At Work: Allison Weisberg and Maia Murphy Take Recess by Legacy Russell

Who needs Chelsea? With Recess painting the town, contemporary art is approachable, engaging, interactive, and downright unassuming. Is it possible? Legacy Russell made a visit to 41 Grand to find out who’s at work and what keeps the gears turning at this storefront oasis.

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Legacy Russell So let’s talk about what’s most important first—is it “Recess”? “Recess Activities”? “Recess Activities Inc.”? With all these names floating in the ether, I don’t know what to choose!

Allison Weisberg This is a timely question for us. We’ve just rebranded as Recess, and overhauled our website and logo to reflect the new simplicity. I like straight up Recess. It’s short and sweet, but has a lot of layered meaning packed into one word. Activities remains in places like our URL, and our Con Ed bill, and it’s a fitting addendum for us, but just call us by our first name—like Madonna.

But here’s a little back story: we couldn’t incorporate as just Recess. We needed an addendum to reserve a corporate name (I know, snooze, sorry). Activities was the solution. It follows the playful recess vernacular and makes me think of hopscotch and freeze tag. We often use the word active to describe Recess—we expect active audiences, and foster an activated environment—we assume an active role in informing the trajectory of the contemporary arts. So although we embrace play, we require a level of creative and intellectual rigor that complements our recreational spirit. Recess Activities, Inc. is our legal name, and stands in for the organization, rather than the space.

Maia Murphy In writing, we are occasionally referred to as RECESS, which is curious and wonderful, though not something we’ve ever done internally. I’m not sure where the all-caps came from, but I like to think that perhaps it is just the writer feeling ebullient about the space.

LR What are your respective titles?

AW Our titles are fairly arbitrary. I’m Founder and Director, and Maia is Program Manager. For all intents and purposes, we’re partners. We both do what needs to get done, when it needs doing. We’re great collaborators in that we know each other’s skills and areas of interest and tend to defer tasks accordingly.

MM We are both Swiss Army knives; it is not unusual for a day to begin with heavy deinstallation, swinging sledgehammers and bagging drywall, and end with grant writing and tweaking a three-year budget. Allison and I do work really well together and alongside each other, so perhaps the more apt metaphor is that we are like Transformers; each strong and multi-dimensional on our own, but with new and powerful abilities when in combination. Clearly, between the two of us, I am the bigger nerd.

LR What sets the space apart from other spaces in New York?

AW Recess is distinct in its efforts to actively hybridize space for creating and space for exhibiting. As a result, our implicit interest in process, and commitment to transparency when realizing projects, gives us a feel unlike commercial spaces, but also dissimilar from private studios.

Another thing that sets us apart is our location. Recess’s gritty feel and experimental programming might not seem out of place in Bushwick or Williamsburg, but happening upon our space in SoHo is surprising. Our storefront location is important not only in that it gives our artists exposure in an established community, but it also challenges the neighborhood itself.

MM Since Session artists get keys to and full use of the space, Recess is bit of a chameleon, taking on the shape and feel of the artist who is currently at work. Artists have knocked down walls and built new ones, painted our walls and blocked out all the windows, drilled into the floor and ceiling, and so on. We’ve been everything from a log showroom, to a functional sauna, to a water slide, to a den for a fortune-producing skull, to a video-editing studio, to a clean space to exhibit finished sculptures—and that was just for one artists’ project (David Hardy and Siebren Veersteeg, Spirit Tours ’11). What’s more, we remain open to the public throughout the residency, so that passersby may see the entire construction process from installation to deinstallation. Passersby often say they enjoy not knowing what to expect when they walk by. We have some people drop in once a week, just to see what has changed!

Giving the artists control over the presentation of their project extends beyond the physical appearance of the space. For instance, artists can contribute as much as they’d like to the content and form of their press release. FCKNLZ, our fall Session artists in Red Hook, just designed this amazing press release that can be folded into one of those fortune telling cootie-catcher things. They also plan on taking over a page on Recess’s website with a custom design and updating it as an extension of their residency.

LR Why does having a space like this matter?

