Art Radar recently interviewed New York-based curators Meenakshi Thirokode and Jasmine Wahi about their public art organisation Project for Empty Space and their involvement with the South Asian art world. Part one of the interview focuses on their non-profit project.

Meenakshi Thirukode, co-Founder of Project for Empty Space.

Jasmine Wahi, co-Founder of Project for Empty Space

Jasmine Wahi and Meenakshi Thirukode are New York-based curators of South Asian and Middle Eastern contemporary art. Together they founded Project for Empty Space, which organises public art installations in abandoned urban spaces. First launched in September 2010 and now in its third year, the non-profit aims to “foster community building and education through the development of interactive public art.” Jasmine and Meenakshi spoke with Art Radar about the inspiration for their project, their first installation with Pakistani-born artist Tehniyet Masood in New York’s Lower East Side and expanding the project internationally.

Could you go into the initial motivation behind Project for Empty Space, how the two of you met and how the idea came about?

JW: We actually remember exactly how we met, because we both were at Christie’s. Here in New York the Asian art circle, especially the South Asian art circle, is pretty small, so we just sort of became friends along the way, but neither of us remembers when. We both have similar backgrounds in the commercial side of the business, but both of us really had an interest in community. Meenakshi particularly has an interest in art outside of the institutional space, and I have a really strong interest in how to engage art in education, primarily dealing with public art and the public school system versus the private sector and public art. So from that … we wanted to do something together, and we discovered we both had very similar interests in community art. Project for Empty Space sort of came out of that as an experiment. When we realised that people in the neighborhood we started in had such a positive reaction to having something productive in what was essentially just a dead space, we just kept going.

So this was the first time either of you had ever taken on such a large project? 

MT: Yes. Like Jasmine mentioned, we’d been working in the commercial side of things before we got into this. I’d curated in India and in New York, more gallery shows, but exploring the idea of the relationship between commercial systems and artists and curators and all the players within that field. So for me, I think meeting Jasmine and knowing that we have a lot of similar interests, it was about bringing her resources and her background, and for me to bring my resources and my interests, which materialised into Project for Empty Space. We’ve done gallery shows, and then this was outside of that, but it’s almost a similar amount in terms of the work that goes in. It’s just the two of us right now with this, so working in an abandoned space, a vacant lot, versus working in a gallery with white walls and all of that, it takes a completely different mindset and [set of] resources….

Installation view of Tehniyet Masood's 2010 piece for Project for Empty Space. Image courtesy Project for Empty Space.

Tehniyet Masood's installation for Project for Empty Space in 2010. Image courtesy Project for Empty Space.

The vacant lot in the very early stages of installation. Image courtesy Project for Empty Space.

What were some of the challenges you faced working in a vacant lot, in such a unique sort of curatorship? What problems did you run into, and how did you have to adapt to the situation or circumstances?

JW: Well the first problem we had was that our space is more unusual than a lot of places where you might see unsanctioned public art in that it was fenced in. No one had really been in there. It was formerly a tenement building that had been knocked down or basically demolished and then never cleaned up. Obviously the big debris was [cleaned up], but a lot of it was still left over. So our first hardship was [that on] the first day of our installation I hurt myself on the site. I had a nail go through my foot, so that kind of presented a major challenge, because Tehniyet was building this huge structure, and I was pretty much out of commission during the whole installation. That also led to some issues about how we really had to make sure that the space was safe for other people to come into, and that meant building an actual platform. Very different from other forms of public art where people are just meant to view it and not necessarily go into it, we had to make an inaccessible place accessible and safe, so that was definitely a challenge.

MT: And also the fact that when you’re working with a public-owned space, there are challenges, [such as] the process of getting a space. This was a city-owned lot, so it’s a different process from working with a more private, commercial setup like a gallery. The process is different in terms of securing the space, the timeframes. You know you’re not working just purely on your own deadlines, a lot of other people need to have a say, whether it’s the community board or the city, and so you need to learn to work with that. And again, like the abandoned space, something as basic as electricity, you take it for granted, but we had to borrow it from the liquor store right next to the space. They were really super about it, and they were excited once the installation [was] up. … So it’s kind of interesting how we have to work with the community and working with a whole different dynamic. Those things were new to us initially.

