I never interviewed Founding Director Bert Crenca directly about AS220, so what follows is my recollection of a conversation we had, along with a description of the organization’s structure. This is the final segment of what has been weekly series of interviews and essays about artist run spaces in Providence, each of which I’ve posted here on BadatSports. My particular interest in Providence — the purpose of my residency — was to study via conversation the relationship between the city’s politics, it’s social/historical geography and the respondent culture of artist community and action. You can access my collection of writing on the subject by going here.
I visited AS220 for the month of July as an artist-in-residence. During my stay, I lived on the third floor of the Empire Street building (above), the first in a series of three buildings that AS220 owns. With each building positioned less than a five minute walk away from one another, AS220 takes up 100,000 square feet of downtown Providence real estate. Every space represents a project of historic restoration and, with its mixed use status, contains 3 restaurants, 3 bars, a locksmith, a photo lab, a robot lab, a print shop, a youth program (with every opportunity you could imagine from a separate dark room to a recording studio), 4 galleries, a performance space and live/work studios for artists. The operation is massive. It sustains an operating budget of 2.6 million dollars a year, with a staff of 50 employees. To begin to conceive how a non-profit arts organization can maintain such a privileged place in a downtown commercial hub is to begin to understand how AS220 has influenced not just the cultural climate of Providence but also the city’s vision of itself as an artistic center.
AS220 is not simply an art space. It espouses a philosophical agenda as well. Every member of the administrative staff earns the same salary and health insurance; the minute you are hired for an administrative position, you get the same income as Founding Director, Bert Crenca, who’s been at the helm of this ship for the last 25 years. If you live in one of the artist residency studios, you are expected to volunteer up to 5 hours of your time every week. Volunteering offsets your rent while ensuring everyone share in the responsibility of the space. AS220 is also doggedly unjuried and uncensored. It is a platform for work to be exhibited, not a space with a pre-determined aesthetic vision. Anyone can show here. If you are from Rhode Island you sign your name on a list and so long as you are willing to wait (at this stage the wait is three years long), you get to share your work with a public. The mixed-use aspect of the organization’s structure is also part of its larger agenda: Crenca wanted to create an art space in a city that, 25 years ago, had more or less given up on itself.
AS220’s origin story is contextualized by what was then a particularly bleak post-industrial setting. It has made a point to champion ART — both as a vehicle for individual expression and as a means to develop a visible local community (via the shared experience of artistic production) — in order to transform its depressed surroundings into a viable social opportunity for youths and old folks and everyone in between. To accomplish that goal, it was in everyone’s best interest to create a space that facilitated community and discourse, not criticality. It had to promote an open place of nourishment, one that did not base its success on the whims of commercial art markets belonging to less intimate cities far afield. In other words, the focus had to be on a local level if it was ever going to improve local conditions. Of course the culture has a number of success stories: Shephard Fairy, for instance, and the constituents of Fort Thunder represent members of the Providence community who have had a tremendous impact on a national contemporary art dialogue. Yet also, there is a very concentrated local aesthetic, an often messy, sometimes Bacchic and excitedly peculiar scene. From my glancing view this seemed to manifest in costume parties, printed matter, a vested interest in education on all levels and the deep pleasure in idiosyncratic DIY culture, wherein high and low art (if those distinctions still exist) mix around in a big, impossible-to-parse soup of personality.
One evening in July, I happened to sit at the same table as Bert Crenca outside the AS220 restaurant. He told me he’d had to defend his non-juried agenda over and over again to board members. “They want to know how we ensure quality,” he said. He grinned, obviously confident in his forthcoming punchline. “I told them ‘We don’t know. Nobody knows. But at least we ensure the possibility of quality.’” It is that confidence which is so contagious. He is a warm man and I had the distinct impression that he was used to talking to a wide of range of people. He is totally game for any kind of discourse. He can swear like a sailor, indulging dirty jokes as though to see where they land, and seeks out the different interests or capacities, whether philosophical, practical or biographical, in a conversation. Almost every night he was out, I saw him talk to different people at the space, people eating food or drinking or hanging out. Regardless the subject he was always engaged. No doubt it takes that kind of person to build a project from the ground up: someone affable, flexible and sure with conviction.
