Jeff Stark on The Dreary Coast
The Dreary Coast is a site-specific immersive work that took place from October 14th-November 1st in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. Written and directed by Jeff Stark, the production used elements of Greek and Roman mythology, Dante’s Inferno, black metal music, and the canal’s actual history to journey its audience through one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Our tour as deceased souls through the kingdom of Hades was led by Charon, the boatman on the River Styx (E. James Ford) who falls madly in love with Persephone (Ava Eisenson) as he uncovers the truths of this eerie underworld to us fellow passengers. Stark worked on the script for The Dreary Coast for years before realizing the production with a large team of collaborative artists, including Sarah McMillan, George Graham, and Caledonia Curry (Swoon).
Stark is an underground theater impresario known for works throughout New York such as IRT: A Tragedy in Three Stations, which took place in a moving subway, The Sweet Cheat, performed in an undisclosed location upstate, as well as for hosting a slew of off-the-radar urban events like secret dinners and underground subway parties.
I spoke with Stark about The Dreary Coast via Skype on November 14th, 2014.
Bertie Ferdman: Let’s start with The Dreary Coast’s location: The Gowanus. The neighborhood felt so empty. Is this always the case?
Jeff Stark: At night the Gowanus might feel like a wasteland, but during the day, there are buses coming in and out all day long. There are many businesses down there—it is an industrial area and is zoned for that. In fact, beyond the canal’s pollution, it is the zoning that has prevented it from changing as fast as some other neighborhoods.
Bertie: What really struck me about the production was the beauty of the site itself. Although beauty does not seem like the right word…
Bertie: Exactly! It seemed like a perfect combination of aesthetically disparate qualities colliding. On the one hand this very romantic feeling, and on the other hand a clear social and political consciousness of its reality as this incredibly polluted canal.
Jeff: I have been thinking about it for a long time and in a certain way, I use sites to cheat. What I mean by that is, I know that if I can take an audience into the Gowanus and move them from one point to another, then I have already won. An audience will be happy just to be able to see that space. It's so overwhelming. It's so grand. You've seen it from an entirely new angle. That experience alone is going to be effective. When I start a project like this, I begin with that journey and then think about all the other ways that we might be able to activate it dramatically.
Bertie: What was the impetus for this project?
Jeff: The entire thing began when I was on a canoe tour of the Gowanus Canal about ten years ago that was being led by Ludger K. Balan, Director of the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy (the Divers). They were an activist organization similar to the Gowanus Dredgers.
Bertie: Do they still exist?
Jeff: The Dredgers still exist but the Divers are not on the Gowanus. The Divers were this brilliant group of activists who found a line in the E.P.A. regulations that said, the E.P.A. must regulate a body of water to its use. Meaning, if people fish in the Hudson River, then the E.P.A. has to make sure the fish are safe to eat. They read this regulation and said, "If we hold them to that, we want to figure out a way that we can make them regulate the Gowanus Canal. So we'll start scuba diving in it." This of course is a horrible idea from a health and safety perspective, but if you began scuba diving in there, then you could go to the E.P.A. and say, “you should start cleaning it up.”
They started doing activist-art events, where they would scuba dive to the bottom of the canal and do live video transmissions. They started bringing people to see the Canal and be on it as much as possible.
Bertie: So the idea for the character of Charon emerged from this boat ride?
Jeff: It was a profound experience for me. I was watching Ludger and thinking, “This is a horrifying place.” He told a story about a person who dropped benzene into the canal. This guy is like a tour guide through hell and I thought "tour guide through hell, boatman..." and I suddenly realized, he's like Charon; he’s like the boatman on the River Styx. Could I come up with a story with Charon as the boat man on the River Styx, and what would that story look like on the Gowanus? I began with that original idea and I built the story from there.
So people were paying him to dump benzene, a known carcinogen, into the canal for twenty years. Now his gas station and the benzene drop site is home to the new Whole Foods.
