November 16, 2011 · Print This Article
Often art spaces emerge in response to rumbling (and specific) undercurrents in a given community. InÂ the Artists Run Chicago Digest â€” a book I put together with threewalls that examines artist-run art spaces in Chicag0 between 1999 and 2009â€”Â almost every interview conducted with gallery founders talk about how they opened a space because of some recognized lack. Miguel Cortez, for instance, when asked about why he started Antenna Gallery said, “Chicago has long had a history of ‘do-it-yourself’ art spaces and I felt that the Pilsen neighborhood was lacking in contemporary art spaces. I have seen alt. spaces come and go in the Pilsen neighborhood over the years. So I reopened a space on my own after Polvo closed.” In almost every case, founders feelsÂ something noticeably underrepresented â€” nine times out of ten it’s “good art” â€” and suddenly they takes it upon themselves to fill the niche. In this way, artist-run spaces create corner stones in an ongoing (and usually undocumented) conversation. Very often, whether as an unintended biproduct or a focused agenda, they reflect back on aesthetic, political and economic issues of a geographical local. Providence of course is no different. In the following interview I talk with co-founder and organizer of RK Projects, Tabitha Piseno. RK Projects is a nomadic, contemporary, non-commercial gallery. Each curated exhibit creates a dynamic and reciprocal interrogation between contemporary art work by local artists and the (often unused) architectural site it inhabits. At the moment, RK Projects has a show, “ATLAS” with work by X.V. installed at the Granoff Center in Brown University. You can download the digital album the artist made to be released in conjunction with the exhibition here.
Caroline Picard: What is your background and how did RK Projects start?
Tabitha Piseno:Â My partner, Sam Keller, and I started RK Projects in October 2010, a few months after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. While living in Providence, we had always been intrigued by the architecture of the city, the sense of its history, and how the urban layout of the city represented, or informed rather, the presiding social dynamics and economic development.
After making the decision to remain in Providence after graduation, we were immediately interested in engaging Providence outside of its academic environment; we wanted to create a socially engaged project that could speak to our interests in the city, be instrumental in responding to the lack of venues where young local artists could exhibit, while also retaining the ability to think and act critically. This was a very exciting venture for us, not only because of how stimulating we knew it would for own intellectual interests, but more so because of how it would fill a void of exhibition venues. There is a vibrant, and incredibly active, community of artists and musicians that truly thrives in Providence.(1)
We began with the intention of opening a gallery in a fixed location, but it was quickly brought to out attention that the cost of running a full-time space that would be solely dependent on sales, was not a financially viable for us. It was, in fact, discouraged by many people. From brokers of store-front commercial properties that had previously rented to galleries, to local curators who had previously run full-time galleries, to staff members of the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts and the Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism â€” many people made it clear how difficult it is to keep a gallery in Providence afloat due to the lack of collectors and connections to out-of-town buyers. It was clearly expressed that Providence had a track record of failed galleries, despite the profusion of local artists making work. With that in mind, the formulation of RK Projects really began; we were persistent in our interest in creating a new exhibition platform.
The first thing that came to form was our name for the project: “R.K.” which stands for Richard Keller who was my partnerâ€™s uncle. He was an outsider artist who expatriated to France in the 60s. He was a sort-of Francophile and was obsessed with the language; he taught Linguistics at the Sorbonne. While he was teaching, he continued making art prolifically. The work he made ranged from collages, drawings, and prints to bizarre Dadaist assemblage sculptures that he compiled entirely from trash he would find by dumpster-diving in the streets of Paris. After 30 years of moving to France, he became very ill and passed awayÂ from HIV in the mid-90s.Â He never exhibited his work. We felt naming the project in his memory was very important to us, and exemplified the purity of pursuing something you love doing no matter the means.
During our search for a fixed space we realized the extent of the economic deprivation that Providence has suffered from for many years. The abundance of vacant commercial and industrial spaces throughout the entire city sparked our strategy.
