By Ella Christoph
There’s no hiding at Club Nutz—the comedy club nestled into the second floor of a building on Clark and Hubbard Streets is a tiny, twelve by twelve foot space. Darkly lit with a spotlight on the stage, small balconies give some viewers a tiny bit more breathing room. Still, performers can’t avoid looking audience members in the eye, and vice versa. The club, the brainchild of brothers Scott and Tyson Reeder, and Scott’s wife Elysia Borowy-Reeder, sells itself on the claim that it’s the world’s smallest comedy club, as though that is something people seek out. But the owners claim it makes comedy way, way better. Scott compares it to watching a movie on a plane and laughing out loud even when the movie’s not funny. “There’s something about that enclosed space, and the fact that you might die, that leads to heightened emotions,” he says. It’s the same at Club Nutz. “Even a bad act has a certain intensity to it.”
The intimacy raises the stakes of the event—if a joke falls flat, there’s no hiding. Scott says there’s one serial performer that has shown up at Club Nutz a number of times. “He just told all these terrible facts about his life,” Scott says, laughing. “I mean they were terrible, a really rough childhood, and he didn’t present them in any funny way. And the content—I mean it was kind of funny, but it was heartbreaking. I don’t know if it would work at a normal comedy club. There’s something about the scale of it where it’s more intimate, or people can feel comfortable sharing something like that.”
The Reeders often work with small spaces. First and foremost visual artists, the comedy club is just the latest venture in their series of weird enterprises. Beginning in 2002, the Reeders curated at The Wrong Gallery in New York. The smallest exhibition space in New York, it was “nothing more than an expensive-looking glass door identical to those of the Chelsea white cubes it satirized,” the Reeders write. Designed and curated by class clown of the art world Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick and Massimiliano Gioni, The Wrong Gallery crossed lines without ever opening its doors. Peeking through the locked single glass door, labelled with the gallery’s irreverent name in simple black type, viewers could see whatever art they exhibited on the brick wall of the gallery, which had two-and-a-half square feet of floor space. After being evicted from its New York location in 2005, it moved to the Tate, where it exhibited pieces like Dorothy Iannone’s “orgasm box,” a colorfully decorated box framing video of Iannone’s face as she masturbated.
The no-holds-barred work of the Reeders doesn’t exactly harken to the group’s Midwestern roots, but their connections to the Midwest, and each other, are longstanding and close. Scott, Tyson and Elysia didn’t start out in comedy, but their biography does sound like the plot of a slapstick rom-com. Growing up in a town outside East Lansing, Michigan, the brothers played in a secret band and pursued painting as a career. Scott and Elysia were high school sweethearts and now have been married six years. Scott, the older brother, is 38, Elysia is 37, and Tyson is 35; both brothers are still painters, but the team of three also curates and organizes bizarre events and exhibitions, like The Wrong Gallery or like an exhibition held in a bowling alley. The Reeders claim there’s no third wheel. When I spoke with Scott on the phone, he put me on speakerphone so Elysia could shout out input, or tell Scott how to better phrase what he was trying to say.
Talking to me about Club Nutz, Scott described it as a breath of fresh air compared to their work painting and curating. “It’s so removed from the rest of our practice. I do enough of bubble-wrapping stuff or worrying about shipping with my own work—sometimes it would get a little much to worry about the physical part of handling art. Club Nutz is nice because it’s got more—” Elysia chimes in here. “In the moment!” she shouts. “Yeah, in the moment, ephemeral, it’s more performative,” Scott continues.
The Reeders are no outsiders in the professional art world—Tyson and Scott are faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Elysia teaches at Columbia College. Elysia has a masters in education and art history from Michigan State University, a certificate of leadership from the Getty Leadership Program, and a certificate in management from Yale. Tyson has an M.F.A. from the Art Center College of Art and Design in Pasadena, and Scott has an M.F.A. from UIC. But the work they do toes the line between art and play, or perhaps erases the line entirely.
“We’re trying to make it fun, to make there be a reason for people to be there at a given moment in time, to amplify the social aspect—but not to the point of diminishing art or permanently changing the art,” says Scott. “We’re pretty serious about art, we like to think we have a critical eye.” He rushes to assure me the art isn’t just for laughs. “We’re not trying to make everything into a big joke.”
Still, Club Nutz, he agrees: “That’s going over the edge into fun.”
The Reeders like to play with expectations. While much of their gallery work forces attendees to at least momentarily abandon their theory and critiques and posturing and just enjoy the experience, the comedy club surprises those who come just looking for a good laugh. When the mic opens up, the audience might get more than what they were expecting. There have been lectures and life drawings, and long performance pieces.
