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On Exchange Rates & the Importance of Doing Stuff

Paul D’Agostino, March 2017.

Written to accompany the exhibition ‘Extended Process’

You encounter a space with expansive white walls and a dire lack of objects. That space is in the middle of a ground-floor loft apartment, in a post-industrial building full of other loft apartments. That building, a slightly converted warehouse that was once a sweater factory, is flanked by buildings of a very kindred sort, and the general area is structurally populated in much the same way. That general area is thus a well-equipped locus for arts activities, but the general area is not yet broadly known as such a locus. In effect, this is because it isn't much of one. Not yet. 

And yet, a fair number of artists are already living and working in those environs, and a fair number of them sometimes organize exhibits and open studio events. These affairs bring other artists and their ilk out to visit, and before long some of them also live or have studios there. 

A couple galleries come into being. A bigger open studios event takes place. More visitors come around for openings and studio visits. More artists are moving in and setting up shop. But it's still all rather under the radar. There's only a bar or two. A restaurant or two. A bodega or two. And a good number of the industrial buildings are still home to active industries. 

Cement trucks, garbage trucks, lorries galore and many a dump truck roam about like hulking, clunky, amiably grumbling monsters by day and by night, their 18-wheeled siblings slinking around raucously like roaring dragons, or sitting by idly like snoring, humming, half-dormant ones. 

Certain warehouses are still home to active bakeries and emit almost unflaggingly all manner of aromatic delight. Sweet treats. Dumplings. Pretzels. Bread. More bread. More sweet treats. One spot seems to house exclusively syrups and sugars. Another, all the spices of the world. All of this smells very, very good, until summer comes around and warms the local waste processing facilities into proliferating their stenches far and wide. The almost visibly filmy scent of soapy whatever with which they blast those fetid rubbish heaps does not help at all. Not at all. Not at all.

No surprise, then, that the most legal tenants around are probably the animal carcasses dangling from hooks in the area's rather famous meat processing facility—or the teeming rats, of course, and occasional raccoons, errant hounds and legion stray cats. They're somewhat more legally situated in the warehouse area than the people, that is, because the area's still not zoned for residential living. And really, it probably shouldn't be. The air alone, so full of cement dust and intermittent hellstink, is surely doing the opposite of extending people's lives. And the yet-burning, burnt-out or otherwise trashed, chop-shop-bound vehicles you encounter all over leave many blocks covered in soot, grease and glass, which is likely something less than salubrious―though these sightings always strike you as charmingly cinematic.  

All the same, you've been living there a while now, witnessing the many comings and goings—and more comings and more goings. And it's after you've been there a little while longer that you encounter that vacant space. And that space soon becomes your shared living room. Another open studio event isn't too far off on the local art calendar, so you elect to show some artwork in that shared living room as a kind of group-show studio. You name the space after the number of the loft unit, because why not. And you tell a bunch of people they should come by, because why not. And your friends whose work will be on the walls with yours do the same thing, because why not.

Well, little did you know that hundreds upon hundreds of people would pass through your living room in the course of two afternoons. And little did you know you'd be launching one of the neighborhood's first galleries. Because little did you know you'd keep doing shows. Little did you know how widely known the neighborhood would become for its art. Little did you know you'd still be doing shows in that same space nearly a decade later, and not yet having any reason to stop. 

Little did you know that, at some point along the way, a building nearby would be home to over a dozen galleries, and that eventually you'd dialogue with some of those gallerists about launching an art expo. Little did you know, even then, that the idea for the collaborative, shared-space, open-studios-for-galleries-like idea that you had for the expo―a kind of DIY art fair for alternative kinds of art spaces—would readily have a number of fans, and that one of them would talk to some people in another country to network the prospectus a bit further.

And little did you know that your activities and that simple idea would soon become, in 2014, Exchange Rates: The Bushwick International Expo. And little did you know that its first iteration would give way to a second one, in 2016. Little did you know how fun and successful both of them would be―successful insofar as the dozens of local artist-run or emerging galleries collaborated fluidly and fruitfully with twice as many kindred spaces on visit from all around the world, and successful because some of them have continued to collaborate with one another on their own between the two expos, or since the second one.

Pecuniarily successful? No, not at all. Not even close. In fact, quite the opposite. But making money off all this was never the point. The point, most simply, was to do it. To make it happen. Because it was a good idea, and a simple one, and a feasible one. And so, why not. 

Important to note is that an exchange comes into existence only once it takes place. This is important because it lies at the very core of the DIY ethos: 

Either you do something, or you don't.

Exchange Rates brings together artists and curators who do things for the sake of doing them, and because they know that only doing nothing has a predictable result. They know that doing something will yield at least that thing, and perhaps all manner of whatever else.

Art neighborhoods are nothing new. Apartment galleries are nothing new. DIY art spaces are nothing new. Events along the lines of Exchange Rates are nothing new. The historical precedents are many, and similar places and projects are always coming into form and taking place. No one is creating, as it were, new wheels.

But Exchange Rates has been a splendid way to get collaborative balls rolling, as well as an active platform for sharing art-neighborhood-type narratives like the one above. No single narrative among them is more important than any other. What's important is to share them, and to make them actively factor into each other in any way possible. 

Because there are local art scenes, and art spaces are localizable, but art in general is anything but local. 

Futures are always uncertain, so the future of Exchange Rates is also uncertain. But one thing is certainly true: If it weren't for the 'do something because why not' credo of the expo's founders, organizers and participants, a great many wonderful collaborations would never have taken place. 

Centotto, Theodore:Art and Sluice_ are very happy to have done what we’ve done to help those collaborations take shape. Happy to have provided platforms for exchange. And happy to have met and worked with so many enthusiastically like-minded creatives along the way. 

Thanks all around, even if wheels are just still round. And remember that if you encounter a space in which you can envision doing something, go ahead and try to do something.

Paul D'Agostino is @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter

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