Ultimately, it was a solution and a proposal. It was our solution for creating a new exhibition platform that could invest itself in showing experimental work by local artists without having a tremendous overhead that a fixed location would have (most properties have been donated to us, or rented out to us at an extremely reduced rate). It became a curatorial proposal embedded around the idea of site-specificity â€“ Â How could we utilize each property in a way that could inform the work within the exhibition? How does the geographical location of each property speak to the work and to what we do as RK Projects? How does the presence of each exhibition affect its surrounding social and public space? In what way does the project speak to the economy of Providence, real estate or otherwise? These are questions that we take into account as we organize each exhibition, and exploring/experimenting with those answers is one of the most rewarding and satisfying aspects of what we do.
CP:Â As a nomadic exhibition project, how do you feel the unique architecture of Providence complements the specificity of individual projects?
TP:Â Itâ€™s different for each project, because the existing architecture (in a physical/historical/economicÂ sense) in each location weâ€™ve conducted our project \ is so very different and unique to the particular section of town where it resides. Â We organized our very first exhibition, Nostalgia for Simpler Times, in the Upper South district of Providence in a double-wide trailer located on the historic â€˜Providence Piersâ€™ waterfront. The Upper South side of Providence is a section of Providence that was the last to undergo development with the rise of industrialization in the 19th century, and currently has the highest unemployment rate in the city. The trailer on the Piers was formerly a ticket office for a, now defunct, ferry route. It is currently managed by the adjacent â€œConleyâ€™s Wharf” building which houses studios and offices for creative businesses. The exhibition was a solo-show of my partnerâ€™s work; at the time, he was using courageously silly methodologies for making sculptures, paintings, and installation work that bordered on being iconoclastic. The double-wide trailer, in the desolate context it was in, informed the work in an interesting way. Throughout the exhibition he had a 3-tiered chocolate fondue fountain on a white pedestal that was constantly pumping nacho cheese. Every morning while the exhibition was up, we had to boil over 6 pounds of cheese and transport it to the site. It was absurd â€“ carrying these massive containers into a double-wide trailer in a parking lot while fisherman were going about their daily business along the pier. It definitely brought in an interesting crowd that we didnâ€™t expect â€“ people were coming in that had little or no experience with that kind of art and really appreciated. It seemed like the broadness (in a metaphorical sense) of the site kept the interpretation of the work very open. At one point we had a homeland security officer come to the exhibition because the particular area the trailer was in also housed a massive salt pile for winterizing all of Providenceâ€™s roads; there were also shipping crates directly adjacent to the trailer with storage for some equipment that belonged to the police department. He loved it; he took a good amount of time exploring the work in the show. The exhibition really exemplified the general feeling of that particular district.
The subsequent projects went from the Industrial Valley district, where we conducted a 3-day music festival and a huge exhibition that spanned 20,000 sq. ft. of a historical industrial building that was being renovated, to Downtown Providence, to the West End, to Olneyville, and then we eventually made our way to the East Side of Providence in the Mount Hope district and College Hill where our current exhibition is on display in the new Granoff Center at Brown University. We tried to allow our exhibitions to speak to each districtâ€™s existing physical architecture and social space; we traversed a lot of territory and made a lot of noise in the broader area of Providence before making our way back to the academic bubble that is College Hill. I think that itinerary speaks well to how the unique architecture of Providence complimented individual projects.
TP:Â Absolutely, every property weâ€™ve chosen to work in has presented itself as a space that could be activated by the presence of an exhibition â€” or vice versa â€“ the space would activate the artwork that inhabited it. What has been really interesting, and surprising, for us is how each exhibition has sort of exhumed the past history of the property it resides in. For example, the third exhibition we hosted with â€œArt Is Shit Editionsâ€ â€“ Frolic, Frolic, Irresistible â€“ was organized around the premise of consumerism and art as commodity. The property we chose for it was a downtown property on Westminster St â€“ known as the â€œHeart of Providenceâ€ â€“ itâ€™s primarily a restaurant and shopping district.Â As we were working on preparations for the show, we discovered that the property was formerly an illegal brothel. It ran in an Asian massage parlor where women were kept sequestered in the basement and attic. During the installation process, we came across remnants of this history and ended up utilizing leftover equipment and rooms, such as shower stalls, a sauna, and a massage table for installations as a way of engaging that history. For the audience that experienced the exhibition, it brought up the issue of Providenceâ€™s history of sex-trafficking and how long indoor prostitution remained decriminalized in Rhode Island (it wasÂ made illegal in 2009). Â It turned out to be a fitting context for the exhibition, not as the mainstay, but as a representation of how the exhibition had the ability to activate a particular history and bring a localized issue to light.
