White Noise at WhiteBox
A skinny, disheveled Asian man spins on a pile of empty cans, screaming and waving his bare arms and legs while strangers throw more cans on him, producing a deafening noise. The man is Chin Chih Yang, a New York-based Taiwanese artist who is a familiar character at WhiteBox’s performative events. His act closes the second day of the fifth edition of White Noise, a series devoted to sound and multimedia visual performance art.
Organized by WhiteBox, an alternative art space currently located in Harlem, White Noise was first started in 2005 in the organization’s original gallery in Chelsea. Now it moves around the city and its latest installment has been taking place in the New York neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, hosted in a 19th-century mansion made available by Georgian artist Eteri Chkadua who lives here with her brother Gotcha, also an artist.
For White Noise, the curator and artistic director Juan Puntes assembles a diverse group of international artists that create an engaging and unpredictable soireè. At these events, a musical performance can follow a video projection, a poetry reading can accompany a multimedia installation and an occasional dancer can make an appearance –an eclectic bunch with one common denominator, exploration and experimentation.
On Saturday, October 16th a packed living room was the setting for a gripping succession of performances including videos by transmedia artist Eva Petrič, and a live reading and screening of a graphic novel by indie-rocker and social critic,Jeffrey Lewis. Throughout the night, Mr. Puntes made sure that the artists had a proper platform to present their work and that the audience had an opportunity to connect and engage with the artists and explore the hosting space. He was clearly in his natural habitat, creating community around art, which was and still is his motive for inventing and running WhiteBox.
A Spaniard who emigrated to the States fleeing Franco’s regime in 1973, Mr. Puntes first founded WhiteBox in Philadelphia, only to move it to New York two years later, opening a permanent space in Chelsea in 1998. “The space in Philly, which I intentionally made very flamboyant, with super bright commercial ‘cold white’ street lighting, was always meant to be temporary. That’s why I called it a box, as something that you can fold and unfold and reopen somewhere else,” Mr. Puntes says.
Arriving in New York, WhiteBox was established to become the ultimate alternative art space in a neighborhood that at the time was just emerging as an art destination: “There were only a handful of galleries back then in Chelsea, the notoriously big ones transplanted from SoHo and immune to the warehouse, illicit trades and massive public housing environments. The WBX directive decided to create a community-oriented space”, Mr. Puntes recalls. The idea arose among a tight-knit group of international artists, architects, and intellectual tinkerers who found that New York City’s art scene was quite provincial at the time, with a minimal influx from international art.
In the 10 years that followed, the artist-run non-profit space became known as an international platform for emerging artists and a gathering space for their communities. In the Chelsea gallery, artists could develop and showcase site-specific work, be part of unique exhibitions and special events and attend salon series and art education programs. Social engagement was always at the core of WhiteBox’s programming, which exhibitions often responded to the times. The gallery launched the yearly Seminal Artist Series (SAS) program offering influential avant garde artists—who at the time were not being featured prominently—a space to show their work. As part of the series, many events were presented, including an exhibition of the provocative Austrian, “Vienna Actionists” Hermann Nitsch and Günter Brus, a daunting selection of photographs and videos by South African photojournalist Cloete Breytenbach, as well as a gallery-size video installation by Carolee Schneemann.
In 2008 WhiteBox decided to leave Chelsea, which in the meantime had become home to some 400 galleries and was starting to be too much market-oriented for Puntes’ taste. The next destination was the then neglected Lower East Side, where a few art spaces were just starting to settle following the opening of the New Museum on the Bowery. There, they continued producing groundbreaking shows such as EXODUS: Émigré Artists and the New York Vanguard, first of an eight-part exhibition series highlighting and celebrating the contributions of artists who had immigrated to New York from other countries to deepen their artistic practice and widen their vision. The series dealt with questions of social and demographic transformation.
Following the call of social engagement with immigrant and minority communities, in 2018 Mr. Puntes decided to fold the Box again and reopen it in East Harlem. He explained, “We wanted to be closer to my beloved Latinx community with which we wanted to further a conversation and collaboration”. They found a home in a former 1867 firehouse on 121st Street, where they started a series of happenings called Firehouse Lit Lounge that saw the participation of international as well as local artists of the Central American and Caribbean communities. In the meantime, Mr. Puntes was joined by curator Kyoko Sato who helped create a solid Asian art program.
When the pandemic hit, WhiteBox stayed put. They made arrangements with the landlord and were able to remain open while continuing to offer online and limited on-site programming. But by the end of 2020, with Covid-19 still rampant and the art world still moving slowly, Mr. Puntes decided that it was time to leave the large, costly firehouse. Currently, White Box is occupying a temporary space as part of a grant by the Chashama art organization, while they look for a more permanent location. “2021 has been a kind of an exciting if challenging hermit crab year,” he says. “While searching for a proper home to relocate and run our third decade of public cultural service, we have been showcasing exhibitions hosted by various spaces, re-igniting our Out of the Box projects, surfacing programs elsewhere.”
As part of the Out of the Box initiatives, last summer Mr. Puntes decided to revive a project that was particularly close to his heart, White Noise. “I felt that it was time for us to re-start this exquisite program again, a decision made out of sweet melancholia, rather than of nostalgia”. Born from WhiteBox’s interest in sound art and multimedia, White Noise was originally conceived as part of the PERFORMA Biennial of Visual Art and for its first three editions, between 2005, 2007, and 2009, Puntes co-curated it with Esa Nickle, managing director of the biennial. Last July, WhiteBox went on to organize a three-day event at REIS Studios in Sunset Park, inviting some of the familiar names that were a fixture of the first three editions, including composers and musicians Matt Sullivan and Michael Schumacher, the latter having curated the first year-long sound art project that gave birth to White Noise. Mr. Puntes also added to the list several new talents, including first-time collaborators. “Most of these artists had not performed live since Covid started and they were all excited and nervous about it. Some weren’t convinced that we could host a live, successful indoor event, but it was a great success and we had a full house all three nights”.
The success of the summer prompted Mr. Puntes to organize a fall edition, hosted at the Bed Stuy mansion between October 16th and the 24th, featuring, among others, performances by sound artist Michael Schumacher, and musician-composers Neil Leonard and Matt Sullivan. “WhiteBox is back in full swing and it’s here to stay,” says Mr. Puntes, who adds, with a smile, “However, bending to the mores of the times, we have decided that we are done with ‘white’ –we are turning gray. The next edition will be called Gray Noise, which is a little bit like a gray day, it enhances every color”.
Meanwhile, at the exhibition space in East Harlem, they are already getting ready for what should be their last project in that space: an exhibition titled Perfect Day will be opening in mid-November featuring artworks dealing with the opioid epidemic, selected through an open call. Then off to a new adventure: WhiteBox and Juan Puntes are on the hunt for a space on the Lower East Side. “We want to go back to the buzzing lower Manhattan. The Lower East Side is still one of the most multi-ethnic neighborhoods in the city and its proximity to Brooklyn makes it perfect to reach a younger audience. We need to remain connected to the city and its communities and to continue showcasing groundbreaking international art in New York,” Mr. Puntes says.
For more information please visit www.WhiteBoxNYC.org.