Interview: How PS122 Is Going Global 

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Many of you have been to PS122, or at very least heard of it, given its 30-odd years of presenting performance work by all manner of New York artists, famous, infamous, and fleeting. What you may not be aware of are the big changes afoot over on 9th Street and First Avenue—besides the long-awaited removal of the scaffolding that shrouded the building for 10 years.

For the past five years, PS122's artistic director, Vallejo Gantner, an Aussie by birth and a nomad by choice, has been working to reshape and rethink the way the organization operates. While those working in contemporary performing arts know how many changes have been taking place in the field over the past decade, audiences aren't necessarily as aware of how much the earth is moving beneath them. Gantner's vision for PS122 serves as a striking example of how things are shifting within the performance community, if often by nothing more than the force of will of those who want change to happen. It also serves as a window into the ways that the performance world, not unlike many other businesses, is looking for new models to move forward in an era when nothing can be taken for granted.

I sat down with Gantner at a bar around the corner from the space to chat about one of his organization's newest initiatives, PS122 Global, which launched in late October. Through this new program artists like Richard Maxwell, Reggie Watts, and Young Jean Lee are touring as a group to international venues and festivals, all under the PS122 umbrella. It's a model that Gantner hopes will not only extend the reach of the organization, but also that of the artists who cross its stages.

The L: Where did the idea for PS122 Global come from?
Vallejo Gantner: It came from a sense that there was a real lack of exchange between emerging and mid-career artists in the US and their peers internationally. It came from the fact that we are dependent on European Union subsidy in the performance sector and I was frustrated about that. And it came from the fact that a lot of American work does not have the life that it deserves because we do not have the resources or the subsidy to facilitate export.

But, to my knowledge, within a certain group of successful contemporary US performing artists, they make their money abroad, touring or accepting international commissions. And that model has been around for a while. I gather that they take it for granted that they won't be able to make enough money to support themselves on US funding, so they go abroad.
There is a fatigue amongst my peer group in Europe, that they are triple-subsidizing work: they're subsidizing Europeans to come here; they're commissioning American artists without any subsidy on this end; and when American work tours, it tours on a fee that is attempting to subsidize the rest of the company's operations. It's quite expensive to bring over American artists. In other parts of the world, there's mobility built into the DNA of the work. I wanted to try to engender that mobility here.

What does that mean for you, when you say that there's mobility built in? It means that projects that we see [in Europe, Asia, and Latin America] are co-produced by five different presenters. They do residencies to develop the work, then they're presented by each co-producer.

There's also a sense for me that the work being made here is divorced from the context of the rest of the world. The work is made by reference to other New York artists not by reference to what is happening in Brussels right now or Buenos Aires or Shanghai.

What about this obsession lately within the field around the idea of community—the idea that theater is local or the idea of entrenching within a certain community in order to derive some kind of story or performance piece from that experience. I feel like, especially within the New York community, there's a lot of dialogue around those ideas.
It's something that we make mistakes about a lot, because the conversations that I have about my work, I have with my peers, not with their audiences or even my own audiences. So there's a danger that we're talking about the work in the context of our peer group, not in the context of our immediate audience. The other thing that I think is mistaken about a lot of that conversation about community is that it assumes that the only people affected by the theater-making process and performance creation are the people who see it. In fact, companies like Rimini Protokoll and even Forced Entertainment and others that I can't think of right off the top of my head—they've actually engaged with the idea of community in the construction of their work without ever dumbing it down to make it for a social benefit. They make work that is rigorous and full of integrity.

Getting back to your motivation for creating PS122 Global, what are the other reasons you wanted to pursue this?
It's also about providing opportunities for people. I mean, there's so much work, especially in dance, that's done for four nights and then it goes away and it's never seen again. Now sometimes that should happen. And sometimes it just needs to be seen.

Also, by virtue of not being from here, and from having been in Europe before this, I have an addiction to aircraft travel and have a pretty good international network, so one of my missions has been to attempt to be a tireless advocate for work to happen and to extend the support that we give, not just to a show, but to an artist's career. Because I think by doing that we generate better work, and if we generate better work, we develop our audience and we increase the resources that are available for the work, which means that the work is better, it's a lovely good snowballing effect.