In terms of borrowing real estate, we choose properties that we notice have remained vacant for several years and are under-recognized. We always try to reach out to a very broad audience with the hopes that someone will see the space and be interested in purchasing or renting it. In priming the space for our exhibitions, we also make it a point to leave the space in better condition than we found it. This allows us to also maintain wonderful relationships with property brokers and real estate companies that we work with. It also helps them see the worth in what weâ€™re trying to do with the project.
CP:Â How have your curatorial strategies developed over time?
TP:Â The curatorial strategy for the project has always been the same: to address site-specificity via a nomadic, DIY exhibition platform, and offer an alternative way for contextualizing the work of local artists.Â Throughout the project Iâ€™ve been particularly fond of two books, one written by Rosalyn Deutsche called Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, and the other by Miwon Kwon titled One Place After Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. The ways in which site-specificity is framed and iterated in each of those books have resounded with me greatly, and deeply affected me as Iâ€™ve conducted the curatorial strategies for the project.Â Kwon puts it perfectly when she identifies the purpose of her book asÂ â€œto reframe site specificity as the cultural mediation of broader social, economic, and political processes that organize urban life and urban space.”
That approach to site-specificity is something I find incredibly important.
What is different for each project, and continues to develop, is how the premise for each exhibition, and the work within it, is successfully supported by the context of the project. Thatâ€™s an overriding programmatic strategy as opposed to curatorial, but I would like to think that creating boundaries for the two is something for conceptual fodder that fuels the project and makes it better with each exhibition.
(1)Â In a city that was literally branded as the “Creative Capital,” it was surprising to see that there were no exhibition venues that could support young, contemporary, experimental work. There were a few galleries, but they were geared towards “tourist commodities:” New England kitsch-art that proliferates because of its accessibility. We were concerned about what work was actually defining our “Creative Capital.” The goal of re-branding this city was what ex-Mayor DavidÂ Ciccilline called: “[In order to build] on one of [Providence’s] finest assets â€” its large number of artists, designers, student and faculty innovators at such schools like Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design â€” the city recently re-branded itself asÂ Providence: The Creative Capital.” Yet there was no bearing as to how this new identity was intended to build the city’s economy. At the same time the campaign disregarded the nature of arts activities initiated by RI residents who actually existed in the public community.
This is a quick noteâ€”I’m at home with a head cold and a little brain-dull too; to that end, I’m going to abdicate my writing priviledges today by pointing to another blog instead. Art Threat posted a list of/excerpts from 10 Documentary Films on Capitalism and Economics, from The America Ruling Class, to Inside Job, to Shock Doctrine. With my better mind, I like to think I’ll skip the 3-hour long Merlin movie and watch these more pertinent films instead. It might be an impossible batter, but I type this now with fingers very deeply crossed. Â On the same site, there is also a post about the 54th Venice Bienale where I gleaned the feel-good video below by Martin Sastre. Yes, in my cold-addled partly delirious brain, I will pretend we can all Tango with Obama.
October 26, 2011 · Print This Article
CP: How did you start teaching comics?Â
One of the ways we started off creating a dialogue between kids and adults was to try out our lesson ideas with a group of our friends. We would sit down and try out what we wanted to do in class with a couple of friends, this provided us with some feedback and refinement for our plans, but it also generated some awesome examples.
One of the critical story-develop tools and the primary visual vehicle between adults and kids is the series ofÂ character booksÂ we create. There are a variety of prompts and exercises we have utilized to start the germinating a character. My favorite thus far has been a process ofÂ hybridization where we start off asking the kids to draw two types of things. A pretty typical pair is “a food” and “a type of job.” The kids make these individual drawings, we put the drawings into bags and everyone picks a pair which they have to combine into a character. This abstract visualÂ mathematicsÂ can be confusing, but inevitably leads to good places… a memorable example is “The Apple Wedding Planner.” The boy who drew these from the bags was confused at first, somewhat uncertain about what a wedding planner does… but that didn’t matter because he could make his own meaning out of the random pairing he had drawn. The next phase in the character-develop is typically drawing a short strip using this character. After that little bit of narrative exploration with the character, we give them a worksheet with prompts to list the character’s friends, enemies, special powers, height, weight, fears, and a little bit moreÂ narrativeÂ about the characters origin story. We end up retyping these stats and combine all the drawings and write-ups into a booklet. Compiling and re-distributing that book has two effects: One, it gets the participants super excited because they see there work in print! And two, the kids get super inspired by each others’ creations. They start to utilize other students’ creations, creating other characters in response.