Just as he is proud of his artistic practice, Crenca is proud of his working class roots. Somehow the marriage of those personal interests have lead to his path as an arts administrator. The project began in 1985 when Crenca received a terrible review about his own work. As is the case with many DIY spaces, he responded through a positive action. He turned around and wrote a manifesto with peers Martha Dempster and Steven Emma. “We realize that no artist can survive and grow without the support of both his peers and the public regardless of the artist’s unyielding belief in himself,” they said. “We challenge the pervasive notion that complete, unbridled, uncensored freedom produces mediocrity and that excellence rises out of repression. It does not!,” and then finally, “Art has been removed from being an integral part of our society and has been relegated to mere processes which had lead to the production of dry, academic, pedantic, superficial, mechanical, and mass produced works of art devoid of all integrity, honesty, and meaning and has stripped art of its physical, psychological, moral, and spiritual impact necessary for the thriving and indeed the very survival of human culture. Art must be allowed to flourish unhampered because art is one of the last areas of culture where man defines his spiritual nature.”
There is much more to the manifesto, but the vigor and vim underlying its message is clear — something still palpable in the various constituents of AS200 today. As an example, I remember meeting two floor mates for the first time in the kitchen. I think I was nervous and feeling like the new kid, I tried to make a joke with more swagger than I possessed at the time. “Oh!” I said, instead of introducing myself. “So this is where the cool kids hangout.” Both joking and earnest, one of them replied, “There isn’t anyone of us who is cool here, everyone is just good.” In other words, open acceptance is in the water. And, indeed, everyone living at the space is creative. Many of them teach classes at the youth program one floor below. It’s a utopic vision: here you can still be a painter. You can inhabit a structured bohemia, one still complimentary to capitalism. It is sustainable. It is user-friendly. I realized upon arrival that had I moved here after college, I would have embarked on an entirely different artistic experience. (Isn’t it amazing when you discover the possibility of a parallel life?) Instead I moved to Chicago and had to answer questions about my own artistic approach: Why was I painting from photographs? What about my figure painting was different from or contributing to the canon of figure painting? And, even further: Why was I painting at all? Wasn’t painting dead? How did my own practice recover Painting’s Drowned and Beautiful Body from the river and bathe its corpse uniquely? (I’m thinking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story, The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World). Keep in mind, I feel especially grateful for the path I’ve come down thus far. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but gazing into the ecoculture of Providence, I stumbled upon the important realization that my artistic path thus far was not the only path. (It sounds obvious to say, but here : think about your own aesthetic positions and judgements, imagine conceiving another, auxiliary framework through which to engage with the world. Imagine, then, its ensuring consequence, some things difficult in the old regime will occur more easily, just as other things once simple encounter difficulty). Occupying the possibility of these two realities at once is like being a polyglot, to discover the shortcomings in one language while simultaneously appreciating its tremendously varied and peculiar (by contrast) vocabulary that opens up new worlds. For instance, I’ve heard the Inuit language has a huge index of nouns fitted to depict thousands upon thousands of kinds of snow.
From its original manifesto, AS220 was born with an $800 check that paid the first months rent of a shared loft apartment. 2nd floor space above the Rocket, a local nightclub on Richmond Street. AS220 eventually took over the third (top) floor, which became studio space). Originally it was an illegal, unheated, living space but because the city needed something and because Bert possesses a convincing charisma, he was able to solicit the ever infamous mayor “Buddy” Cianci’s help. “Cianci understood the potential of art and entertainment so he was open to suggestions.” Which is how Crenca secured AS220’s first space on Empire Street — a 22,000 sq foot property which, at the time was in great disrepair, surrounded by prostitution and drugs to such an extent that most locals avoided Empire Street altogether. Via whole sweat equity, constant fundraising and a countless number of events, AS220 provided a visible, above ground activity. Interestingly enough, a number of the original businesses that leased the space before AS220 bought the building remain. Crenca took them on as tenants and, in some cases, even helped rehab the business so that original tenants (for instance a locksmith, a barber shop and a gay bar) could move back in and carry on with updated working conditions.
