Life as a Glass House
Lital Dotan starts her day the same way almost every morning: by “cleansing the body”—what most of us would call “washing up”—and then making her bed. Or rather, she stuffs her sheets and pillows inside a plastic vacuumed-sealed container—“the Space Bag”—and places it atop a display pedestal. It becomes, like everything else in her life, a work of art.
This is the first step of Dotan’s routine, written down in blue and black marker on a small whiteboard easel in her kitchen. Sometimes she accomplishes everything on the schedule, sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she updates the routine, crossing out or rephrasing tasks and squeezing in additional items within the schedule. Other times, she doesn’t.
Dotan’s “Daily Routine” has not changed since she first wrote it upon arriving in Brooklyn:
08:00 – Cleansing the Body
Riding the Space Bag
09:00 – Practicing Yoga
10:00 – Daily Transformation
Opening the Door
12:00 – Stepping Outside
18:00 – Entering the Booth
Staying in the Booth
19:00 – Writing on the Mattress
20:00 – Cleaning the House
21:00 – Dancing
“Lital needs routine, she needs discipline,” says Dotan’s husband and creative partner, Eyal Perry. “It’s part of her practice as a performer. And it’s also her way to construct time, which is crucial to her practice.”
So is the couple’s bed, which is actually just a mattress that rests atop a wooden plank. The head of the bed is attached to the wall by chains that allow it to fold up vertically into something of a D.I.Y. murphy bed. Every morning, Dotan lifts the mattress and props it up against the wall. The underside reveals a “personal graffiti wall,” covered in loose colorful yarn stitched to form Dotan’s various notes to self:
“NOWHERE,” “HOSPITALITY,” “LET ME BE YOUR (TAX) SHELTER,” “ART = POETIC PROTEST.”
246 Union Avenue in Williamsburg—otherwise known as the Glasshouse Project—is where Dotan lives, teaches, hosts artists, performs and creates art alongside Perry. It is a “living and exhibition space” in the form of a two-floor apartment connected to a windowed ground-level storefront and a backyard.
At first glance, signs of a traditional dwelling abound—a plush white couch in what looks like a living room downstairs; stocked cabinets in the kitchen upstairs; a small closet near the front door. But look closer and the appearance of normal domesticity crumbles. The couch, rather than facing a TV set, is surrounded by small video screens that replay past performance pieces starring Dotan. Instead of cans and spices, the kitchen cabinets contain books and video artwork mysteriously projected within its shelves. And that closet? Mostly empty, apart from a white chair facing a screen with looping video and a hidden security camera overhead.
And it’s open to everyone—all of it. The public is invited to step inside Dotan and Perry’s home during Dotan’s frequent performances, workshops, lectures, screenings and festivals. Admission is always suggested, never required. It’s all funded through money invested by admirers of the couple’s work.” We’re fortunate to have the opportunity to touch people who really care about what we do and want it to continue,” says Dotan.
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Last Friday night at Glasshouse resembled a typical New York evening: friends sitting together inside a dimly lit room, whispering between sips of Brooklyn Brewery beers and stifling laughs as they watched a couple (not Dotan and Perry) kiss in the black-and-white film screening in front of them. Of course, things quickly veered toward less-than-typical. As headlights from passing cars illuminated the dark storefront section of Dotan’s home, the on-screen couple eventually stopped kissing and the man began sensually kissing a dog. Minutes later, that comically uncomfortable affection was replaced by a pulsating collage of hardcore pornographic images—in full color and infrared—layered in such a way that it was difficult to differentiate the sexual acts being performed. After that, it was time for “Lord of the Cockrings,” a goofy sexual spoof of “The Lord of the Rings.”
This was the second-to-last evening of the Glasshouse’s Nick Zedd & the Cinema of Transgression Festival. The five-day event featured avant-garde cinema from Zedd—a filmmaker and author known for his work in the city’s underground art scenes during the ’80s and ’90s, as well as others in the “Cinema of Transgression” movement. Zedd coined the term to describe the growing group of filmmakers employing dark humor and shock value in their works.
One floor below, guests peeked inside the basement in search of more beers, a bathroom, or just to explore. It was easy for a certain kind of curiosity to take over—the kind of curiosity that arises when given the chance to look around unsupervised in a stranger’s home. For guests who let that curiosity get the best of them, unlocked doors in the hallway were an irresistible invitation to explore. Some chatted on the couch downstairs, surrounded by screens flashing recorded footage of past performances by Dotan. Others made their way upstairs, where they snapped photos on their iPhones of Dotan’s bedroom “graffiti wall,” or sat inside the closet and stared closely at the framed images of past performances on the wall.
“What I thought was especially compelling was the proximity of the artists to their work—I’ve seen exhibitions where artists lived in a museum but this is another level,” said Alina Zhitskaya, one of about thirty people who attended the festival at Glasshouse. “There is no separation between the gallery and the home. It is hard to imagine living in my office or even in the same building really, but these artists have no escape. They are totally surrounded by their creations.”
