In 1977, New York was losing things—population, electricity, schools, patience. In the East Village, Public School 122 had been abandoned. Low attendance and lack of maintenance made it easy for the city to walk away. There were, after all, two other big public schools in the area. But that summer, artists and activists from the neighborhood started walking back into the five-story building at Ninth Street and First Avenue. By 1980, there was a PS122 again, but now the name stood for Painting Space 122 and Performance Space 122. It turned out that the East Village didn’t need more classrooms. The neighborhood needed a place for people to move and to scream and to tell stories that Broadway would never touch.
And now for the second time, PS122 is being reborn. After closing in 2011 for renovations, the East Village institution is reopening in a space deftly modernized by architect Deborah Berke and under a new artistic director, Jenny Schlenzka.
After the school was abandoned in 1976, several community activists, including Katharine Wolpe, established the 122 Community Center, a nonprofit organization that still operates the building today. (The other tenants are the Mabou Mines theater company, the Alliance for Positive Change, and the dance space Movement Research.) The second wave of people to move in consisted of painters, including Keith Haring, who came for the space and light of the classrooms on the upper floors. One of the first members of Painting Space 122, Larry Silver, saw the large auditorium on the second floor as a potential resource for performers. He told an acquaintance, Charlie Moulton, a dancer who had worked with director Robert Wilson, to come by. Soon Moulton had invited his friend Charles Dennis, who brought in fellow dancers Peter Rose and Tim Miller to create the weekly Open Movement night, the first regular event at PS122.
The year before its grand opening, PS122 received a windfall from Hollywood. In 1979, director Alan Parker was having trouble finding a site that would allow him to re-create the interiors of the High School of Performing Arts for his film Fame. Instead of building a set, the production came to the East Village. The PS122 staff cleared out, and Parker’s crew took up residence, sanding and finishing a dance floor on the second level and giving the organization money for further renovations.
In 2018, the overhauled PS122 will return under the eye of someone who knows the field well. Schlenzka, the new artistic director, developed the Sunday Sessions performance series at MoMA PS1, in Queens, and was an assistant curator of performance art at the Museum of Modern Art from 2008 to 2012.
But in 1979, few critics spoke about performance as its own category. PS122 changed that. “It’s where American performance art—especially the format of the solo show—took shape in the early ’80s with artists like Karen Finley and Spalding Gray,” Schlenzka said.
Mark Russell, artistic director of PS122 from 1983 to 2004, watched performance art define itself. “The generation coming up around [the same time as] PS122 was much more of a TV generation, with a short attention span,” Russell said by phone from his home in New York. “That’s why Spalding Gray talking at a desk made sense. One person telling a story was very important in the early days of AIDS. Coming-out stories were very important. All of these various fractured communities needed to tell stories.”
Gray once said that his favorite props were “plaid shirts” and a “glass of water.” With little else, Gray created a series of autobiographical monologues that bent the nature of the solo performance. In his show Gray’s Anatomy, the friendly man at the desk began talking about losing the sight in his left eye, and suddenly the format of the easygoing fireside chat was turned on its head. In The Constant State of Desire, Finley used her body, and props like confetti, to turn the monologue into a dream dialogue with the doctors and therapists who had misdiagnosed her. A performance at PS122 could consist of one voice by itself, such as Gray’s and Finley’s monologues; it could be mostly improvised, like Reggie Watts’s freestyle alt-comedy DJ sets; or it could be a group of Rottweilers listening to square-dance instructions behind plexiglass. (That last one is Claude Wampler’s Stable, from 2003.) One of the most successful and least easily defined acts in performance, Blue Man Group, developed its kinetic language of sound and movement at PS122.
In the early ’80s, even before the conditions had names, artists at PS122 started to create a core of work that spoke about HIV and AIDS. In 1981, PS122 cofounder Tim Miller and choreographer John Bernd performed a duet at PS122 called Live Boys. In his book How to Make Dances in an Epidemic, scholar David Gere wrote that “Live Boys was the first theatrical choreography to make unwitting reference to HIV.”
Today the context for the artists at PS122 has been radically altered. In some ways, the neighborhood itself is one of the most pressing social concerns. “The original Performance Space 122 was home to a community of artists who all lived in a ten-block radius from our building,” Schlenzka said. “The space was part of people’s daily routine, so you could drop by and catch a show before meeting friends for dinner. Today young artists cannot afford to live in the neighborhood anymore.”
“Prior to the ’80s, the East Village was not a destination neighborhood,” writer Sarah Schulman said. “We thought it was the artists who gentrified the place, but it turned out to be policy,” she said, referring to preferential programs for developers.
The new PS122 has to find its way in the East Village of the 21st century, where institutions like St. Mark’s Bookshop and the old Palladium nightclub have been replaced by NYU dorms and artisanal gelato shops. PS122 reopens in a slightly contradictory context of rising rents and healthy cultural appetites, forces that pull in different directions. But since the City of New York owns the building at 150 First Avenue and leases it at a low rate, PS122 is able to resist the commercial forces affecting other spaces.
When the space closed for repairs in 2011, the idea was not to erase the building but to modify it. For PS122, Berke and her associates Maitland Jones and Ameet Hiremath worked with the original plan by C. B. J. Snyder, the architect who designed more than 400 New York City public schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (If there are five architects who made New York look like New York, Snyder is one of them.) The building has retained the tight switchback stairwells of a public school and many of the original room shapes. At the top, the roof has been raised to accommodate one new giant black box and a smaller space, both equipped with sprung floors and windows looking over the East Village. The view is not just an appealing feature—it has meaning: Many of the people who made PS122 what it is remain in the neighborhood.
“There are not a lot of venues that have been intertwined with artist communities for decades, as we have,” Schlenzka said. “At least four generations of artists have come of age here, and we are very proud of that legacy.”
Schlenzka is planning to pay tribute to that legacy with the first year of programming, which begins in early 2018. Among other projects, she’s commissioned the dance-centric artist Yve Laris Cohen to create a work that plays off the building’s history and architecture; the choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones will reprise Them, a piece about the AIDS crisis that he premiered at PS122 in 1985; and Schulman is curating a weekend of performance in homage to the late punk poet and novelist Kathy Acker.
The poet Eileen Myles also developed her craft by doing readings at PS122 in the late ’80s and ’90s. By email, she wrote: “Plenty of people from PS122 were part of ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power] and the place was hit hard, but I think the work made and performed there probably remains in the blood and the bones of the building. Art buildings hold ghosts, good ghosts, and we need them to keep building new times.”
In some ways, Schlenzka’s task is easy: Keep the school open. The most lasting habit of PS122 is performers’ teaching one another, the most valuable aspect lost when a home base disappears. If the artists of the East Village needed a big, open room in 1977, now they need a home office, a way to remember, as a collective, why certain truths need to be performed.