The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Ortega y Gasset Projects (OyG) is an artist-run curatorial collective and exhibition space, founded in May 2013 and based in Gowanus, Brooklyn. OyG is known for its exploratory programming by mounting exhibitions and performances that provoke interpretation and dialogue. Working collaboratively over geographical distances allows OyG to extend beyond local communities and forge larger networks of cultural dialogue.
OyG consists of 11 members from around the country including, Lauren Adams (Baltimore, MD), Eleanna Anagnos (Brooklyn, NY), Joshua Bienko (Knoxville, TN), Catherine Haggarty (Jersey City, NJ), Eric Hibit (Queens, NY), Fritz Horstman (Bethany, CT), Will Hutnick (Wassaic, NY), Leeza Meksin (NY, NY), Sarah Rushford (Boston, MA), Zahar Vaks (Brooklyn, NY), Sheilah Wilson (Granville, OH & Nova Scotia).
Brett Wallace: How did OyG begin?
Eleanna Anagnos: It was Leeza’s brainchild. She was teaching at Denison where she met Sheilah Wilson and didn’t want their dialogue to end. She wanted to keep connecting with Sheilah and others she met along the way, like Lauren Adams whom she worked with on a big project in 2011. She knew the only way to continuing a dialogue was contingent on creating a project they could work on together. She asked herself, “How can I keep this dialog going with these other amazing artists who don’t live where I live?” She started a collective with different people from across the country. There were just a couple of folks that founded the group.They started it as an experiment. The experiment is still in progress.
Joshua: That sort of community and dialog was the genesis of the space. Our vision includes provoking dialog without an overarching ideology. To keep the conversation going, you resist doctrines. Yet, at the beginning it really was a lot of trust in Leeza. It was a wild endeavor. We had no rules. We kind of figured it out as we went along.
Brett: What’s one thing we would not know about you (or you would not know about each other)?
Sarah: Four current OyG Members are parents, Joshua, Leeza, Sarah, and Sheilah. (Sarah and Leeza each had a baby in 2015!).Sheilah’s show Repeat Pressure which opened in May looked critically at the roles of artists as mothers, and vice versa.
Brett: I found this quote by Jose Ortega y Gasset, the philosopher - “To be surprised, to wonder is to begin to understand.” How has Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy worked its way into how you thought about the venue and your mission, if at all?
Joshua: Like Lacan, I think the letter always arrives at its address. I think maybe the naming of the space was ahead of us in the way that your best paintings are. They’re ahead of you and they reveal themselves to you. I think it’s the same deal.
Catherine: That couldn’t be truer. They (the original members) kind of named it before understanding how perfect it was for what we’re about. From what I can gather from my new start here, it does in fact reflect our vision and ethos.
Fritz: I know that Leeza at least, and possibly others, were reading Ortega y Gasset at that very time. So that name was in the air. I joined the group in October 2014 so a couple years after the actual beginning. As I was introduced to it, in talking to Leeza I asked this very question. She said yes we’re a widely dispersed group and Ortega y Gasset’s most famous line is,
“Yo soy yo y mi circunstancias,” meaning, “I am I and my circumstances.” That seems to in some way sum up the dispersed and yet single-minded nature of the group; we’re all across the country, but our circumstances make us into a single unit”.
Brett: How do you define collective as in how you're organized?
Eleanna: We like that it’s decentralized. It makes it more difficult in some ways, but it’s a strength because we get to pull from culture across the country. That’s one of the things that sets us apart from other collectives in NYC. We generate ideas and encourage feedback. It’s an ongoing discourse where we pull our resources and volunteer ideas. That’s sort of how it becomes a collective.
Fritz: We love New York. But it can be parochial. This spreads our influence and spreads our net, where we’re drawing from.
Joshua: I also think the idea of a collective has a lot to do with deference and trust. There are times where something isn’t your strength. Maybe it’s an idea for a show and you don’t know anybody who does paintings about giraffes. Then you defer to somebody who’s working in that field. We run the space that way too. Some folks are good at numbers and details. Some folks are good at brainstorming or something. We really defer. It’s kind of amazing the trust we have. Actually, part of Catherine’s emergence in our space too seemed to be based on her understanding of the way teams work.
Brett: Catherine, what spurred the process of getting involved in OyG?
