27 Aug The Vanderbilt Republic | Creative Agency, Artist Cooperative
The Vanderbilt Republic is a Gowanus based, creative agency and artist cooperative. Founder, George Del Barrio and his team work to explore paradigm shifts and provide the community with transformative experiences through created and curated art. George speaks with us about what it means to be, and to create change agents in the community through art.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your organization…
My name is George Del Barrio and my organization is The Vanderbilt Republic. We’re a creative agency that serves the artist diaspora – we’re platform builders. We work to harness the potential in the community, and give it direction as well as standard keeping. It also functions as a conduit for the promotion of my own personal ideals and agendas in this life – so it’s not exactly a neutral entity. So if Marlboro or Exxon came to us wanting to do something, the answer would probably be “no”, no matter what money they wanted to bring to bear.
Our core agenda is literally to uplift and promote transformations in this society. I believe very strongly that the arts are a key method by which to affect transformation. We’re storytellers by design as human beings. Whatever object of story we bring into our life transforms the story we tell ourselves, about ourselves. With new stories, new perspectives, people’s minds expand… they change. The shortest version: we explore paradigm shifts.
How did The Vanderbilt Republic come to exist?
In 2008 I was introduced to the story of the Cambodian Cultural Renaissance. I was in Thailand shooting [photos] for a month, and my rep. (who was producing the shoot) went over to Cambodia to visit with some friends for a weekend, Arn Chorn-Pond was one of them. He came back with all these stories about this incredible rebirth that was going on in the country post-genocide, and it was happening through the arts. When [my rep.] explained to Arn Chorn-Pond what he was doing in that part of the world, Arn was immediately convinced that we needed to come back and we needed to photograph these masters, that their stories had never been told properly, or truly, or never completely (that’s for sure). Arn is a very good salesman. He’s very passionate, he’s very real, he’s a beautiful guy, he could sell ice to Eskimos – he really could! Plus the stuff that he’s dealing with, the stuff he’s working with is really important. So when Matthew came back to Thailand he started talking to me about it and I agreed that it was a beautiful story, beautiful idea, but I’d never worked anything like this before (anything this big), and I didn’t want to do just some like vanity photo project. At that time you had a bunch of guys that would do something like go out to Haiti after the earthquake, parade around with their cameras and act like they were doing something meaningful. Then they’d have some show of their work back in New York, but it would just be some publicity stunt to get themselves more shooting jobs with fashion magazines, or oil companies or pharmaceuticals or whatever. Nothing real would ever really come of it except maybe some more dates for themselves. With a story as big as this one that just really didn’t appeal to me. Besides that there’s just something in the way that I’m wired. I’ve always sort of egotistically wanted to try to change the world… thank God I figured out that I can’t do that! It took me a few years.
So we came back to New York and we started thinking about how best to serve this, and I recognized we needed some kind of construct with which to look at the partner organization on an eye level with, as opposed to just this loose group of artists that are trying to do something good. We needed our own agency, literally, and so we formed VR. VR was the original umbrella for the funding of the project. We went to Kickstarter, raised 50 grand in two months, went to Cambodia almost a year exactly after coming up with the idea and spent almost two months there shooting. We covered most of the country; I photographed the masters as best I could. In a lot of ways it was my last real photographic project. I needed to hand the project off to someone with more capacity than myself to take it the rest of the way, because a photographer on his own couldn’t do what needed to be done here. We had a mandate from our conversations with the organization, Cambodian Living Arts, to work with them to promote the new iconography about the country; to expand the global awareness of what it means to be Cambodian in a post genocide diaspora. The way we took it was as a fundamentally uplifting message – that even in the midst of catastrophe we could still survive, persevere, grow and prosper. This story kept centering on how all of that happened through art, through culture, and the continuance of it. It took a few years after the shooting, but finally in 2013 the Season of Cambodia came to New York. That was an incredibly cathartic moment because I’d been working towards that for years. In the time in between I had been working as best as I could with the artists that were closer to me, keeping those original spirits that brought VR to existence alive as best as I could while still growing myself and changing. The guy that I am now bears no resemblance to the guy that I was when I started this. Likewise with VR, it’s transformed a lot, but it started with something that was so good that everything that’s come from it has had an equal effect of greatness, I suppose. It’s not contrived. It feels like all the right forces are in motion at this point because of that. It was like the “big bang” that set it all in motion. So all the pieces keep coming into place just when I need them – HigherSelf is one of them.
