Humor and the Abject

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Q & A with S1 of Portland, OR

Artist sidony o'neal performing at S1, Portland, OR. All photos courtesy of S1. 

A few weeks back, artnet News published a list I put together called "5 Worthy Artist-Run Spaces That Have Learned to Thrive Outside of Art Market Capitals." As I mentioned in a previous post, a Q & A with Good Weather in North Little Rock, AR, I did pretty extensive interviews with the folks running the various spaces. We talked about their mission, how they pay the bills, and program highlights that keep them energized. For the artnet piece, I had to massively edit down their thoughtful and generous responses, but each space told me that they were down with me putting up the full conversation at a later date on the Humor and the Abject blog. 

Here is the full conversation I had with Felisha Ledesma and Alex Ian Smith, co-founders of the project space, event venue, and gallery in Portland called S1. There will be three more forthcoming in this series, so please keep an eye out for those. If you're interested in providing support for S1, consider becoming a member. I'm a member, and I'm proud to support them! 

Works from the exhibition "Raquel Racquel" by S1's first artists-in-residence, Raque Ford and Rachel Malin in 2016. 

When did you open? Have you existed in more than one location?

S1 opened our first location in 2014. We were located beneath the Rite Aid in the Hollywood District in Portland, Oregon. Earlier this year we moved into an old video store further east on the same street. We are still getting our bearings at our new spot, but it’s coming along.

Who were the founders, and who is currently running the space? 

Felisha Ledesma, Alex Ian Smith, and Erik Carlson co-founded S1. Earlier this year, Erik stepped down as co-director to focus on his music. Besides Felisha and Alex, we have a core group of about 10 who help with everything from programming to design. At the moment our staff includes Daniela Serna, Alyssa Beers, Alissa DeRubeis, Chris Cahill, Kathleen Hong, Kyle Raquipiso, Charles Stobbs, Reid Stubblefield, Jerry Joiner, and Alicia Gordon. Plus our synth library staff facilitates hours for our community to explore synthesizers and ask questions.

What were the original motivations for the opening of the space? Has your mission changed?

The mission has stayed basically the same since the beginning. We wanted to make a space for art that was underrepresented in our community. We are all musicians, artists, and educators, so we wanted the space to cohesively combine these aspects. Some people like to call us a venue, others call us a gallery, but we think we’re simultaneously both and neither.

An Introduction to Synthesis workshop at S1. Photo: Courtesy of S1.

Can you describe, however specifically you’d like to, the economics of your space? 

S1 is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and entirely volunteer-run. We get a lot of support from our members who pay a small monthly fee and in return get free or discounted admission to events and workshops, access to resources like the synth library and DJ tools, and other member perks. We’ve been fortunate to receive large donations from generous members of our community that have helped us with specific expenses. We’ve received a few project grants but even with so much support, running a space like ours is extremely expensive, and grant opportunities are limited in Oregon. Because we are not a commercial gallery, we don’t really deal with sales. Financially, this can make producing an exhibition difficult, but removing the motivation to sell from the art making practice, can give artists freedom to explore areas of their practice a traditional gallery might not afford.

Have you participated in, or are you considering participating in, international art fairs? Any thoughts on doing this in general?  

Obviously, art fairs can benefit spaces like ours in terms of visibility for our artists and the project as a whole. They’re also opportunities to connect with other like-minded spaces, artists, or potential audience members outside of Portland. However, as a space that is decidedly non-commercial and not particularly interested in selling work, it’s often too much of a financial strain with fees, travel, and accommodation. We’ve participated in some other festivals and events as speakers on panels, or with the Synth Library as instructors and representatives. These opportunities have been more beneficial because they provide similar visibility, but are generally less focused on the art market and associated capital. These festivals and conferences allow us to represent the project by its core ideas and values, rather than a commodified version to entice buyers.

Does your space run programs, events, or exhibitions with intentional outreach to your local community? 

Equity is something that we consider a lot when developing our programming. As an art space it’s our responsibility to make sure all different groups and types of people feel represented and have access to art, music, and education with few financial barriers. We make a sincere effort to listen to our community and work with artists that represent the diverse and often underrepresented populations in Portland.

Installation view of sidony o'neal's exhibition at S1. 

Are there specific exhibitions or projects that you’ve done at your space that you reflect on and think, “That’s when we nailed what it is that we’re trying to do.”?

Our most recent residency and exhibition with sidony o’neal was a bit of that. As an artist-in-residence with access to our Synth Library and other resources, sidony was able to really beautifully combine sound with their sculpture and performance work for a really cohesive exhibition. It was also our first exhibition after moving, so there was immense satisfaction in opening our doors to the public for the first time in a new space. Beyond this specific project, the Synth Library as a program/resource at S1 was a major accomplishment that really encapsulated the mission and core values of S1. All the equipment that the Synth Library has is typically surrounded by many social and financial barriers to access. We’re really fortunate to be able to remove these barriers and provide access to our community in the form of workshops, performances, and residencies. The program empowers people in and outside of our community to engage with modular synthesis and sound benefiting local artists, as well as national and international artists participating in the residency program.

Russell E L Butler performing at S1. 

Additionally, are there other exhibitions or projects that you’ve produced that felt like major transitional points for the artist(s)?

Russell E L Butler was one particular artist-in-residence whose time at S1 really benefited their practice immensely. Russell is an experimental artist and electronic musician based in Oakland, California who came to S1 to perform, teach a workshop, record, and learn in the library. As an artist, they have a clear mastery and passion for their work that is truly captivating. They are now getting more opportunities to play larger festivals, synth companies are sponsoring them with gear, and they are getting booked for national and international tours. Russell has become part of our family and we're honored to support them as their practice evolves and grows. Russell has played at S1 a handful of times now, and each time is a special occasion..

What, in your personal opinion, constitutes success for your space? 

The idea of success is difficult to quantify for a space like S1. Because it’s not about a product or sales, all we really have to go on is the feeling. If we measured success by how much money we had, we’d definitely consider a lot of our projects to be a failure. However, seeing, hearing, and feeling the importance of the art, ideas, and experiences we share is what makes it a success.

What programs do you have this fall, that you’re particularly excited about?

We just had "Proscenium Arch," an exhibition curated by Charles Stobbs with artists Inga Danysz, Keisuke Iiri (Le Makeup), Nicolette Polek, and Kira Scerbin. We also hosted performances from Yves Tumor, Tayhanna, and Fhloston Paradigm aka King Britt. Fhloston Paradigm also spent time in residence in the Synth Library to experiment with modular synthesizers and record some new material. Coming up this weekend we have a couple workshops: a synth building workshop with Ross Fish and a workshop hosted by Home School and Pochas Radicales called Pochas: Establishing and Sustaining Healthy Boundaries as Artists. There is more in the works but nothing that we are able to announce just yet. Keep an eye on the S1 website for regular updates.