Then we give those books to adults, who are equally as excited. We ask them to create adaptations using student characters. Soon we are going to put out our first anthology which features the student work and adult adaptations, so keep an eye out for that. (You can visitÂ Secret Door Projects, to see how Ian G. Cozzens developed the Scar character).
AS220 is a special place. In last week’s conversation with the Dirt Palace, you can already get a sense for how it has influenced the culture of Providence. In the following interview, I talked to Meg Turner, a former RISD graduate, who helped build and share AS220’s print shop. Rather than focus on AS220, however, we spent most of our time talking about her life after Providence. About two years ago, she moved to New Orleans to start and run Art Works’ non-profit print shop. It didn’t work out and she has since embarked on another coop print shop project. To me, the whole story is valuable: what does it mean to think of an arts organization as an ethical parent? Â What does it mean to keep the passion of your interest safe from the specifics of a bad experience? And, perhaps most of all, how do you balance one’s personal creativity with administrative, communal work? Meg Turner is also a print maker dedicated to crumbling, abandoned buildings. She’s just as handy with silk screens as she is employing (and teaching) older,Â photopolymer gravure,Â techniques.Â The second part of this interview will carry onÂ here, where we talk more about her work and what was like to move her creative practice to New Orleans.
Caroline Picard:Â Iâ€™m curious about Noe, the print shop you’re running in New Orleans, and how you came to be there.
Meg Turner:Â Right now I donâ€™t run the print shop. Right now I’m part of an amazing co-op that is totally existing because of every person putting in an insane amount of hours. I am the least part of running it because I left for 2 months.
But. I used to go on bike rides with my friend Morgan who ran the shop when we were at RISD and we would daydream about the print shops we would run someday â€” we would just think of the presses â€” we didnâ€™t really think of the form, just “Someday Iâ€™m gonna have a letterpress, and an etching press: Iâ€™m gonna haveÂ thisÂ equipment andÂ thatÂ spaceâ€”” the same way people decorate their kitchens and future homes. We didnâ€™t really think about structure or how it would work. When we heard AS220 was opening a print shop, we both called Susan to try to get a job. And she said, “No itâ€™s not like that. Come to the meetings.” The first meeting took place in a bare room and we sat on the floor and there were 10-15 people there asking, “What do we want in this shop?” Once that question came up, then we started asking, “Whoâ€™s going to use it? How does it work?”
The whole co-op structure and the way that it would work with volunteering, that wasnâ€™t instinctual for me, at least. It was an interestingâ€”for a good 6 months to a year I definitelyâ€”coming out of RISD atmosphere of fine art editioningâ€”I was thinking we would have to create the most beautiful print shop possible so fine artists could make beautiful work. Letâ€™s keep it clean and maybe it shouldnâ€™t be open to the public, maybe it should just be a small group of members that work together. But I got used to AS220’s approach. Because if someone asks, “Hey can I come to your shop and learn how to screen print?” and I have to say, “No, Iâ€™m sorry itâ€™s only forÂ theseÂ peopleâ€”” it’s too bad. I donâ€™t ever want to say, “This print shop is closed, you canâ€™t come here and learn.” Because the whole point was create something that is as good as a university but open to absolutely anybody to come and use itÂ in whatever way they can.
But it was funny how long it took me to appreciate that. When I started working for my boss in New Orleans [at LA Art Works], I went to her shop and thought, “Oh my God itâ€™s so clean! One person uses this space! Thereâ€™s an endless supply of paper towels!”
Â CP:Â Were you psyched at first?