Catherine: I appreciate Josh saying that. I did think about the idea of teamwork in this adventure. And I’m honored to be a part of it. I was in a show at the space in November. Then just after close, Ortega had their benefit that the whole team really put together, and I could kind of sense from their outreach that perhaps they needed a little bit of help. So I just tried really hard to show up at the benefit. And not just be there and absorb the fact that there was paintings on the wall, but actually see if they needed any help. It was a great night, and I was thankful to be a part of it.
So now I’m here and I’m really thrilled. I think the idea of being part of a community is really important in a really isolated life as an artist. New York is exhausting and people overwork themselves. So the idea that we can actually depend on each other and ask each other questions about things that we don’t know like lighting for a gallery or marketing or just cultural differences. People being in Tennessee or Maryland, outside of New York and Will, where he is (in Wassaic), brings a different dialog. So I think that’s really a rich team to work from. I’m excited to take it on, to learn.
Fritz: I think that one of the themes within this that we don’t really talk about is that we’re educating each other. We’re providing this base where we each share our knowledge and expose one another to things that we wouldn’t otherwise be involved with. It’s not that we’re an educational entity, but I think all of us feel we’re in it to learn more and to make a better model of what this could be.
Eleanna: I think we do teach each other so much. Also, I think we all want to share our love of and support of artists with our community too and reach out to others that don’t necessarily know about art. Now that we’re now located in Gowanus and we’re in this new space, we want to build it out and show what the possibilities are. It’s sort of a young neighborhood for art in terms of galleries showing art.
Sarah: I’ve always felt that as a member of the art world (however broadly that is defined by all of our members) I have responsibilities; to make and show my own work, yes, but just as important is to know other artists' work, to talk about it, listen to them talk about it, study it, and make ways to show it and celebrate it. Real dialog and community come out of this. That sense of shared challenge and triumph starts feeding back in the best way, and becomes the fuel for making one’s own work; for making one’s own life. When the geography is spread out, it works even better. It’s a formula that runs on the respect that artists have for one another’s work. In my mind, that’s how a collective functions. That’s how OyG functions.
Brett: Jeff Weiner (CEO of LinkedIn) once said from a business point of view, “When you’re launching a rocket, if you’re off by inches at launch, you’re off by miles when you get to orbit” (referring to culture and values in a hyper-growth business setting). With an artistic frame on, is there a value system that you make decisions based on?
Eleanna: I think it’s one of service. I think we all are passionate about this endeavor and this experiment and this community. I really wanted to be part of the community. It grounds me. But I think the spirit is one of service for all of us. Generously giving our time to one another for the sake of our community.
Fritz: I’d say that there are two facets to this. Business-wise we are democratic, very transparent. Not that anything else is not transparent but we are very transparent. Everything is talked about and no one makes any action business-wise without everyone else weighing in. And if they possibly have wisdom on something or expertise, then that person comes forward. On the other hand, curatorially, we have pretty much complete freedom.
“When somebody has an idea, they get to do whatever they want. There’s no restriction aside from, you know. No one has pitched anything so crazy that anyone has ever said no”.
Joshua: It’s impossible to get off track. The rocket doesn’t go straight up, it’s flying all over. We’re never off or on.
Fritz: It’s more like an imaginary scenario where someone pitches something and we’re like you can’t actually keep the gallery. We’re not going to okay that one.
Joshua: Is it a rabbit? Because...
Brett: Speaking of flying, Beuys had a controversial story of being rescued after his plane crashed in the war.
Joshua: That’s right. I really ‘felt’ that in his work...But seriously, if someone brought up something wild, I know we’d be pretty committed to figuring out how to pull it off.
Fritz: I think there may be an analogy of a wild spider web. Whereas as a business, we operate very tightly in the center. But then ideas for curation pop out at the edges and as soon as there’s an idea out at the edge, the web finds a way, and I don’t mean Internet (I mean this fictional spider web I’m talking about), to branch to it in as many ways as possible. We look at whatever the new idea is and think how can we bring our own knowledge and wisdom to that new idea.
Joshua: Can I add something about this education kind of theme? I think it comes out of a Socratic questioning method. Or straight out of Paulo Freire's “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, which is a problem causing education not a problem solving education. So it’s like the questioning part and the dialog that goes on with the questioning... that is the juice! It’s not like we have the answer now. It’s a living community. That comes out of so many great artistic traditions.