AW Recess actively responds to the ways in which contemporary artists are working. Our model was built around careful observations of the creative community and trends within that subset. We hope to remain flexible; built into our Mission is a commitment to change and forward thinking to insure we’re to adhering to evolving needs among artists in real-time.

When structuring our open-door model, we observed audiences as well as artists and saw an increasingly curious public, interested not only in objects in a gallery, but how they got there and why.

MM We hope that by giving artists a space, materials budget, and a platform to show new work, we can temporarily relieve some of the pressure from needing to constantly make work that needs to be sold. When artists do sell work from Recess, they take home 100 percent of what they make; Recess takes no cut. We try hard to provide a space for productive experimentation for artists, without having to focus on the commercial aspect of the art world. At the same time, we hope to be an approachable space for meaningful engagement for all visitors, regardless of their background in the arts.

LR What other art spaces would you give a shout-out to for maintaining a Recess-style aesthetic?

AW Recess has a small office in the back of our Soho space where we rent desks to freelancers and creative practitioners. Back there, Howie Chen and I have collaborated on a number of projects and I certainly feel a kinship with the goals put forth by Howie’s ventures, Dispatch and Collectionof. In addition the Recess offices house James Hoff and Miriam Katzeff of Primary Information a non-profit organization devoted to printing artists books, artist writings, out of print publications and editions. Like Recess, they operate in a manner that privileges the artist’s voice without compromising his or her original intent.

I could go on and on here. AVA does a great job showcasing experimental work without compromising the critical rigor. Ramiken CrucibleCleopatrasSolowayInvisible Exports are great for-profit galleries that don’t feel like sterile spaces. Many of these are run by Directors that double as artists; I think this helps.

MM Allison mentioned many of the spaces that came to my mind. I also really like Light Industry’s programming; they have a weekly film or electronic art event series, each organized by a different creatively-minded person.

LR What does the day-to-day look like when you’re working together? How do the responsibilities split up?

AW Although we look more professional when one of us is working in the back office and one of us is up front at the entrance, we often gravitate toward the same front desk to scheme. Maia handles most of the web-related and social networking tasks, as I’m generally ignorant in that department. I tend to take on more of the off-site meetings that need to happen. We tackle grant writing in tandem shooting multiple drafts back and forth over email (often sending from computers inches away from one another) until we feel we have covered it. We’re both intimately involved with the artists and the projects at Recess on a daily basis.

MM There can be a lot of unpredictability in our day-to-day due to the open nature of Recess, so it important for us to remain flexible. Oftentimes, we’ll start the day by checking in on longer-term projects and then handling the short-term projects as they come up.

LR Is Recess a gallery? A show space? A project space? Allison, I know you sometimes get miffed when people call your space a gallery; why is that? What does gallery represent that you want to move away from with the work you’re doing? What makes this model different? Maia, what do you think someone stopping in at Recess who’s never been before can experience that can’t be experienced at other spaces in New York?

AW If I get miffed, it’s silly. I’m splitting hairs, but there are certainly some key disparities. A gallery connotes a clean, white space in which to present objects or fully realized projects. For better or worse, Recess is far from clean; it’s a workspace, a testing ground, and we try to be transparent about the rigor (and the grit) that the creative process implies. Although some of our artists have shown traditional work, sculpture, paintings, etc., a lot of what’s on offer is an ephemeral experience, an interaction, whether visual, temporal, or conversational.

MM Our artists are often working from our space during our public hours, so visitors to Recess have the experience of viewing a work in progress, talking with the artist about their practice, and perhaps even seeing themselves or their interaction incorporated somehow into that project. For instance, past Recess artist Kara Hearn used visitors to Recess as actors in a film she shot and edited during her two-month long project at Recess, Tremendous. In other projects, the interaction between visitors and artists is more ephemeral. In all cases, we hope to draw attention to the work component of a creative practice, the trial and error of artmaking that is often not visible in other arts spaces.

Something we talk about a lot is trying to strike a balance between being playful and rigorous. We want to create a space where visitors feel welcomed, no matter their level of experience with the arts, to engage with ambitious art projects.

