Juan Puntes – on WhiteBox Harlem

In Dialogue with Juan Puntes on PERFORMA 19 @WhiteBox Harlem and beyond

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Juan Puntes, who founded WhiteBox as the original Chelsea non-profit alternative art space in 1998, built a highly reputable venue known for its thought-provoking exhibition with cutting edge contemporary artists vis-à-vis little known avant-garde historical influential producers. While focusing on site-specific work, performance, and video projects, WhiteBox is also offering a wide array of programming including readings, lectures, and panel discussions. Juan Puntes is sharing with Art Spiel some of WhiteBox’s history, his vision, and his upcoming programs.

AS: Tell me a bit more about WhiteBox background.

JP: Founded in 1998, the idea for WhiteBox to become the original alternative art space in Chelsea arose among a tight knit group of international artist, architects and intellectual tinkerers. WhiteBox was their response to New York’s art scene’s lack of emphasis on international art at the time. Within its first decade, WhiteBox became known as a locale aiming to serve as platform for emerging artists and their surrounding communities, where they could develop and showcase site specific work, commission unique exhibitions, special events, salon series and art education programs that allowed for a distinct degree of activism, always echoing the tenor of the times. A yearly seminal artist series (SAS) program was launched and gave influential avant-garde artists who were not being featured at the time a space to survey exhibitions. Within its first two years WhiteBox was nominated for “Best Group Show” by the International Art Critics Association for Plural Speech and for a survey of Viennese Actionists, Günter Brus and Hermann Nitsch. In its first decade, WhiteBox built a reputation for producing thought-provoking exhibitions and initiatives that fostered engagement among a broad audience, including neighborhood low-income housing communities such as the Elliot Houses, and the Bayview Women’s Prison. In its second decade, after a move to LES/Chinatown, WhiteBox continued its trajectory and traditions by interacting with local and international Chinese and Asian communities. Stepping into its third decade, WhiteBox is embarking on a pivotal transitional stage, building upon its twenty-year legacy of presenting contemporary art in the spirit of avant-garde, imbued with a social, humanistic spirit. WhiteBox Harlem is expanding its mission by incorporating ‘Firehouse Lit lounge’, a cultural-literay-performance salon series aiming to increase sustained support and exposure for a sisterhood / brotherhood of local and international artists in its new home in Harlem, emphasizing the Pan-African and Caribbean, Latin American, Latin X and succinct Asian projects.

AS: You are curating with Kyoko Sato some exciting PERFORMA 19 events at WhiteBox. Can you elaborate?

JP: ‘From Weimar to Taipei’, are three gregarious performance works by three curated seminal performance artists -under the theme suggested by PERFORMA19 – each celebrating the Bauhaus epistemology in its centenary. A baptismal approach to welcome WhiteBox to its new East Harlem quarters, a historical 1903 Fire House, where Rolando Peña, Chin Chih Yang and the pair Roland Gebhardt and Mercedes Searer will present their three performance projects a week each, culminating with a grand finale performance, FOURTH CHARACTER (QUARTO PERSONAGGIO) choreographed by maestro Luca Veggetti was slated for Saturday 16th, at 7pm.

AS: What would you like to share about the featured artists.


Mr. Peña is a celebrated historical artist in the realm of performance art. Arriving in New York city in 1963 to join the Martha Graham dance company, Mr Peña soon became part of Andy Warhol’s Factory circle acting roles in the latter’s films as “The Black Prince”. Peña was a pioneer in Multimedia-Psychedelics, Happenings and Performance Art. In the Mid-1960s he established “The Foundation for the Totality”, including for the first time in history, a group of young, New York based Latin American Avant- Garde artists including Jaime Barrios and video/performance pioneer Juan Downey.His project for PERFORMA19 at WhiteBox Harlem “LESS IS MORE”, is dedicated to his influential friend John Cage, a beacon of Bauhaus methodology in New York. A phrase “Less is more” was adopted in 1947 by an architect Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, the third principal (1930-1933) of the Bauhaus School. Peña will personally debut the sound/performance installation.

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ROLAND GEBHARDT & MERCEDES SEARER SEFDOM – a masked project to dance to. Music by Kei Wada

Minimalist sculptor Roland Gebhardt collaborates with dancer-performer Mercedes Searer presenting, during the second week of PERFORMA19 @ WhiteBox Harlem, Selfdom, a “Masked project in-process” related to identity responding to WhiteBox’s 1903 FireHouse minimal architectural qualities, injecting over it a “touch of Bauhaus” referencing in particular Oskar Schlemmer’s great work in mask making, a forte in the work of Mr. Gebhardt’s oeuvre.