It’s important to remember that projects like this aren’t simply acts of social service, selflessness or charity. They are necessarily self-serving and there is a way in which each member of the AS220 crew is committed to the project because of how it fulfills (and I’m sure sometimes frustrates) their own ideals. Crenca will say he had to “create a place for his own survival,” it just happens that identifying that need applied to a population larger than himself; his survival is contingent on the community he inhabits. As part of that testament, a handful of AS220 members put together a AS220StinkTank_Compost, How to Keep the Arts from Dying of Old Age in 2004, ”You can grow things in a petri dish,” they write, “but they need special care, and may not survive on their own. If you want to find something healthy, lively and strong, don’t build a lab to grow it in; grow it in the dirt you make from your compost.”
There seems to be a correspondence between the aforementioned dirt and a bed of pessimism. Despite the rampant idealism that oozes out of AS220, neither Bert nor anyone I met there is a Pollyanna. The Youth Program I mentioned is born from bleak prospects for young people and the more general difficulty of time’s advance (how to keep AS220 forever renewed?). Apprehending a flanking darkness — perhaps even a larger sense of mortality — led the organization to establish a program for youth. Each kid enrolled (mostly teenagers from what I could see, they lolled about the stairwells from time to time, sometimes playing guitars, sometimes flirting with one another, sometimes grumpy and morose) makes a portfolio in whatever field they are interested in. They can use it towards job or college or professional applications. But as I said, this program is not charitable. It is essential. A frank realism regularly took hold most of my conversations over the summer and with Crenca in particular, I found we quickly went down rather dark passages — discussing the bleak potential of an abstract future that entertained global warming and economic crises. “Maybe that’s what humanity is actually best at,” he said. “Destroying itself.”
“It’s interesting to me that you would sound so resigned to the end of the world, but then at the same time you’re putting all of your effort into this very idealistic organization,” I said.
“You gotta do something,” he shrugged. “You might as well.”
“Yes, but you’re not just doing something, you’re specifically invested in the idea of a future because of the Youth Program,” I said. “I’ll be honest, I feel like obviously everything works well here, but I think that program is like the heart of this place. Because the kids aren’t just taking classes, their education here is totally integrated into the whole organization. They are kind of brought up in community that reinforces and values all the stuff they learn, regardless of whether or not it’s important in any other part of their lives. Here they’re around a host of people already converted to the idea of art and expression.”
“That’s right,” Bert nodded. “That’s it, exactly. That’s our insurance policy — the youth program. I mean, I’m getting old. Maybe I don’t know what good art is. I might have lost touch a long time ago, but they’re the ones that can carry this on. And you know it comes from my own background, I was a troubled kid. I had nowhere to go. We particularly want to serve people who don’t have opportunities, and you know we’ve got 150 kids engaged a week. The youth program is our insurance policy.” He cleared his throat. “As long as the base continues to swell, contrary to elitist notions around art.”
“Well I have to imagine too, I mean even just me in my life, I think it’s really hard to get outside of standard ideas of what one needs to feel OK—”
“Sure, sure. It’s absurd. All that garbage on TV it really just makes you feel lousy. It’s impossible to find places where you just feel good for being who you are. That’s what I’m trying to do here, with these kids, with everyone. You got to build something that’s independent of all that other stuff.”
“But then that’s the thing, that’s like this big irony,” I shook my head and probably guffed a little. “I mean it’s like culture is kind of just fucked, and you know that, but then here you are trying to promote culture. To facilitate it.”
“You have to. It’s not fucked here.”
November 23, 2011 · Print This Article
During the last week of my time in Providence, I came across another arts organization called The Steel Yard. It is what it sounds like — an old industrial complex that has been taken over by an arts organization. In keeping with the land’s original tradition, The Steel Yard offers ceramics and metalworking classes that among others include welding, blacksmithing and jewelry making. As part of their annual fundraising, they host a yearly Iron Chef competition and an Iron Pour which (as you can imagine/see from above) involves a lot of flying sparks in the dark. (At such times — even looking at the video — I catch for a moment the wild Romance of light, its seeming mysticism, glowering in the dark. Imagine what it must have been like before the age of electricity!) The Steel Yard converted this all but abandoned property into a vibrant teaching ground for metalurgy — what stands out in my mind as another instance of Providence’s intriguing utilitarian edge. While it’s participants and administrators are focused on building a community in the present, they utilize the resources of an industrial, American past. I had a chance to ask Executive Director, Drake Patten, about the organization.