MT:Â I was psychedâ€”I thought this is the best thing I could ever imagine! And then after 3 days I thought that if I didnâ€™t have open shop to go to and didnâ€™t exist in the chaos of the ink and people showing up that were 50 and 16 years old my world would feel small because IÂ wasnâ€™t spreading the love of this medium.Â Part of it is just that I love analog mark making and want everybody toÂ learn it. I want to make it as accessible as possible.
CP:Â Maybe this is a stretch but I feel like the silkscreening ethos is centered around production and dissemination.
MT:Â Yeah, itâ€™s totally about the democratization of art making and words and markmaking is the history of printmaking and I really love that. But you can also just make wedding invitations and other dumb things and you can make crazy political posters to wheat paste. Itâ€™s anti precious even when youâ€™re making etches.Â And the art scene that Iâ€™m involved with is way more dirty and punk rock so weâ€™ve created this really down and dirty silkscreen studio in a warehouse.
CP:Â Wait, you mean itâ€™s more punk rock compared to Providence?
MT:Â Well itâ€™s just a different scene down there. In Providence weâ€™ve got an art school that pumps kids out, kids that come from the bubble of like, “I take my art really seriously,” and our music scene is small enough that it doesnâ€™t divide itself. Providence is unique and thatâ€™s why I love it, because the art and the music scene are totally intermingledâ€”whereas down in New Orleans there are more people who want to be in galleries or work in non-profits, people who are cleaner in some ways, and then there’s the punk scene that screen prints but printing is very much a hobby or in service of the music scene, and itâ€™s a little separate. Thatâ€™s where a lot of the constituents of the print shop are coming from.Â Having been familiar with the punk scene [in Providence], thatâ€™s the part I plugged into [in New Orleans]. But a lot of the people I’ve met are amazing educators and there’s beginning to be more of a mix.
The struggle down there now is how to not lose the feeling that anyone can walk in off the street at any time â€”which I felt like was lacking at AS220 â€” once a week, no appointment necessary. New Orleans isn’t like New England â€” people donâ€™t have calendars, people donâ€™t want to sign up for things. They just want certain days a week when they can walk in. That has been by far the most successful thing. But I also want it to be a place where someone who wants to get a beautiful edition done can go, and it can be clean and organized and professional. And we also have no money now, no money at all. But weâ€™re going to do a kickstarter I think.
So thatâ€™s been really interesting and the amount of enthusiasm out there â€” because thereâ€™s not a printing or poster scene down there like there is in Providence. The poster scene is photocopies, still amazing photocopies, amazing drawings for shows.
CP:Â Do you have a sense as to why there wouldnâ€™t have been a poster scene down there?
MT:Â Well â€” I mean itâ€™s not that there completely wasnâ€™t â€” people have posters on the walls â€” but just not in the same way that I grew up seeing in Providence.Â I think a big part of it is RISD. New Orleans doesnâ€™t have an art school; there are art programs but kids don’t settle in town to keep doing what theyâ€™re doing. So itâ€™s not to say that thereâ€™s no poster scene down there, because there is a huge flyer practice â€” the amount of time and effort that people put into making photocopied flyers down there is insane, and gorgeous and amazing â€” but the tools are different, you know?
Whatâ€™s been really exciting is how many people have been psyched about what we’re doing.
CP:Â Itâ€™s pretty awesome that you could even have walk in hours that people would use. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s necessarily the case in every city. Thereâ€™s also the whole thing of how you get people who would be interested to learn you exist â€”
MT:Â Yeah, and itâ€™s been funny how, even when we left Art Works and went to Noe â€” and Art Works was gorgeousâ€” then to go to this amazing but totally chaotic, dirty warehouse and have people follow us from one to the other, people who had never been in a place that weird and, say, punk; it was cool. Weâ€™ve had some amazing middle-aged people, some high school students have been coming, and small business owners who want to make t-shirts. Itâ€™s slow. Itâ€™s definitely small, we get maybe five walk-ins at a time.