As far as where VR goes from here, the more I can interconnect with other groups that want to serve their communities and see them grow and aspire positive change, the more I’m going to circle back to that original mandate with VR – to explore a major paradigm shift. What happens when everyone who’s presently dispossessed finds their own power, or anyone who feels victimized recognizes that they’re the agents in their own lives for their own changes and their own choices? Everything flips upside down and you don’t have to pick up a gun or a flag to do it.
So these days we’ve got a project space in Gowanus and we do much work down here. We have a very nice digital platform in our photographic monuments, landscape projections, and a very full production calendar for the next year and a half practically. Plans right now are bent towards Germany, and opening up a second project space in Berlin, but I’m still keeping my feet on the ground here in Brooklyn.
On a scale of 1-10 how fulfilling would you say this type of work is for you?
10’s the max? I can only do 10? If there’s no more than 10… then “10”.
Describe your community…
Gowanus is a network of builders. The artists that are down here are all older, in their 30’s mostly, some in their 40’s, and plenty in their 20’s too but it’s really where working artists come. We definitely know how to have a good time down here, but we just come to get things done. You can feel the energy of industry in the space. I think it’s a little different from what you get down in Bushwick, where even though it has an industrial past as well there’s something that’s fuzzier about it maybe? In terms of the drive and dedication to really push what’s expected; here in Gowanus I don’t have to go more than 2 blocks to see really provoking, really beautiful installations or performances, or to be inside gloriously rebuilt spaces that have a strong sense of purpose. I see what’s happening here is we’re building New York’s next big media hub. All of the resources put together here make us the nexus point. We have equipment rental shops, high-end post production facilities, huge welding shops, big beautiful project spaces, high-end projector vendors and… a Lowe’s even! There’s something that’s coming together and it’s almost as if in reaction to all of the desiccation that was visited on the [Gowanus] Canal over the centuries. It’s like this karmic rebirth; it’s coming alive in so many ways.
What does social responsibility mean to you?
I think a lot of it has to do with staying receptive to how things change, and who the agents of change transform into. A good example of this: one morning I had this meeting with a young choreographer and the executive director of her organization, who also happens to be her sister – so it’s like a family business. They came to me with a proposal to do an instillation here that would be dance-centric, but also would incorporate elements of live music and art installed on the walls. That trio would be repeated 8 times over in 8 groups of 3. They spoke to me at length about the intention they’re putting behind this, and what they want this to reach in terms of people’s imaginations and hearts. This was a very unexpected package for social change (a dance performance with several facets) but I see inside of this container a very nice “pill” that you can use to induce very new feelings and perspectives into people.
Change is so frequently equated with economic change – with entrepreneurs talking about new ways to shift money around. Fundamentally, that’s working within a flawed system, anything within a capitalist substructure is subject to its rules. You leave that box behind and you migrate into a higher plane of thinking where you’re looking to reach people from the inside out separate and apart from those economic concerns or those socio-political struggles and you affect change very indelibly. Cause this world is just what we make it, this world is what we believe it to be. The entrepreneurship component really tends to ruin people’s approaches to things in that they either overestimate their value, or they fail to recognize and capitalize on what they produce in a way that’s actually suitable to the environment that they’re actually in. The challenge that I put forth to everyone that comes to work with us here is to meet us at our standard, meet us at our level. Then if what we present can be recognized by the diaspora that we’re in as having real value then we become institutionalized within a community, not because any particular price point, just because the baseline recognition of what you need to build upon to get higher. It isn’t the “bottom line” that drives the decisions behind what we do around here, but it’s always a consideration because I want to keep this going. I don’t know if I would flatter myself by saying that I’m a social entrepreneur. The furthest I’d go is to probably just say that I’m an artist. Keeping track of the impact we have is also vital. I’m learning to tread very carefully because the things I do have an impact.
What could the community do to help The Vanderbilt Republic?
Honestly I feel really supported. What would support us even better though would be if people really took that leap and really tried to express that specific jewel inside of themselves. That the more that we’re in an atmosphere where the people are working to realize themselves fully, the more powerful the effect of everything we’re doing becomes. That’s our constituency. Literally our constituency is the people that are here to fully get to their own “next level”. The more people that understand what it takes to do that, that are out there in the world and audience, the quicker the audience flips to become the performer or the star. That, to me is, is how we become better.
Describe Gowanus, Brooklyn in 3 words….
“Funky, Physical, Fearless”
What’s the best thing that’s ever happened here?
It was one of the first times that my son first came here. He was just 6 then, and I remember him getting up on his tiptoes so he could look out the window and watch the trains go by. He loves the subway.
It was standing up seeing him inside this space that I was exerting all effort to build, and realizing that that would be the framework of his childhood. That as far as he knows, this is what his dad does, and that for him there is no cap on what he can do. It was knowing that I transformed his potential.