October 26, 2011 · Print This Article
CP: How did you start teaching comics?
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 of character books 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 of 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 visual mathematics 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 more narrative 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 visit 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? 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, photopolymer gravure, techniques. The second part of this interview will carry on here, where we talk more about her work and what was like to move her creative practice to New Orleans.
Caroline Picard: I’m curious about Noe, the print shop you’re running in New Orleans, and how you came to be there.
Meg Turner: Right now I don’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 — we would just think of the presses — we didn’t really think of the form, just “Someday I’m gonna have a letterpress, and an etching press: I’m gonna have this equipment and that space—” the same way people decorate their kitchens and future homes. We didn’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 it’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, “Who’s going to use it? How does it work?”
The whole co-op structure and the way that it would work with volunteering, that wasn’t instinctual for me, at least. It was an interesting—for a good 6 months to a year I definitely—coming out of RISD atmosphere of fine art editioning—I was thinking we would have to create the most beautiful print shop possible so fine artists could make beautiful work. Let’s keep it clean and maybe it shouldn’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, I’m sorry it’s only for these people—” it’s too bad. I don’t ever want to say, “This print shop is closed, you can’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 it 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 it’s so clean! One person uses this space! There’s an endless supply of paper towels!”
CP: Were you psyched at first?
MT: I was psyched—I thought this is the best thing I could ever imagine! And then after 3 days I thought that if I didn’t have open shop to go to and didn’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 I wasn’t spreading the love of this medium. Part of it is just that I love analog mark making and want everybody to learn it. I want to make it as accessible as possible.
CP: Maybe this is a stretch but I feel like the silkscreening ethos is centered around production and dissemination.
MT: Yeah, it’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. It’s anti precious even when you’re making etches. And the art scene that I’m involved with is way more dirty and punk rock so we’ve created this really down and dirty silkscreen studio in a warehouse.
CP: Wait, you mean it’s more punk rock compared to Providence?
MT: Well it’s just a different scene down there. In Providence we’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 doesn’t divide itself. Providence is unique and that’s why I love it, because the art and the music scene are totally intermingled—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 it’s a little separate. That’s where a lot of the constituents of the print shop are coming from. Having been familiar with the punk scene [in Providence], that’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 —which I felt like was lacking at AS220 — once a week, no appointment necessary. New Orleans isn’t like New England — people don’t have calendars, people don’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 we’re going to do a kickstarter I think.
So that’s been really interesting and the amount of enthusiasm out there — because there’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: Do you have a sense as to why there wouldn’t have been a poster scene down there?
MT: Well — I mean it’s not that there completely wasn’t — people have posters on the walls — but just not in the same way that I grew up seeing in Providence. I think a big part of it is RISD. New Orleans doesn’t have an art school; there are art programs but kids don’t settle in town to keep doing what they’re doing. So it’s not to say that there’s no poster scene down there, because there is a huge flyer practice — the amount of time and effort that people put into making photocopied flyers down there is insane, and gorgeous and amazing — but the tools are different, you know?
What’s been really exciting is how many people have been psyched about what we’re doing.
CP: It’s pretty awesome that you could even have walk in hours that people would use. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case in every city. There’s also the whole thing of how you get people who would be interested to learn you exist —
MT: Yeah, and it’s been funny how, even when we left Art Works and went to Noe — and Art Works was gorgeous— 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. We’ve had some amazing middle-aged people, some high school students have been coming, and small business owners who want to make t-shirts. It’s slow. It’s definitely small, we get maybe five walk-ins at a time.
CP: You’ve told me a little bit about Art Works; it sounds like in that initial situation you had a budget and a brand new facility but in that instance you had to work within a power structure that wasn’t the best—
MT: 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. 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 — originally 6,000 dollars would be made available to finish the shop, but I got there and they were just like, “Sorry, no.”
CP: Do you feel like it’s easier now that you’re sort of working on your own terms
MT: I think, it’s gonna be a lot easier except that we don’t have the same kind of facilities to offer the world, we don’t have tackage presses. We don’t have this like gorgeous room with 30 foot ceilings and glass windows, so, there are some there are some people who just won’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, they’re psyched, everyone is really supportive.
