Nothing is an Answer, Everything is a Signal
On NYC’s the Shed and the Institution of Novelty
There is an area of New York City that I have had to visit only a handful of times in the few years I’ve lived here. Located between 30th and 36th Streets between 10th and 11th Avenues, this rail yard is basically as far west as you can go on the Manhattan Isle without leaving Midtown. It is in this area that the Megabus picks you up to take you out of the city. The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center sits quietly nearby awaiting the next hoard of [fill in the blank] superfans ready to geek out over the subset of culture they most love. Only one train line takes you directly to this neighborhood, or else you can walk for fifteen minutes from Penn Station or likely take a bus. Needless to say, tourism there has historically been different from tourism in more centrally located midtown destinations like Times Square. But now, after more than a decade of urban planning, these old railway yards have undergone a city-approved, rite-of-passage rebranding to become Hudson Yards, the newest place to live, work, and socialize.
One of the focal points of this development is a new building called the Shed. A state-of-the-art arts complex, its mission is simple: “The Shed commissions original works of art, across all disciplines, for all audiences.” The mission is generic, but new institutions often start that way. Their programming to date is intriguing: a commissioned concert residency from Icelandic Artpop queen Björk, a new work by Anne Carson equating Marilyn Monroe with Helen of Troy, and a show featuring the street dancers of FlexNYC. To top it all off, the Shed also commissions “artists based in New York City who have not yet received major institutional support” through a program called Open Call.
Not only is the wildly diverse lineup confounding enough to be exciting, so is the edifice that will present these shows. Reportedly unprecedented, the Shed literally expands and collapses, either to tailor to the performances being mounted in the theatre or just because it’s cool. I’m not making this up: the front of the building is a big shell on wheels that can be rolled out to create an auditorium ranging in capacity from 1200 to 2000 seats and then be reeled back in. The concept is truly insane, and my interest is piqued.
But—and there is always a but—the Shed is a hot-button topic at the moment in New York’s downtown theatre community. Paul Lazar (founding member of Big Dance Theater alongside choreographer Annie-B Parson) posted on the Facebook page for the Bushwick Starr Theatre about the inequity the creation of the Shed highlights, citing that the smaller producing organizations who put decades of work into building the infrastructure of the cultural hub that is New York are being co-opted and exploited to make a large-scale project like the Shed possible in the first place. Lazar notes:
the Bloomberg administration provided 75 million TAX PAYER dollars for the construction of The Shed. At the same time the internationally renowned Wooster Group requested less than one percent of that amount for vital renovations of their artistic home, The Performing Garage. Their request was rejected.
In other words, from a funding standpoint, a mutable performance space is far more interesting than a request to repair a garage in SoHo.
Lazar’s argument is not unfounded—generations of experimental artists have indeed been vital in making the city the “cultural mecca that it is,” and he suggests the slighted companies be retroactively issued equitable funding. Many fellow downtown artists have stood with him in his assertions, commenting on his post, sharing it with friends, and reposting it on Twitter. Taking all this in, I wonder if—and frankly worry that—by hoping for retribution in the form of retroactive funding and additional support for these small, already established arts organizations to operate independently, we have become blind to an important signal: arts funders are more interested in giving money to new, ambitious, and expensive projects that contribute to community development initiatives rather than doling out smaller sums to established companies for artistic development. In other words, from a funding standpoint, a mutable performance space is far more interesting than a request to repair a garage in SoHo.
Don’t get me wrong: I work in the arts and obviously dream of being a billionaire with my creative practice, so on some level I side with the artists on the issue of equitable disbursement of funds. On the other hand, I believe that budget drives aesthetic, that the performances of the Wooster Group (or any other experimental group) would not be so disruptive and engaging with a deeper pocket. Multimedia-equipped downtown shows that funnel tons of money into extravagant lighting and sound packages have frequently proven themselves to be bad.
I think the crucial piece of information we are failing to consider in this case is that, first and foremost, the Shed is a building—“inorganic environs…fancy, antiseptic, NOT the soil where art grows,” according to Lazar. In other words, the Shed, and the city of New York, are missing the boat by creating a new arts space whose primary function is to drive tourism. Further, Lazar notes that the Shed’s effort to include scrappy artists is actually undermining the work those artists put in to get there. Lazar does look at the Shed’s commitment to New York artists with an open mind (“There is no simple answer to how The Shed can do more good than harm to the culture of New York City”) but whether through my own closed-mindedness or paranoia, I can’t help but read this as a warning to young artists to steer clear. Where is the soil in which art grows? As an artist with little interest in undermining or being undermined by taking part in Open Call at the Shed, but with no garage or church basement to call my own, what am I supposed to do?
It seems there is a divergence in our artistic landscape, where we value trend and zeitgeist as highly as artistic growth and creative development. The Shed serves as a manifestation of this tension between art and spectacle, highbrow and lowbrow. My suggestion is that we view the construction of the Shed as a call for change on an artistic level—a sign that audiences and funders are ready and searching for new ideas and, more importantly, a new approach to exacting those ideas.
As an artist with little interest in undermining or being undermined by taking part in Open Call at the Shed, but with no garage or church basement to call my own, what am I supposed to do?
In an unexpected turn of events, I look to Broadway as an example of an innovative response to the call for novelty. Currently, the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, fresh off the closing of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, is hosting a new series called In Residence On Broadway. Produced by merchandising firm the Araca Group, tourism broker Entertainment Benefits Group, and bigwig concert promoter Live Nation, this series is a direct response to the lucrative eighteen-month run of Bruce Springsteen’s hybrid concert/storytelling performance, now consummated in the form of a Netflix special and accompanying soundtrack. The lineup is all over the place: Morrissey, Yanni, Regina Spektor, Mel Brooks, Criss Angel (!). Producers seem to have seized an opportunity to create something different and appeal to a handful of demographics by doing so.
The fact that highbrow is actively seeking an in to join the lowbrow conversation (e.g. In Residence on Broadway, Björk at the Shed, even FKA Twigs at Park Avenue Armory)—to attract younger and more diverse audiences—is impossible to ignore. As these worlds continue to collide, the boundaries separating highbrow and lowbrow become less and less definite.
But I believe one thing to be true across all of these fronts: audiences value novelty over institution. The institution of the Shed reads to me as a signal that the powers that be are looking for something different, something that tried-and-true institutions, like Soho Rep or the Wooster Group or any of the other organizations from the end of Lazar’s statement, once provided the New York performance community. However, as our cultural values and artistic practices have grown and changed over the last fifty years, we have adopted the work of these once-experimental companies into a common creative lexicon in the same way we adopted the once-experimental work in realism and naturalism of Chekhov and O’Neill to propel a renaissance in American playwriting in the decades prior. Likewise, the nonprofit theatre company and the regional theatre were once new platforms for unproduced artists. Maybe today’s avant-garde looks different than the avant-garde that launched the Wooster Group fifty years ago. Perhaps the inciting incident of a new movement looks like a shape-shifting building.
If our medium has grown static, at both a creative and institutional level, how can contemporary artists advocate setting it back in motion and accommodate the change it affects?
“The Shed does not exist in a cultural void,” Lazar writes. Just as the Shed cannot operate independently of the landscape it contributes to, neither should the organizations and individuals ignore its implications. The great challenge of our generation of artists is the institution of novelty—to harness the unpredictable nature of our culture as a means of joining it. Though the fear this new development invites is understandable, I challenge myself and my peers to play offense, so to speak, and view the Shed instead as a powerful metaphor, asking us to exercise agility to make space for new ideas and broaden our field of vision in a consistently limiting medium.