The artistic practice and the Open Source Gallery, how the Third Paradise changes New York
The Rebirth/Third Paradise ambassadress Monika Wuhrer tells us about herself and the development of her artistic practice in the Big Apple: in a socio-political analysis of America, here is how art can become the instrument for responsibly transforming the community through a patchwork of initiatives and projects (Seamstress Project, Open Source Gallery, The cHURCH OF MONIKA). “Socially engaged art – writes Monika - has opened the conversation to those who are often excluded from it, creating more accessibility rather than cultivating an atmosphere that intimidates newcomers.”

When I moved from Vienna to Brooklyn, socially and politically engaged art practices were not yet introduced to the public. Instead there was tons of artistic ways to transform people’s living rooms and kitchens into gallery spaces. The city was and is very lively. Nevertheless to do the socially and politically engaged work I am so interested in, it was soon clear that I have to establish my own stage to create the projects I thought to be important, meaningful and fun. So soon after I arrived, I created Open Source Gallery, where for example every year during December homeless people feel safe to have a meal and conversations with all kinds of people from all income brackets. The entire neighborhood looks forward to eat at the gallery every year! Now Brooklyn is full of artists who practice socially engaged art and participate. There are many platforms within the city that support and host artists to create meaningful projects.

This sense of community is mirrored also in the Third Paradise. All the ambassadors share significant moments in life while thinking and creating their third paradise. The community grows rapidly and weaves a thread of thoughts between cultures, places, politics and people. Living in Brooklyn as a Third Paradise ambassador is stabilizing my existence. The thought of being part of a robust center, influenced by projects that feed of the notion of the importance of the first paradise: nature. American politics right now are scary. The idea that we can still deny climate change is incredible and hard to understand. I live in a city where nature gets to be incredibly important since it is overpowered by the artificial paradise. Open Source Gallery runs a children’s program in schools where we dissect computers and other technology to create artistic projects repurposing parts we find “inside” the technology. I see this a bit as a metaphor for the 2nd paradise. All in all life in Brooklyn is extremely busy, mostly very interesting and easy to survive when you know you have an entire community invested in similar intellectual ideas that can be called the Third Paradise.

Currently, the United States is in crisis. Those who had looked forward to a bright future for civil liberties in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidency have found themselves to be political outsiders, looking on in horror as human rights have been dismantled day by day. And while the resistance is strong, many traces of the right wing seeps into even the most liberal bastions and artistic hubs like Brooklyn and LA, where hateful slurs and worse are scrawled on walls and hurled at fellow New Yorkers on the subway. Both recent immigrants and long­time residents are fearful of the fires that xenophobia and racism in the current administration is stoking. As the immediacy of so many issues comes to the fore, many are lost in the shuffle. While city officials speak loudly about their resistance to ICE, developers are given the go­ahead to bulldoze through neighborhoods, pushing out families and disrupting communities.

I believe that art plays an important role in contemporary politics: in both addressing important, current issues, but also drawing attention to overlooked problems. Though many artists are working collectively to create change, others are stuck in the dream of fame in the art world, while some plan to leave the country and its problems behind. As an artist, I do not believe in quick fixes, but I believe we have a responsibility to do what we can on a day­to­day basis.

Years ago, I studied with Michelangelo Pistoletto, who led me on a path to socially engaged art. Since then, I have found art to be an incredible tool for communication and understanding that I use in my own work. I have often been frustrated to see dialogue in the art world stagnate, reaching only artists and professionals who only engage with each other. Socially engaged art has opened the conversation to those who are often excluded from the conversation, creating more accessibility, rather than cultivating an atmosphere that intimidates newcomers.

(Installation Shot by Anja Matthes, The Fire Theory: ICE, 2017, curated by Omar López-Chahoud)

Through my own art, I try to create projects where I can make a small difference that has the potential to develop into something larger, involving people organically in the discussion of what art can and should do and creating a community around art. One example of a project that exemplifies my work is my Seamstress Project at the Museo Pecci (a version of this project was also presented at Cittadellarte). During this project, I collaborated with textile factory workers who would usually produce the same patterns day after day. The seamstresses from the factory were brought to the museum where they were charged with creating the entire room, as well as their own store. The only restriction was to use a particular textile that had imagery and text that also served as the catalog for the show. This project­­the collaboration and artistic conversation resulting from the Seamstress Project­­had both a profound impact on the factory workers, as well as my own work.