LR Tell me about the new Redhook space. How long has it been open? Why Redhook? Who are your collaborators?

AW We’ve been open in Redhook since February, 2011. Our collaborators over there are Charlotte Kidd and Dustin Yellin of Kidd Yellin studios. They’re both wonderful artists and good people, and they manage to run a gallery, project room and residency room at 133 Imlay street while making their own work. We received the incredibly kind invitation to occupy their residency room last winter. Red Hook presented a new challenge for Recess, just as we were cementing existing programming.

MM Redhook has a thriving and unique arts scene, and we were thrilled to receive the invitation to become a part of it. We’ve found that the Recess residency room at Kidd Yellin lends itself particularly well to slightly more intimate proposals and event-based based projects. When artists propose projects like this, it has been great to be able to provide them with a space that makes sense with their vision.

LR What did it mean to open Recess on the precipice of a major national recession? How have things evolved since you first started out?

AW I was conscious of starting at the bottom. If you can get something off the ground during a meltdown, it stands a better chance at longevity. At the same time, I don’t know if we could have considered a space like 41 Grand Street in any other economic climate. A space right around the corner from Recess, with a third of our square footage, was asking more than twice the monthly rent. Numbers were all over the map.

MM The recession exacerbated existing difficulties for emerging artists, namely finding the time, space, resources, and platform to make new work. Recess will continue to help artists accomplish these goals, even as our economy (hopefully) recovers.

LR Where did the idea for such a space come from? What direction is it going in?

AW Working closely with artists and audiences in museums, I began to notice more and more projects focusing on process rather than product. These projects seemed most dynamic when presented as a dialogue with the public. This doesn’t necessarily call for public participation, but it does imply transparency of a project’s presentation. Corin Hewitt, our first Session artist at Recess (Session is our signature durational program) likes to refer to this as shared time between art, artist and viewer. Future direction? More of the same. We’re trying to strike a balance between staying small, flexible, and seamlessly run and bold experimentation and expansion into new territory. Mostly we want to keep the model that allows us to stretch to fit each individual artist’s goals.

MM We’d like to reach out to new audiences and provide more opportunities for artists while maintaining the quality of our programming and artist serives. This year, we launched Analog, an online residency that will allow us to reach out to international audiences. Kenya (Robinson), the inaugural Analog artist, will be in residence at for two years. For the first time, Recess will bring its programming outside of NYC when we present John Miserendino’s project, Pavilion, at the NADA art fair in Miami this December. And, for those who are interested in bringing a project to Recess, our next deadline for applications for Session will be in February 2012!

LR Maia, what background do you have in creative practice? How would you self-define your own practice? Allison—et toi?

MM In terms of studio art, I was trained as a printmaker and have also done some painting. Over the last couple years, I’ve enjoyed working on more performance and sculpture-based projects.

When I moved to New York in 2004, I was fairly certain it was to pursue a career in music and I wound up working with my then favorite band for over a year. Afterward, I refocused my energies onto visual arts. While on route to earning a BA in art history at Barnard College, I interned in the Production Department at Creative Time and Education Department at The:Artist:Network. Outside of Recess, I coordinate a number of public cultural projects, including helping organize classes for The Public School New York and online outreach for Elders Share the Arts.

AW After college, I thought I’d pursue a career in painting. I was awarded a studio and valuable feedback through a great residency program, but found this productive environment too solitary, too isolating, for me. I wasn’t selfish enough to cut it as a painter, and I don’t mean that to be self-aggrandizing in the least. I admire artists’ ability to focus completely on their own creative goals and their realization. I knew I loved teaching, and found I had a knack for it and headed in that direction.

I cut my teeth on the art world as an Assistant in the Education Department The Museum of Modern Art and then as Senior Coordinator of Youth and Community Programs at the Whitney Museum. While at the Whitney, I began working toward a Master’s degree in Visual Culture Theory (a lot of reading and writing about contemporary art). In 2009 I left my position at the Whitney to finish my thesis and start Recess, two tasks that ended up being mutually informative.

LR What’s the craziest thing that’s ever taken place at Recess? Allison, thoughts? Maia—your musings?