CP:Â Youâ€™ve told me a little bit about Art Works; it sounds like in that initial situation you had a budget and Â a brand new facility but in that instance you had to work within a power structure that wasn’t the bestâ€”
MT:Â Yeah it was a strange experience. There was definitely a power struggle going on between the CEO and the Director. When I moved there [for the job] they had very different ideas, so I was kind of caught in between. And there was no budget at all, actually, so the whole challenge was balancing the fact that the facilities were amazing but half-built there was like a hundred thousand dollars worth of tackage presses but there was no budget for anything, paper towels, screens, emulsion, not a cent.Â So we had to create every dollar we could to spend on materials. When it started, we had a big meeting. “Does anyone want to do this? Who wants this? Who wants to get involved?” All these people came and our budget the first week came from the ten dollars we made at the first open shop. People donated equipment. People started paying dues immediately, it was 35 dollars a month and that let us buy our first bucket of emulsion. We could offer this amazing space, but the facility wasn’t what it needed to be. The organization wanted a gorgeous, functioning edition studio to attract artists from around the country. It seemed like they were not as interested in a local community. There was definitely tension there. And then the place was just crumbling, They had no money. When they hired me I said I could make it financially independent in two years, if they paid my salary and gave a small budget to finish outfitting the shop â€” originally 6,000 dollars would be made available to finish the shop, but I got there and they were just like, “Sorry, no.”
CP:Â Do you feel like itâ€™s easier now that youâ€™re sort of working on your own terms
MT:Â I think, itâ€™s gonna be a lot easier except that we donâ€™t have the same kind of facilities to offer the world, we donâ€™t have tackage presses. We donâ€™t have this like gorgeous room with 30 foot ceilings and glass windows, so, there are some there are some people who just wonâ€™t even pay attention to what we’re doing now, but I think in terms of the people who really respected what we were doing, theyâ€™re psyched, everyone is really supportive.
CP:Â I remember you mentioned procuring a lot of equipment for Art Works. Once a space like that sort of folds, you can’t take that equipment because it was donated specifically to the non-profit. How did you negotiate those issues of ownership?
MT: BecauseÂ we all knew it was a bit of a sinking ship, I drafted things for people to sign when they donated equipment. Â I made it very clear to my organization and the people that they were loaning the equipment and they could take it back at any moment. When we got kicked out, I said, “Everyone is taking back their equipment,” and then I talked to the people who had donated that stuff and said, “Weâ€™re gonna open again in a couple months if you feel like donating it again, that would be great.” But what we didnâ€™t get to keep were the things that we built ourselves. That was the really tragic because it was like our blood, you know. For instance thereâ€™s this rosin box that I got two local carpenters to build. Itâ€™s not to code, and they couldnâ€™t use if they open againâ€¦Things were ugly when they fell apart. What we took with us was the energy of these ten people and we met in coffee shops for months, asking ourselves, “How can we do this again by ourselves no board, no money, no bullshit?”
CP:Â There mustâ€™ve been an important period of time where you were meeting without a facility, where your relationships were gestating, and you could figure out how you wanted to work together without the pressure of immediate, practical demands.
MT:Â Right, right. Some people that are there now have been there from the very beginning and people took different roles â€” that was the most exciting thing. A couple of people teach high school and middle school and have been teaching screen printing in those places. They were like really excited about being able to bring their kids to this facility and show them like you can work in amazing spaces. Then other people were more psyched about having a place to print, which the amazing thing about printmaking. It forces you to be communal (unless youâ€™re loaded) because you have to share equipment. Whatâ€™s hard has been how much administration needs to happen now that no one person is the manager. The last month has been all about insurance, bank account, bylaws; we became a nonprofit. I think like any place, if we all knew how much work it was going to be we probably wouldâ€™ve been like, “Whatever!” Â But so weâ€™ll see, weâ€™ll see how it goes, see like what role everybody wants.
Read more about Meg’s visual work and abandoned building by going here.
Special thanks for transcribing help from Mallory Gevaert and Daryl Meador!
