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A Midwestern Collective Takes the Art World to Church

SiTE:LAB transformed a desanctified Catholic church into an ongoing art installation.

For a flock of inventive and energetic artists, an abandoned church in Grand Rapids, Michigan is fueling ongoing collaboration through a series of transformative site-specific installations. The latest iteration is Nothing Is Destroyed, presented by nomadic art collective SiTE:LAB, on view at Open Source Gallery in Brooklyn.

The merging of art and religion is nothing new, and though modern art skews towards the secular, the lure of congregating with like-minded folks still resonates. Struck by the disparate art scene in Grand Rapids, SiTE:LAB founder Paul Amenta set out to forge a community by mounting installations in underutilized spaces around town. “There’s a building we took over in downtown Grand Rapids that sat there for 13 years, and people were like, ‘Why don’t we tear that thing down?’ But we did this huge project there, completely gutted the building, and 50,000 people came through the exhibit. There’s an architecture firm and retail space there now. To be able to energize a space that has been abandoned and transform it in some way, to me that’s pretty interesting,” Amenta tells The Creators Project. SiTE:LAB has created work in vacant commercial buildings in the past including a dilapidated hotel, a nature preserve, and even an abandoned natural history museum.

Photo by Filippo Tagliati. Courtesy of SiTE:LAB.

Buoyed by a reputation for revitalizing forgotten corners of the city, SiTE:LAB attracted the attention of Habitat for Humanity, which acquired nearly three acres of run-down buildings in downtown Grand Rapids in 2015. Since redevelopment is slated for 2017, Habitat offered the property to SiTE:LAB in the meantime, as a sort of on-loan arts center. Among the buildings was the desanctified Rumsey Street Church, an abandoned Catholic parish whose congregation outgrew the space.

Photo by Filippo Tagliati. Courtesy of SiTE:LAB.

The church became the crux of the Rumsey Street oeuvre. In the summer of 2015, Amenta, along with Monika Wuhrer, who runs Open Source Gallery, hauled the church’s steeple and pipe organ to upstate New York for a show at CR10. That fall, Amenta, Wuhrer, and a bevy of local artists tackled the Rumsey Street structures in Michigan, transforming their exteriors and staging diverse performances for ArtPrize, a yearly local festival. New York-based Satellite Collective enlisted dancers from the New York City Ballet to dance on the church roof, and a film of the performance by Lora Robertson and Kevin Draper, with music by Stelth Ulvang of The Lumineers, was screened at the 92nd Street Y. The steeple and the film are some of the relics on display at the Open Source show. After the exhibition, everything will be carted back to Grand Rapids and reinvented for ArtPrize 2016.

Photo by Blane De St Croix. Courtesy of SiTE:LAB.

Open Source is an apt home for Nothing Is Destroyed. Wuhrer draws her own congregation to the gallery one Sunday a month for the cHURCH OF MONIKA, a non-denominational gathering of New York artists. “I created my own church because I am interested in the concept of ownership of a church in general and the existence of belief systems in general,” Wuhrer says. “Where and who is founding a church? Who is in charge of a religion and its history? But one of my biggest interests in the idea of churches and religious institutions are their ability to foster community.”

Photo by Filippo Tagliati. Courtesy of SiTE:LAB.

Amenta says that since SiTE:LAB adopted Rumsey Street, spaces that were once off-limits due to crime are increasingly family friendly. He believes resurrecting the buildings as community space sparked the transformation and hopes that before the wrecking balls raze the church, the city takes stock of the building’s importance. “One of the things we’re attempting to do is suggest to the community that the space should be saved somehow. Not as a church, but maybe as a community center. Even if Rumsey Street Church gets torn down, I hope they consider a gathering space in this neighborhood,” Amenta says.

Photo by Filippo Tagliati. Courtesy of SiTE:LAB.

Photo by Filippo Tagliati. Courtesy of SiTE:LAB.

Photo by Filippo Tagliati. Courtesy of SiTE:LAB.

SiTE:LAB’s Nothing Is Destroyed is at Open Source Gallery in Brooklyn through July 30. Check out more of SiTE:LAB’s work on their website.

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