Fritz: That’s my favorite part about being in this group is that exact aspect of it. I have an idea. And I think possibly I’ve got things sorted out. I realize through various conversations with various members that there’s all these questions I hadn’t thought about. And those questions end up being far more interesting than my original idea.
Brett: In a way the community you’ve built is a network to bounce ideas off and accelerate the development of new ideas.
Eleanna: Absolutely, yes.
Sarah: I feel like we stick to the plan because the plan is simply; do your best! It sounds kind of childish “do your best”, but it’s kind of an understanding I think the group has. When I joined I was really struck by the level of engagement each member has with art, as well as an astonishing work ethic. I have more confidence in my ability to approach artists, write about art, install, transport, even think about art with OyG behind me than I would on my own. So my “best” is better. We support one another’s ideas, and aim high. That’s why we don’t go off track. It’s true though that so far no one has proposed anything really unacceptable, we’re also just lucky!
Brett: How has OyG impacted your own work?
Eleanna: I was just going to say that yes, it affects the work just having the dialog and discourse about these ideas and working together and accelerating the idea from where you started, which is really exciting. Also, in addition to all that, we also have group crits which is very helpful because this is a community I really trust. We trust one another and respect one another a lot. And we all come from different places in terms of our work so the feedback is rich and thoughtful.
Joshua: The collective has definitely impacted the way I think and work. But also the practice of curating. I’m not a curator. I don’t know what curating is, but I’m curating shows. The way to think about that is like painting is a mode of thinking, and music making is a mode of thinking, and drawing is a mode of thinking. I think curating is a very valuable and important mode of thinking. I think that one of the strongest points of the space is that we’re artists first and curating is a mode of being an artist. The way that you look at your work after starting to think about selecting work for a group show, or articulating a certain kind of question is deeply influenced by curating.
Brett: How did you all meet?
Joshua: You want to know a funny story? I had been talking with Leeza on the phone. Karla Wozniak and I were both teaching at the University of Tennessee at the time. I knew that Karla and Leeza went to Yale at the same time. I walked out of my studio after speaking with Leeza and I asked Karla, “What do you think about Leeza Meksin? Do you know anything about her?” Karla was like that’s so weird, I just got off the phone with her! She’s a good friend of mine. She’s really, great. I told Karla, “Well, she’s thinking about starting this space, this artist collective and she was wondering if I interested in participating.” Karla was like, “ME TOO!” Leeza didn’t even know that Karla and I were like three feet apart.
Eleanna: But Joshua, how did you know Leeza?
Joshua: I didn’t. I knew her work, but not her. Lauren Adams asked me to be a part of this thing that she had been talking to her friend Leeza about. Lauren put Leeza and I in contact.
Fritz: So the spider web analogy is not far off here.
Eleanna: And Leeza and I, we used the same studio space at Chashama. When I moved out and she chose to be in my space. I had left a small piece of silk fabric and a piece of foam carefully pinned to the wall. When she walked in, she loved the items. They resonated with her and kept them. We met years later.
Joshua: And talk about deference and trust. When somebody says I think this person would be a great part of the group, it takes a lot of trust for everybody to say, ‘hmm don't know em, but I trust you.’
Eleanna: When I was the one to suggest Fritz to the group. None of them knew Fritz, but they were on board.
Fritz: Which is shocking really that my enormous reputation hadn’t preceded me.
Brett: What’s life like after you moved out of 1717 Troutman?
Eleanna: New territory in terms of our neighborhood and local audience. We love it.
Joshua: One of the additional modes of the gallery is to extend the space of the gallery beyond the gallery space itself. Having shows that are ‘Ortega y Gasset represents,’ but are in different cities or different spaces is part of our M.O. For a while we were doing the Ortega y Gasset gazette. Those are also really important to us. It’s cool to have a centralized space, but it’s also so much about extension of that space and the dialog that goes along with it. The gazette is being rebirthed as an interview, art writing website of sorts.
Brett: What’s the craziest idea you’ve been pitched?
Sheilah: Didn’t we get an email from a prince who needed an advance to have a show at OyG that would ultimately net us a lot of money if only we were able to give the $50,000 into the bank account by tomorrow? In all seriousness, I think what is amazing that there is such a degree of support and honest brainstorming around each person’s idea. My ideas for curating shows absolutely change based on feedback and figuring out how better to articulate what I am thinking about based on the responses I get to the proposal.
