Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Organic Space

I had the opportunity to sit down with Tyler Denmead, co-founder of New Urban Arts. Although the conversation took place at the CIT, I was able to gain an understanding of the incredibly intriguing space that exists at New Urban Arts.

New Urban Arts was founded in 1997 while Tyler was a senior at Brown University. During this time, Tyler was active with Brown’s public engagement department. His desire to get involved with a public project dealing with creativity led to the creation of the program.

Tyler was interested in the idea of “nest building.” This was a concept that Tyler repeated throughout the interview. He stated, “relationships are situated and need a place…the studio space itself was a transient and dynamic place.”

When asked more about the space itself, Tyler explained that there was an interest in an “open shell” concept for the studio. This meant that there were no classrooms, no studios, and no offices. There was a desire to blur boundaries of all the disciplines within the space. This created an ambiguity and uncertainty of people’s practices – all different practices were visible inside the space simultaneously.

I was very interested in the initial concept of the space. Tyler explained that a lack of resources in the beginning played a critical role in the way the studio was arranged. The floor plan continuously changed on a daily basis. Walls and other areas of the space were torn down constantly. Offices in the studio lacked walls. The space reflected its values – it represented the intellectual aspect of no barriers.

There were many hardships that went with this type of environment. They were bound by a lease that prevented them from being completely free to do as they pleased. Problems arose in the first year which brought up questions of moving to another building. This caused great concern for the artist mentors who were completely attached to the space they were currently in. There were questions of whether or not the space could be recreated in another building.

Tyler explained that it wasn’t about the actual space they were physically in. People were upset about losing the idea of the space. This was a very important point that Tyler made. I asked Tyler if he felt the idea of the space could be transported to another location and be as successful as the initial space. He explained that it takes more than just the idea. The idea is created by the people within a space. Without the people in a space who share the same disposition, the idea cannot be created.

Today, the studio is in the same building as it was ten years ago. Despite minor additions like a silk screening studio, supply closets, and work storage, the space still remains as dynamic and organic as it initially was. Tyler explained that there is little order to how space is arranged. This played a major role in its success. A definitive process as to how space is divided or used has never existed. This is a very important idea of space – a living, organic, amorphous being.

I asked Tyler about the legacy of his program outside of the studio and providence. He is interested in notions of ambiguity, uncertainty, flux, and dynamism and how all of these have a relationship to learning and experience. He explained that it would be incredibly interesting to do a time-lapse movie of the studio over a long period of time and map how the space changes so drastically and constantly. In school, students never experience a dynamic space. Tyler jokingly stated that the space “doesn’t value cleanliness, order, resources, safety, and that it was a dump.”

I also asked him if he had a desire to try setting up a similar studio in another location. He stated that he feels pressure to try this somewhere else – even as a model. He wants others to experience how successful the space really is. However, the success of the space cannot just happen if the idea is there. New Urban Arts emerged at a particular time and under particular experiences. Tyler explained that if this idea came to him today instead of ten years ago, the studio would never have happened and would not be successful. Through sharing his story, he believes other educators and artists can use their own experiences to create a space like New Urban.

There are certain aspects that have to exist: an organic, changing space within a specific site, and shared values of the people. With these initial aspects, the practice within the space could manifest itself in many different ways.

One theme in our conversation was the notion of “the institution.” New Urban Arts is very self conscious of not institutionalizing itself. Instead there is an interest in an impermanent intervention. Tyler explained that the program is subversive yet risks becoming its own institution. They are cautious of anything that makes them appear superior or exclusive to only certain types of people. The studio celebrates all the different types of people who are part of the program and who come from many varied backgrounds, disciples, and skills.

We ended the conversation talking again about the idea of the constantly changing space in the studio. Tyler jokingly admitted that some people think that this notion of a dynamic or ever-changing space means that everything has to be on wheels. He explained that it cannot be as literal or contrived as this to be successful.

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