Natalia Panzer of Refresh Gallery

by Meg Miller and Laurel Schwulst

Meg Miller: You run a bedroom gallery, Refresh, out of your apartment in Sunset Park. We’ve been talking about Sunset Park a lot in this household because we’re all thinking about moving there. How do you like it?

Natalia Panzer: I love Sunset Park. I have a particularly nice situation because I live on a lovely block of brownstones on 43rd street. One side dead-ends in the actual Sunset Park. The other dead-ends in Bush Terminal Park, which is a hidden park that my roommate and I discovered one day. It’s a park right on the water. There’s a jetty you walk out into and a soccer field.

MM: A neighborhood that still has a hidden park sounds so appealing to me. Just the fact that there’s any corner of Brooklyn that hasn’t been found.

NP: It’s very peaceful and unusual for a part of New York. Sunset Park is also very stratified. There’s Industry City, this kind of out-of-the-way, weird, creative manufacturing hub. Then there’s a Hispanic area, and then it turns into Chinatown. The park itself is the most joyful place. It’s where everything meets.

My landlord was born on the street we live on. He bought the house we’re in now and his sister bought the house across the street.


Laurel Schwulst: Do you know how old your apartment building is?

NP: It was built in 1899. I did some research into it a little bit last year because my current roommate, Laura, did an art show in a little room in our apartment, which I learned was called the deadman’s room. The way our apartment is set up, we have the whole floor, so you go through the front door, and then you go through my front room to get to Laura’s annex room. There’s also a door from her room into the hallway, but traditionally it was blocked off by furniture or sealed off. Back when there were a lot of fires happening in New York, people would often get trapped in those rooms and get burned alive.

MM: How did you start the gallery?

NP: I didn’t even want to start a gallery. I started it as a fake thing because I wanted to rent an art video from Spain, but they only rented to institutions and galleries. But then I kind of liked the idea of running a gallery. I decided to do the first show, The Things I Own, in 3D, to “perform” a durational project I had been working on since 2014 where I kept a log of all of my objects. Maintaining the log was becoming tiring and I was considering stopping, and then right around the time of the show the webpage where I hosted the log got some kind of bug and erased a lot of the data. So, it was as if the show ended up being the reason to stop updating the log. It’s evolved very naturally from there. Laura’s second show was when I was more interested in having that little deadman’s room be the gallery space, but that seemed to be constricting so now it’s the whole apartment. I’m really just interested in the way that the apartment itself informs the artwork, not the other way around.

I want to do a show in the bathroom. We have all these little things in the bathroom, like a little dish that holds matches, and a little plant, and a shower curtain. So my idea is to ask people to make new versions of those things—ask someone to make a new dish and a planter and have someone print something on the shower curtain. I want someone to make a night light and to have a shower radio. It would be very integrated into the space, and the show would last for as long as it took for the shower curtain to get moldy.


MM: I wonder if the elasticity of time is different when you’re operating something out of your own apartment, since it’s also where you hang out and relax. If it was a separate space, you might feel like you have to fill the space on a certain timeline.

NP: Right, there’s no pressure to have a schedule and have things cycling through. That’s not the type of work I’m interested in showing anyways. It seems a bit too formulaic. My working method is more intuitive, waiting until it feels like it’s the right time.

LS: What’s the next show at Refresh?

NP: There’s one going on right now. This Japanese Fluxus musician, Mieko Shiomi, has a score about two people who are in a room for two hours and can’t speak to each other.

Mieko Shiomi, music for two players II

We’re recreating it at Refresh, so it would be me and someone else, or two people would come and do it on their own, and be in my big front room together in silence. No one has done it yet [laughs].

LS: How did you come to present this work?

NP: It emerged from me finding that score and not being able to forget it. It really affected me. The main reason I wanted to perform it was to present some of the research I had done about her and figure out why I was even so interested in it. Writing the description for the show was probably the most important part to me. I think I very successfully answered my own question, “Why do I like that score so much?”

MM: I was reading about her. She started shifting her “action poems” [scores that instruct performers to do activities or actions] into events where people would perform them collectively. She wanted the work to be more of a communication than a solitary act. That made me think of your gallery and turning your apartment and bedroom into a semi-public space. Do you think about that in terms of “communication” at all?

