No Longer Empty (NLE) is a non-profit arts collective based in NYC, founded as an artistic response to the present economic condition and on the concept of art in strange places. Creating pop-up galleries in vacant buildings across the city, NLE’s commitment is to art as a component for community development, and their mission to revitalise empty spaces and bring resourceful, high-calibre art to the wider public. Now, as the sixth Liverpool Biennial kicked off a few days ago, NLE are bringing their special brand of pop-up art to UK streets, and in collaboration with The Art Organisation (TAO) will be curating Social Questioning Using Art Today (S.Q.U.A.T), one of the six main exhibitions in this year’s Biennial programme. Dazed talks to NLE founder Asher Remy Toledo about how the collective came in to being, plans to breathe life back in to the abandoned buildings of Merseyside and his excitement at uniting the established art world with an energetic and vital alternative scene.
Dazed Digital: NLE began as a reaction to the recession. While many other art organisations were bracing themselves for the worst, how did you identify the economic crisis as an opportunity?
Asher Remy Toledo: When the recession hit, it was a depressing time in New York. Galleries were closing and artists leaving the city, no longer able to afford rent on their studios. I love New York and was always attracted to the city for its vibrant art scene. I didn’t want to see this vibrancy die. I had lunch with my friend Manon Slome one day, curator at the Chelsea Museum, and she told me she’d just seen twenty empty stores in eight blocks. This was when we decided to set something up together, using these empty spaces, and the idea for NLE was born.
DD: What are NLE’s plans for the long term? Will the organisation be sustainable through boom times as well as bust?
Asher Remy Toledo: Yes, because it’s a new, exciting way of presenting art. NLE has a grass-roots ethos. Anyone and everyone can become involved; artists, gallery owners, curators, landlords, businessmen and volunteers. We offer internships to students, and we provide a platform for artists and galleries to be more flexible and free-minded. The reaction to our shows has been positive, and we’ve grown from being a tiny organisation to one of sixty-plus people very quickly.
DD: Being a non-profit organisation, NLE’s exhibitions are dependent on landlords donating properties rent-free. What incentives do they have to do this?
Asher Remy Toledo: Art can bring economic stimulus to a property that would otherwise be sitting empty and attracting vandals. When we hold exhibitions lots of people come and view the space. There are for lease or for sale signs, and we hand out fliers referring people to the relevant broker. Mostly we attract liberal-minded landlords, someone who is interested in art and society rather than the greedy capitalist type.
DD: NLE exhibitions are described as being site specific. How so?
Asher Remy Toledo: I once visited a very powerful exhibition in Hong Kong held in the cells of an old prison. This got me thinking about how art can reflect the nature or emphasise the heritage of a building, and how it can summon ghosts. Our first NLE exhibition was held in the Chelsea Hotel. We contacted artists who had lived there previously and chose exhibits that related to its history. The result was quirky and bohemian, like the hotel itself. Our second show on the other hand was held in a flash new condo building in the meatpacking district. It was sleek, stylish and attracted an elegant crowd. The third was in a decrepit belt factory in Brooklyn, and participating artists grabbed old reels of fabric and bits of leather and transformed them into something new.
DD: What has been your favourite NLE show, and why?
Asher Remy Toledo: I loved the Never Can Say Goodbye show we did in the old Tower Records store on Broadway and West Fourth. Eleven different artists collaborated to create a mock record shop, and some customers spent up to thirty minutes in the store before they realised it wasn’t real. The old Tower Records was a cult store, and the show was a tribute to those glory years, when music was still something you held.
DD: NLE and TAO are co-curating S.Q.U.A.T at the Liverpool Biennial this year. What’s the concept?
Asher Remy Toledo: This year the Biennial has become more inclusive, encouraging the whole city - not just the people who visit galleries - to play a role. Budget cuts have made the organisers more resourceful, and this sense of resourcefulness is what our organisation is all about. It’s an exciting moment. S.Q.U.A.T will take place in multiple locations throughout the Rope Walks district and - with exhibits ranging from video installations to improvised soap operas - will be entirely sound-related. We came up with the name S.Q.U.A.T because squatting, in a sense, is what we do. Both NLE and TAO share a common interest in the creative use of empty spaces, as we do in the values of grass roots community development.
DD: In terms of government spending cutbacks, do you think art should warrant a special case?
Asher Remy Toledo: That’s a tricky one. While I appreciate that artists need grants in order to survive, I don’t think spending a huge amount of money on a short-lived exhibition is justifiable at the moment. With the economy as it is, it’s not party time any more. It’s time to be both practical and imaginative, to discover new, interesting and cost-effective ways of doing things.
DD: What kind of impact do you think the recession has had on the art world in a wider sense? Do you think it has made art more or less necessary?
Asher Remy Toledo: I don’t think art can change in a ‘more or less’ sense. If anything, it has become more meaningful. Art isn’t a commodity created just to raise revenue. It exists on a higher plane, something that anyone should be able to connect with. When the recession hit a lot of artists went back to their studios and had to think more carefully about how to re-connect with people, while galleries became more thoughtful and responsible with spending. In this respect, the recession had a positive effect. Good things often come from bad.