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Vagina poetry is so 1980s: It's a hemorrhoids by flashlight, new underground arts world

Vagina poetry is so 1980s: It's a hemorrhoids by flashlight, new underground arts world

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Nickteel performs "This is going to be Amazing" at Performance Art Houston. Photo by Rico Svaughn
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Emily Johnson & Catalyst Dance in "The Thank-you Bar," to be performed at DiverseWorks April 28-30, 2011 Photo by Cameron Wittig
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"Tyler, Tyler" by Yasuko Yokoshi. "Tyler, Tyler" will be performed at DiverseWorks on Oct. 14-17.
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Universes in "Ameriville," set for DiverseWorks Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Photo by Harlan Taylor
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Poetry & Art- ON DEMAND, July 23, (in back, from left): Andrew Kozma, Becca Wadlinger, Glenn Shaheen and Hannah Rebecca Gamble; (in foreground, from left): Katherine Kearns, Devon Moore, Chris Thompson and Carlos Hernandez Courtesy of Spacetaker
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July Artist SPEAKeasy, featuring artist Vincent Fink Courtesy of Spacetaker
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Filmic Stew with Cinema Bomar, July 10, with Paul Nelson, founder of Cinema Bomar, by the projector Courtesy of Spacetaker
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It seems like ages ago since The Hard Women pulled a scroll of poetry out of their vaginas during a 12 Minutes Max, DiverseWorks' hybrid performance/parties.

Although the racy variety show is staging a comeback, co-sponsored by Dance Source Houston, it's doubtful it will return to the days of anything-goes acts of art and mayhem. We have all grown up. Edgy arts organizations are like baby boomers, established and hardly available for young artists still struggling with their identity.

Experimental art is not the new kid on the block anymore. Even the word "edgy" feels so 1980s. 

Let's take a closer look at what's happened to DiverseWorks, the city's flagship institution for progressive art. Since its founding by a group of artists in 1982,  the organization has moved from its heart-of-downtown base on Travis Street to its current quarters on the docks of the warehouse district. Sleek lofts have sprung up all around, and few artists now occupy the once-thriving dock.

It shows artists with international reputations, while still offering support to the city's finest smaller arts organizations like Catastrophic Theatre, which is enjoying a three-year residency. Co-directors Sixto Wagan and Diane Barber are both nationally known curators and commissioners. Other than the finally returning 12 minutes Max, it's hardly a place for newbies.

"As an alternative space we started as a response to what the majors where doing," Wagan, who started as an intern in 1995, says. "At 27, now other institutions are responding to what we do."

Wagan's lineup this season is all over the map as usual.

"I am interested in artists transitioning from emerging to influential," Wagan says. "We look for artists who have a voice that should be more widely recognized."

Indeed, DiverseWorks presented such seminal artists as John Jasperse, Donna Uchizono and Miguel Gutierrez during their emerging years.

To understand how and why DiverseWorks even exists takes a little history lesson. During the late seventies and early 1980s, there was a virtual explosion of artist-run spaces.

Some grew into stable organizations, like DiverseWorks and Hallwalls in Buffalo, N.Y., others have gone through numerous changes like Washington Project for the Arts in D.C., while some just bit the dust. The National Association of Artists Run Spaces sprung up shortly afterward to support the movement. The National Performance Network helped defray touring costs, and the National Endowment for the Arts was deeply committed to supporting multidisciplinary work.

Then came art killer Sen. Jesse Helms, performance artist Karen Finley, Andres Serrano's famous crucifix submerged in his own urine, Piss Christ, and the nasty culture wars of the 1990s, which devastated the field.

Still standing 

Those that survived the culture wars ended up stronger than ever. Sara Kellner, former curator at Hallwalls and DiverseWorks' director from 1999-2006, remembers what happened in Buffalo.

"We dug deep into our mission of showing extraordinary art. It was a rallying cry to gather our supporters," Kellner, now CEO of Kellner Consulting, says. "We were not going to back down."

Wagan, who took over from Kellner as co-director, credits DiverseWorks' longevity with the changing of leadership at pivotal junctures. "As other artist-run spaces were closing, we passed the directorship on, keeping the energy fresh," he says. 

DiverseWorks may have not spawned any offspring just yet, but spaces to show work seem to be cropping up right and left.

Obsidian Arts in the Heights will house Divergence Vocal Theater's newest opus this October. Mildred's Umbrella and Classical Theatre Company have selected Barnevelder for some of their shows. Midtown Art Center is affordable and the space of choice for many smaller troupes.

