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BY TRAV S.D. | January is a traditional time of regeneration, renewal and reinvention, when good news of any sort is widely celebrated. Longtime Downtown arts fans have much to cheer in that department now that PS122 has opened its doors to the public, for the first time in six years, for the 13th and final edition of their Coil Festival. With its welcome return to First Ave. and E. Ninth St. comes a new name: Performance Space New York.
The East Village performance institution, shuttered since 2011, has received a top to bottom renovation, and since 2017, has been headed by a new executive artistic director, Jenny Schlenzka, formerly of MoMa PS1. In a time when the news cycle has been dominated by negative bulletins on nearly every front, here’s a potential hopeful development.
Newcomers to New York may be forgiven for not even knowing that PS122 even existed, but it happens to be one of New York’s historically pivotal arts organizations. Founded in an abandoned school building by a bunch of artists in 1980 (the “PS” originally stood for “Public School”), the repurposed First Ave. building was transformed into Performance Space 122. Over the decades, the organization presented such groundbreaking performers as John Leguizamo, Eddie Izzard, Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Karen Finley, Penny Arcade, Ethyl Eichelberger, Holly Hughes, Carmelita Tropicana, John Kelly, Elevator Repair Service, Reggie Watts, Young Jean Lee, Taylor Mac, Julie Atlas Muz, Richard Maxwell and Adrienne Truscott, among countless others. Its most legendary days happened under the artistic leadership of Mark Russell, who left in 2004 and now runs the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival (happening through Jan. 15; see publictheater.org). Over the ensuing decade, the organization was run by Vallejo Gantner, under whose watch the Coil Festival was started in 2006.
The new Executive Artistic Director, Jenny Schlenzka, was hired early last year, becoming the first female to head the organization. Originally from Berlin, Schlenzka was the Assistant Curator for Performance in the Department of Media and Performance Art at The Museum of Modern Art from 2008 to 2012, and then Associate Curator at MoMa PS1, where she established the interdisciplinary live program Sunday Sessions.
“As a curator, I saw many shows at PS122 before it closed in 2011, and also in the Coil Festival in the years since,” said Schlenzka, who spoke with us before the organization’s updated name was announced. “But the more I learn about its history, the more and more I am amazed by what’s gone on here. I want the new PS122 to be the 2020 version of the original organization.” She added in a public statement, “What I have considered my job as a curator and now as a director of an institution is to create spaces for new things to happen, things that are of the here and now.”
Central to the realization of these goals is their newly renovated facility, accomplished with the help and support of the City of New York, the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Design and Construction over a period of six years. Among the most radical changes is that Performance Space New York’s performance spaces have been moved to the top floor. The two spaces, designed by Deborah Berke Partners, both feature lots of windows overlooking vistas below, and are designed to be flexible with regard to audience and performance configurations. The building has been made wheelchair accessible, has been brought into compliance with safety codes, and the theatres have been outfitted with state-of-the-art production equipment. The larger of the two theatres seats 199; the smaller one, 87. The building’s lower floors will be occupied by Mabou Mines, The Alliance for Positive Change, Painting Space 122, and a fifth tenant to be announced soon.
“What’s especially nice about the architecture is that they managed to keep the spirit of how it used to look,” said Schlenzka, “The architect Deborah Berke was sensitive to that fact, that we wanted to keep the integrity of what was here before. You still believe it was a school building. As you walk through, there are different moments where they’ve reclaimed the old space. People have had high hopes, and when they’ve come in to see the spaces, their minds are blown. People have cried when they’ve seen it.”
Both of the new performance spaces will be open to the public for the first time for the Coil Festival. In addition, some of the Coil shows have been programmed in the Mabou Mines space, which is now where one of the old PS122 theaters used to be, on the ground floor.
In conjunction with the unveiling of the renovated building and the launch of the Coil Festival, the organization is also rolling out a new branding initiative, including a new website undertaken by Performance Space New York Creative Technologist Alex Reeves.
The lynchpin event of all this, the 2018 Coil Festival, takes place through Feb. 4, and will feature work by Seattle-based choreographer Heather Kravas and her company of nine dancers; Ethyl Eichelberger Award winner, composer-performer Dane Terry; Dean Moss and his interdisciplinary company Gametophyte Inc.; Australian dancer/artist Atlanta Eke; multi-media dancer/performer David Thomson and company; and Sydney-based dancer/performance artist Angela Goh.
As for why this will be the final Coil Festival, Schlenzka pointed out, “Now that we have the building, we can program all year long. The festival was great, as it gave us a presence in New York when the building was closed. It was just that all of our programming happened in one month. Now we’ll have something every week, although we’ll likely always do special programming in January.”
And there are big things in store immediately after Coil. Schlenzka has planned semi-annual themed performance series. The inaugural series, focusing on the East Village itself (aptly named the East Village Series), is slated to kick off next month and go until June.
“Times have changed, the neighborhood has changed,” said Schlenzka. “PS122 was originally created by artists, for artists. Our budget is much bigger now. Not so many of the artists live here any more. But it’s still about community, and the East Village is still the epicenter of that community. We’re in the unique position to be both relevant on an international level, and hyperlocal. I want people from the neighborhood to come in and socialize and see shows, but I want someone surfing the web in Australia to see what we do, too. This can be the place where they come together.”
Performance Space New York is located at 150 First Ave., at E. Ninth St. For the Coil Festival tickets ($15-25), call 212-352-3101 or visit performancespacenewyork.org.