Public Space One celebrates 16 years of making art ‘radically accessible’

PS1’s Sweet 16 Family B-Day Jam and Open House

Public Space One — Saturday, Jan. 19 at 1 p.m.

Sweet 16! PS1’s Annual Art Auction & B-day Celebration

Public Space One — Saturday, Jan. 26 at 6 p.m.
Dance party to follow at the Deadwood

PS1 invites past and present members to share memories and photos on social media using the hashtag #ps1sweet16

A team at PS1 constructed the Peoples Pyramid in the summer of 2014, made of thick plastic and inflated by industrial fans. The piece was displayed on the Ped Mall as part of an exhibition titled “Reframing the City.” “Over 1,000 people went into our pyramid that day,” said PS1 director John Engelbrecht. “It was up for 10 hours and could hold comfortably 40-50 people at a time.” — courtesy of Public Space One

“The name has always struck me as challenge,” said John Engelbrecht, director of Iowa City arts organization Public Space One. “To my amazement, we have not strayed far from the original mission of providing a radically accessible space for people ‘to go public with their creative aspirations.’”

Public Space One, also known as PS1, evokes the idea of the commons, a venerable tradition that allows all members of a society to have access to the same materials and spaces.

With the help of its many volunteers, PS1 has been able to support artists with workshops, residencies, shared equipment and other resources — as well as providing an accessible community performance and gallery space.

PS1 began in a donated downtown space above the Deadwood bar in 2002, when students needed an off-campus space to rehearse and perform a play. It then went underground, literally, moving into the basement of the Jefferson Building, where it continued to flourish rent-free in a university-owned space between 2009 to 2012.

PS1 hosted gallery shows, esoteric experiments and envelope-pushing performances there until it relocated to its current spot in the Wesley Center, which also houses Iowa’s only community-access printmaking studio (the Iowa City Press Co-op, which PS1 helped establish).

An early outreach event for PS1 in 2004, co-organized by United Action for Youth. — courtesy of Public Space One

“Moving to Wesley was a really big step for the organization, as we had to start paying rent for the first time and thus begin to create a more stable and sustainable organization,” said Kalmia Strong, PS1’s programming director, “but it has been a good home for many reasons. The Wesley Foundation values what we do and has been very supportive and flexible. We’re lucky to have an affordable space in the downtown area. It’s also been important to our growth to have dedicated space for making, not just presenting, creative work — including private studios and the IC Press Co-op studio.”

Not long after moving to Iowa City for graduate school in 2011, Strong got involved as part of the organization’s volunteer gallery team. For her, PS1 is an art space and a community space, one that “posits art, in all its weirdness and inefficiency, as essential to every community, and to imagining a better world.”

Engelbrecht added, “In a lot of ways, by deeming us ‘public space’ we are handing over the keys, the autonomy, the responsibility — something not often offered in contemporary American culture.”

This requires a careful balancing act, which is why public spaces are so rare in our society today. It’s much easier to create limits, categories and other obstacles that stand in the way of genuine openness.

“Public Space means it belongs to everyone,” explained Sayuri Sasaki Hemann, an artist and PS1 volunteer who moved to Iowa City in 2011. “Our organization has an alternate slogan, ‘art everyday,’ where we keep it real, not just on pedestals. That is very important. Making art accessible, no matter who you are.”

The 2014 Blue Lava Exhibition, named in homage to the blue floors in PS1’s Wesley Center space, involved a spin on the “floor is lava” children’s game in which artists had to keep their works to a 1′-by-1′ square tile. — courtesy of Public Space One

In many ways, PS1 artists are carrying on a tradition that stretches back to the early 20th century avant-garde movement Dada, which sought to blur the distinctions between art and everyday life.

Hemann was first drawn to PS1 because it embodies the idea that you don’t have to be rich or privileged to have art in your life. “If you have an idea,” she said, “it’s a place that lets you do it.” She believes that our community’s greatest resource is its many creative people — writers, visual artists, musicians, creators of all kinds — and that PS1 serves as a magnet for this vortex of energy.

“Before PS1, the work I created was mainly created on my own,” Hemann said. “After I became involved, I learned that art can be in many forms and could exist in many stages of the process of making. The membrane separating the wall of my studio and the outside world has gotten more permeable, and there is so much movement between them, and that is because I am able to bounce ideas off of others and also get feedback, and also be inspired by others through this.”

A native of Japan, Hemann met her husband Brien while attending college in Portland, Oregon, where one of her works was permanently installed in Concourse D of the Portland International Airport. (Tidepools — dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Tsunami and earthquake — is located in the terminal where non-stop flights travel to and from Narita, Japan.) It was a bit of a challenge starting life from scratch in Iowa City because she wasn’t affiliated with the University of Iowa and only knew a handful of people through Brien, but PS1 gave her a sense of community.

Jesse Albrect — taking art classes at the University of Iowa, in between tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan — donned a USA Speedo for a performance to go along with his 2011 exhibit at PS1, then located in the Jefferson Building. Albrecht once got in trouble from UI for placing what appeared to be a live grenade in one of his exhibitions. — courtesy of Public Space One

Kalmia Strong began as a volunteer and is now one of the three part-time staff members at PS1, though she still contributes her labor well beyond her official time “on the clock.” The act of developing PS1 as a physical and conceptual space has become a large part of Strong’s creative practice, something she finds quite hard but also really fun.

“I continue to be driven,” Strong said, “by hearing and witnessing the positive impact that PS1 has in large and small ways for folks in our community and by believing that art — not just art objects, but artists, art community, art space — is an important part of imagining and creating the world we want to live in.”

“For me,” Hemann observed, “being involved with PS1 has let me grow as an artist, and as human being, and I cannot imagine Iowa City without it. It is what keeps my life interesting, and it’s really so amazing what PS1 does with such little resources! It requires many, many people who are super passionate pitching in. That is the beauty of it, and sometimes the struggle.”

As one of the only entities in Iowa City that is not governed by the value systems of the commercial world or the bureaucracy of the UI, she believes PS1 plays an essential role in the town. “It is there to celebrate the creative process and play. That’s really important for all people who are creative, and I feel like that is why it’s a cornerstone of our community, homegrown here in Iowa City.”

Summing up what makes PS1 special, Hemann quipped, “We are not governed by ‘the man’!”

An exhibit of “neon axes” created by artist Keith Lemley helped make PS1’s Jefferson Building space an intriguing venue for the April 2011 Mission Creek Festival. Here, The Skull Defekts perform. — courtesy of Public Space One

Kembrew is a Dadaist word for Dada. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 256.

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