Then there are the thinking-out-of-the-black-box folks like Kevin Holden of Horse Head Theatre Company, who staged Fault Lines at Brewery Tap. Horse Head's next play, Among the Thugs, takes place in the basement of the Magnolia Ballroom. Holden promises lots of atmosphere, including a dank basement stench. More makeshift spaces such as Khon's rooftop, Rudyard's and AvantGarden fill in as workable places to present shows. 

Don't confuse a space with a presenting organization. There's a big difference. Artists rent spaces, presenting organizations produce shows, offering rehearsal space and sometimes even a fee. There's way more prestige to having your work presented, nevermind all the help you receive in the way of marketing and publicity.

"Barnevelder is a space that's growing into the presenting model," Wagan says. "The next generation of support to artists is being taken up by many organizations, rather than just one."

New kids on the Bayou

But where are the smaller organizations who produce performing artists? What do they look like, and how are they structured?

Consider Bootown, which opened its non-curated fringe festival to anyone with an idea. FrenetiCore's Fringe Festival is curated but willing to show artists at the start of their careers. Let's take a look at Labotanica, a Third Ward pilot program of Project Row Houses, that describes itself as a resource and a laboratory.

Under the leadership of Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud, Labotanica is organized around a different model. Instead of monetary support, artists get space, community, mentorship and a chance to experiment.

"I see the space as a hub, a place to work out ideas," Mccloud says. "We value vulnerability, embracing the unknown. I find work really flourishes under those circumstances."

Over the summer, this upstart has shown Eye-Candy Delectably, a performance installation by Y. E. Torres and the Women in Experimental Music series. They offer a four-week School of Latitudes residency, which offers practical tools such as studio visits, lectures by cultural leaders, and field trips. This fall, 15 artists start their residencies, culminating in an exhibit.

Labotanica is not a non-profit. "Since we are about freedom and experimental work, our money model should be experimental too," Mccloud says.

Jane Weiner at Hope Center takes the lead in raising the next generation of dance artists with HopeWerks program, now in its seventh residency. Choreographers receive free rehearsal space and an informal performance. Artist in residence Catalina Molnari went from HopeWerks to the Big Range Dance Festival to Dance Source Houston's Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance at Miller Outdoor Theatre in September. Molnari is following stepping stones carefully put in place by the dance community. 

Then there's the rogue now-defunct Performance Art Lab, founded by Los Angeles-based artist performance artist Elia Arce, when she taught a class at University of Houston. The group has since disbanded, its members going  their own direction, but not without stirring up some old school performance art fun with such projects as sexyATTACK and Death Evil Fuck Blood.

"What can I say, it was amazing," says Julia Wallace, a former member of Performance Art Lab. "There was a mermaid, blood wrestling, lots of drinking and you got in free if you went in naked."

Nickteel was naked, yet covered entirely in glitter. Wallace is continuing the tradition hosting Performance Art Nights at El Rincon Social.

"I love it, it's my baby. Many had never done performance art before debuting at a performance art night," Wallace says. "There were some terrific performances. Jacob Calle drank his own blood. I masturbated in the bathroom, Nickteel invited the crowd to view his hemorrhoids up close with flashlights."

Who misses viewing Annie Sprinkle's cervix at DiverseWorks with this gang at large?

Wagan notices that today's artists subscribe to a different definition of outrageous. "They are trying to investigate their craft, and need to go beyond shock value to prove they are serious," he says. 

We can't really talk about support to artists without mentioning Spacetaker. They do everything but make the art for you.

Professional development workshops, an exhibition space, Artist Speakeasy nights and a registry all help artists get on the map. Executive director Jenni Rebecca Stephenson is molding her organization's approach to presenting as they go.

"I think one of the advantages Spacetaker has as a newbie 'presenter' is that we're reactive and light on our feet. By not focusing on the creation of a season so to speak, we can feature upstart projects, emerging artists, and programming of all flavors a little more easily than some organizations," Stevenson says.

"I envision Spacetaker as a center of art activity of all kinds nestled somewhere between the institutionalism of some of the older organizations and the renegade of some of the artist-run spaces."

The climate was right in the 1980s for places like DiverseWorks to dig their roots into the city's cultural fabric. Will it ever be right again?

Perhaps enterprises like Labotanica, Hope Werks, Barnevelder, Spacetaker and Freneticore are models for today's cash-strapped cultural climate. The good news is that we are talking about a resourceful lot, with entrepreneurial spunk, not likely to wait for DiverseWorks Jr.

It's a "have idea, find space, put on a show," world out there. Wagan agrees: "Younger organizations can do things we can't do anymore, which is really exciting."