This is the last installment of the Dirt Palace interview. Here, you’ll hear more adventures of Pippi and Xander: how they escaped the clutches of a Fire Marshall, what happens when events go public, and what it’s like to finally fix a leak. You can read the first part of this interview series by going here. Thanks for reading and hope you all have a good weekend!
CP: After ten years paying a mortgage, you must take that constant overhead for granted. When it’s paid off, it must feel incredible…
PZ: The biggest thing to me is the roof. We had a roof that leaked for years and we just couldn’t afford to get a new one. Any time it rained and I wasn’t home I had that like, “Oh no! Is anyone home? Are the buckets there?” Maybe there’s one person who had a leak in their room and I’d end up feeling responsible for their stuff. Constantly. And if the buckets overflowed, the water would go through the floor. Knowing it was destroying the building at the same time — that was a constant stress.
XM: I think of a mom with a newborn. I used to sleep right there (points to the room next to the kitchen) and one of the biggest leaks was here [in the kitchen]. I could hear the leak when I was asleep, but I had this switch in my head where as soon as the bucket was full and I heard a different kind of drip, my brain would just turn on and I’d be like, “Alright, wake up. Go and empty the baby bucket into the sink or out the window and go back to bed.”
CP: You were saying you used to do more performances and screenings. How has the public aspect of the space changed over the years?
XM: We started out doing a lot of shows and stuff and I think that was important to a lot of people here, because that’s a big part of the culture that brought us all together in the first place. At one point someone approached us about doing this Trans Art Festival over a weekend and we explained the deal. We were like, “OK it has to be low-key, has to be you know, nothing in the newspaper, nothing on the air…”
PZ: Well, we didn’t say nothing about the New York Times Magazine.
XM: (laughs) Yeah, we were like no Pro Jo, no Phoenix, you know, not the local papers. The organizer is one of the most charming, charismatic people I’ve ever met in my life, so I understand why he got national media attention for this festival. It was pretty early in the Trans Movement back then.
PZ: Well the other thing is that he told them he couldn’t give them the address, I mean he explained it and actually the media ended up publishing the address.
CP: And it was the New York Times Magazine?
XM: Is that when we were stalked by the Fire Marshal?
PZ: Yes. The Fire Marshall parked his car several feet away from the side door, just waiting to see if anyone would come in. For hours and days.
CP: Did you know that he was there before you left in the morning?
XM: Yes. We have a little peeper.
PZ: Right when the New York Times Magazine published info about our event, the door was open and the Fire Marshals just walked right in. And they were like, “What’s going on here? There’s going to be a festival?” We sort of played dumb and said, “Uh, I don’t know.” And they maybe poked around a little bit, but I don’t think they came totally in. I think we ended up lying, saying we were under the impression that it was a conference and there was going to be like 25 people here…but after that they just wanted to see the whole building because we’re not legal for public assembly. And then they also assumed since we’re artists we lived here and basically he stalked the building to see if he could come in to like check it out. Which is totally weird and illegal. I was lucky because Xander called them and was like, “O I’m the landlord. Sure.” And then tried to schedule an appointment with them.
XM: Yea, after they stalked us…
PZ: And then they’d be like, How’s Monday? And Xander’d be like, “Let me look at my calender…you know, I think I’m all booked up until Friday, how’s that?”
XM: During which time we got every bed and the stove and everything—
PZ: Yeah, we moved most of the kitchen stuff out of here…
CP: Where did you move it?
PZ: Friends’ basements. Into cars. A hotel. We just moved everything out. Then we had the fire inspection.
CP: Did he just want to come in and make sure that everything was up to code?
XM: It was during the Station Era, [after the Station Club night club fire] so everything went crazy. Rhode Island went from having some of the most antiquated exit codes to having the most stringent fire code in the country. And everyone just kind of went crazy with it. So whether or not we were planning on doing an event, the fire department knew that they had to come in an see that we had for a sprinkler and an alarm system.
XM: We set up some Chinese food on the table to look like, we’re into take out. (laughs)
PZ: Yeah. Like we only use a microwave and get take out here.
PZ: OK it was ultimate paranoia how we set stuff up. They’re used to going to artist spaces where someone like builds something like a nine-sided room where you have to crawl into a tunnel to get into it. We had always been building to code, so everything looked legit. And we cleaned like crazy. I just think they’re used to crazy stacks of garbage everywhere. So they came in and I think the big thing they noticed was a poster on the wall for a Fireman’s Ball—that sealed the deal—and they basically were like, “OK well, it’s going to become law that all commercial spaces need a fire alarm system by 2005 or something so you have to do that. We’ll send you a list of all the other things we have to do.” Turns out no one ever sends a list because they don’t want to be liable.
CP: You mean if something were to happen after they’d sent you a list you could sue?