Bertie: Tell us about the benzene.
Jeff: There was a man who owned a gas station that backed up to the canal. You could pay him to make anything you wanted disappear. So people were paying him to dump benzene, a known carcinogen, into the canal for twenty years. Now his gas station and the benzene drop site is home to the new Whole Foods.
Bertie: Yes! It was crazy when all of a sudden fact mixed with fiction.
Jeff: It is one of the few moments in the show where the wall breaks, and this fantasy-reality that we are in connects to the reality of the canal.
Bertie: You seem to be painting over a site through live performers in order to unveil truths about it, almost uncovering layers of “garbage”—both literally and figuratively speaking.
Jeff: What we’re trying to do is let an audience activate a space through bringing them into a world, which is what we do in theater. The world that we are bringing people into is the world that we live in, but in this case, sort of an invisible place, this sort of Nether World, this in-between space that happens to be right in the middle of our city.
Bertie: You often speak as “we.” You conceived and directed the piece, but you work as a collective?
Jeff: I say “we” because I am a collaborative artist. I very rarely make something on my own. The way that works is that I’m a part of this artistic community that comes together around a particular project. I say “Hey guys, this is what I am working on. Will you help?” When that happens, because it’s a do-it-yourself production, because we’re not being funded by a museum or a gallery space, everyone rallies around this particular project.
What’s great about this group of people and these collaborations is that they’re always shifting. We’re this shifting alliance of artists who are making work that’s for each other, and for this community of artists as well. In some ways, you could call it a form of community theater.
Bertie: Is the do-it-yourself production model a deliberate choice?
Jeff: I don’t like this culture of permission that is so pervasive in the arts. I think that the culture of permission is related to experts, the grad schools, and the professional curators. It’s frustrating to me that if I have an idea for a show, the first thing I’m supposed to do is write a grant proposal, to apply to people who I don’t know, who don’t know me, and wait for them to tell me, based on something that I put on paper, whether or not it’s a good idea. Say they bless me and I’m given some money. The next thing I have to do is partner with an organization that is going to tell me the way that I have to set up my ticket sales and the month that I actually have to perform. Now why am I, as an artist, beholden to work with a granting organization that is taking money from massive corporations in order to support me?
Bertie: So it’s a way to bypass permission.
Jeff: The general idea of this kind of “trespass theater,” these site-specific works, and this do-it-yourself culture, is essentially, “Fuck that! We don’t have to ask for permission. We can do it ourselves.” And that extends through the entire production. Do I need to ask permission from the parks department in order to use their boat launch? No. Because I’m a New York City resident and I’m allowed to use New York City parks. Do I need to ask the local precinct? No. I just need to explain what I’m doing because it’s not illegal. There is a tremendous amount of excitement that is generated around works that are much closer to the vision that the artists have and a lot less tempered by those sort of cultural gatekeepers.
The general idea of this kind of 'trespass theater,' these site-specific works, and this do-it-yourself culture, is essentially, 'Fuck that! We don’t have to ask for permission. We can do it ourselves.'
Bertie: In this model, you are obviously not making money and you are probably going to run a deficit, even after a Kickstarter campaign. How do you sustain yourself as an artist?
Jeff: This is a four-year project. One of the things that is exciting about it, and one of the things that draws people to it, is that it is radically unsustainable. It’s okay to do projects that are unsustainable. What is important is to come up with a sustainable way of living and a sustainable way of working and being in the world. That’s one of the things that we are all constantly trying to do. But I don’t think that it is just artists who are doing that.
Bertie: So making art is your way of being in the city?
Jeff: I think that what we are doing is not just making works; we’re trying to make a culture. When you see a thriving a culture like the culture in New Orleans, you watch people who spend half the year working on a parade for their community, their friends, their neighborhood. You don’t go to those people at the end of it and say, “How do you live if you are just making parades all the time?” I think it’s the responsibility of everyone to actively create culture in their community and that’s one of the things we’re doing.