Newsday Sunday Edition, October 26, 2003


Queens Life section
Influx To A New Frontier
A vacant air-conditioning plant
becomes an outpost for art with an edge
By Marc Ferris

Two years ago, the landlord of the artists’ collective known as the Flux Factory raised the rent on the group’s loft in Williamsburg, where the
members had lived since 1994. The artists searched for new quarters
nearby but realized they could no longer afford to live in the Brooklyn
neighborhood that they had helped transform from a cultural backwater
into a trendy art destination. So they looked in Queens and found a
reasonably priced former air-conditioning factory on an industrial strip
on 43rd Street in Long Island City, complete with a view of the Empire
State Building.

Though they’ve left the hipster precincts of Brooklyn, the artists still
retain an edge. Their Dark Days of Summer festival last year, for
instance, featured Professor McGillicutty’s Snake Oil Medicine Show with
performance artist Vulnavia, who placed the good professor’s head under
her foot and ground his face into a pile of broken glass.

A daylong installation scheduled for next month at the factory, “All You
Can Art,” will feature edible art that can be “felt and tasted, smelled
and consumed,” according to the Web site www.fluxfactory.org. The show
is designed to allow for reflection on “questions of natural history and
human history, aesthetics and consumption, and the materiality of art
work.”

Their Queens Museum of Art exhibition, “When Everybody Agrees, It Means
Nobody Understood,” which ran from August to November of last year,
required the participation of museum administrators, security and
janitors. The structure the artists built looked like a giant erector
set, and the work consisted of their putting it up and taking it down,
all under the gaze of a video camera. Each day, they held a ribbon
cutting and a tea party. Wearing orange jumpsuits, Fluxers staffed the
exhibit every minute the museum was open. One day, Jean Barberis greeted
guests with a dozen balloons taped to his body.

Hitomi Iwasaki, museum associate curator, said, “It’s almost
anachronistic that they live together. It makes me think of Paris in the
1920s. These days, there are few collaboratives like them.”

Flux Factory founder and linchpin Morgan Meis, the lone holdover from
the first group of Williamsburg pioneers to still live at the collective, disdains the term commune, which smacks of “going to Vermont and turning your back on the evils of modern urban society and materialism,” he said. “That doesn’t apply to us because everyone is engaged in the cosmopolitan urban experience in our social lives and our work lives. This is an experiment, really. Not everyone has to live in a nuclear family situation.”

Meis, 31, estimates that about 100 residents have passed through the
collective over the years. Now there are 15 members in residence. About
two dozen other members are involved, but do not live on the premises.
The group’s 7,500-square-foot headquarters is partitioned into a large
exhibit area, a kitchen, three bathrooms, two lounges, a small computer
den, a darkroom and 15 living spaces, some as small as a walk-in closet.
The larger the room, the more the occupant pays, though everyone shares
the bills and contributes $60 to a monthly food fund. A list of chore
assignments hangs in the kitchen.

The space has a jury-rigged, work-in-progress feel. A drum set is
stashed in a loft above a lounge area. Stacks of Fortune magazines, some
dating to the 1950s, sit atop an old pantyhose vending machine.
“If you’re a neat freak, you wouldn’t like the place,” said Stefany Anne
Golberg, the group’s director of events, a musician who lived in the
loft in Williamsburg and still lives in Brooklyn.

Residents meet every Tuesday night to discuss issues related to art and
to their living situation. Though personality clashes are relatively
rare, there have been rocky moments, said Dan Mulcare, who has lived at
the factory for three years. “We’ve had people who didn’t pay rent and
others who’ve stolen stuff,” he said. “And we’ve voted down people from
moving in who we didn’t think would click.”

Fluxers try to strike a balance between the collective ethos and the
individual initiative. “No one’s forced to do anything, so no one’s life
is subsumed,” said Mulcare, 31, “but people are here to participate in
an arts organization as much as they’re here to live.”

The group holds a Thursday night salon, open to the public, in which
participants test ideas and discuss projects. The evening has featured
poetry and fiction readings, theatrical snippets, musical performances,
as well as showings of paintings, photos and videos.

“It’s about dialogue, constructive criticism, and instant feedback,”
said Golberg, 30. “It’s a chance for people to debut their work before
they take it to a larger audience.”

To that end, the cozy space serves as an incubator for conceptual art,
broadly defined. Heather Hatton, 22, is an activist for political
causes. Meis and Mulcare are doctoral candidates – Meis in philosophy
and Mulcare, political science. Nick Jones, 25, is a playwright and
puppeteer, Sebastien Sanz de Santamaria, 26, works primarily with
computers, and Dana Gramp, 26, is a photographer.

“We don’t really focus on making objects to sell,” said Golberg, a
musician and sound technician. When Jones told her he planned to film
his puppet show, “Jollyship the Whiz-Bang,” she asked him what he was
going to do with it. “He said, ‘I don’t know; I hadn’t thought about
it,'” she said. “We create things for the sake of it, not for commerce.”

Despite the focus on artistic creativity, the group is well aware of the
need for fiscal responsibility. They share the $7,500 monthly rent, paid
for by day jobs and freelance gigs.

Four years ago, the members incorporated as a not-for-profit
organization, which qualifies them for a wider array of grants, though
the goal is to generate enough money to dole out their own grants and
sponsor other artists who share their vision of collaborative
uncommercial art.

The collective has its roots in the founders’ undergraduate days at The
New School University in Manhattan. “We had these notions about New York
being an intellectual center where people discuss crucial events of the
day and hold wonderfully esoteric discussions every evening over bottles
of red wine,” said Meis, who grew up in Los Angeles. “The reality is
different, of course, so we figured if we wanted to create a community,
we should do it ourselves.”

Back then, few artists lived in Williamsburg, but that began to change
as neighborhoods such SoHo and the East Village gentrified. Then the
same thing happened in Williamsburg and the Fluxers were forced out.
In addition to stretching the bounds of acceptability, the group is also
serious about bringing art to communities that have little of it. Twice
a week, some of them work with autistic adults affiliated with Quality
Services for the Autism Community, based in Astoria, and will organize a
gallery show of their students’ work.

“They’re vibrant, hip young people looking for ways to create new
opportunities for our consumers to be creative,” said Lauren Maldonado,
day habilitation field coordinator at the agency. “That’s a rarity.”
Long Island City is becoming an art destination. The Museum of Modern
Art opened its temporary home at Queens Boulevard and 33rd Street, and
new blood has invigorated 5 Pointz and the outdoor graffiti art center
formerly known as the Phun Phactory on Davis Street. And P.S. 1
Contemporary Art Center on Jackson Avenue is undergoing an expansion.
Though initially apprehensive about moving, the Fluxers have acclimated
to their new digs. “We really appreciate the lack of attitude and
pretense,” said Meis, who added that Williamsburg had become overrun
with phony bohemians, known as “fauxhemians.”

“The diversity in Queens is a cliche, but you walk around, and it’s a
mini-tour of the entire planet,” he said. “And there’s a bit of a buzz
about Long Island City. People always kept saying it was the next place
for artists, but it never seemed to happen. Now that we’re here, we
sense this potential of getting in on the ground floor of something
special.”

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.