The artist Yve Laris Cohen has made institutional excavations something of a trademark. His 2013 performance Seth, at the Kitchen—part of the exhibition “Maintenance Required” organized by the Whitney Independent Study program’s curatorial fellows—explored the space’s unused and unseen spaces. As part of D.S., his contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, he created a labor-intensive performance during which he moved a wall from the uptown museum to its new downtown home (then under construction). His recent performance P.S. 122, at the newly rebranded and reopened Performance Space New York, symbolically inaugurates the space through conjuring its history.
After a lengthy renovation period and seven-year absence from its First Avenue home, Performance Space New York opened in January with its final COIL festival. But Laris Cohen’s commission (March 8-11) kicked off the “East Village Series,” the first program organized by the new Executive Artistic Director Jenny Schlenzka. The performance and theater community reacted with skepticism to her rechristening of the space-formerly-known-as-P.S.-122. (Critic Adam Feldman tweeted, “In honor of PS122’s decision to rebrand as Performance Space New York, I am considering changing my name to Personal Name.”) Laris Cohen’s hour-long piece seemed strategically positioned to assert the new space’s relationship to its past.
P.S. 122 occupied the larger of two fourth-floor theaters. The 3600-square-foot, reconfigurable space features an exposed brick wall, original windows, and sweeping downtown views, and an upstairs storage area. Laris Cohen’s performance presented a compressed, pared-down history of artists’ engagement with the building. Conceptually and physically, he foregrounded the visual artists whose presence has been virtually erased from the gentrified East Village neighborhood. Dressed like a stage manager—black t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, walkie-talkie—Laris Cohen opened the house himself. Viewers settled into their places, on hard black benches arranged in an L. Five painters, a generation older than the 33-year-old artist, were poised to work in the vast space: one looking out the window and painting an evening landscape (Sally Eckhoff), one seated at a table working on paper (Karen Eubel), one behind an easel (Robin Tewes) painting another (Andrew Glass), and a fifth on a high ledge (Dominick Guida) treating ex posed bricks. The lighting design enhanced the space’s temporary shift in function from a performance space to a visual-art studio. Gels over the theatrical fixtures shifted the light temperature from warm (used for performances) to cool (typical of painters’ studios), while vintage cyclorama lights joined Performance Space’s contemporary illumination. The mix of old and new extended to the practical elements of the piece, including the artists’ materials and costumes.
Laris Cohen signaled the start of the performance through his prep work. He opened a window for the landscape painter, positioned a lantern lamp on its edge, and cued a noise-rock song to begin playing (its style perhaps evocative of the late-‘70s downtown No Wave genre). For at least 30 minutes, the artists worked uninterrupted. From my perspective, I could not see the canvases on which the artists were working—only the artist on the ledge performing non-painterly labor. In some comic twist on conceptual art, I was watching paint dry. Absorbing such a static visual scene, my other senses became more attuned. I felt the cold gust from the window, smelled the paint of the landscape artist working behind me, and paid attention to the varying intensity of the music.
Laris Cohen has perfected a choreography that calls attention to such tensions between physical and artistic labor, between the banal and the extraordinary. In past performances, he has often placed his own body and identity as central to this dynamic, drawing on his ballet and modern dance training to execute either virtuosic or everyday movement to exhaustion. Here, his role as stage manager required an evacuation of the personal in service to the artists, although his presence was unmissable. He carefully observed the space, led a child to the bathroom, switched out a bulb for a painter, put batteries in an artist’s portable CD player, and stopped an audience member from taking photos on her phone. In an interview published several years ago in Mousse, he said, “I’ve distanced myself from an identification around ‘performer’ because I no longer have the desire to be watched. I bear it, for the sake of the work.” Here, he is watched, and watching. Vigilance becomes exertion.
Approximately halfway through the performance, Laris Cohen took a stack of single-page handouts that Andrew Glass was holding and passed them around to the audience. The page contained program notes, describing the history of the space in straightforward, bureaucratic language. Built originally as a public school, P.S. 122 was shuttered by the Board of Education in 1976. A year later, a nonprofit called 122 Community Center was established, and in 1978 a group of artists established a studio block within the building called Painting Space 122. The famous Performance Space 122 formed in 1980 as an offshoot to the visual arts programming. The audience learned that the painters in the space were integral to the establishment of Painting Space 122, here returned to their former studio building.
To signal a shift from painting space to performance space, Laris Cohen lugged four speakers and a microphone stand from a backstage area and positioned them around the floor. He led an elderly man by the hand to the microphone, who introduced himself as a theater consultant (in fact, an actor). The actor recited a rapid-fire history of the renovations to the space that Laris Cohen wrote after conversations with the real theater consultant. Among the monologue’s more interesting revelations was the fact that the upstairs lofted area could only be accessed through the roof—which the artist was running across, unbeknownst to the audience. Laris Cohen then threw open an upstairs storage area, exposing the live band DITHER—not a recording—who began to play louder, nearly drowning out the actor/consultant as he described his attempts to satisfy all “user groups.”
As Laris Cohen cleared the space of the speakers, as the artists continued to paint and the band began to play, I thought about a passage in Maggie Nelson’s 2015 book The Argonauts. Referencing the child psychologist D.W. Winnicott, she describes “the pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion.” Nelson’s reference described the everyday work of motherhood, while Laris Cohen shifts the gendered dynamic here. As a male-identified stage manager, he shows a level of attention to the artists that is unusual—or at least typically goes unseen. Laris Cohen’s work as an artist here dovetails with the longer work of organizing a space, of community building, of the unglamorous aspects of creative labor. But as Nelson goes on to say, “such revisitations constitute a life.”
Wendy Vogel is a writer and independent curator based in Brooklyn. She contributes regularly to Artforum.com, Art in America, Art Review, Bomb, frieze, and Mousse, among other art and culture publications.