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John Sully in Temporary Distortion’s "My Voice Has an Echo in It," a selection in PS122's COIL Festival. (Photo by John Fetterman)
John Sully in Temporary Distortion’s "My Voice Has an Echo in It," a selection in PS122's COIL Festival. (Photo by John Fetterman)

PS122’s Vallejo Gantner Brings the World to NY, and Vice Versa

As he gears up for another festival January, the downtown impresario weighs in on a busy and changing scene.

Vallejo GantnerVallejo Gantner, the 40-year-old artistic director of Performance Space 122 in Manhattan, can often be sighted in theatre lobbies around the world, gabbing, hobknobbing and cracking jokes. But the Australian mover-and-shaker’s rakish rogue persona belies the intellectualism bubbling beneath the surface.

Under his direction, PS 122—a converted red-brick public school building on the Lower East Side that has operated as a nonprofit arts center for the past three decades—continues to thoughtfully program inventive, site-specific seasons, even in the midst of the venue’s closing due to renovations that began in 2011 and are slated to finish in 2016. Between Gantner’s one-liners emerge radical thoughts about the current state of performing arts, funding, international collaborations and what a theatre can be.

This month PS 122’s COIL Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary—the event will be chock-full of celebrated theatre (The TEAM’s RoosevElvis bows again, while Mike Iveson’s Sorry Robot premieres) and dance (Faye Driscoll’s Thank You for Coming) as well as installations (like A Pause in the City that Never Sleeps by the Chilean artist Sebastian Errazuriz, and My Voice Has an Echo in It by the performance group Temporary Distortion).

American Theatre sat down with Gantner to discuss the state of New York City’s international festival season (of which COIL is a main player); how touring is good for artists, venues and the audiences that support them; and how micro-breweries have an impact on one’s artistic vision.

ELIZA BENT: There are many winter festivals this month…

VALLEJO GANTNER: We don’t mention the other festivals in this office.

So what is the essence of COIL?
Apart from just being better than the others? When I arrived in New York City, everybody was doing these horrible showcases in studios and hotels around the city in January—the presentations were 10 minutes long with these hungover presenters in the morning, there was no tech and the artists were paying. I couldn’t see what it was doing for anyone. Under the Radar arrived as a way out of that for theatre.

We set up COIL as a mechanism for interesting and contemporary dance to be presented properly to a professional audience for touring. But over the years it’s evolved to include more theatre and performance and as well as projects we’ve commissioned.

Has the aim always been international?
Sometimes we’d present something new; sometimes we were bringing a work back; and then we started bringing in international artists. At a certain point we realized that most of the people who were buying COIL passes were local—it was like people taking a week off and seeing three and four shows a day. People were seeing as much as they could and jamming it in. So it became a festival that was oriented toward internationals by virtue of where money is flowing, as well as toward a limited number of domestic national presenters.

I would say January [in NYC] is now the largest global gathering of presenters of a professional audience anywhere. It’s a very concentrated eight to ten days. It’s not just the APAP weekend anymore, and people aren’t oriented around the Hilton. That kind of marketplace as a model isn’t interesting anymore.

But theatregoing in January at these festivals—there’s UTR, American Realness, Prototype, Other Forces, the Special Effects Festival—does have a kind of market vibe.

Totally. But everything is fully produced and everything is real—it’s not just showing something for sale. The vast majority of the audience is local, and the impact is local as well. We get press coverage like you wouldn’t believe during January. It’s still a market, but in a much healthier and more sustainable way.

It’s also nice because you really start to see different lines in the festival programs. American Realness is dance and queer performance, very distinct. That arose because some of the dance focus we had went away and we became much more multidisciplinary. Prototype is really serving musical theatre and contemporary opera. Under the Radar presents more traditional theatre—okay, it’s not that it’s traditional, but you can see a clearer theatrical narrative. COIL does more abstract and interdisciplinary work. To see those lines evolving is really great, because then you have a coherent statement about what these festivals are doing—and you can also criticize it accordingly.

The festivals find their voices.
Yeah. Different audiences know they can come and see different things.

Do you think there’s such a thing as “festival art”?
I don’t think there’s “festival art,” but festivals are the best way to bring audiences to new artists and new kinds of work. It’s easier to bring audiences to stuff they don’t know about in the context of a festival—they come in ready to have an adventure. Trying to pull someone away from binge-watching “Game of Thrones” during a season is harder to do outside of a festival. In a festival, audiences kind of block out the time and approach it with an open attitude.

Festivals are also how we concentrate resources. Frankly, if we bring in a relatively unknown international artist in September, we are pushing shit up hill to get audience and press. There’s a historic thing in New York City where it’s hard to get press if a show runs less than three weeks—but all bets are off in a festival. The rules don’t apply in the same way.

Arguably, work that tours is more mobile. Sometimes we have to “festivalize” the way we’re working, and that can be frustrating. On the other hand, you can create a narrative and an identity with a festival.

Let’s talk about this year’s programming. What do you think unites these various shows? You don’t do themes.
No, we don’t do themes. We’re in this big moment of change. We move back into our building on First Avenue in the Year of our Lord 2017. [Laughter.] We’re going to need divine intervention. The first full season will be 2016–17. The building is supposed to be substantially complete by the end of next year but it will take a while to make sure it’s up to code.

More and more, the art form and genre distinctions are breaking down, and the institutional barriers are breaking down. Museums are doing dance. What we think of as who-the-authoring-artist-is is breaking down.