There was an article in the Village Voice back in 2005, right before you started, where you were quoted as saying that you just have to "experiment harder" when faced with challenges surrounding funding and attendance at arts venues. I know of a fair number of grants being handed out to help artists explore new business models, but there seems to be less discussion around venues and producers finding new business models. And it seems like you're really trying to shift the PS122 business model.
We've changed our whole budgeting model. We now pay performance fees based on headcounts and we are trying to create a context where no one is working in our theater unless they're being paid a living wage, which is not something we can do right now, but we're working on it, and we're taking that argument to funders. We're asking the artists to ask us for more money. We're reducing the amount that we do every year by about 10% in order to resource that stuff better. So we're trying to do less with more.

In the past PS122 has served as a venue that can be rented by outside groups, but primarily as a presenter—working with artists who produce their work in your space. Which, for those unfamiliar with that term, essentially means that the artists build their shows on their own, develop and rehearse them somewhere else, then they bring the finished shows to PS122 to present.
We're a presenter, but we're kind of highly interventionist. So our services and our raft of offers is much greater than a regional presenter, let's say, where we'd be booking in shows for three nights and then sending them on their way. We work with most emerging artists for three or four shows over four or five years. And we commit to that in advance.

You do?
Yeah, it's more of a handshake, but yeah. And not with everybody, with some people. It means that they can fail and we're still there in the morning. It means they can take more risk, and it means that as they go through the systems, building their show for us multiple times, that as they get better at it and we get better at talking to them, the shows get better.

And now PS122 Global is a whole new extension of the space and the notion of presenting. So that is about everything we've been talking about. It's about getting people interested in what's happening here if they can't access it. New York is this incredible brand, PS122 is an incredible brand globally. For us the advantage is that we increase our stature globally, we also increase the value that we offer artists that we work with. I mean, one of the things that we want to be able to say at some point is that we can offer artists this bundle of work. Our hope in the medium-term is that we're able to fundraise and to subsidize the cost of the travel and to put the shows on equal footing with artists coming out of Europe or Singapore or South Korea or Australia, where the travel and some of the expenses are covered. In a very raw, capitalist way, we're at a competitive disadvantage and we need to address that.

And what is PS122's actual role in this tour?
We are collaborating with a theater in London [The Chelsea Theatre], a festival in Budapest [The Contemporary Drama Festival], and a festival in Bristol [In Between Time]. We're co-curating a program with them, we're choosing it together. We'll do the same with Berlin, in Australia, in Norway and Latin America. Ideally we create a program with multiple works that is representative of something interesting that's happening here, and that could be the US or that could be New York City. And it might be something that's saying something about theater right now, and it might be something that's saying something about contemporary dance, it might be an interrogation of the concept of "live." The model is evolving, it's not fixed yet. We bring it under, in some way, a kind of PS122 bubble, brand, umbrella, that hopefully says good things about us and good things about live performance that's happening in New York right now. Because I'm very conscious of the fact that New York is no longer the middle of the live performance universe. We're no longer in the top.

Who would you say is at the top right now, within contemporary performing arts, on a global scale?
I think Berlin, Buenos Aires—not in an international sense, but Argentine work is incredibly vital and interesting and good. I think we're gonna see, increasingly, interesting work coming out of China. I think the Benelux region [Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg] is up there. I think Ireland is really coming out with some very interesting work. There's a bunch of different centers for different streams of work.

Why do you think that work isn't coming to New York?
Who's going to present it? I don't have the budget for it.

Is it too expensive?
It's not that. It's cheap. It's cheaper for me to present a European company than it is to produce a San Francisco company, because with an international company I can be pretty confident that I can get the travel paid for. I don't have that confidence for a national US company.

What do you think the main hurdle is there?
Audience is part of it. We have a real problem selling tickets to emerging international artists who don't have a name here.