Open Source Gallery was founded in 2007 as a vehicle to present an accessible, yet challenging, conceptually driven art experience for a wide community. Artists from all over the world work closely with our local Brooklyn neighbors to create incredible exhibitions in our space–a converted garage in a residential neighborhood. Projects we present are socially and politically engaged, placing inclusivity at the forefront and inspire the community to not just be involved passively, but actively.

I have carried lessons learned during my own career as an artist into Open Source, letting the organization grow organically and respond to the communities it serves. Programming at Open Source is community­driven, but there is one program that is particularly personal and that I have placed my name prominently: the cHURCH OF MONIKA. The cHURCH is a program that plays with the idea of a religion as a form of expression, but one that is often misused. I began the cHURCH as a response to hundreds of churches that pop­up all over New York City all the time in a variety of buildings; they are very rule­driven, yet arbitrary and each has their own leadership that informs their views and politics. The use of my own name is intended to reference how easily these new religions are created: I aim to emphasize the community building aspect of churches, while remaining critical of the cult of personality and closed­mindedness that can negatively impact congregations. Once a month on Sunday, my own cHURCH meets to think critically about religion and explore the role that art can and should have in communities.

At Open Source, the chaos and devastation of the current administration in the United States has been eye opening. Historically, art movements have instigated change and in a time when change is badly needed, we have the opportunity to support art that can do just that. Over the past several years, we have presented programming that aims to provoke discussion, encourage understanding and act as a catalyst for action.

In 2016, we presented a year­long program of exhibitions and projects from collectives and artist­run spaces from around the world. In our experience, artists profit from the exchange of ideas that comes from collective action. And, for us, this program was a means to create a conversation about how artists and creatives can­­and have to­­work together to create something bigger than themselves.

In 2017, our exhibition schedule turned to social practice and was uniquely suited to address the presidential inauguration of failed celebrity businessman and alleged sex offender, Donald Trump. One of the earliest initiatives that the administration undertook was an effort to secure our borders, delivering xenophobic promises to build a wall and ban Muslims. In the fall of 2017, we exhibited work by El Salvador­based art collective, The Fire Theory. Artists from The Fire Theory­­Victor “Crack” Rodriguez, Melissa Guevara, Ernesto Bautista and Mauricio Kabistan­­worked with curator Omar Lopez­Chahoud to present ICE, an exhibition focused on immigration and the concept of the “American Dream.” During the exhibition, Rodriguez opened the gallery as a workspace, engaging with the community surrounding Open Source to delve deep into issues surrounding immigration, migration and deportation. Guevara, Bautista and Kabistan, whose travel visas for the exhibition were denied, remained in El Salvador, collaborating across borders to exhibit their work­in­progress at Open Source. Projects were updated in the gallery as the artists worked on them over the course of the exhibition. One project include a letter exchange that involved both children in El Salvador and local children from immigrant families in the NYC school system. In conjunction with the exhibition, we presented an additional program in collaboration with a local organization that helps immigrants to understand their rights and secure visas.

In 2018, we got serious about “global,” creating an exhibition schedule designed to tell stories and perspectives from around the globe. Artists from countries such as Palestine, Uganda and Chile and second­generation American immigrants explored war, exploitation, aesthetics, love and trauma.

In 2020, we will bring our focus home, responding the current political milieu and exploring the concept of “America” through an exhibition of artists from North and South America. Artists in the program will explore just a small sliver of the American identity. Artists will include: Alaska­based Tlingit­Unangax artist Nicholas Galanin, New York­based Ecuadorian artist Ronny Quevedo, Bangladeshi­American artist Monica Jahan Bose, Chinese­Canadian artist Annie Wong, New York­based Bolivian artist Maximiliano Siñani, and New York­based Columbian artist Camilo Godoy.
Looking back on eleven years of Open Source, it is easy to see how the tenets of the Arte Povera movement and my introduction to social practice have influenced the organization. Friends, families and community are the fuel to art that can have social and political impact. We have welcomed all: adults and children, neighbors and tourists, artists and viewers, visitors of all worldviews that are open to respectful dialogue. With all of our programs, we have emphasized to our audience that the everyday is meaningful and art and life can be­­and often are­­one and the same. We have encouraged artists to experiment, to take action and to think critically, always rejecting the notion that the artist should be a lonely genius. In the spirit of the open source movement, which has promoted the free exchange of knowledge and ideas, we have crafted a forum where art intersects with the community and the world at large.

Cover photo credits: Installation Shot by Dario Lasagni, Francesco Simeti: Swell, 2017.