Up From Down Under


In a hallway at Performance Space 122, Melbourne native Vallejo Gantner searches for a surreptitious place to store the boxes ringing him. These particular boxes hold winter clothes and a computer. In Ireland there are more boxes (books, pictures, a bike, and fishing equipment); in Australia others (furniture, more pictures, more fishing equipment). His grandmother’s place in New South Wales is home to his scuba gear, to say nothing of the camping equipment cached at his father’s farm. And somewhere, Gantner can’t remember where exactly, he’s stashed half a dozen sofas. He looks over at some suitcases (summer clothes, Christmas presents) and admits, almost sheepishly, “I’ve been living a very nomadic life.” But, he’ll soon be settling down. Following a visit to Australia, the 30-year-old Gantner will assume the artistic directorship of P.S.122, effective January 31.

Last year P.S.122, the East Village laboratory and showcase for performance art, enjoyed its 25th anniversary—a celebration marred by the resignation of longtime and much loved artistic director Mark Russell. In searching for his successor, the board of directors decided to split Russell’s position in two, naming both an executive director (board member Anne Dennin, since July) and an artistic director. After receiving 300 résumés and selecting four finalists, they plumped for Gantner, a veteran of the Melbourne Festival and the Dublin Fringe.

Since its inception, P.S.122 has seemed not so much like a New York institution as a neighborhood one—endemic to the East Village and its arts culture. Admittedly, the luxe East Village of today differs markedly from that of 1980 and isn’t likely brimming with potential artistic directors. Even so, Gantner, a “relative stranger to New York,” seems a far-flung choice.

Apparently the board of directors felt that a vigorous artistic vision outweighed a downtown pedigree. Gantner must have struck them with his combination of affability (the cute accent helps) and savvy, pragmatism and unforced enthusiasm. His conservative trousers are detailed with a sprightly strip of camouflage; his conventional blazer conceals a very loud shirt. One minute he’ll cite gloomy statistics of funding and attendance, the next he’ll conclude eagerly, “What you have to do is experiment harder.” Executive director Dennin says Gantner impressed the board with “his insatiable appetite for new work, the breadth and depth of his interests—puppetry, dance, theater, performance, music.” Mark Russell, too, approves the choice and endorses—if cautiously—Gantner’s internationalism. Russell notes, “In some ways the scene is more than ever a global community rather than a site-specific community—I consider downtown a state of mind.”

Gantner doubtless resides in this theoretical downtown, even if he’ll have his hands full negotiating the physical one (indeed, our interview ended with an unsatisfactory attempt to locate the New Museum and its exhibit on the East Village of the ’80s). During his 2002-2004 tenure, he made the Dublin Fringe Festival synonymous with innovative Irish performance. He also attracted artists and companies from Iran, Latvia, Brazil, even the U.S. His New York invitees make anyone’s short list of experimentalists: Radiohole, the National Theater of the United States of America, John Collins of ERS—many of whom debuted works at P.S.122.

If Gantner’s tastes run much to Russell’s, their agendas differ. Gantner hints that he’s seeking “New York work which has a global perspective” and could make the rounds of international festivals. He expresses little interest in positioning P.S.122 as a hub of international programming, “a baby BAM,” but hopes to encourage more cross-cultural exchange. “Elsewhere there’s a huge interest in touring young work,” Gantner observes, but “there’s a tendency in New York to lock itself off.” This leads to “a perception that New York is no longer an interesting place, that it’s resting on a vision and a memory of being a thriving political avant-garde. And that’s wrong, but there’s no conversation occurring.”

Gantner sees P.S.122 as a place to start that conversation, “to make a bridge from emerging artists in New York to the rest of the world.” Eventually, he’d love to find (and fund) “an off-site location where we can actually have a collaborative process” between local artists and foreign ones. In the immediate future, however, he’ll devote himself to learning “the local scene as fast as humanly possible” and deciding next season’s roster. He admires how P.S.122 has “dodged the bullet of becoming entangled in its own history and its own legacy . . . and has driven forward with young artists.” He doesn’t yet know these next young artists or what their work will look like but admits, “I’m looking forward to what I don’t know, to having my own assumptions totally destroyed.”

As January 31 approaches, Gantner also looks forward to finding an apartment to which all those boxes—minus the sofas and scuba gear—can finally be shipped. He may have a remarkable rapport with artists, but his powers apparently don’t extend to realtors. “I have a nightmare,” he says, “of a trucking company arriving with like 30 boxes while I’m still sleeping on my friend’s floor.”

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