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Luca Vegetti says “The performance explores the expressive possibilities offered by a particular poetic universe: a microcosm comprised of an ever-shifting architecture made of long wooden bars, encompassing the action of a dancer-manipulated rod puppet. It is a constructed and dangerous world whose dramatic tension can serve as a metaphor for the human condition. The title Fourth Character refers to the actual puppet: an Everyman of sorts, a ‘fourth‘ and therefore generic character conjuring through its presence and movements an ephemeral collective identity.”

Born in Bologna, Italy in 1963 and trained at La Scala in Milan, Veggetti began hiscareer as a choreographer and stage director in 1990. Turning his interests towardcontemporary music, experimental forms, and new technologies, he has collaborated with some of today’s most important ensembles and composers


The Concept underlying this installation is the overcoming of ‘scarcity’. For too long, people have been at war with each other. In the modern world since the 19th century, our technologies have too easily lent themselves to destruction as opposed to creation, to war instead of to leisure.

In light of recent news about the actual existence of black holes, Yang will create a small black-hole replica within the art space. This installation will take place within the confines of a ring of fire burning (alcohol-based contained and controlled in a metal trough), homage to WhiteBox Harlem’s original 1903 concrete ‘Fire House’ exhibition space!. The air of danger, of fun, of a kind of sci-fi fantasy will invite audience-participants to enter into the burning “sacred” circle. Being a limited finite amount of space is made available, people have to spar a bit in order to gain access. A few sets of boxing gloves will be made available around the ring, as though encouraging viewer-participants to box each other, expounding upon ‘timed’ human absurdities in the face of our startling, unknown cosmos.

AS: What is your vision for WhiteBox in the near-future?

JP: To continue our established socio-aesthetic path transcending the overwhelming territory demarcated by the gilded market place and the economies of the new art industry and of Academia, and adequately present/serve the citizens and youth of the beautiful underserved communities of East Harlem and the South Bronx, with influencing, poignant art and culture programming, making of community and end and the means.

AS: Can you describe some of the future projects you are programming these days?

JP: There are four upcoming projects for Winter-Spring 2019-2020

Peter Kim “A Present with No Return” deals with Korean Slavery in Mexico 1903. A surprise exhibition provenance Merida Center for the Arts.

Ola Rondiak’s Metempsychosis is a show being curated at WhiteBox Harlem in tandem with the Revolution of Dignity Museum, Kyiv (Kiev) on the sixth anniversary of the Maidan Square riots. The exhibition will incorporate a public panel discussion hosted by UCCA (Ukrainian Congress Committee of America. East Village, NYC) including the artist and a group of public personalities in Kyiv and NYC. The theme, while remaining flexible, hopes to address the power and the potential influence of art in the context of recent and ongoing socio-political situation , in this case, gauging the differentials at play between Kyiv and New York City. The session will be web-streamed in real time via live ‘whiteboxny’ FaceBook on January 11th 2020 at noontime EST.

EXODUS II Unhinging the Great Wall: Chinese Art Revealed, East Village 1980s. The exhibition is one of a series of four exhibitions, exploring the cultural impact of artists from various immigrant communities who live or have lived and worked in New York City that produced by WhiteBox. It will focus on the first wave of Chinese immigrants to NYC in the 1980s, with many artists settling in the East Village. Many of these artists have come to represent the face of Chinese contemporary art – Ai Weiwei, Huang Rui, Xu Bing – and drastically altered the course of artistic output in China, weaving together newfound influences from the Western art canon with traditional Chinese art and culture.

EXODUS III From Orozco to Orozcoo curated by Raul Zamudio. This exhibition explores the rich cultural-artistic contributions and histories of artists from Mexico and Latin America’s diverse cultures who made their home NYC from early 20 C., to a present moment of debates surrounding immigration in our political climate. The exhibition’s themes will resonate with a diverse local community promoting critical thinking on issues de-centering the Eurocentric canon in favor of a multipolar understanding of art and culture. Furthermore, a new program on Sustainability is underway.

PERFORMA19@WhiteBox Harlem, November 1-22, 2019, curated by Juan Puntes and Kyoko Sato.

All Photos courtesy of @WhiteBox Harlem