Re-Charging Defibrillator Gallery: A Conversation With Founder Joseph Ravens

By Carrie McGath in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 6, 2015 9:00PM

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'Fish Out Of Water,' by Jospeh Ravens

Defibrillator Gallery (aka: DfbrL8r) Artistic and Executive Director Joseph Ravens is a tireless artist and advocate for the arts. From his own performance art projects to helping other artists gain exposure for theirs, his life is one with a strong focus on creation and the journey it takes to get there. His work often ponders the body, its changes and form. Over coffee before his performance for REVIVAL at Pritzker Pavillion last weekend, Ravens told us that he has come to embrace the changes in his physique, and uses his body as a central medium in his work.

"Performance art is so related to the body and it doesn't have to be a lithe and beautiful body. I am inspired by people who work with the body they're given," he said. "I am trying to remember that myself in a culture and in a time where we often feel so much shame about our bodies. It is crippling."

Four years after Ravens opened a Noble Square storefront, turning it into the only space in the city devoted exclusively to performance art, he lost his lease due to a variety of circumstances, including rapid gentrification of the neighborhood, a reality often adversely affecting the very art spaces that make an area so desirable. The artery on Milwaukee Avenue where the original gallery was located was an eclectic area with a diversity of businesses and organizations lining the corridor. It appears now, though, it is a neighborhood in the crosshairs of developers and new residents, and that nonconformist mood may or may not change considerably in the coming years.

Ravens took the sudden news of losing his lease in stride, though, and only a week after finding out he had a month to vacate, he was looking for a new space to re-root DfbrL8r. The new space affords great benefits including a large cellar for storage and is in a more visible spot. Since moving in, some renovations have taken place to get it ready to again house the busy calendar of edgy and artful performances by artists from all around the country and abroad. While the space is inhabited, Ravens will continue renovating the building, including a restoration of the exterior. "The building qualifies for the city’s Facade Rebate Program, so at some point we will be redoing the facade of the building as well.”

Originally a meat market, the gallery’s new home is a 19th century Romanesque Revival equipped with a large bull’s head on the gable. Still located on Milwaukee Avenue, the new space is now a few blocks from the Chicago Blue Line stop at Chicago and Greenview Avenues. The gallery’s calendar is already full into the summer and will carry on the tradition of high-quality, intense, and thought-provoking performances and events. "We will have a great new window space that will still be called an electrode. We built a 13x13 foot square exhibition space at the window ’s height, so it's a little exhibition space that’s meant to be viewed from the street."

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'Fat Pig,' by Veronika Merklein
This Saturday, Feb. 7, the new space will open and be inaugurated by the Vienna-based artist, Veronika Merklein, presenting her piece, Fat Pig. An artist who regularly uses her body in her work as a “fat fit” woman, she will present the durational performance beginning at 7 p.m. I asked Ravens if it was intentional to have this particular artist do this particular piece to signal the opening. He said that although it is a great way to open the new space, it was not exactly deliberate, but more due to circumstance.

"I had her booked already. She is in town on a six-month residency from the Austrian government and when I found out she was coming to Chicago, I extended an invitation because I had seen this work she did with a chocolate scale and a video of her footprints from the chocolate, and I immediately wanted her and booked her eight months in advance.” Ravens continued, “Veronika does her work with humor, taking larger ideas and using humor as a way to look closely at them. People like Veronika are very inspiring to me."

With this deeply intriguing inaugural performance to officially open the new gallery space, it is a big moment in the Chicago arts scene, particularly in the area of performance. Ravens’ vision of Dfbrl8r is to spotlight worldwide performance artists who create work that is sometimes edgy, sometimes campy and funny, and sometimes poetic and quiet. The real-time form of this type of art has a power to engage an audience on a provocative and visceral level as a way to challenge assumptions and change perceptions. Curating the calendar is one of Ravens’ great gifts, and this re-charge of the gallery and its mission will continue to electrify the heart of the city’s burgeoning art scene.

Defibrillator Gallery (DfbrL8r) is located at 1463 W. Chicago Ave. The official re-opening and performance is 7 p.m., Feb. 7. $10 suggested donation.