN? WHY?
We started out as two women with an idea. Along the way we encountered other great women. I don’t know if it was conscientious or intentional at first. We are all feminists and very invested in the idea of women collaborating and supporting each other, but having a leadership structure oriented around women, again, just happened very organically. Once we recognized some of the undertones and implications of being ‘femme-centric’ in our leadership, we took it upon ourselves to actively integrate that into our best practices and programming. Our Feminist incubator program grew out of this feminist orientation and idea of women supporting women. We are certainly not opposed to including cis-men into our staff or leadership, many of our board members identify as male, as do many of our artists. It’s been partially coincidental that we keep working with female identified persons within our small but tight knit staff!
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PAST 3+ YEARS SINCE RE-OPENING WITH A NEW SPACE IN 2015?
It’s so hard to choose! We love every single one of our projects: they’re all our babies. Here’s a few:
The first time we were actually able to pay ourselves, #nonprofitfounder, haha! Just kidding. It’s really hard to choose. Derrick Adams ‘pool party’ during his exhibition Culture Club, when we all sat around in huge pool floats in the gallery and simply revelled in the joy of being. It was a moment of happiness as activism.
Another moment was David Antonio Cruz’s performance of Greenhowiwantyougreen in the gallery, with a full cast. The Women’s March- our first iteration of the Feminist Incubator Space where we took nearly twenty women from the arts community down to Washington DC and took to the streets. We stayed with Jasmine’s parents, the Wahis, for three days, and took to the streets in a glorious collective moment of power and solidarity. This was a moment that really solidified a lot of aspects of our mission, not only as a feminist organization, but as an organization that is ever self-critical and critical of society, and pro-equity along all lines and intersections. Also it was one of the most fun experiences we’ve had in a long time.
WHAT’S COMING UP NEXT?
You shall have to wait and see! We are planning on bringing back our nomadic programs, as well as collaborations with other social justice oriented organizations. We have two new artists in residence, who, by the time this comes out, will have been announced (it’s Amy Khoshbin and Victoria Udonian!) and we’re gearing up for a really robust Feminist Incubator program that provides more resources and opportunities to Feminist artists. Rebecca is also starting a very exciting new component of the Fem Inc. program, which is a publishing workshop oriented around motherhood and new moms.