When PS122 became Performance Space New York

If you search Instagram these days for the handle @PS122, you won’t find the institution formerly known as Performance Space 122 (PS122 for short). Instead, you’ll find a new anonymous account called You Cant Kill a Ghost, with 29 followers, a single red-colored photo, and a one-word bio: “History.”

The account is one of the most playful responses to have popped up online in the few weeks since PS122, with its nearly 40-year history as a hotbed of subversive performance, announced it was changing its name. . The place where Spalding Gray performed his last monologues, where Sarah Michelson unveiled her first choreographic experiments, where artists grappled with the onset of the AIDS epidemic – this place would now be called Performance Space New York.

The change, timed for the long-delayed opening last month of Performance Space’s renovated East Village home, was part of a rebrand overseen by the institution’s new artistic and executive director, Jenny Schlenzka. The update also included a mysterious new logo designed by German visual artist Sarah Ortmeyer: a black heart with a sliced ​​corner. In the days following the announcement, this symbol seemed to capture the grief expressed on social media among artists, critics and curators, and others with ties to what had been for them a place familiar in an ever-changing city.

“I’m private,” Nicky Paraiso, curator of nearby La MaMa theater and longtime East Village resident, wrote in a public Facebook post. Some criticized the change as an erasure of the organization’s history. Others took issue with the choice of a generic-sounding name rather than one reflecting the origins of PS122, which was founded in 1980 when a group of artists took over an abandoned public school.

“In honor of PS122’s decision to rebrand itself as Performance Space New York, I am considering changing my name to Personal Name,” said Adam Feldman, theater critic for Time Out New York, wrote on Twitter.

The initial outcry died down, but as Performance Space prepares to premiere the East Village series – the first series hosted by Ms. Schlenzka – this weekend, questions linger over the new identity. How much does a name matter? What happens to the history it holds? How to reconcile this name change, a break with the past, with the East Village Series programming, which is inspired by the history of Performance Space and its neighborhood?

Speaking by phone last week, Ms Schlenzka said that although she had read negative comments online, she felt the reception of the name overall had been “so much more positive and understanding than I had expected, especially from people I was very nervous about. to say.”

Among those people, she said, was Tim Miller, one of the founders of PS122, whose brochure and poster designs helped create its original visual identity.

“I think PS122 was already a pretty good brand, and obviously I would,” Miller said in a phone interview. “But what happens there is what will matter most.”

Performance artist Lucy Sexton, who served on the board of PS122 in the 1990s, said the passionate reactions stemmed from a strong sense of community and ownership of space among performers, starting by the founders. “Future generations also felt this property,” she said.

More important than the name, she added, is that “we maintain the ethic of space.”

For those who guided PS122 in its early days, the new name was harder to accept. Mark Russell, the artistic and executive director from 1983 to 2004, noted the importance of places and names in the elusive medium of performance.

“What remains after a performance is so fleeting that the theatrical dust of this, the story of that, which is sometimes mostly communicated verbally – that’s important,” he said. “These places matter.”

Ms. Schlenzka reiterated that the change was part of an effort to make the space more accessible and identifiable. (In the past, she says, people sometimes confused PS122 with a public school.)

On the question of erasing what happened before, she said: “In fact, the history of our organization is our greatest asset and our greatest inspiration. The East Village series is an invitation to have this conversation.

The series begins Saturday afternoon with a nod to an often overlooked chapter in the history of the neighborhood, that of the Lenape, the indigenous people of New York and other parts of the Northeast region called Lenapehoking. . Welcome to Lenapehoking, a party organized with the Lenape Centersalutes the past and present of Native American art and performance.

On Sunday, the focus will be on Performance Space’s storied past with Avant-Garde-Arama, a loud live art sampler that dates back to the early days of PS122. The free event will feature over 30 artists performing in the renovated theaters and offices.

The coming months will bring a sub-series focusing on writer Kathy Acker and commissioned works by Ms Michelson and Yve Laris Cohen, both of which will explore the building’s architecture and history, Ms Schlenzka said.

For some, visiting the two new top-floor theaters – which bear little resemblance to the older ones – helped change their minds. Mr. Paraiso, once bereft, called the larger of the two theaters, with its high ceilings and views of Lower Manhattan, “an epiphany, a revelation.”

“I went kind of 180 degrees from my initial reaction,” he said, “to feel more pragmatically that the new executive artistic director should be able to start fresh with her own artistic vision of the present. and in the future.”