Installing Tehniyet Masood's public art piece into the vacant lot. Image courtesy Project for Empty Space.

And you have said that the public reaction has been very positive to date. Can you tell us a bit more about this? 

MT: Absolutely. In the space, usually we give the artist about a month, maybe three to four weeks to start work and create the piece that they want. So when the artist is there, Jasmine and I take turns working with the artist, we always have a lot of people walking by. It’s typical in New York … not notice what’s going on around you, when you’re just looking straight down and walking, but sometimes [people] notice, especially kids, and then [they say], ‘Oh! This space just opened up!’ It was just a chain link fence and no one could get in, so the idea that you can come into a space that was not accessible before is exciting to them. … They would come in and [loved to] talk to the artist. They were super nice with both of the artists, we’ve had Tehniyet and Alex [Callender], who was our artist in residence last year. They would hang out with the artist sometimes, get [them] a beer maybe….

Alex Callender's 2011 installation for Project for Empty Space. Image courtesy Project for Empty Space.

How do you see Project for Empty Space as different from other public art spaces or anti-institution art? What is your defining feature of social engagement?

JW: I think for us, our projects are really spurred by actually engaging the surroundings and having work that is inspired by and about the environment and the local community. I know a lot of other projects do site-specific installation, but it’s usually when an artist has a concrete concept and then they adapt it to the space. For us, when artists propose to us they come with a very nascent, almost vague concept that changes with the input of the community as they’re developing it. Not that it’s completely spur of the moment, but it’s definitely part of the purpose for the audience to engage with the process of both the conceptual and physical evolution of the installation, which I think is sort of unique. … There’s both an influence and influenced aspect between the artist and the audience.

With regard to Tehniyet Masood and her project, can you provide a specific example of some on-the-spot inspiration that drove her piece?

JW: Actually with her piece she didn’t come in with any plans or blueprints at all. She came to us with an idea. She basically had pictures of buildings and architectural elements in the Lower East Side that inspired her and didn’t really have any plans until she got to the space and started talking to the people around her. She knew she wanted to use wood, so we had collected that, but other than that everything was sort of built organically while she was there and while she was interacting with people. A lot of the elements in the structure were in response to what people had asked for or had commented on.

Tehniyet Masood hanging string for her installation piece. Image courtesy Project for Empty Space.

MT: We used reclaimed, recycled material, and the wood that she used actually belonged to buildings that were broken down in the city. We got it from this organisation called Build It Green. It’s waste that people just send out there, so conceptually that was an interesting aspect because she’s using material that used to be part of [other buildings] to recreate something in this vacant lot in the city. … One of the things she did was, which, like Jasmine said, was not planned, … she used these long strings to create this semi-roof kind of structure over the actual base construction, and some of that string was actually tied to the windows and the fire escape across the buildings that were around the lot. It was her way of showing how the installation was connected to the neighbors and the people who came in and talked to her. They were super excited to have this string from their window, going all the way down to this lot that was right across their apartment. That was a little gesture that came out of the fact that people were just coming out of their apartments and talking to her. On the day of the opening, when the installation was completed, we had this sort of official opening. We had these little red squares that she made out of the same wood, and we had people place them in the installation wherever they wanted to. It was just a simple gesture, but people were super excited because they felt … like they’re contributing something and they were really thinking about it. So those were like little ways in which, unexpectedly, connections were created.

In your first year (2010), what inspired you to choose Tehniyet Masood as your artist in residence? What set her apart from the other proposals?