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 itâ€™s paid off, it must feel incredibleâ€¦
PZ: The biggest thing to me is the roof. We had a roof that leaked for years and we just couldnâ€™t afford to get a new one. Any time it rained and I wasnâ€™t home I had that like, â€œOh no! Is anyone home? Are the buckets there?â€ Maybe thereâ€™s one person who had a leak in their room and Iâ€™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 â€”Â 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 Iâ€™d be like, â€œAlright, wake up. Go and empty the baby bucket into the sink or out the window and go back to bed.â€
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 thatâ€™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, â€œOK it has to be low-key, has to be you know, nothing in the newspaper, nothing on the airâ€¦â€
PZ: Well, we didnâ€™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 Iâ€™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 couldnâ€™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 MagazineÂ published info about our event, the door wasÂ open and the Fire Marshals just walked right in. And they were like, “Whatâ€™s going on here? Thereâ€™s going to be a festival?” We sort of played dumb and said, “Uh, I donâ€™t know.” And they maybe poked around a little bit, but I donâ€™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 hereâ€¦but after that they just wanted to see the whole building because weâ€™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 Iâ€™m the landlord. Sure.” And then tried to schedule an appointment with them.
XM: Yea, after they stalked usâ€¦
PZ: And then theyâ€™d be like, Howâ€™s Monday? And Xanderâ€™d be like, “Let me look at my calenderâ€¦you know, I think Iâ€™m all booked up until Friday, howâ€™s that?”
XM: During which time we gotÂ every bed and the stove and everythingâ€”
PZ: Yeah, we moved most of the kitchen stuff out of hereâ€¦
CP: Where did you move it?
PZ:Â Friendsâ€™ 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, weâ€™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.Â Theyâ€™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 theyâ€™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 Firemanâ€™s Ballâ€”that sealed the dealâ€”and they basically were like, “OK well, itâ€™s going to become law that all commercial spaces need a fire alarm system by 2005 or something so you have to do that. Weâ€™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 theyâ€™d sent you a list you could sue?
XM: Theyâ€™ll never send you a final punch list; theyâ€™ll tell you verbally you need this, this and this and theyâ€™ll say, “Yeah sure Iâ€™ll send a list to you,” but youâ€™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 didnâ€™t know if they were going to come in and say, “You need sprinklers,” or we donâ€™t believe that you donâ€™t live here. So we had a year to sort of figure that one out and that was the last time weâ€™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 wonâ€™t do a show where 200 people are going to show up.
XM: Or that itâ€™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 â€œrave.â€ Because like rave means drugs, but you know itâ€™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 itâ€™s really only grown in the last couple of years.
XM: The impact AS220 has always had is that itâ€™s always been a real stable force and a stable entitiy and I think thatâ€™s allowed people to say, “Oh letâ€™s not do this community based art project because we donâ€™t actually need that; there already is that. Letâ€™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 theyâ€™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 isnâ€™t constantly reinventing the wheel of how to create an art space for Â 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:Â I feel like itâ€™s been changing in Chicago even since Iâ€™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. Itâ€™s kind of like, OK you go the not-for-profit route, you do blah-blah-blah, you ultimately try to get forward fundedâ€¦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, itâ€™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: itâ€™s can’t stay the same. Itâ€™s always changing. They canâ€™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:Â 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 thatâ€™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 thereâ€™s that thing where itâ€™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 theyâ€™re there 70 hours a week. And just understanding that someone needs to really be the driving force. I think thatâ€™s hard in that model. People get burnt out a lot. And I think for us, sure weâ€™ve probably reached different points of time where one or the other of us was burnt out, but at the end of the day itâ€™s like, “Oh, but I own this thing.” For me, at the end of the day, Iâ€™m not planning on selling the building and cashing in, but thereâ€™s all these different ways of what ownership could do for you. For me itâ€™s psychological, because I could do any of those things even if I donâ€™t really want to.
Thatâ€™s also why our space is sort of interesting because there are people here who have a stake and people who donâ€™t. And weâ€™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 naÃ¯ve idea that we were all on the same level, but we werenâ€™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 didnâ€™t rally sink in that I wasnâ€™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.Â And thatâ€™s srot of how weâ€™ve chipped away at making the studios nicer and thatâ€™s just been cumulative. Itâ€™s hard to remember how hard things were at the beginning because the things we are doing itâ€™s not like we need a toilet upstairs, itâ€™s like, O maybe we should just tile that thing.
XM: OK, lets be real. The floor is going to rot if we donâ€™t tile it.
PZ: Itâ€™s going to rot.Â Yea. But at this point weâ€™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.