NP: A big part of the gallery is actually the Twitter account. It’s all based on things that I see in my home. I’ll think, “That’s so beautiful,” and take a photo of it. Or it will be updates on what’s happening with my roommates and me.

It’s a very strange way of me being so exposed. Everyone knows what my stuff looks like, what my room looks like, and what I’m eating. For some reason I feel no self-consciousness about it to any degree, even though I’m a super private person. I would never do this on a personal account. When it’s a performance of self almost through the guise of the gallery, it feels more comfortable. There’s something about it that’s more of a “filtered” communication.

A lot of the images I take for the Twitter account are based on the lighting. Our apartment is kind of like yours in that the kitchen has two very large windows, and then it’s just a big area with my room at the back. If the door is open you can see the big bay windows and the lighting is out of control. It’s so nice. That informs a lot of how I’m able to re-see the stuff in my apartment as gorgeous, in that special light.


MM: We were talking earlier about intimacy. Laurel is reading the book A Pattern Language, which talks about something called “Intimacy Gradient.”

LS: Basically, it’s a book about how to live and build towns, neighborhoods, homes, and rooms. Each “pattern” starts with a problem and ends with a solution. You can use some of them in tandem to form a “language.” Pattern 127, Intimacy Gradient, says you should arrange your house from open to semi-private to private rooms. I gave a talk recently when I summarized it by saying, “You don’t want your front door to open directly into your bedroom.” But that’s kind of exactly what you’re doing with Refresh.

NP: Maybe the intimacy bit comes out of a working practice in which anything I do—any project, anything I make—is me trying to exhaust the limits of what’s available to me. In making artwork, but also in terms of sound or writing. I find a lot of texture in the objects I keep around me and the things I interact with a lot. I think that’s where this default intimacy comes from. I’m not always interested in taking outside objects and configuring them into some idea. That seems incredibly difficult to me.

My main interest in intimacy is how people are responding to the work that’s being shown. Going to an opening can be an awful experience because it’s not intimate, and it’s alienating in a way. Laura’s show, Cruise, in the deadman’s room, that was over the course of two days on a weekend, and people would go in and look, and then just hang out in our apartment. That was very nice.

In terms of the bathroom one, my roommates and I will be interacting with it all the time, until it’s over.

LS: I love the websites that you make for your projects. When did you learn to code websites?

NP: I went to college here, and then my ex and I moved to Portland, Oregon, for a while. When we were in Portland, there was a five month period where I quit my job and was unemployed. I was at home a lot, and I had no money so I couldn’t do anything. I wanted to get another job and didn’t have any marketable skills, so I thought I’d learn to code because it could get me a job, and also because I’m interested in it. I’m a writer and it’s like writing for the most part; it’s like learning a new language.

Recently I realized that working on websites is one of the few things that fully occupies my attention. If I’m writing I’ll get distracted, but every time I work on a website it’s like a hole: five hours have passed. I think it’s because I still know so little and a lot of it is me googling on forums to figure out how to implement what I imagine, and then forgetting it right away.

I started the website okcook.co because I wanted to do an online journal that just releases whatever, with no editions or timeline. Each issue would be completely random, and we just run a list of contributors rather than attributing them to individual pieces. Since then, it’s become more of a stream.

LS: Why do you like doing these indexical projects?

NP: I really like lists and organization as a texture. There’s something very simple and accessible about them, but within their structure, there’s a lot of weirdness that can happen.

LS: That reminds me of Refresh, your bedroom gallery. A doctor recently told me bedrooms are only for sleeping and having sex. But you show that the functionality of a bedroom can be much more expansive.


Natalia Panzer builds, edits, and contributes to okcook.co, a gastro-poetic website of art, writing, and data; she runs a home gallery space called Refresh out of her apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; she co-runs Glass Press with LA Warman, LAYM with Theodore Cale Schafer, and Lynn with many others; she writes about contemporary music for Tiny Mix Tapes under the name Cookcook.

Laurel Schwulst is a designer, artist, and teacher living in New York.

Meg Miller edits the Are.na blog.