Switching up expectations means the Reeders’ art has the possibility of reaching multiple audiences, of tricking people to step outside their comfort zone and experience something new. The Reeders are interested in audience. Maybe it’s because they want to make the art world more accessible, or maybe it’s because when the audience becomes a dynamic part of an art work, the art becomes ripe with new meanings. Maybe it’s just because they want to sell more art.
They call all their various events platforming—designing forums for cultural activities. Like Club Nutz, where the artist stands raised on a stage in front of a trompe l’oeil canvas brick wall, the Reeders describe platforming as a way of turning art into a show people come to see. The bricks of the platform are the classic elements of art-world PR: an art gallery, a panel discussion, a radio show, a film festival. What makes platforming different, the Reeders argue, is the “mortar” they use: an artistic maker rather than a PR director, one who brings their own style into the platforming and also leaves space for the audience to interact with the art. The Reeders are pushing back against the mores of the commercial art world with spectacle.
They come from a long line of artists reacting against the stuffiness of the art world: One inspiration of the Reeders is the Bauhaus School, which incorporated art with social events. Scott says one of the favorite parties he read about was a formal art opening where everyone had to go down a long slide to enter the event. Dignitaries, the mayor—everyone slid down the slide. And while once they got to the event it was a traditional affair, it set the tone. It’s hard to stay uptight at an event once you’ve slid into it.
But the Reeders are willing to play with the enemy: they adopt the capitalist conventions they detest in order to destabilize them. At the Frieze Art Fair, which Scott describes as “a stuffy, fancy art fair in London,” the Reeders created a Club Nutz in a space the same size as the other art booths.
“It would be like art art art comedy club art art art,” says Scott. “People were really confused. One person came over, like, ‘Is this part of the fair?’ Even though the fair was all in a temporary tent, they thought the fair had been built around an existing comedy club, because it didn’t fit. And then other people wondered how much the whole installation cost, and if I came with it.” The Reeders have continued to hold Club Nutz in art venues, performing it at NEXT in Chicago’s Artropolis last year.
It’s hard to pin down whose idea, exactly, these projects are. Scott and Tyson have worked together on their whole life. Scott and Elysia dated in high school, but when the brothers left the Midwest in 1998 for L.A., drawn to the art scene of the West Coast, the couple broke up. In 2001, Scott and Tyson returned to Milwaukee to help edit “American Movie,” a cult classic about a filmmaker’s efforts to make a low-budget horror film. The brothers also started a website, ZeroTV, but it never really got off the ground.
“It was like the exact wrong time to do a website. It was after the first dot-com boom, right after it crashed, so the money was drying up, but it was before YouTube, or when anybody had broadband, so we were making all these videos and this web content, but it was hard for anybody to watch it. Most people wouldn’t sit around to download video unless it was porn,” Scott remembers. The Reeders are thinking of re-launching the web site, now that people watch more than just porn online. For every one of their ideas they’ve made happen, there’s another one in the works. (One of Scott’s film projects, a feature-length film entitled “Moon Dust,” is already underway.)
In 2003, the brothers started their first big project, a gallery-cum-shop in Milwaukee, General Store. It opened two years after the Midwestern city started attracting attention from the art world with the opening of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion, designed by star architect Santiago Calatrava. Elysia was working at the MCA in Chicago at the time and she joined in. She and Scott started dating again. General Store took off. In the back room of the shop, there was a twelve-by-twelve foot gallery space. There, they presented artists like Laura Owens, Lonnie Potter, Edgar Bryan, Nick Lowe and Pentti Monkkonen. But in the front room, General Store sold things made by the artists like comics, books, clothing and other little trinkets. Those who couldn’t afford L.A. sculptor Liz Craft’s pieces in the back room could pick up one of her beer steins instead, snagging objet d’art and Milwaukee souvenir in one purchase.
The Reeders liked how they were in touch with the Midwest, but General Store also got visits from heavy-hitters like Gilbert and George who had added Milwaukee as a destination thanks to the Calatrava wing. Much of their curating draws from both emerging artists, often from Milwaukee and the Midwest, as well as established, international artists. Once they caught the curating bug from their small space at the General Store, the Reeders couldn’t stop. They were working in Milwaukee, teaching in Chicago, and curating exhibits in New York, Miami and London.
Curating, Scott says, is “a way of staying connected to the outside world. So by having a space or doing a curatorial project you’re still a bridge to the outside world, and Chicago’s a little bit disconnected from either coast at times, but Milwaukee’s a lot more disconnected—I mean, it’s off the map.”
“There’s a possibility of saying something a little more complicated or expansive than what you do in your own practice. You have a direction that your own work takes, and curating you get a chance to add on to that, to express yourself beyond your own work.”