XM: They’ll never send you a final punch list; they’ll tell you verbally you need this, this and this and they’ll say, “Yeah sure I’ll send a list to you,” but you’ll never get in writing,
PZ: That was really stressful because you know a fire alarm system is like 20 grand, 25 grand, but we also didn’t know if they were going to come in and say, “You need sprinklers,” or we don’t believe that you don’t live here. So we had a year to sort of figure that one out and that was the last time we’ve sort of ever been inspected.
CP: What happened with the festival?
XM: Moved it. And then after that we kind of just took the position that we really want this to be everyone’s work space and live space and that like being a public space comes after that. And we kind of just scaled back what we do, like we do like small gatherings.
PZ: We won’t do a show where 200 people are going to show up.
XM: Or that it’s going to look like 200 people show up.
PZ: Because that was the big thing. During that time period there were big shows going on at underground spaces and there were always end up being busted because the cops said it was a “rave.” Because like rave means drugs, but you know it’d be like whatever a rock band, so it was sort of hilarious. At that time, AS220 was still only the Empire Street building. I mean it’s really only grown in the last couple of years.
XM: The impact AS220 has always had is that it’s always been a real stable force and a stable entitiy and I think that’s allowed people to say, “Oh let’s not do this community based art project because we don’t actually need that; there already is that. Let’s do something that is really specific.” And we were like, “Yes we want to. Our goal is to nurture young women artists, or have a home for people who are kind of in between this spot between when they’re tyring to figure out if they want to do this professionally,” realizing that we can kind of do things that are more specific or weird or whatever because luckily Providence isn’t constantly reinventing the wheel of how to create an art space for everybody. Where can we make this the place where there can be shows and there can be a gallery or whoever can gather. AS220 doing that already is kind of liberating for a lot of people to just not have to invent that.
CP: I feel like it’s been changing in Chicago even since I’ve been there. When I first moved there everybody wanted non-profit status because it made you legitimiate as a non-commercial artspace. It was a way to be signify that you were serious. Now I feel like there are more and more projects that reject both for profit and non-profit models, which is really important. Because those are two poles that are not actually inclusive.
XM: They both prescribe a path to a certain extent. It’s kind of like, OK you go the not-for-profit route, you do blah-blah-blah, you ultimately try to get forward funded…this is how you achieve stability and this is how you take it that level of professionalism. And the levels of professionalism are ultimately dictated by corporate best practice, or something like that; no matter how radical you are trying to be, it’s never acceptable to be the same. This is something I think is awesome about AS220, but I feel like is also exhausting about AS220: it’s can’t stay the same. It’s always changing. They can’t do the same thing for ten years and stay the same size. Which I think can be tricky to try to club away and you kind of have to be really creative to create other avenues and other challenges.
CP: It seems like rejecting the non-profit model gave you a lot more flexibility so that the Dirt Palace could develop organically.
PM: The not for profits that I think are really successful are successful because there is a person who is really invested with vision. At AS220 it’s Bert. And I think without ownership, I think that’s where a lot of places struggle. You need one person who calls it their passion and really just pushes everything forward. Because a lot of it is just volunteerism. And eventually you want to grow into the model where people get paid, but even when people get paid there’s that thing where it’s never enough and also it sort of just, if you think of the manager of a restaurant, they get paid a salary because sometimes they’re there 70 hours a week. And just understanding that someone needs to really be the driving force. I think that’s hard in that model. People get burnt out a lot. And I think for us, sure we’ve probably reached different points of time where one or the other of us was burnt out, but at the end of the day it’s like, “Oh, but I own this thing.” For me, at the end of the day, I’m not planning on selling the building and cashing in, but there’s all these different ways of what ownership could do for you. For me it’s psychological, because I could do any of those things even if I don’t really want to.
That’s also why our space is sort of interesting because there are people here who have a stake and people who don’t. And we’ve gotten way better at figuring out what that means and how to manage it and understanding what it means for different people at different times. In the beginning it was sort of like this naïve idea that we were all on the same level, but we weren’t on the same level. And then things changed and not understanding. It was also really unreal. We had this loan and we had a mortgage but it didn’t rally sink in that I wasn’t paying rent every day.
XM: I feel like our timeline is all tragedies and corruption and disaster.
PZ: I think after 2004 and after we were inspected by the Fire Marshall we just became way more low-key. And then every year things get a little more comfortable. Part of the way this space works is that we all pay rent, but we have one day a month where we work on the space together. And that’s srot of how we’ve chipped away at making the studios nicer and that’s just been cumulative. It’s hard to remember how hard things were at the beginning because the things we are doing it’s not like we need a toilet upstairs, it’s like, O maybe we should just tile that thing.
XM: OK, lets be real. The floor is going to rot if we don’t tile it.
PZ: It’s going to rot. Yea. But at this point we’re just trying to make things like better and more efficient. But in the beginning
XM: Needs that were like not getting met because things were in such an intense zone of struggle.
CP: I also heard you all make your own mead.