AW The obvious answers are the Spirit Tours water slide that thrust visitors into the Grand Street summer sidewalk, or maybe Marin Hassinger’s Dancing in the Streets performance, in which she lead 100 participants into the street for a dance party. But there are some smaller, more momentary surprises that tend to be my favorites. There was a singing telegram, but I’ll let Maia get into those details. Or not.

MM The singing telegram is one of the craziest things that’s ever taken place in my life! I’d been on a real Elton John tear, and for my birthday Allison arranged for a singing telegram to surprise me at work with Your Song. The guy came in wearing street clothes and we talked for a good five minutes before he very naturally segued into “It’s a little bit funneeeeee, this feeling insIIIIIDee”. I lost it. And then I joined in on the singing!

Kara’s project I mentioned earlier had several surprising moments. So many people, complete strangers, bared their soul for that project. Multiple times I heard somebody preface their interaction with her by saying, I’ve never told anyone this before, but… It was incredibly generous of them to share.

This winter we are hosting a project by Leila Hekmat in which she will transform Recess into THE FOUR CHAMBERED HEART: Institute for research/understanding and documentation of social and cultural influence on love and relationships. I imagine some surprises will come from this.

LR Let’s talk about the two of you. What are you reading these days? Looking at? Listening to? How do these things integrate themselves into your creative practice?

AW Maia and I often pass well-worn books back and forth, both of us avid readers of fiction. We also spend a lot of time watching videos of dogs on surf boards, but we can get fairly serious about a piece of critical writing or a great novel. I’m reading The Go Between right now. It’s incredible, and I recommend it.

Almost two years ago I saw Brian DePalma’s Hi, Mom!, at Recess as part of a class taught through The Bruce High Quality Foundation University. A scene from this film evolved into an entire performance series at Recess entitled Be Black Baby. I still think about that haunting, horrifying scene and Recess is planning to revisit the film again in February at The Kitchen.

MM I used to work for an art book publisher, so I was lucky to affordably amass a great collection of beautiful reference books, which are always a go-to when I need a little inspiration. Allison lent me one of my favorite books I’ve read in the past year, Homer & Langley by E.L.Doctorow, about the infamous hoarding Collyer brothers. Now, I am reading Nana by [Émile] Zola and every Tuesday I am frantically trying to finish last week’s New Yorker because the new one arrives and I have this fear that they’ll just stack and stack and I’ll go the way of the Collyer brothers. I’ve met others that share this nightmare, not sure what that’s about…

Music absolutely informs my creative practice; if I’m doing something creative, there is music on. I am also a huge fan of the radio—there are three in my apartment, including one inside a gigantic set of headphones; I don’t really wear them outside the apartment, but the radio sounds great in them. In the mornings I listen to Brian Lehrer on WNYC (I am happy to have access to a politically minded call-in radio show that doesn’t leave me with a migraine) and otherwise I’m tuned to WFMU. I love the specificity of their shows and the expertise of their DJs (and the fact that they even still have DJs).

And as for looking at… I have been working with a friend, Tom Blunt, on a class he will be teaching at the Public School New York (I am on their organizing committee) called Experiments in Magical Practice. Key concerns will be (and I’m pulling this from his email, so credit to him) preparation, trance states, banishing, and rituals from a variety of mystical paradigms. I’ve already found much of what Tom’s introduced me too very inspiring, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this may manifest itself in my own creative practice.

LR Word on the street is that Recess will be participating in NADA this year. What’s Recess got planned for the Miami heat?

AW John Miserendino by way of Dan Graham’s Pavilions. Intrigued? Picture a nice kid who managed to grow up in the 90s without hearing Daydream Nation trying to recreate the album in the confines of a NADA booth using only information his visitors can offer about the band and the sound that came out of the 1988 studio tracks by Sonic Youth.

MM Also featuring some actual Kim Gordon fashion castoffs. John will bring his project to Recess in January, so if you can’t make it to Miami this year you can catch another iteration of the project in SoHo in 2012.

Legacy Russell is BOMBlog’s Art Editor. She is an independent curator, artist, writer and cultural producer.

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