Brett: What else are you excited about in 2016?
Fritz: We’re doing a performance series this summer, which is that’s a new direction. Almost the entire month of August we’re devoting to performances. A couple of our members are organizing, curating that time period. I can’t give you specifics right now, but any number of performances will be happening across the month of August. That, to me, is a really exciting new direction for this program to be going.
Eleanna: Some of the programming will involve Ugly Duckling Press, which is in the building. They publish poetry. They’re a great organization and we’re looking forward to working with them.
Sarah: The first show I’ll organize opens September 10, 2016. I’m showing the work of Megan and Murray McMillan, they’re a multidisciplinary artist team whose work is a blend of installation, video, performance and photography. They’ll make a site-specific video installation at OyG that deals with found text.
I’ll also be organizing another private art critique group where we discuss one anothers’ work. Several members have organized these discussion groups along the way and it’s always an incredible exchange! It’s a private event, some members attend in Gowanus while others attend via video hangout.
Joshua: There’s also some loose discussions but a lot of energy behind a large-scale artist-run collective exchange that we might be sort of trying to organize or playing a role in. It’s an idea we’ve talked about a couple of times over the years and everybody’s so excited about it.
Brett: Is this something like the TSA Artist Run Project?
Joshua: Totally. There’s also serious momentum to have another OYG space in another city.
Brett: Sharon Louden likes to ask people, “How can she help”. She’s so thoughtful and generous. How could the broader community help out with what you’re doing?
Catherine: I don’t think people often enough think with that kind of logic of generosity. And something that’s really impressive to me about OYG so far that I know. What I have been observing in the past year is the potential for expansion of community and the kind of drive to take on larger projects to drive dialog, but not within just visual arts. The idea to shut down the gallery in August it’s like that is a really generous thing and it’s pushing the boundaries and building a better paradigm for an artist run gallery. As opposed to just like everyone is one part of New York and we’re going to throw shows with our friends in it.
Eleanna: The entire group is generous, encouraging and trusting in this way. I also wanted to say, Ortega wouldn’t be in Gowanus if it was not for the same sort of ideology of community and service that the Old American Can Factory has. We’re so lucky to be in that space because they made it possible for us to be there, which is huge. We spent six months without a home, but we found a community in that building.
Joshua: I think if there’s one thing that should be talked about more, it’s the importance of artist-run spaces. They’re crucial and so valuable, especially with increasing dialog about the un-sustainability of some commercial galleries. Spaces that exist outside of that commercial culture are vital. I don’t want to belabor the point, but the vitality of artist-run spaces comes out of a necessity for talking about expanded parameters for what “success” as such means. What is “success” as a gallery space? Those parameters are very, very finite right now. I don’t think they need to be. An artist-run space that exists and continues to exist should be a parameter of success. An artist-run space that existed is also an incredible and beautiful mark of success.
Brett: How do you measure success within the frame of a collective?
Joshua: Survival. It just means you’re still playing. You’re still in the game.
Catherine: I would just echo off that by saying that I 100% agree with Joshua. Being a living and working member of the Art world is incredibly difficult It is important to show your work, it is just as important to simply continue creating it long term and forming community. For us, if I may speak for us, being a part of OYG is an opportunity to redefine the parameters of what it means to be a success in life as an artist. So I think more people need to know about artist run galleries and understand the importance of them.
Eleanna: Our main goal is to retain a freedom that all commercial galleries don’t have.
Catherine: We have the freedom. That’s the most important thing. It’s like your project (Conversation Project). Or like Sharon Butler’s project Two Coats of Paint. In 2010, she had a Ted talk about the idea of success as an artist. For decades now, artists have been trying to figure out a way to succeed. We’re in the Internet age and people are creating blogs, interview programs, and artist run galleries. These things are like really, really important in long-term survival.
Brett: Both Sharon Louden and Sharon Butler are artist-entrepreneurs in my mind - driven by passion and finding their own ways to create dialogue. I think OyG is also operating in this space of artistic passion to create dialogue in your own way.
Eleanna: Passion also comes up a lot with entrepreneurs. Maybe making money is the outcome in the end, but you really have to be visionary, comfortable with breaking the norm, committed and passionate- just like an artist- about what it is you’re creating or inventing or pursuing, to really make it happen.
Fritz: I just want to clarify that you have indeed correctly identified us as a unicorn gallery.