For some guests it may be difficult to understand the entirety of Glasshouse on a single visit.
“I definitely found myself looking at things more closely than I normally would at someone’s family photos or refrigerator art,” said Keith Morancie, who also attended the evening of film screenings. “But at least family photos can be easily understood. In this space there really was no context.”
And that, Dotan says, is sort of the point.
“We didn’t open a gallery in our house,” she explains. “We transformed the whole concept of living and the whole concept of experiencing art. It’s not even showing anymore. It exists here and it’s alive, it’s breathing, it’s changing all the time.”
This is not a gallery or museum in the traditional sense; there is no art dealer or curator in sight—only the artists.
“It doesn’t allow us to go back and have normal gallery exhibitions,” Dotan says, “I mean, we have no aim for that.”
“For many, many years we were rejected by the atmosphere in galleries,” adds Perry. “We felt hostility and coldness, anything but hospitality and joy. We wanted something different.”
Dotan, thirty-three, was drawn to photography early in her artistic career. She studied at Israel’s prestigious Bezalel Academy, where she earned a B.F.A. eight years ago. But photography always left too much distance between subject and artist for Dotan’s taste.
“I have no passion for photography or for cameras or for equipment,” she says. “For me, it’s like blocking me from the actual thing. I had a vision of how I want the work to look and I felt that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted and I was missing that presence part.”
It was when she began collaborating with Perry—him behind the camera, her in front of it—that Dotan fulfilled her vision. “When I met Eyal, it actually freed me,” she says.
The couple met in 2001, when Dotan was a student in Perry’s photography class, and the Glasshouse Project began in their Tel Aviv home in 2007 as a series of performance pieces that were live-streamed online, such as The Prom, in which Dotan dons a red cocktail dress and dances with her bathtub.
The project was located for a time in the Marina Abramovic Institute West, in San Francisco, and moved to Brooklyn with Dotan and Perry, a little less than a year ago.
Perry’s short salt-and-pepper curls give away their age difference—he’s thirteen years her senior—but it appears to be a small factor in their dynamic. Within the couple’s creative practice, there isn’t one without the other, they both insist. As artists, they create only with each other and never alone.
“More than ten years now we’ve developed a very strong symbiotic relationship in terms of creative processes,” adds Perry. “We bounce ideas from one another to the level that we cannot really know who initiated an idea. We are completely doing everything together. We share the responsibility.”
Esther Neff, an artist who recently performed at Glasshouse, thinks of the couple as the “two sides of performance art.”
“It’s interesting in terms of visual arts performance, because Lital is really the artist,” says Neff. “And Eyal was a photographer and videographer so he has much more of a visual sense of how things look from the outside.”
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Sitting in her living room one day last fall, Dotan’s Israeli-accented speech carries over the sounds coming from the audio artists performing upstairs. Her bright turquoise dress hugs her petite frame, and her wild light-brown curls cascade past her shoulders and frame her youthful features. Conversation is unexpectedly interrupted as Dotan smiles and greets two neighbors who stroll through the room. The duo makes small talk, eyes darting around, looking unsure of where to go. Dotan tells them to make themselves comfortable.
As the pair wanders through her house, they see Dotan’s image everywhere—from the various screens looping the couples’ collaborative performance works to the photo of Dotan’s nude body, refashioned into refrigerator magnets in the kitchen. Moments later, Dotan climbs the steps up to the kitchen for a glass of water. She uses the bathroom. She shakes hands and chats with two girls touring the top floor of the apartment—the kind of behavior you wouldn’t normally expect from a person with a home full of total strangers.
On some nights, during the Cinema of Transgression Festival, for instance, Dotan and Perry sit closely at the rear of the storefront and play the role of audience members during the screenings. They break character every so often to check email on an iPad, help Zedd manage the film projector, or sneak off to the kitchen for a quick bite. Other evenings, Dotan will perform live renditions of her various pieces.
Just as her transition from behind the camera allowed her further control over her art, Dotan seems to relish the Glasshouse because it gives her control over how it is experienced.
Still, while artsy Williamsburg would seem to be the perfect home for the Glasshouse Project, Dotan is unsure how long they will stay.
“Usually, I know my pace is one or two years and then I feel dead. I’m kind of like, ‘Ugh, I’m sick. I need to refresh,’” she says, noting that she finds certain aspects of urban life overwhelming. “This box that is divided into small boxes and each box has like a whole different world and there are so many boxes like that, each next to another.”
“It’s overwhelming,” she adds. “I try not to ponder on that too much, but it’s crazy.”
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Emily Wilson has an MA in online journalism from USC. She’s now a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer and like everyone else living in this borough, is working on a novel.