City-Wide Commissions Come Into Being

Lucy Gellman | October 2nd, 2019

City-Wide Commissions Come Into Being

City-Wide Open Studios  |  Dance  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture  |  Artspace New Haven  |  Visual Arts  |  Yale West Campus


Erin Lee Antonak Photo. 

One artist is retelling the story of how the earth began. Another will turn the pelvic floor into a musical platform. A third will be bringing the war home, in hopes of sparking more thoughtful dialogue with veterans in this country. All of them will come together for interactive sewing bees, live performances, and at least one cacophonous dance-off.

Those are just a few of the 13 commissioned projects coming to Artspace New Haven’s 22nd annual City-Wide Open Studios, running weekends from Oct. 4 to Nov. 3 with a grand opening reception this Friday. After an opening downtown, CWOS will comprise Westville + Private Studios Weekend Oct. 12-13, Erector Square Weekend Oct. 19-20, and an Alternative Space Weekend Nov. 2-3 at Yale West Campus. This is the sixth year that the organization has designed themes around the celebration.

This year, Artspace has commissioned 13 special projects for CWOS’ “Older But Younger” theme, many of which will run at Alternative Space Weekend. At a press preview at West Campus Tuesday afternoon, Artspace Director Helen Kauder said that the theme came from an interest in intergenerational collaboration, shared by both Artspace staff and artists in the greater New Haven community.

To pitch a project, collaborators had to be at least 25 years apart in age. It resulted in commissions among older and younger veterans, 26-year-old tap teachers and their 65-year-old students, lifelong textile artists and those just starting out, and women of all ages trying not to wet themselves when they laugh. One group’s youngest participant is 23 and the oldest is 92.

“This allows us to hold a mirror up to what is happening in the community,” Kauder said.

Among the 13 special projects—those are in addition to hundreds of artists participating—are dancers, arts writers, lifelong New Haveners, veterans, immigrants rights organizers and artists working in the crosshairs of new media and public health. In Angharad DaviesThe Body is an Archive, viewers are encouraged to consider the body as a repository of story and memory as they watch a looped, eight-monitor installation of New Haveners dancing one by one in their art studios, homes, open fields, and favorite haunts. 

“Each of us is an archive that stores physical data from our entire lives,” she said Tuesday, adding that there is also a live performance component.

As part of her process, Davies interviewed over 40 New Haveners, asking them to dance only after they had spoken with her for close to an hour. Before they burst into movement, Davies asked them to choose a location that was significant to them, so they might channel physical and emotional memory as they danced. One woman returned to a field beside the house where she’d been pregnant with her first daughter. Another went back to the site of their first kiss. Davies titled these vignettes “movement portraits.”

Screenshot from The Body is an Archive. 

The portraits are intended “to give the opportunity to the audience to be confronted, to confront, and to bear witness to the body as an archive,” she said Tuesday.

Several of the projects similarly take on the aging body, often as it moves through time and space. In dancer Alexis Robbins’ Generations of Rhythm (a video excerpt from Tuesday is above), personal storytelling is interwoven with live dance performance, jazz music, and the history of rhythm tap.

Taking a different tack, arts writer and practitioner Jacquelyn Gleisner has done interviews, studio visits and a series of portraits with an intergenerational crew of artists for The Million-Petaled Flower of Being Here, all of which will be published on her blog, the Connecticut Art Review.

There are looks into the aging body that struggles to connect. After returning from tours of Iraq, Rick Lawson started the War Experience Project as a way to spark productive, empathetic dialogue and understanding among veterans and members of the wider public. During CWOS, Lawson will be displaying a series of uniforms on which veterans have painted elements of their experience. There are also a series of community workshops, including one scheduled for Friday.

“We do this with the goal of building dialogue,” Lawson said Tuesday, noting that civilians can participate by painting quilting squares that are sewed into garment bags. “This is about supporting our veterans. Not supporting the establishment of the military, not supporting war, but supporting our veterans.”

There are interactive projects including Mengxi “Althea” Rao’s Vagina Chorus, perhaps one of the most exciting commissions of this year. In the work, Rao transforms the pelvic floor strengthening routines known as kegel exercises into an interactive symphony with a public health bent.

Currently, the project uses Perifit’s Bluetooth Kegel training devices to “map raw vaginal pressure data onto musical notes,” meaning that one’s vagina strengthening exercises can literally make music. The artist said she started thinking of the project months ago, after learning about incontinence that many women experience after pregnancy and childbirth, as well as age they age. It is intended to be an ongoing project, with pop-ups at public health workshops and free clinics later this year and into next.

“We promote the idea that the aging of one’s body is not a personal flaw,” she said.


Artist Leila Daw at Artspace's West Campus press preview. Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Other commissions are more cosmic in scope, encouraging viewers to reconsider the histories they have been taught, and those they seek to preserve. In Ages of Life: Inhabiting The Fossil Record, artists Leila Daw and Alexis Musinski have sewn, embroidered and painted a series of wall hangings to illustrate the fossil record—and give a warning that humans may become its next casualties in the face of climate change.

At Artspace’s 50 Orange St. space, artist and former Artspace artist-in-residence Erin Lee Antonak is installing a permanent piece titled Land Recognition, which illustrates the Creation Story in vibrant color. At Tuesday’s preview, Artspace Curator Sarah Fritchey reminded attendees that Artspace itself is implicated in the project, as the building stands on Quinnipiac land.

“This is the story that my Iroquois grandfather, Richard ‘Shakowi’ Chrisjohn, told me when I was young,” wrote Antonak, a Wolf Clan member of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.


In Strange Fruit, intergenerational collaborators Howard El-Yasin and Dymin Ellis are exploring fragmentation, erasure, and “the complexities of being a queer person of color,” said El-Yasin. Separated by four decades—El-Yasin was born in 1957, and Ellis was born in 1997—the artists are using multiple rooms for the project, which bridges El-Yasin’s focus on materiality with Ellis’ own in language, spoken word, and music.

In one room, El-Yasin will be completing an installation of banana peels that he has collected, baked, and painted, a practice that contains “all sorts of cultural and politically historical messages.” In another, viewers will confront a series of large, black fabric door knobs and porn star dildos, designed to explore, probe and question the fettishization of the black male body. In yet another, El-Yasin and Ellis will be paying homage  to many of the trans people of color who have been killed in recent years, and throughout history.

During Alternative Space Weekend, the artists will be performing a series of musical scores that they have worked on together for the past four months, as well as a new work of choreography that El-Yasin is working on with artist Annie Sailer, after not being permitted to dance as a child.

“This is really an opportunity that these artists have harnessed to have a little bit of financial support, to have a community connection to share ideas and work,” said Fritchey of all 13 commissions. “And also some that have sparked new relationships.”

For more information on City-Wide Open Studios, visit Artspace New Haven’s website.