Descending Into the Cave
On January 11, 2014, I rode an elevator down into a cave, one that contains the underground spectacle Ruby Falls – a waterfall lit by color changing lights and epic Muzak you might find accompanying the timed water spurts of a fountain in Disney World. I was invited to participate in this cave excursion of the hyperreal by the Atlanta-based collective that started the project Speleogen – a project that calls itself The New Cave Art. This trip was meant to engage members of the Atlanta community in an exercise of perception and attention.
The collective, and thus Speleogen, was founded by a group of musicians, and this rootedness in the music community is an important aspect of the collective’s projects and ways of working. They have recently started multiple projects, however, for the space of this piece, I’m going to only address specifically the one involving caves, Speleogen. Though Speleogen centers itself on caves, the impetus to start the project came out of a greater desire to work collaboratively and engage in artistic practices that Atlanta doesn’t always offer. In a conversation with Speleogen’s founders Devin Brown, Mason Brown (no relation), and David Matysiak, they noted that what initially led them to explore various structures of collaboration was due to their frustrations with the way musicians are generally pigeonholed into certain roles, times, and spaces. They realized that often this assigning is done by the musician him/herself; there is a certain complicity with the system as it stands. Apart from this structure, they also voiced concerns about the disconnect between Atlanta’s art and music communities. They are interested in the ways in which projects that are considered “music” are accepted (or not) or presented (or not) within an art context and vice versa. Thus, part of the goal Speleogen hopes to achieve is providing an environment that doesn’t fix people into specific and static roles. Speleogen says that they are seeking for artists/makers/scientists/musicians/etc/etc to imagine new possibilities and collaborate with each other in order to actualize those possibilities.
For its founders and many of its members, collaborating is like second nature. Many of them have played in bands with each other over the years and this informs the ways they work together, play off of each other, and establish certain tentative working “roles” within the group. Devin stresses the fact that “there isn’t a singular artist in this kind of configuration.” The concept surrounding the working environment that Speleogen proposes is a kind of autopoietic sort of “collaboratory” work that attempts to create its own world that inherently collaborates with itself. Part of the reason why the project takes on a sort of autopoietic, self-sustaining structure is because of the concerns mentioned above (i.e., fixed musician roles, disconnect between various Atlanta making communities), but part of the reason may also be due to the exploratory stage the collective is still in. Apart from Speleogen proper, the group works on and produces many other projects including ROAM, a monthly podcast that solicits found sounds from musicians, chitchats, a performance project that uses crowd-sourced material pulled from online chats, text messages, and etc., Synaesthesia, a music performance that explores the relationship between sound and light, and Boating, their band along with Jordan Noel, who runs the label Coco Art. These other projects, though “headed” by various members of the collective (ROAM is David Matysiak, chitchats is Devin Brown with Michael Hessel-Mial (not a member of Speleogen, editor of the tumblr Internet Poetry), and Synaesthesia is Mason Brown with Ian Cone (also not a member of Speleogen), are still collective endeavors. Another reason that this group is relatively secluded also has to do with the nature of how art and music venues function in Atlanta. The city doesn’t open to outsiders easily and exploring new mediums if you’re not necessarily already known doesn’t necessarily seem like a possibility.
Speleogen Proper: Inside the Cave
Even though members of the project claim that essentially Speleogen’s methodology could be applied to any object/concept/topic, the place of the cave, the chosen focus of the group, with its particular materiality is an appropriate place to locate and situate Speleogen, and arguably the collective as a whole. Devin recounts that in the cave “you can only see as far as your headlamp shines” and that “all the terrain is treacherous” – an apt description of artistic practice in general; failure is always a possibility. This project is all about searching and experimenting. It’s not about creating a discrete object, the “monolithic product” that is the record or album. Rather, the group tends toward an ecology of production and “not scorched earth which [doesn’t] leave anything to come back to” which the production of a static album can do to its creators.
For Devin, his interest in Speleogen concerns social relations and collaboration themselves as the artwork. At this point in their process, it is uncertain where Speleogen falls in the spectrum of relational art and socially-engaged practices. Since their methodology implicitly illuminates the social structures of musical and artistic production and their dissemination, Speleogen might want to take a page out of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and the (maybe already dead horse) conversation surrounding this kind of artistic practice and see where that leads them. The crux of all of these projects is the structure the collective has created for itself, which enables them to hone their energies. As Mason Brown puts it, “once there’s a structure, you can do anything.”
It is striking that Speleogen chose to center itself on caves. Not only does the cave figure as a rich metaphorical space for imagination and incubation, but it also serves as a point of departure for conceptualizing collectivity and making. If we take Gregory Sholette’s work on the “dark matter” of the culture of artistic practice seriously in terms of cosmic relations, what happens to the underground caverns Speleogen inhabits? According to Sholette’s use of the astronomical and cosmological phenomenon of dark matter, most of the art world’s activities are “invisible” and essentially unaccounted for; resting outside mainstream institutions, these activities create the possibilities for other activities to come into visibility. If invisibility is taken simply in the case of Speleogen’s practices and goals, the dark underground space of the cave serves as an apt metaphor and location. David Matysiak stated during a conversation that part of the project is to (re)build a world, which coming from the subterranean space of the cave means that they are “starting from underground, not even ground level.” For this particular part, and for the collective more generally, this is important — the intent to build a world for artistic practices that does not rely on any already established foundation; the task is to create the very foundation that will serve as the ground. Speleogen chooses to inhabit the margins; whether this is due to lacking a particular knowledge of or interest in the Atlanta art scene is a question that may need to be asked.
