This is an archive of the ArtCat Zine, 2007-2009. Please visit our new project, IDIOM.
Anat Litwin is an artist, curator and founder of the HomeBase Project an exhibition program which manifests itself in a different, gentrifying New York City neighborhood each year. S.C.Squibb caught up with her downtown on May 22nd.
SS - So, you graduated from Hunter...
AL: Right. After I graduated I became the director of the Makor gallery at the 92nd street Y. It was just a week after I had finished my final project at Hunter and it was a really strong shift – going from being an art student to running a residency program, curating… I was creating a context for art. Though I wasn’t entirely focusing on my own work, I discovered the immense power of working in and for a context of an artistic group, and it thoroughly convinced me that kind of passion and interest in dialogue and study, is something very meaningful that's hard to find. There is such a thirst for that place. So In 2006 I started this project called Homebase independently from my job at Makor. 2006. I received a whole floor in a building from my landlord - it was an office for a Polish bank in Greenpoint, and I had it for two months before they were going to renovate it…
SS: So the space came first -
AL: Yeah, for the first project, and I was thinking – what am I going to do with all this space? How can I use it? I decided two things. First that I wanted to do an exhibition, and second, that I wanted other artists using the space, and working in a group - so I started Homebase I, with 12 artists, Israeli, American, Polish, local artists… and the topic of the exhibition was home – something so basic, its almost banal, almost gross – an exhibition about home? It's something that seems unsophisticated and invites a very sentimental dialogue, or rather it allows it to happen… so anyway, 12 artists, different mediums, different backgrounds; they all had a month and each got a room to create a site-specific work about home, and then the space was open to the public for a month.
SS: Can you talk about the process?
AL: HomeBase is a site-specific public art project exploring notions of Home that takes place annually in gentrified neighborhoods. The artists get a room in the space to create a site-specific work about home. , and its always in neighborhoods that are undergoing rapid change. In order to really stimulate the creative process there is first of all the time limit; the artists are given only three weeks to produce a new work, which is, by itself…
SS: Right, it’s very quick…
AL: And there are also these group meetings, where the artists come together and we use each other, create a communal space to serve as a sort of an incubator for ideas about home, and we bring in guest lecturers to talk about the neighborhood, about architecture… and so there is also that aspect of studying together. Its a really haphazard, interesting, deep three weeks -- suddenly having all these people around, and then for the following three or four weeks our work is open to the public. In the meantime we schedule different art projects and events, artist talks, tours, games, performances and more, to engage the public. But what’s important also is that though I put together a group of artists, I am also one of them, so there is no curatorial text about the show. Each artist instead writes a text called the letter home. And it invites that idea of artists expressing themselves in ways in which they typically wouldn’t. I feel that in general HomeBase is about shifting boundaries and roles; shifting the dynamic between artist and curator, as well as the place of the artist in the real estate development chain. Usually by not surrendering that power to the curator, one is shifting things over – shifting that role of the artist in society where they are the first to be pushed out, creating neighborhoods they then can't afford, and here they are making a claim for their ‘home,’ occupying a space for a while and becoming the architects of meaning.
SS: And this year's project took place in Harlem?
AL: Yes, and instead of having one floor we had a whole five floor townhouse, and artists came in especially for the project from abroad. It was intense. There were 10 or 12 volunteers separate from the artists who were devoted to making it happen – we had no institutional or financial support; and yet the project turned out to be a very successful and meaningful one, due to the individual commitment and passion of the participants. It created a real buzz. We had visitors and neighbors adopt the project. Some came four or five times to the events and just to spend time in the space. That is very rare in New York where people are always in short on time. There was something very homey about the project, allowing a genuine and intimate space for exchange and cross cltural dialogue...
SS: Can you talk about the gentrifying aspect of it? Why situate it in gentrifying neighborhoods? How has the project changed in relation to different neighborhoods undergoing change?
AL: Well, these spaces are very loaded with questions about home, and the aim is really to dig into that.
SS: Was gentrification a key aspect of the idea from the beginning?
AL: It went both ways, but it was especially key with this last project because Harlem is so loaded. We were intruding on a neighborhood in a way that has such a strong identity - there was this whole question of what were we doing there? Are we agents of gentrification by doing an art project there? It was very important that we not approach it with an agenda or the idea that we were going to save this neighborhood; instead the project aimed to function like a seismograph of the situation, bringing many different questions to bear and opening them up.
SS: I want to go back to something you said earlier about sentimentality, about how the concept of home provokes a sort of sentimental response, could you speak more about that?
AL: I think that the field of art making right now – well, really not just that field but I’ll speak to it because that’s a little bit of what I know – is dominated by quotation, reference, sarcasm, cynicism, indifference, self-indulgence... it becomes very compressed and cryptic, where references are oriented towards communicating to other artists in an art historical context, and not really all that open to non-specialists. This all leads to an exclusive language where those who aren't privy to the codes are made to feel inferior. Homebase and my own work in general is perhaps aimed to open up this field. There's an aspect of that show that could be described as sentimental – that’s the understanding anyway, that it's sentimental to speak about home – and I started using that: I mean it’s not just a project about the home but the one in which artists write a letter home – how romantic is that! And the personal, “sentimental” aspect becomes the strength of the project. This romantic notion becomes a strategy in a way. It’s a strategy not in terms of using something, but in terms of laying down a strong ground where things can start to happen. Once this kind of correspondence with home becomes something other than sentimental, once it becomes a position of strength, it can never become a weak or vulnerable place anymore. It lays down a strong ground where things can start to happen. Its like flipping it over again – This is HomeBase, its all about home. It takes a very basic aspect of identity as common territory and builds up on that. What are you interested in? Notions of home. You can’t get more disappointed, you know, you can’t go lower than that, and then whatever grows on this ground is just more interesting
SS: Right, it lowers expectations.
AL: Not really. I have to be careful with this answer because I am answering now in a way that feeds the mind of the sophisticated art lover. Do you know what I am saying?
SS: Sure. I promise you I am not that sophisticated.
AL: Okay, on two levels. On one level there is that deliberate choice of taking a subject that’s loaded, and sentimental, and I’m aware of that, and I’m using that, and I find that to be an interesting ground, this open nerve of sentiment. On another level there’s something easier about it, its very simple, it is what it is: what is home? What does it have to do with our identity? And there's also something very genuine and real to in learning about the other through home.
SS: Can I play dumb for a second?
SS: When you say ‘the other,’ what do you mean?
AL: As well as many others.
SS: Good answer