An Arts Space Rises by the Banks of Brooklyn’s Eerie Canal

By Jessica George Firger

Published May 18, 2007, issue of May 18, 2007.
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From the outside, the structure resembles a fancy feed-storage bin: two converted oil silos overlooking Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. Inside, the space recalls a rustic lodge.

But while the unique edifice may be what draws people to Issue Project Room, it’s what’s produced inside that gets people to stay — and return. Besides, as Suzanne Fiol, the space’s executive and artistic director, is quick to remind those who stop by to hear some of the best experimental and avant-garde music around, the space is “only temporary.”

This is Fiol’s second location. In collaboration with the cutting-edge arts and culture magazine Issue, Fiol first set up shop in Manhattan’s East Village. The neighborhood had become a stomping ground for such performers as Marc Ribot, Elliott Sharp and Anthony Coleman, musicians who may identify as Jewish but whose experimental styles put them on the Jewish fringe. “Some of my chief advisers for Issue have been several of the musicians who were part of Radical Jewish Culture,” Fiol said, referring to the movement connected with impresario John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

Issue Project stayed in the East Village for four years, at which point Fiol knew it would lose its lease. “But you have to have faith,” she said with a grin. “One day, a friend called me up and said, ‘How would you like to have your space in a silo?’” And in June 2005, the project did just that.

Still, even with impressive weekly lineups, Issue Project, an acting not-for-profit under the New York Foundation for the Arts, remains dependent on donors, contributors and supporters of the arts to fund the space, which costs between $6,000 and $15,000 a month depending on the programming. Fiol’s all-volunteer staff is passionate and committed to the organization, but no one, including Fiol herself, gets paid.

What has motivated Fiol has been a hunger for community as well as a unique sense of mission. “The artistic community has always been a place where I felt proud to be Jewish,” said Fiol, who worked as a gallery director and art dealer for 13 years before starting Issue Project. She is also an accomplished photographer, printer and sculptor in her own right. “I didn’t like the attitude of the [visual] art world, so I created a new art world where I could fit in.”

Composer-keyboardist Coleman, who has performed at Issue Project on numerous occasions, spoke of its ambitiousness. “There’s an attempt to create a sort of community at Issue. It has elements of a European performance space and often dinner for the artists.” Coleman, who celebrated his 50th birthday there, thinks that the palpable enthusiasm and unusual physical space — “It’s ad hoc in such an intense way” — are some of Issue Project’s greatest assets. But while Coleman is signed with Tzadik, he questions whether Issue is a hub for the world the label represents. “The only thing ‘radical Jewish’ about Issue is that someone brings a big pot of soup and makes you sit down and eat,” he said with a laugh.

Whether it’s because of her Jewishness or not, Fiol stressed that she has always been driven by her sense of self. “I guess I am a proud Jewish woman,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily think I would have to work this hard when I first began Issue. I think that maybe if we look around, we would find that there are many Jewish American citizens at the forefront of keeping culture alive in this country.”

Jessica George Firger is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.


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