My first words upon meeting Suzanne Fiol, the spirited founder and artistic director of the experimental-culture hub Issue Project Room, were an apology. I was late for our meeting because the F train had come to two extended mid-stop halts in under 20 minutes, and being late causes me enormous distress. We immediately launch into a conversation about the subways, the nervousness that public transportation instills post-9/11, and prescription meds. She says she doesn’t want her daughter on anti-anxiety drugs because she’s got years to fuck with her brain chemistry all on her own. “I don’t know where it came from,” Fiol says, referring to her progeny’s own uneasiness underground. Then she smiles widely. “I never got anxiety until Issue!”
Founded in 2003, the space got its start as an adventurous grass-roots organization in a converted garage on 6th Street between Avenues B and C in the East Village. Priced out two years later, they moved to a former oil silo on the Gowanus Canal, where they hosted high-profile performances by drummer Ikue Mori, composer Rhys Chatham, members of Sonic Youth, and mysterious cult fave Jandek. Just when the group got comfortable, someone else offered the landlord more rent money; soon the Issue family—now one of the few remaining avant-garde performance venues in the city—was moving again. “It’s the plight of the artist, getting pushed around like that,” Fiol says. “It was very sad. But the Old American Can Factory [on 3rd Street near the Carroll/Smith stop] stepped up. They were like, ‘We don’t want you to be homeless for even one day,’ so we went there, and they’ve been amazing. We’ll be there until we move.”
Ah, yes. The move: It’s the reason I’m meeting Fiol in the first place, the meeting for which I’m late. Last October, from a pool of more than 100 of the city’s cultural organizations, Issue was awarded a 20-year lease for a historic theater on the ground floor of an 18-story building in downtown Brooklyn. The building was designed in 1926 by the same architectural firm that’s credited with much of the Columbia and Harvard university campuses, and was initially a meeting place for the Elks; it later became the headquarters of the New York Board of Education. In 2003, the city sold it to DUMBO developers Two Trees Management to build luxury condos; one of the conditions was that the company give the first floor to an arts organization.
“When we were being kicked out of the silo, everyone knew that we were looking for a new place,” explains Fiol. “Through word of mouth, I heard about the space at 110 Livingston and just thought: ‘That’s not for us—we’re not what they’re looking for.’ But I called about it anyway, and they encouraged me to apply. And then I started thinking, ‘Actually, this is perfect for us.’ Issue really needs to look at itself this way, as an organization. . . . It took months of negotiations, but on April 15, we signed the letter of intent.”
Now all they need is $2 million for the renovations.
Heading up the capital campaign for now—at least until a leadership board is elected—is Issue’s board of directors, which includes filmmaker Jo Andres, a veteran of New York’s experimental-culture scene. Fiol and Andres met because their kids go to school together, and Issue once provided a performance space for a band that included Andres’s son, but they soon realized that they knew many of the same East Villagers from the ’80s. “Suzanne was opening the gates for such a wide range of artists, even young people . . . I think my son was 12 when he played there,” Andres says, laughing. (Her husband is Steve Buscemi, who’s also on the board.) “I was so surprised by that. But it’s all part of her mission.”
Andres goes on to compare the arts to a volcano, with Issue serving as one of the channels that allows the lava to rise to the surface. “Musicians really struggle for a place to play—especially after Tonic closed,” she says. “A place like Issue is essential, and not just for musicians, but for literature, poetry, film—for all artists, really.”
The new space will provide the ability to bring edgy material to a platform that’s more established, Andres explains, through the longevity of the lease, the accessibility of the location (on the heavily trafficked corner of Livingston and Brooklyn Bridge Boulevard, just two short blocks from the Jay Street–Borough Hall stop), and the elegance of the new Issue Project Room. In its current state, with gaping holes and crumbling walls, the theater is like the cavernous ballroom of a sunken ship; hearing Fiol explain the work that will be done, the impression I get instead is one of very modern romance.
And that’s just the atmosphere. The logistics are equally impressive: Issue’s new home is approximately 6,000 square feet total, and the venue is doubling its present capacity to between 200 and 250. The performance area will feature a shape-shifting modular stage that can change position based on the needs of each performance. A handmade 18-channel sound system, tailored exclusively to the space by producer Stephan Moore, will allow for incredible sound design (particularly in the tall, narrow installation gallery), and plans have also been made for state-of-the-art recording-studio facilities. (The impetus behind that is archival: Fiol wants to create a living library—digital and video—of today’s most exciting avant-garde work.) An attached lounge area will provide a place for artists to gather before and after performances, and will feature a bookstore—and a bar. Yes, Issue is getting a beer and wine license.
But until then, the Can Factory is where the organization will host the rest of 2008’s programming schedule (see it at issueprojectroom.org), including the highly anticipated four-night Joshua Light Show residency at the end of this month, as well as a slew of names “you wouldn’t recognize unless you really love this stuff,” Fiol says. On the side of her beautiful new building, she envisions a fitting display for the accessibility the new space will offer Issue Project Room: a flashing marquee streaming a list of the night’s performers. “Can you imagine?” she asks. “On that busy street? It’ll say, ‘Tony Conrad tonight!’ And people will be like, ‘Who’s that? He’s in lights! He’s gotta be somebody!’ “