MT: I think, for one, we knew that we wanted a vacant space, and we were trying to actually look at how we could explore the idea. One of the key things in terms of our focus and mission is that we have a basic idea of what our goals are, but … we want something organic. That’s something that we want to maintain throughout, so it was really about talking to artists that we’ve been working with, sending out an open proposal saying, ‘Here’s this space and what would you want to do with it?’ I think, for women artists, and for artists from Pakistan, art from that part of the world has been contextualised so much within a commercial gallery space. … I guess since we both come from a South Asian background and that’s kind of been what we’ve been interested in, it was about giving her, a South Asian artist, that opportunity to explore something beyond the context in which she’s always been looked at. It was also one of the strongest proposals in terms of how she wanted to develop the project organically, unlike a complete, concrete idea, so we were attracted to that aspect a lot, and it worked out really well.

Tehniyet Masood's installation for Project for Empty Space. Image courtesy Project for Empty Space.

How do you see Tehniyet Masood’s personal background, coming to New York from Pakistan, as influencing her work, specifically with Project for Empty Space?

MT: Tehniyet is also an architect by day, … so I think that that had a huge part in her own work. If you looked at her paintings and her drawings, they’re very abstract, but very sort of geometrical, so it’s probably more to do with her architectural background that had an influence in what the larger installation piece looked like. But what’s interesting to me is that [people are] always looking for the ‘South Asian’ aspect of a South Asian artist, and that’s something that we didn’t want to reiterate too much. We felt that it should just be about what the artist really wants to explore on her own regardless of that background. That was really what was great because when she made the piece, people kept referring to her as a male artist, because they just didn’t think that it could be this woman artist from Pakistan who just created this abstract construction with wood and string. So that’s what we want to do as well, we’re not looking at it as ‘Okay, how can she bring the South Asian, Pakistani thing into this?’ It’s just, here’s an amazing woman artist from Pakistan and this is what she does and it’s interesting, and it’s going to be an interesting materialisation in the space.

You have also expanded the project to Bogota, Columbia. What inspired you to choose Bogota as the second location?

MT: I’d been having a lot of conversations with David Alfonso, who’s a curator based out of there. He had come into New York a couple of times on other residencies. … We realised that he was also working along similar lines, and one of the things that Project for Empty Space wants to do is collaborate and enable other similar sorts of projects, giving them a kind platform to work within, that similar, socially engaged, public art practice. … Actually Bogota reminds me a lot of India, just culturally, … the kind of things they’re thinking about and talking about. They were looking to launch … a cultural centre for the public around a community in Bogota. It worked organically, where we didn’t want to just go and impose, … what we wanted to do [was to work] as enablers or in a collaborative way. They had this abandoned house that they wanted to make a cultural institution, and they felt that they could do that through … a collaboration with PES. It worked perfectly because it was an abandoned house, in a way a different kind of abandoned space, and it had a history that was really interesting. It was an artist’s house and it had all this stuff that he had hoarded over thirty or forty years. The idea was for artists to move in and use that material to create these pieces that talked about the house, that talked about the neighbourhood and a lot of the changes that were going on in that neighbourhood, including gentrification, which is almost similar to what’s also happening in neighbourhoods in New York. We are very interested in that, in being able to collaborate with other projects that are thinking in a similar vein, and how we can bring those resources together to engage different spaces in different cities, and in other countries as well.

Do you have any plans to expand Project for Empty Space into new cities in the future? 

JW: We do, yes. For now we’re sort of planning it out for the next few years, and so you will probably be seeing us in a couple very different parts of the world. We’ll actually be announcing that a little bit later on this month, so you’ll just have to wait and see. […] We were certainly looking at both cities domestically, we’ve talked about Washington DC, over the past few years, so that’s definitely going to come up. We would love to expand and do a project at some point in Asia, either South or East Asia. That of course is something that requires a couple years of planning logistically and financially, so as of now we are just trying to map out the next couple of years. We’ll definitely be both domestic and international over the next couple of years if not months. But right now we’re deciding on which space we want to use for later this year, and since there are only two of us we have to pick and choose carefully.

Project for Empty Space will begin their third open call for project proposals in June 2012. Part two of this interview will be published for our next email newsletter, hitting inboxes on Thursday 7 June 2012. In the second instalment, Wahi and Thirukode discuss their involvement with the South Asian contemporary art community.


Related Topics: art and the community, installation art, public art, interviews

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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