CP: 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: Because we all knew it was a bit of a sinking ship, I drafted things for people to sign when they donated equipment. 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, “We’re gonna open again in a couple months if you feel like donating it again, that would be great.” But what we didn’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 there’s this rosin box that I got two local carpenters to build. It’s not to code, and they couldn’t use if they open again…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: There must’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: Right, right. Some people that are there now have been there from the very beginning and people took different roles — 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 you’re loaded) because you have to share equipment. What’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 would’ve been like, “Whatever!” But so we’ll see, we’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!
check out the beginning of this interview by going here.
In the first part of my interview with Dirt Palace, we talk about how the organization started and what it looked like in it’s nacent stages. It began as an idea for a bookstore, then morfed into a not for profit, women-run, studio space. Originally there were six members, but as the work of building out the space went on, it became clear that members within that group had different ideas. I think it’s important to remember that things start that way: it’s as if some kind of transcription is required when implementing a vision and that transcribed version will be invariably different from the original, shared (and I’d say elusive) dream. In this case, Xander and Pippi realized that not for profit status was not the best option for them. In order to arrive at that conclusion, however, they had to talk to a lot of people. At the same time interview is not only about the Dirt Palace, it’s also about how political events (rallies around the Eagle Square Development, and scandal around the mayor at the time, Buddy Cianci) directly impacted Dirt Palace development.
Rowing the Boat to Sea: Part Two
XM: So one of the ladies who was on the board just said OK, let me help you with this and made the introductions. At the time there was a political will to help artists, and that was always a big help. Like Burt from AS220, he set us up with people who worked in the city. And by the time this had happened all of the stuff had gone down at Fort Thunder where they had been evicted, so it was kind of this perfect storm of political timing.
PZ: There were huge city hall meetings where hundreds of people who were concerned for different reasons about the development on Eagle Square; there was a lot of public uproar.
CP: People were upset that Fort Thunder hd been closed?
PZ: Yeah. it was hard because it was all these artists who stayed under the radar, because they were living in Eagle Square illegally. So officials thought those buildings were abandoned, but as soon as the people started losing their living and work spaces, they started coming out of the woodwork, saying, “we’re a vital part of this community!” Some people would say, “Who are you? I’ve never seen you before.” It was sort of a wake up call to us, that if you really want to be a vital part of a community you have to be visible and engaged.
XM: At the same time there were tons of people who were saying this is the most important and powerful thing happening now. And the other thing about Providence’s trajectory—I think you totally wove that into your description, Pippi—was the Safari Lounge, which was a dive bar downtown that there used host a lot of shows, even before things went down with Fort Thunder. The landlord evicted the guy who ran the Safari Lounge and there was a ton of community support around that. And Kara, who was another one of the initial people who started the Hive [what those founding Dirt Palace members have gone on to do since their interests in the Dirt Palace split from Xander's and Pippi's]—I feel like the 2 of us in the beginning were the main forces—we had worked together on a lot on that stuff. Figuring out how to articulate a case, or how to talk to media about why it’s shitty for a landlord to increase the rent by three times—and it was actually successful with the SafariLounge. They’re gone now, but the proprietor got another 2 year lease because it got all this media attention from people freaking out.
So we had just come off this experience where we recognized what could happen when you collectivize and talk about things intelligently in a public way. Taking action can really change the outcome of events. I feel like that experience led us to really want to do something sustainable, in reaction to Eagle Square. We wanted ownership within our own project.
CP: Did you guys picket the Safari Lounge?
XM: We were really blessed by knowing someone who had a lot of money who decided that it was a super worthwhile thing, who helped us take out a full page ad in the Providence Journal. There’s nothing that freaks people out more than when people who they think have no power all of the sudden take out a full page ad. The ad was basically everyone who had signed a petition, which was probably a thousand people, so it was a thousand names in tiny print. Providence is only 150,000 people so we represented a voting block. That’s going to make politicians think twice.
PZ: I think the whole thing with Eagle Square was just a deal that was going to go forward—there was this big money developer who came in and was going to come in no matter what. But because of this big uproar I think the city had to show that they were supportive of the arts, and that was right when we needed a loan. It was perfect timing for us.
XM: We werent’ the only people who benefited either. There were a lot of projects that sprouted up around that time.