Part of Speleogen involves the ritualistic and meditative. Because of the physical challenge involved in traversing caves, the caver’s particular embodiment becomes a site of reflection. What is interesting about the corporeal for Speleogen is how this experience translates into multimedia works that are, for the moment, only presented in a digital form. However, as I mentioned in my last article, even digital work is experienced by some body in some place at some time, an embodied being. What Speleogen has the opportunity to do is push these relationships of the embodied and the digital to new possibilities. One way they can do this is through sound, which for musicians, this is a primary material. Sound, being invisible and immaterial, pours through speakers into the listener’s ears, vibrating the membrane of the eardrum, causing the bones to move, translating waves into concretely experienced sounds that carry with them a particular sense. In a sense, Speleogen could provide the portal into a different sensible space by literally delving underground into a radically different landscape. Mason describes that experience “as going into an alternate world” which “once you’re in that world you think differently.” One obvious way to talk about entering the cave is through the metaphorics of the womb and the female body, and this is indeed something on the table, but putting too much weight into this structure could be too simplistic. Devin, David, and Mason all are aware of the problem of the figure of the male plunging into the depths of the earth. For them, the cave, serves as an incubator space where images (sound-images, moving-images, still-images, etc.) are produced, but as to whether this means created in the womb may be another discussion, which Luce Irigaray addresses in the section “Plato’s Hystera” in her book Speculum of the Other Woman. Unlike Plato’s Allegory of the Cave which quickly dismisses these images as mere artifice, Speleogen describes the images they produce in and from these caves as emanating from the caves themselves and become a way of connecting with others and “communing with old cave spirits.”
Re-Mixing and (Re)Building
If placed within the context of Nicolas Bourriaud’s observations in his book Postproduction concerning contemporary art practices that involve the figure of the re-mixing DJ, maybe the question of Speleogen’s relevance to contemporary art (and conversely, contemporary art’s relevance to Speleogen) becomes more clear. Though these conversations about re-mix and file sharing are not new to the Creative Commons community, Speleogen adds another topography to the existing focus of many projects. However, unlike, say GLI.TC/H, Speleogen is not necessarily interested in delving into these technologies as telecommunicative tools that inherently carry with them disruptions and breakages.
Because their focus is on sharing materials with each other and re-mixing “completed” works into new ones that then become material for further re-mix, the group is constantly moving as David states: “you give the idea a chance to grow the way it wants to grow … you’re just working on things, you’re always just playing with materials and it’s not about showing off at the end “Here we did it!” You’re always moving … encouraging people to walk with you.” This calls to mind Bourriaud’s claim in Postproduction that “the contemporary work of art does not position itself as the termination point of the “creative process” (a “finished product” to be contemplated) but as a site of navigation, a portal, a generator of activities” (19). Speleogen is concerned with carving out a space that enables them to keep on making; part of this space is left open to others – they encourage others to hop on board with them.
As I mentioned above, this ethos is not new to contemporary art. Chicago, for example, has the collective Temporary Services among others, a multitude of artist-run spaces, and strong Creative Commons and GLI.TC/H cultures. Atlanta is still picking up on these issues. Eyedrum, one of the venues/collectives that has been around for the longest, serves as a space for experimentation. MINT Gallery also attempts to open its doors to emerging artists and curators. There are also a few other artist run projects and spaces including Beep Beep and the Atlanta Zine Library. However, this Atlanta-based group is not interested in the institutionalization of their practice and is still figuring out the Atlanta landscape, which can feel at times quite closed.
To quote Bourriaud’s Postproduction again: “precariousness is at the center of a formal universe in which nothing is durable, everything is movement: the trajectory between two places is favored in relation to the place itself, and encounters are more important than the individuals who compose them” (49). Speleogen is still precarious. It is looking for its audience. It is looking for its space/place/location/situation. Considering that core members of Speleogen also work with each other on many other projects including projects mentioned above (Boating, ROAM, chitchats, and Synaesthesia), the method of working that fuels Speleogen also fuels these other projects, making these discrete projects porous to each other. These projects are all about play; as Devin states: “this is all play … everything is an opportunity to expand and riff.”
Neil Brideau: I think over the past few generations comics have really come into their own. They’re being accepted more by the larger cultural world, and I think that helps cartoonists break out of their shells a little bit. Most of CAKE’s exhibitors are in their late twenties and early thirties, and I feel like this generation is a lot more social than their immediate predecessors. There’s this stereotype of the alternative comics artist toiling away in their studio not getting any financial or critical compensation for what they love, and feeling sorry for themselves. But I see our peers really celebrating their creative process and the creative process of others. Not that there aren’t a lot of nights spent alone in a room inking pages of comics very few people will read. I think Chicago too, in general is really welcoming of DIY and small-run creativity. Whether it’s the Night Market, or the CIMM Fest, or the Chicago Zine Fest, or Printers Ball, or house shows that DIYCHI is putting together, Chicago seems to be an incubator for lo-fi production and celebration of that production. I think cartoonists in Chicago react to that energy, and are more social and community-oriented animals.
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.”