PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 56-67
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The Brewster Project and the Plight of Place
On the weekend of July 28-29, 2001, New York-based curator Regine Basha, and artist-critics Christopher Ho and Omar Lopez-Chahoud, brought together ten independent curators, over forty artists, and hundreds of visitors to the one-street village of Brewster, nestled within the town of Southeast, in Putnam County, New York. The Brewster Project, a plural and prismatic site-specific exhibition, represented the impossibility of returning to either an authentic form of site specificity or an organic notion of community while making every sincere and possible attempt to reach it.
The premise of the project was that Brewster is a site with a singular identity that is ripe for artistic intervention and investigation. Participating artists 1 were asked to react to some aspect of the village's distinctiveness either in the past, present, or future. To do so, they came to visit the site, conduct research, decide which aspect interested them, and choose where they would like to exhibit. For the duration of the Brewster Project, the entire village became a gallery and stage as artists displayed their works in the storefronts and on the sidewalk of Main Street, within the Southeast Museum, in front of the historic Walter Brewster House and Brewster Public Library, along the banks of the Croton River, beside the gas station, and in the Metro North train station. On the surface it seemed as if the circus had come to town as multi-colored balloons adorned lampposts, banners emblazoned with country-song lyrics—"I've Got the Morning Sun," and "I've Got the Evening Breeze"—swung across Main Street, store-fronts and streets were jammed, and herds of people shuttled back and forth between Jack'n'Jill's Q Lounge and the Iron Horse Bar for performances and libations. However, this unregulated eruption of desire and fantasy was underscored by both the sentiment of loss and its performative reiteration. Many of the works—whether sculpture, painting, collage, Internet art, performance, video, installations, or photography—wrestled with the experience of loss on the level of both life and art. That is, the engagement with the historical and socio-economic transformations that have dramatically altered the village of Brewster from the nineteenth century to the present was inextricably linked to an interrogation of the viability of site specificity as a relevant model for contemporary art practice and a reflection on the status of community in contemporary society. [End Page 56]
The profound sentiment of loss that pervades both contemporary art production and contemporary life is linked to a utopian yearning for an originary moment. On the one hand, contemporary art is faced with the task of producing works that are not simply empty versions of earlier avant-garde forms and that neither imitate the debased ephemera of today's commodity culture nor cater to its appetite for spectacle. On the other, contemporary society is dealing with the equally acute crisis of locating a new model of identity, both individual and communal, in an ever-shifting, fluid system of exchange that has fragmented, de-centered. and destabilized a subject that once appeared as certain as the gold-standard. The formation of the present, both in contemporary art practice and culture, is a continuous process of looking backwards to an imagined past—residing most often in the art practice of the historical avant-garde and the moral coherence of the bourgeois subject—in which an authentic and holistic moment seemed to have existed. This auratic instant, a mythic mnemonic image that is impossible to either replicate or attain, has nevertheless established a standard of truth according to which every successive utterance is judged.
In the sphere internal to artistic practice, the Brewster Project positioned itself in relation to site specificity, a paradigm that has drastically and irrevocably permutated from phenomenological to social/institutional to discursive since its emergence out of the Minimalist...