INVISIBLE DOG, OFF LEASH AND REIMAGINED
By Melena Ryzik / September 2010 / Original Article http://nyti.ms/rfjCrr
A version of this article appeared in print on September 14, 2010, on page C1 of the New York edition.
Serendipity can strike at any time. In the 1970s a World War II veteran named George Zorbas took a trip to Europe and returned with a novelty concept that became a runaway hit: the invisible-dog leash. As a visual prank, it fit perfectly in the era of the pet rock. He brought the loopy idea back to his factory in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, where he already produced belts and jewelry, eventually employing as many as 150 people to churn out thousands of the stiff leashes and empty collars, 24 hours a day.
In the basement of the Invisible Dog Art Space in Brooklyn, Lucien Zayan brandishes one of the namesake props. But tastes change. Pet rocks and empty collars were relegated to attics and thrift stores, and fashion accessories were made more cheaply abroad. By 2005, the company was closed, and the space was a relic.
In 2008 Lucien Zayan, a French theater and opera director who was spending a few months in New York, happened by and saw the factory’s future — and his own. Or, as he put it: “By chance, one day, I met the building. And I immediately fell in love.”
Who wouldn’t? It’s a three-story, 30,000-square foot, 19th-century structure, steps from the bustle of Smith Street and on the same block as a subway stop. Mr. Zayan envisioned it as a multipurpose arts center, with room for studios, galleries and performances. He contacted an owner, Frank DeFalco, who had bought the building with two partners in 2007, and gave his pitch. It was, by the way, just after the financial meltdown.
“One of the first things he asked me was, ‘Do you have money to do that?’ ” Mr. Zayan recalled. “And I said, no. And he answered, ‘Me either.’ ” A deal was born.
Now the Invisible Dog Art Space is fulfilling its promise as a neighborhood hub of creativity. On Sunday, as part of Crossing the Line, the annual festival put on by the French Institute Alliance Française, it hosted thousands for Farm City Fair, a Brooklyn “county fair” theme event. Visitors sampled (surprisingly good) salmon pastrami cheesecake and baguette-flavored ice cream and learned about rooftop farms, while a brass band played outside. On Thursday, the black-box theater in the gallery’s basement will host its first production, a new play by a young playwright. Thirty artists fill the second-floor studios; the airy top floor serves as a desirable party space; and a multimedia installation by the artist Richard Garet is to open in the ground-floor gallery later this month. A shady courtyard offers both refuge and a neighborhood compost pile/environmental installation piece. Mr. Zayan is the building curator, deciding who can exhibit and work there. A year into its recession-era life, Invisible Dog is fostering connections and, even wilder, making money.
“It’s an amazing story, where you think, ‘Only in New York,’ ” said Lili Chopra, the co-curator of the Crossing the Line festival. She met Mr. Zayan last fall and was charmed by the gallery’s raw space and his do-it-yourself energy. “I just thought it was such a great labor of love,” she said, “and completely in the spirit of what’s happening in Brooklyn now.”
Though he’d had a successful career in France, Mr. Zayan had never worked here. But after getting the green light from the building’s owners — they’d hoped to turn the space into condominiums until the recession intervened — he sold off most of his possessions, left his apartment in Paris and moved to Brooklyn in April 2009. “My friends were stupefied when I told them, ‘I’m going to New York to create the Invisible Dog Art Center,’ ” Mr. Zayan said. “I was alone here, without any friends, without any contacts, just this building and nothing else.”
Searching for inspiration, he went to the Museum of Modern Art. (“Some people go to the church, I went to the MoMA.”) There he saw a retrospective of the German artist Martin Kippenberger, full of meticulously arranged objects. He returned to the Invisible Dog, scoured the basement, still stacked with belts, jewelry and other bric-a-brac, and opened a flea market.
From May to July 2009, he sold that inventory for a dollar or two an item. With $300,000 invested by Mr. DeFalco and his partners, he earned enough to open the space in October of that year, but barely made a dent in the leftover stuff, which is now being harvested as material for the building and its artists. Mr. Zayan pays $25,000 a month in rent, most of it coming from the studios and event space, he said. By his count, 32,000 visitors have passed through in the last year. “It’s a real ecosystem,” Mr. Zayan, 44, said in an interview last week at Café Pedlar, up the street from his gallery. “Everything works together.”
Ian Trask, a 27-year-old artist making the transition from a career in science, first came to Invisible Dog in November for a Recession Art show. At Mr. Zayan’s invitation, he spent three months scavenging in the basement. He turned coils of canvas belts into a three-dimensional painting, which now hangs over the building’s freight elevator. Another piece, a 162-foot cardboard worm, is stored downstairs.“Lucien’s been very kind to me,” said Mr. Trask, now Invisible Dog’s first artist-in-residence. “A lot of my collectors are friends of his. He’d bring people to the basement and say, ‘So-and-so wants to buy something.’ ” Gabriel Jones, a photographer who shot the cover art for Arcade Fire’s newest album and was one of Invisible Dog’s earliest tenants, said it was different from other studio spaces. “There’s always a party, show or an exhibition,” he said. “It’s a living space.”
Mr. Zayan’s landlords, too, are happy with the role the building plays in the neighborhood, where it can serve as an anchor for their other projects. “We’re having a blast,” Mr. DeFalco said at the Farm City event, which was so popular it opened an hour early and closed late. “I took a chance with Lucien, but he’s done everything that he said he would.”
Mr. Zayan, who has a charming accent and a neat salt-and-pepper beard and who favors spotless Adidas and pristine white shirts, says that — except for the ability to smoke indoors — he does not miss Paris. Save for an art student intern, he does everything at Invisible Dog himself. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s not too much work,” he said. He lives next door; for fun he gives haircuts in the courtyard — as many as five a day, upon request, though he likes curly styles best. He hopes to make Invisible Dog a hangout, “open six days a week, from 10 in the morning to midnight, with always something happening,” he said. And though his friends counseled him against the name, calling it stupid, he’s glad it stuck: “It’s the history, and history is never stupid.”
When he’s low on cash, he sells off a hundred invisible-dog leashes at $20 apiece; boxes of them still sit in the basement, a testament to the tenacity of far-fetched ideas. “That’s my treasure,” he said.