Strength in Limitations


On the drive from Chicago to New York City in a Budget rental truck, I had a conversation with a friend of mine regarding an ongoing gallery project called MWNM that she had been a part of in New York. Between the three of us splitting a truck to move our lives forever away from the Midwest, we managed to make the perfect Tetris puzzle of 15 collective years in a city that allowed for un-crowded living. Under such circumstances, our conversation touched on the limited space and time for young curators and artists to show work in a city like New York. The thought occurred to turn these limitations into the modus operandi for showing work, rather than seeing them as limitations. Just as we expunged the excess shells and comforts of Chicago apartment living for greater mobility, the driving force behind showing work should be the conditions that are given, not those expected, desired, or even most preferable.

MWNM storefront. Courtesy of MWNM

MWNM on the Lower East Side was procured through an arrangement with the realtors who were eventually looking to rent out the commercial space with a long-term lease.  The assumption was that having someone in the space—imagine young artist-types—would draw attention and create an audience for some type of profiting business.  This was not the idea of the realtor–far from it–but the lesson shall be: “ask and thou [might] receive.” The two women who run MWNM are none other than the two with whom I drove cross-country: Karen Archey and Alice Wells.

Imagine the way in which one might go about building a space. First, acquire the space: check.  Next, come up with a name and perhaps some type of mission statement. For MWNM, this is where step one conflicted with step two. The arrangement for the space did not allow for any permanent identity, or even assurance that events planned for the future would not get canceled before they could be executed. How could one expect artists and others to rely on a space that could close next week?  This was their limitation.

Not only would such a limitation affect the way they would go about hosting events and exhibitions, but it would also be reflected in the identity of the space.  The letters M-W-N-M are an acronym for the first two shows held in the space, titled Meet Waradise organized by Alice Wells and New Mourning by Karen Archey. Naturally this means that the space had no name until these first two shows had come into existence. I’m familiar and quite fond of the idea of generative titling–coming up with a title and letting that determine what might spill forth–but in fact this is a reversal that embraces the spirit of limitations in favor of a more exciting possibility.

This post comes as MWNM prepares for its last week. In truth, every week was their last week, but this time it’s a sure thing.  Their most recent exhibition, titled 93 DAYS, shares an archive of the space and the relationships that brought it about. Archey and Wells have also learned to work with the limitations of collaboration. Just as limitations should be embraced because they are the circumstances given, so should one’s community of artists and friends. I make note of this because I’m aware that there are many similar projects; this just happens to be the one closest to me.

For example, New York has been enlivened these days by the arrival of Elizabeth Dee’s X Initiative, a space set to exist for the space of one year only.  I imagine X is a product of the collapsed real estate market, just as was MWNM.  For those that say the recession is not good for art, I offer examples such as these to say: it might not be a qualitative shift, but it is indeed a shift, and that’s what counts.

The last series of events at MWNM will be on Sunday, March 29th at MWNM, 17 Orchard Street.