CP: That seems like an appropriate action for a city to take. I mean on the one hand you realize there is a problem because people are living in an illegal, and perhaps unsafe space. Even if they are active cultural producers, it’s probably not a sustainable situation in the longrun, especially if you have to worry about liability.
PZ: That was before the station caught fire, so even though things were sort of crazy with the fire department, they got crazier later, after the fire. In 2004 a big fire brought a new fire code and a new phase of liturgical society- things got really crazy and beauracratic then. But all this happened way before that. We ended up getting a really low interest rate commercial loan from the city for this building and we had to put down a down payment and at the time there was this idea that Xander and I could front some money for a down payment but that there were some other people in the group would buy in and that the building wouldn’t just be owned by the two of us. People were in different states; some people really had the interest but didn’t have the financial realities of being able to do that and other people just wanted to be able to be here and have a studio but have the flexibility of not owning. We knew everyone was coming from different standpoints but when we first bought the building there was this idea that we had such a strong core, we thought more of us would buy in at some point, and it was also that it was a commercial loan/building so living here was totally illegal.
XM: The other piece of the story I like was the chaos of actually getting the loan. Which was, I don’t know…
PZ: I just remember because I was thinking about this all the time because I run now and Xander also runs, but at the time I was really unhealthy and I was really sort of like, I don’t know I remember this one night where we had the accountant who was working for us pro bono give us the part of the business plan for application and it had to be in by five; the office was closing. It was like four-fifty-five. We were downtown and we had to run to the other office with the stuff you know beucase the doors might close and I remember seeing her running ahead of me and being like, I used to run! I can’t even run, but like actually running to get out application in—
XM: That’s funny that’s the part that you think of…because now you can kick my ass running. She’s such a better runner at this point. But I was thinking more about how our loan application coincided with the city’s Plunder Dome Scandall, when our mayor went to jail.
PZ: Oh yeah!
XM: It was the whole administration, so there were all these people who were like, “Yeah no problem. We’ll approve that loan for you, just get us this, this and this. You’re good.” And we’d keep calling and we’d be like, “So what do we…?” And they’d be like, “No, no you’re good.” And we’re like, “So what does that mean?”
PZ: And then that person would resign because of the Plunder Dome.
XM: Right, and no one gave us any tangible documents, they’d just say, “You’re good darling, You’re cool, kid.” You know, like, “You got it. We’re going to make this happen.” No official anything and then one night half of City Hall moves to South Carolina—everyone was just cutting their losses and getting out. And then we’d have to deal with another Director of Planning. We had to deal with one and then another and then another until—luckily the people who we had to deal with, you know it seemed like the biggest thing in the world to us but we were like small pototaes, like it’s $140,000 loan, not like this epic giant project that people really have ot think about. I kept thinking, “Are they going to leave note? Are people going to know that we’re supposed to get this loan?”
CP: So did someone call you eventually?
XM: We had a number of like fairy godfathers or fairy godmothers, just like people who like had our backs especially during the early days when there was a lot to get figured out. And our one friend worked there so he would help us make Xerox copies of all our documents. And he kept also saying, “It’s OK,” but it was just terrifying to wake up and suddenly think, “Wait does anyone we talked to still work there?”
PZ: I was so young I remember going to our hearing for whether we would get the loan. I remember trying to dress in business casual and taking out my nose ring, trying to look like someone who could really do things, but at the same time feeling really infantilized or young. I was sort of always wondering, am I doing something totally illegal here? Like for real? I think I still have that a little bit, but at that time I felt even less legitimate. Then we got the loan that didn’t leave us much money for capital improvements so we were on a shoestring budget. I still feel like, for other people in the world, we still are, but for us things have definitely loosened up a lot over the last couple of years.
XM: We paid off the loan now, so we finally have money that can actually go towards capital improvements. Every year we have a little more to go towards improvements and O! We need a new door! And we’re going to save for that…
CP: When do you feel like that turn around happened?
XM: Pretty much when we paid off the mortgage. Ten years after we started.
CP: God that must have been awesome. Did you all have a party?
XM: I don’t know if we did.
PZ: I don’t remember.
XM: I think we high fived.
PZ: Yeah, parties are huge work. You don’t want to have to clean up after all these slobs afterwards..
XM: we must have at least gone out to dinner.
Check out the final installment of this interview by going here.