Yeah, I saw Marie Brassard's show Jimmy at PS122 last year and it was one of the best shows I saw last year, and the theater was half-full the night I went.
That show was selling 500 seats a night in Melbourne, 800 seats a night in Berlin. It was mortifying. I was lucky to be able to get that show. They gave it to me for nothing, basically, it was a gift, and it was mortifying. So that's one problem. And ultimately a European company costs a lot more than a local company because you have to pay them properly. They get paid a living wage and they expect that. And they expect a per diem. And they expect reasonable accommodation.

And then, as you pointed out earlier, American companies are expensive for Europeans to take on.
With American companies the calculation is, how do we subsidize our general operations through touring because US foundations have gone away from covering operating expenses.

It seems clear that you've been thinking about this idea of bringing work abroad and all the details of how to make that possible for a long time, presumably since you started work at PS122.
As we've been rolling out PS122 Global, I've been booking flights for artists, I'm booking the hotels. We don't have the resources to do it another way. I mean we don't have the resources to do it full stop. The point I'm making in saying that is at a certain point I'm so tired of waiting and hoping that the resources will appear that I'm just gonna do it, and fuck it, you know, I'm sick of waiting, let's get it done. If I had the staff and the funding to support this properly, we could have twelve tours a year going out with four companies in each tour, so forty-eight tour dates. I could have that tomorrow and it would cost $100,000.

Why is this project important to PS122, as an organization?
I think when we talk about business models today, whether it's artists or venues or institutions or whatever, we need to be multi-dimensional, we need to be transmedia—a term I learned today—we need to be trans-revenue, let's say. We need to figure out how we earn. So that's box office, that's renting the theater, that's touring, that's sponsorship, that's galas. We need to find new ways of sourcing contributed, unearned revenue, because the grants from foundations are diminishing incredibly, individuals are where we're all going now and that's working well for us now, but we need to be very diverse and very nimble, and we need to be strategic in filling niches and creating niches that we can fill.

In that regard, some of PS122's new partnerships, with the New Museum, and Performa, for example, seem to be part of that impulse to diversify, to build new platforms.
Yeah, we share the costs together, we work together to promote it. And not just those partners. There's also Crossing the Line, Under the Radar, there's On the Boards in Seattle, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh...

So that idea of building a brand is really serious for you.
We are, at the moment, a building.

There's decades of history there though.
But that's what we are, right now, we're a building. We're full of history and ghosts and stories and bodily fluids. We are bricks and mortar. But actually what we need to be is a kind of state of mind and an attitude to creativity and an attitude to audience and an attitude to risk and experimentation that is exciting and fresh.

But you can't begin to have that conversation about brand without acknowledging the fact that PS122 was those things, years ago.
Yeah. I'm just saying that the building, as it currently is, doesn't serve that purpose as well as it might. It did in the 1980s and 90s, but now the work is different and the needs of that work are different and we need to respond and lead that change. And so we're also rolling out a whole program of site-specific work. We're trying to figure out how to make contemporary live performing arts sustainable. And essential.

Seems like there are a lot of groups working on that.
For us it means getting it out of the box, getting it into the world and putting it on six legs, instead of one leg, which is our tiny commissioning fee. It is about people's awareness of work in the States. It is about doing less with more.

What's in it for the artists involved in PS122 Global?
It's going to extend the life of their work. I hope that in the medium- to long-term that what's in it for the artists is a vastly increased set of opportunities for producing the work that they want to make. Hopefully also to develop artistic collaborations with international artists. But at least repeat presentations by the presenters that we take them to.

What are you really excited about that you've been able to develop at PS122 in the past five years?
What I'm really excited about is the opportunities that were created by us but not for us, like these touring opportunities. I'm proud that we've increased the amount of money that we're able to give to the work and that we're really investing in each show passionately. I'm proud that the organization says "yes" so much more often than we say "no" to what people want to do.

It's big that you're willing to commit to a few shows for your core artists.
And we try to say it before we know if their show is gonna be good, because it's about a conversation. It's about asking what do we want to do together, how do you want to work with us, what can we do for you. It's not, how much money are we going to give you. It's a different conversation, it's a creative conversation, and it's a pleasurable conversation. It's about pleasure.

Are you happy the scaffolding is down?
Yeah.

(images courtesy PS122)

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