What’s an example of authorship breakdown?
Lotte van den Berg is a Dutch artist, and I did a show of hers in Prague a few weeks ago. You go to an atmospheric location—a train station—and you’re given various instructions about how to make a film. And you, members of the audience, go off by yourselves, and you are the camera! You set up the location and you start inventing narratives in your head about the people around you. You are authoring the work. This is the kind of participatory work that we’ve seen for a while. Not the role of passive spectator.

A moment from Lotte van den Berg's "Cinema Imaginaire" in Prague. (Photo by Kris Dewitte)
A moment from Lotte van den Berg’s “Cinema Imaginaire” in Prague. (Photo by Kris Dewitte)

Kickstarter and crowd fundraising are also having an effect on authorship. Who’s the artist in this project? What’s the community? In social-media terms, everybody is an artist—we’re all photographers creating our own social-media identities. I think that’s causing an identity crisis for professional artists who are used to having a certain level of virtuosity. But that’s a bigger philosophical conversation.

This year we’re dealing with transformation, and some of the work engages with a lot of those questions in a personal way, like Mike Iveson’s Sorry Robot.

I am panting with excitement about that one!
Faye Driscoll’s Thank You for Coming is so good at what it does—it starts as one thing and then shifts the focus back to us, but all around us—suddenly we’re all in it. There’s a kind of elastic feeling. Then, I’ve never seen anything like the way Andrew Schneider uses technology and causality. He’s so smart. He charms you into this incredibly complicated, fractured-up world that’s almost impossible to describe but completely accessible and entrancing to watch. And we’re working with the Times Square Alliance with A Pause in the City that Never Sleeps.

A big yawn is going to be projected in Times Square.
It’s going to infect the whole city. Every time I talk about it I yawn! You’re in Times Square at midnight, where there are 10,000 people at any given time. The screens will project a giant yawn. It’s going to spread, like a virus of yawning around the city! It will run down 7th Avenue and then out 45th Street, and people will be yawning on the Brooklyn Bridge! It will be like a tidal wave of yawning.

In addition to the COIL festival, PS 122 does its own international tours.
Yes, we call it PS 122 Global. Last year New York Express went to three theatres in France and one in Croatia. We’re working on an upcoming tour to Melbourne, Sydney and China.

How did this begin?
When we moved out of the building, we decided to approach being without a home as a positive thing. P.S. 122 transformed out of a bricks-and-mortar East Village institution into something else. We decided to do site-specific work, in apartments, public spaces and warehouses in New York City—in Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn, in churches and libraries and all kinds of spaces, partnering with different organizations. The idea being that P.S. 122 could be anywhere. We’re a state of mind, not a building. We have an attitude of risk and artistic adventures.

I’m also conscious of the fact that there’s not as much movement among emerging mid-career artists here as there is in other parts of the world. Every year some group would hit gold—like Elevator Repair Service, Young Jean Lee, or Nature Theater of Oklahoma: Boom! Off they’d go on a European or international tour. But the constant dialogue that happens in other parts of the world doesn’t happen as much in the U.S., and we weren’t seeing work that travels from elsewhere. BAM and Lincoln Center present international work, but at the peer-group level of smaller companies like Half Straddle, that work wasn’t coming to New York City.

We wanted a bunch of institutional partners. The idea was: How can PS 122 occupy a building in Shanghai or Toulouse? So we’ve done tours to London and Budapest. If we had more money and more capacity, I’d do it three times a year, but there are a lot of moving parts.

How do you imagine it growing?
I just came back from Paris, and instead of one theatre there were seven theatres wanting to partner. There’s interest from other countries. It earns us money as well. We’re all asking: How do we think about new ways to get more support behind the work we’re making? It’s a launching pad for young companies. It’s a way of saying that PS 122 is where you discover new things happening in the U.S. and in New York City. It’s a way of talking about the fact that in New York City, there’s a ton of work being made and not being seen.

Why is that?
Sometimes it’s a particularity of the art that’s made—the aesthetic. It’s also expensive. There’s no support for travel, because there’s no support for the overhead. We’re not in the habit of collaborating as much as other places are, and of course there’s distance.

But when we do a global tour, every person in that audience in any of the cities we tour to—Strasbourg or Zagreb—then starts to think about New York City not just in terms of The Lion King, but as a vibrant city with interesting contemporary work. The thing that’s interesting about New York isn’t MoMA or the Met or Lincoln Center—that doesn’t distinguish New York from any other city in the world. What distinguishes New York is that it’s a generative city where people make things! That’s always been what’s made NYC interesting, and the danger is that, with gentrification and prices going up, with the lack of support for people to survive as artists, we would lose it. For us, Global PS 122 is a way of us saying to the world: This is an interesting, exciting, dynamic, artistically creative, generative city.

How is being a partner in a micro-brewery in Australia in conversation with your artistic life?
Well, I only ever make curatorial decisions after a beer! [Laughs] It’s in Melbourne, and I’ve been involved in it for 15 years. I was also a partner in four bars in Melbourne, and I’ve produced some films. I’ve always thought that to do this job well, you’ve got to understand how it’s all related. One of the problems I have with theatre—not just here but everywhere—is that it’s this thing that’s done at 8 o’clock, and it’s this moment where everything else has to stop. But theatre should be like reading a newspaper. It should be something you can’t go to a dinner party without talking about, something you interact with and engage with on a more everyday level.

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