One exhibit shown in 2004 at General Store—and also at Apt. 1R in Chicago and Locust Projects in Miami—asked artists like Mariano Chavez and John Parot to make a drawing using only a four-color pen, a retractable ball-point pen that can click between black, blue, red and green barrels. The inspiration was Scott’s organizational system—he records his ideas using a four-color pen in a notebook (green for art, red for film, blue for sound and black for boring things like grocery lists). Scott’s professor at the University of Iowa, David Dunlap, turned him on to the pens when he was in college, and he had a piece in the Four Color Pen Show too.
The restrictions of the project inspired the curating, and the gallery was painted the four colors of the pen, allowing the installation, which included pieces like a sketch of smoke on a cigarette by Jim Lambie, to be seen and experienced as a single piece. Well-known artists like Julie Mehretu, Eric Wesley, Laura Owens and Liz Craft were just a few of the sixty-five artists who adapted to the strange imposition of the four-color pen. The exhibition became almost mythical in the art world for its simplicity in choosing a common denominator that brought together a slice of the art scene while still allowing for individuality.
The Reeders found that imposing limitations on a diverse body of artists created an engaging show. “It leveled the playing field. It wasn’t necessarily the most established artists who made the best four-color pen drawing. Everyone was sort of starting from scratch or had this severe limitation of using the four-color pen tool. That confusion was kind of interesting to us,” Scott says.
One event put on by the Reeders, Dark Fair, had an even more bizarre qualification. The fair had no natural or electric light, and instead artists had to find ways to incorporate light into the exhibit itself, or explore other senses. Noises seeped from one booth to another, and moments of visual stimulation became particularly exciting—rave-like lights flashing and spinning, glow-in-the-dark paint radiating, candles adding an unworldly dimension and the smell of melting wax. Matthew Higgs, the director of the gallery White Columns in New York, showed a black-and-white photo of a woman who looked like she was from the 1950s, with curled hair and lipstick. In front of her face were two lit candles, the flames aligned with her eyes. As the night wore on, the wax dripped down and the candles sunk further and further down her face. It was a fair unbounded by the expectations of the art world; a haunted house unbounded by the expectations of Halloween. In a booth by Gavin Brown, DJ and club owner Spencer Sweeney even dressed as a ghost as he painted by the light of candles in the shape, and color, of black dildos.
Part of what makes the group so successfully prolific is their teeming energy and passion for what they’re doing, but they also claim that working in a group allows them to juggle more projects. Isn’t it obvious that working in a group of three is ideal? “You can vote, and there’s tie-breakers,” says Scott. “We haven’t had any major problems.” The dynamic of a team composed of brothers and the wife of one of them could be a spectacle in itself, but Scott, Tyson and Elysia see themselves as a natural team. When Scott mentions that they were commuting from Milwaukee to Chicago to teach, I ask him if they commuted together, envisioning the artists/siblings/spouses crammed into an old VW bug driving down I-94. Scott laughs and says no, they have plenty of other car trips together, but usually they would take the train, often on their own. Sometimes Scott and Tyson would even be on the same train but in different cars, too burnt out from a long day to bother coordinating their trip home.
Of course, being business partners, artistic collaborators and family is a lot, and the difficulty balancing individual projects with the group’s schemes means there are moments of tension. While there is no specific breakdown of work, each of the Reeders has found a niche, with Tyson doing most of the writing for press releases and artists’ statements, and Elysia using her management skills to orchestrate the organizational elements of exhibitions and events.
For each of the fantastic ideas the Reeders have already implemented, there are dozens more in the works. The trio is working to make Club Nutz more permanent, and they’re looking around for other locations so they could expand the possibilities. Scott says that while they love the mobility of the current Club Nutz—just roll up the canvas brick wall—they like the idea of hosting bigger acts, having a better sound system and serving drinks from a bar. Making Club Nutz permanent would likely align them more closely to new realms in nightlife and entertainment—and perhaps make the venture a profitable business—but the Reeders, of course, don’t mind crossing art world boundaries.
Whatever the venture holds for them, Club Nutz is really just coming full circle for the Reeders. In high school, Scott and Tyson would host a New Year’s party at their family’s guest house, passing out fliers to get the word out. Elysia helped make the fliers and organize a potluck. Not your standard high school rager, of course, the Reeders built a stage and made a curtain—their original platforming—and held a talent show. Their parents would tell stories, friends would snow wrestle, and bands played. Twenty years later, the Reeders are still building stages. As they write, “I don’t think that the power of the human voice against a painted brick wall can get tired—I think there are a ton of amazing stories that need to be shared (and laughed at).”
Additional reporting by Joe Jeffers