Engineer’s Office Gallery is probably the most clandestine art space in all of New York City: 24 inches wide, 72 inches high and 24.5 inches deep. Truly underground, the gallery is hidden in the basement beneath Rockefeller Plaza – not easy to locate but certainly worth a visit. Eric Booker spoke with Zefrey Throwell, one of the co-directors of the covert space.
S2S: Can you begin by talking a little bit about yourself and your co-curators? How did you come up with the idea of creating a space like Engineer’s Office?
Zefrey Throwell/Engineer’s Office: Engineer’s Office was the collaborative creation of three artists who were working at Haunch of Venison Gallery while it was located in Rockefeller Center in 2009. In order to have artwork photographed it was necessary to walk it down a long hallway in the basement of 20 Rock, beneath Christie’s Auction house. There is a small 6 foot high and 2 foot wide niche in the concrete and after passing this alcove day in and day out, we struck upon claiming it for the powers of good. The underground hallway / segue which connected Christie’s and Haunch of Venison was also additionally interesting in that it seemed to be a sort of gray area or neutral territory which was not specific to either entity and was also accessible to the public via the 47-50th street subway station. It just seemed to be begging for an intervention or re-purposing of sorts.
S2S: What sorts of things are you interested in investigating through this space?
Engineer’s Office: We love the idea of transiency. We set the space up to be a commentary against the art market which happens directly above it. We aggressively reclaimed the space for public projects from the hands of private interests and are trying to actively support a different conception of art, one that doesn’t hinge on preciousness. We very much like the idea of creating a platform for our friends and artists who we appreciate to engage in this space. To offer the opportunity for younger emerging artists to present something entirely different other than what was going on directly upstairs.
S2S: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the art shown at Engineer’s Office is not for sale? It also gets thrown away at some point? How does the ephemeral nature of these projects play out in the space? What is your (and the artists’) stance on the value of the work shown? Does the implicit transience of Engineer’s Office determine what type of work is made for it?
Engineer’s Office: The ephemeral nature of the work makes it exciting! We’ve had shows that have lasted anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 months. You never know how long a work is actually going to survive in the space, and this adds an essential component to the work that ends up in the gallery. There is a certain loss of control in this, and it injects the work with a vital energy. You’ve got to show up for the opening, or you may miss the show altogether. We have a few simple guidelines for work shown in the space:
nothing is for sale
everything is open to the public
there is no exclusivity, everything will be thrown away by a janitor, so be comfortable with that
our openings are at lunch so the neighborhood can enjoy them
make the best thing in the entire world
These five signposts point the way to innovative thinking by artists freed from contemporary art market constraints. By disposing of the commercial aspect, or at least temporarily setting it aside, it makes the space a little bit more like a studio, freer.
S2S: What kind of regulations do you face in working with this type of space? Similarly, what kinds of restraints are imposed on the artists and the audience, if any?
Engineer’s Office: It is open from 7am-7pm, Monday – Friday, which is more than most galleries and museums in NYC. We are an unguarded space, so if someone wants to alter the piece, then they can. This is part of our mission to change the idea that art is something that should remain in the pristine white castle. We believe art deserves to be honored and recognized, but not to the extent that it ostracizes the population that makes it relevant. We personally try to keep as few regulation and restraints as possible so as to not interfere with the projects. But we are also operating in the basement of a major Rockefeller Center building space, so there are naturally restraints that come along with that. We need to remain somewhat sensitive to the fact in this particular environment, people have a heightened sense of awareness for activity that may look suspicious or be a threat to their safety. We are subject to the rules and regulations enforced by the Rockefeller Center security and building maintenance crew. But pushing these boundaries also helps to make the space feel a bit more volatile, and in general I think helps to result in unusual and interesting projects. We only ask that the artists do not permanently alter the space.
S2S: By creating an economic and culturally alternative space in the basement of a commercial hub like Rockefeller Center, how do you see something like Engineer’s Office communicating with the environment in which it is placed?
Engineer’s Office: The immediate space which the gallery is located in, is shared primarily with the more blue collar and utilitarian systems of the building. This includes everyone from the art handlers who are responsible for pushing bins of artwork around behind the scenes to building maintenance personnel and janitorial staff. I think this makes the space not only feel more real and rooted in the everyday world, but also allows those who may feel like outsiders in the system the opportunity to interact directly and become involved in a more inviting, less stilted, and more accessible experience. Engineer’s Office Gallery is a counter balance (albeit small) to the massive capitalist machine that stands all around it. By supporting non-market based ideas and initiatives, it gives a tiny beacon of white light in the black hole that is midtown.
S2S: The physical nature of Engineer’s Office Gallery creates a distinct separation between the artist and the audience, the artwork and the surrounding environment. Set within an alcove that fits no more than one person at a time, this space is clearly quite different from that of a traditional gallery. I see many similarities between this space, and that of a stage. I think that this, as well as the temporary nature of each project, really drives home issues related to performance. Would you mind talking a little bit about this?
Engineer’s Office Gallery: Initially we conceived of it as a tiny niche that could house one piece of art at a time, we thought of it more as a sculptural or flat work space. As applications came in, more and more people wanted to have performances there. At first we were cautious because it’s a tiny hallway with fairly constant traffic and we didn’t want to interfere with daily operations, but the ideas coming in we’re so good we couldn’t resist! And so it became more of a performance oriented space with people pushing the boundaries of a one-person-concrete-coffin. The ability to be that close to the artist while they are performing is incredibly intimate and often times uncomfortable. The audience is literally 3 feet from the action, it’s as if you are in a bathroom together. In some ways it really has a house party punk show vibe to it and that is something we encourage, the immediacy and urgency of a devil-may-care-gone-tomorrow-full-on performance. We’ve seen some pretty amazing tests of endurance play out in the incredibly small space which is EOG. I think the physical restraints and very personal space seem to encourage people to push themselves to attempt more difficult and unusual feats of perseverance. Although, while I think this is a great aspect of EOG, we hope to not limit the work to this, and encourage artists to work in all mediums and look for new solutions for the space.
S2S: What are some interesting spaces that you know of, or like to visit? Have these inspired Engineer’s Office in any way?
Engineer’s Office: EOG is influenced by basic daily experiences. It is influenced by the unrecognized spaces in everyday life which go unnoticed and unused. We hope to inspire reclamation, intervention, and active engagement in public spaces everywhere. Some of our favorites are:
The Engineer’s Office Gallery is located at
1230 Avenue of the Americas
between 48th and 49th Street
New York, NY 10020