“F**k, I don’t want an elevator pitch. It’s different every time,” asserted Paul Amenta, founder of Site:Lab. I had just made the faux pas of asking him to sum up Site:Lab in a few words. Amenta, a professor at Kendall College of Art and Design, has redefined and invigorated the arts in Grand Rapids, MI. His hands on engagement with the local art scene informs both his classes and the community. Amenta’s flippant response inadvertently spelled out the DIY attitude and flexibility of Site:Lab, a nomadic arts organization that repurposes vacant structures for short term, site-specific installations and performances.
Picture a huge waterfall made of 2 x 4’s and mesh starting in the basement of an abandoned department store and rising through three stories before bursting out of the roof. Imagine a long defunct secret men’s society coming back to life for one night as conceptualized by artists, musicians and dancers – culminating in a ritualistic wedding ceremony between a goat-headed man and his virgin bride. Visualize an old museum shuttered for decades, with its collections crumbling in their cases suddenly reanimated by hundreds of artists repurposing, and transforming the exhibits for one night of pulsing music and wide-eyed crowds.
Site:Lab traces its origins to Amenta’s experiences as a gallery assistant in New York where he became fascinated with the dynamic of opening night parties. Amenta witnessed a bizarre behavioral code completely incongruous with the gallery the rest of the time. Etiquette goes out the window as crowds of people who seem to have come for the opening and not the art can transform a quiet and contemplative space into a carnival. The aftermath of these New York art openings revealed evidence of people behaving badly: heel marks on the walls, puddles of beer, drinks left on the pedestals next to the art and assorted litter on the floor. And after the night of crowds, the exhibits were seen by a meager trickle for the rest of the month. Site:Lab raises the question, why not make art for the opening itself? Why not feed off of the energy of the crowds and make them part of the interaction and purpose?
Hands down, the largest art-going crowd in Grand Rapids assembles during the ArtPrize competition in the fall. Touting impressive cash prizes based on popular and juried votes, ArtPrize draws over a hundred thousand people to gawk at the work of over a thousand artists spread out over the entire downtown area. Site:Lab has had a major presence in ArtPrize, exhibiting every year since 2009. While the event has polarized the art community, with vocal fans and detractors, Amenta sees it as a rare opportunity to reach an enormous audience. Site:Lab built a reputation as a venue dedicated to high quality and challenging art, something for the serious art viewer rather than the more sensational and crowd pleasing work that clutters up much of ArtPrize. While naysayers have dismissed Site:Lab’s events as spectacle, a more accurate assessment shows that Site:Lab takes advantage of spectacle to get work seen.
Site:Lab possesses another side. It challenges the dominant role of Grand Rapids’ major museums as providers of high quality, contemporary art from around the globe. A lack of overhead and legacy infrastructure gives Site:Lab incredible freedom to bring in who they want on their own terms. This can mean a concentrated dose of young artists for one night or more spacious and sedate exhibits showcasing artists further along in their careers. Austrian artist, Alois Kronschlager, has created large scale work for Site:Lab on several occasions including the aforementioned waterfall, titled Spire. Most recently he produced art with Site:Lab at Miami’s Art Basel, successfully impressing critics like Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, who claimed that Site:Lab is one of the best things he has ever seen and advocates for its inclusion in more major art fairs beyond Basel Miami.
For now though, Site:Lab will continue its presence in Grand Rapids, taking over the Morton Hotel, a longtime empty building downtown, in time to coincide with ArtPrize. The Morton Hotel, with its cavernous lobby with a Romanesque arched ceiling and intact bank vault with an intimidating locking door should provide stimulating fodder for artists. Site:Lab has won five awards in the three previous ArtPrize competitions, and two of its artists took the top juried awards.
A city haunted by the ghosts of furniture manufacturing, Grand Rapids provides an abundance of vacant structures for Site:Lab to host installations and performances. The events draw large crowds and bring attention to the disused buildings, which has led to the revitalization of some as commercial spaces. Aware of Site:Lab’s dependence on the interest, cooperation and goodwill of the property owners who lend their spaces, Amenta and his crew of dedicated volunteers foster good will with an ethic that leaves the buildings in better shape than when they found them: bringing structures up to fire codes, rewiring electrical systems and shoring up floors and walls. Perhaps, victims of their own success, fewer empty spaces now remain for Site:Lab installations as Grand Rapids’ economy improves.
Looking to the future, Site:Lab is in talks with Habitat for Humanity in Grand Rapids, to set up a base of operations in a newly acquired city block on Rumsey St. SW just west of highway 131. The area, full of vacant lots and empty houses, will afford all kinds of opportunities for artists to take their creativity to an extreme as they can have free reign with structures that will eventually be demolished. Amenta sees this as a new chapter in Site:Lab’s development as they become more involved with the community and create opportunities with previously underrepresented neighborhoods in Grand Rapids’ budding art scene.