The music filling the room on a warm January night in Brooklyn was originating from Mori and Olive’s laptops and directed (not processed, just pushed) by Moore, who created the 16-channel speaker system hanging over the audience’s heads. After discussion with the players, Moore set Olive’s sounds to meander through the speakers, while Mori could choose from three speeds for her percussive electronics to dart across the sound field. The speaker system broke down the idea of an audience staring at a stage; some walked the perimeter of the room, exploring sonic variations; others faced outward, at the quiet Gowanus Canal through the window.
There’s something about a circle that opens up possibilities and the second-story performance space at Issue Project Room almost makes impossible the typical audience/performer dynamic. With no clear way to arrange the room, performers are forced to think about how they want to set themselves up, how they want to send and how they want the audience to receive. A few weeks prior to the Mori/Olive gig, percussionist Kenny Wollesen played there with multi-instrumentalist Peck Allmond, using rugs and smudge sticks to turn the room into a sort of shrine. And during two nights of theremin music in the past months, performers were able to set up around the dozen small stages and ask the audience to swivel for each set.
Losing the typical stage-and-rows-of-chairs relationship changes the dynamic of concerts, as does Executive Director Suzanne Fiol’s penchant for providing food and good microbrews. Unlike at some stuffy and terribly serious rooms in town, going to Issue is a friendly, social night out. And not only has the hegemony of the stage been destroyed, but the feeling of being in New York is eradicated. Standing at the top of the outdoor stairwell that leads to the performance space, the only reminder of the city is the Williamsburg Bank clock tower. Other than that, it’s a canal, an old boat and dark streets. Even the walk to the space - three blocks from the F train in Carroll Gardens - leads downhill through residential streets to an immense iron gate and an open gravel yard and two converted silos. You’re not just going to a show, you’re in on a secret.
Issue Project Room began life in the East Village (where, as Fiol points out, they were actually further from the subway than they are now) in April 2003, in a workspace owned by Issue magazine - hence the name - and presenting visual art exhibitions and performances by the likes of Marc Ribot, Elliott Sharp, Anthony Coleman and Alan Licht. But problems with use of the space and scheduling sound checks made it difficult for them to cohabit with the publisher. After a bit of a hiatus and time spent in rented halls, they found their home on the canal in June of 2005.
Since then, they’ve been producing several concerts a week, featuring such artists as Briggan Krauss, Doug Wieselman, Jack Wright, Aki Onda, Pauline Oliveros, Fritz Hauser, Charlotte Hug, Yuko Fujiyama, Joe Morris, Gina Leishman, Susie Ibarra and Roberto Rodriguez, Rebecca Moore and others and workshops by percussionist Billy Martin. This month, they will present a series of solo and duo concerts every Thursday through Saturday, including performances by Leroy Jenkins, Loren Connors, Henry Grimes, Cyro Baptista, Miya Masaoka and Marty Ehrlich. In the spring, they’ll begin their first residency program, with composers from the Ne(x)tworks performing ensemble. They’ve also hosted poets’ dinners, film screenings (including a night of Cassavetes with scotch and spaghetti) and readings by Steve Buscemi and Aida Turturro.
“Issue is mostly known for music, but we’ve been doing poetry evenings, fiction nights,” Fiol said. “We’d like to have more literary arts and sound installations. We want to really embrace all the other disciplines we’re interested in. I fancy this place as an institution for experimental artists.”
She also is looking to curate audio installations as soon as funding for artists can be secured and has invited 50 musicians - including Phil Niblock, George Lewis, Joan LaBarbara, Scanner, Kaffe Matthews and Shelley Hirsch - to take advantage of the sound system.
Although the space, like most new nonprofit organizations, is always struggling to stay afloat, Fiol - who works with a staff of volunteers and a part-time administrator - said they have the benefit of a supportive landlord and the guarantee of at least another year in the space.
“We’re really here at the mercy of developers and they’re right behind us,” she said. “I’m working from a place of having total faith that everything we’re doing is going to keep on happening. If we weren’t meant to be doing this, doors wouldn’t keep opening.”
~ Kurt Gottschalk