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Make Money/Save Money: This multitalented Frenchman proves that home is where the art is.
Time Out New York / Issue 714 : Jun 4€“10, 2009
By Jonathan Bender
The laws of physics state that bodies in motion come to rest only when an external force stops them. But Newton’s theory would have required tweaking had he met Jean Barberis, the affable 30-year-old curator of Queens gallery Flux Factory, who barely stops moving, even after roadblocks have been thrown into his path. Barberis is constantly working on the next exhibit for the gallery and aptly named art space – it changes addresses as often as one might change apartments. He also can’t stop creating curios and art exhibits for installations across the five boroughs. “I like working as a curator and I always want to do something with my hands,” says Barberis, who resides in Woodside, Queens. “Who wants to sit at a desk all day, when I can be building stuff?”
This curator-carpenter-art-installer was born in Aix-en-Provence, a small French town just outside Marseille. At the age of 18, Barberis had his first solo art show – an installation inspired by a series of photo collages – at a small nonprofit art gallery in the nearby town of Montpelier. “It was a small show, mostly friends and family. I realized that your main audience is your community. That’s where you start and that’s what you have to build from,” says Barberis.
Just four years later, Barberis followed his girlfriend at the time to New York City, where she happened to be subletting a room at the Flux Factory, a collective launched in 1994 and named for the ever-changing cast of occupants. Barberis was drawn to the space (which was then next to the East River in Williamsburg) and the eclectic mix of artists and designers better known for their weekly dinners and parties than for their art. But the challenge to having a home in NYC isn’t just finding it, it’s keeping it. The tenants of the Flux Factory were evicted in 2001 when Williamsburg became increasingly popular and rents started soaring.
“We had to redefine ourselves as an organization. It was a challenge to find a new space where we could be more ambitious. That takes up a lot of energy, but it’s also a way to get a new start,” says Barberis, of Flux’s move to a converted warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. And so began the long, vagrant history of one of New York’s most unconventional art spaces.
That first summer in Queens (in 2002) was critical for Barberis as a curator. He helped mount the exhibit “When Everybody Agrees, It Means Nobody Understood,” in the Queens Museum. Flux artists literally dismantled part of the museum’s gallery space, tunneling into the walls to spy on visitors who were walking around the plastic installation they created. “I’m constantly trying different formats, constantly trying to challenge the notions of what an art exhibit is supposed to be and look like,” says Barberis.
In October 2008, only six years into a fifteen-year lease, Flux was evicted from its LIC space on 43rd Street; the building was taken through eminent domain by the MTA for its East Side Access Project. Due to the gallery’s physical uncertainty, Barberis realized that art exhibits could be portable and, perhaps more important, experiential. The result was “Going Places (Doing Stuff),” a free tour, offered for the first time last summer and running again this June, where local artists serve as guides to busloads of visitors for day trips around the boroughs of New York. Barberis calls it “road trip as performance art.”
The fact that the gallery is constantly moving requires most of Flux’s contributors to seek employment outside of its ever-changing walls. Barberis is not only the curator at Flux Factory, he also works as a freelance carpenter and art installer. “I have never been in a situation at Flux where we could just throw money at the problem,” Barberis says. “Flux has extremely limited resources when it comes to money, but unlimited resources when it comes to people. We have an amazing community of artists that we can tap into at any moment.”
Of course, Barberis is one of the most astounding of these artists: In addition to his performance art, Barberis crafts curious art-cum-furniture by transforming vintage suitcases into wall-mounted vanity cases (available at vanitycase.etsy.com). These delightful bits of ephemera, filled with all of the essentials you’d have in a bar or boudoir, mix old-world design with practicality – they’re like functional dioramas.
And, finally, on Barberis’s to-do list is to renovate Flux Factory’s newest space, an 8,000-square-foot, three-story former greeting-card factory on 29th Street in Long Island City. But don’t pity him; it’s only because there’s always something to do that Barberis has stuck around this long. “I thought I might spend a few months at Flux. But ten years later, here I am.” he says. Be sure to catch “Going Places (Doing Stuff), Best Summer Ever Edition” June 20th through September 9th. Details are vague, but Barberis says there may be snacks. For info contact him at email@example.com.
Barberis’s five keys to a successful art exhibit
1 Don’t think about it – do it.
2 It takes will to coordinate people and resources.
3 You need to use your social skills and be flexible.
4 Always have your friends and family help you.
5 Art can be displayed anywhere.
Barberis’s career timeline
1978 Jean Barberis is born on August 6.
1996 Barberis has his first solo exhibit.
2000 Barberis arrives in New York City.
2001 Flux Factory is ejected from the Williamsburg space.
2002 Flux Factory moves to Long Island City, Queens.
2008 Flux Factory is evicted from its 43rd Street space.
2009 Flux Factory signs a lease for its new LIC space.