The community & arts organization in Atlanta LiFT held its first Art Salon in November 2014 and has been holding them once a month since. The most recent, #CreATL, featured glass artist Marselle Harrison-Miles, R&B singer ASH who just dropped her first EP, The Perfect EP, DJ D LaShae, and the entrepreneurial initiative Human Capital Theory that focuses on community-building through sustainable economic development which encourages professionals to donate their expertise and services to fledgling businesses.
Each Salon, though there have been only five, draws a sizable crowd. (Let me tell you, it can get CROWDED!) I have been to a few of these events and know two of the founding members: Clint Fluker, who is also in my doctoral program at Emory University – The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts – and Nasim Mahboubi Fluker. The third founder is Miriam Denard. Since I think what they’re doing is exciting and also historically important in terms of its relationship to and with Atlanta’s vibrant black community, I decided to get a conversation going with them. Here are the results of that discussion:
Meredith Kooi: What prompted you all to start LiFT?
LiFT Art Salon [Miriam Denard]: Plainly, I think Nasim and Clint, and at the same time myself, were all in need of something to DO. Something that wasn’t going to a bar or going to a club or a concert. Something that felt cool and fun but also mature and important and worth our time. So, when you sit there and think to yourself, “if there was something I could go to, some event that had other people that are like me, good music, and actually was about something that I’m into or that I care about, I would be there in a second.” So, when we all thought about the things that each of us are passionate about, LiFT came about. Music, Art, and Community projects each play a significant role in each of our lives so everything came together organically like that. It was like a marriage of all of our networks and passions. We always joke about how this is really about giving people something cool to do on a Sunday on Edgewood that doesn’t involve drinking and partying. There’s more to Edgewood than that.
MK: What are its main goals? What are you hoping to achieve?
LiFT [Miriam Denard]: I think one of our main goals with LiFT is to showcase local talent. Atlanta is known for a lot of things right now through the media and the music industry. But we feel…we KNOW that Atlanta has so much more to offer artistically than what is at the forefront right now. This city is full of incredible DJs and musicians, artists and poets, and really special and unique community projects and developments. So, if anything, we hope that holding these salons every month will raise awareness about the Atlanta that we all know and love and will give people a venue to showcase their talents and their positive contributions to society.
MK: What is the community you are trying to reach?
LiFT [Miriam Denard]: Our main demographic is young professionals. That’s who we are. We are all in our late 20s early 30s (actually I’m the only one in my 30s) and we want to give our friends and colleagues something interesting and different and fun to do. We also have a lot of friends or people in our network that are insanely talented, so we are also trying to reach out to them and give them a stage to share their talents. We believe that our generation, these educated, talented, engaged young adults who are seeing what’s going on in the world and wanting to do something about it, or are super passionate and talented at something and want to make a career out of it, need a catalyst. To us, the catalyst is getting all of this energy into one room and then just watching what happens. Hopefully the outcome will be something very important.
MK: What are the issues LiFT is trying/hoping to tackle? Your January salon #ferguson2ATL addressed the important issues concerning race and police brutality. In February it was #ATLsoulfoodie which addressed food, food access, and other related topics. Can you talk a bit about the politics of LiFT?
LiFT [Clint Fluker]: As an organization, we are concerned with helping to shape an Atlanta that is not only welcoming to artists but also encourages an exchange of ideas between artists and other professionals in different fields. It is important to remember that art fosters creativity and enables individuals from all walks of life to recognize the connections between us all that often lay hidden amidst society’s political structures. This is why we use a salon model. It enables us to provide a platform where people can relax in a creative space, participate in conversation about an intriguing subject matter, and hopefully meet somebody new in the process. The objective here is to foster a community of engagement where people gather to understand issues like police brutality and food access from an intellectual AND artistic point of view. So, in that sense, LiFT is a nonpolitical entity in that we shy away from making any explicitly political statements. Rather, our aim is to inform and inspire the people who attend LiFT events to continue conversations started at our salon and create their own mechanisms for change throughout the great city of Atlanta.
MK: Can you talk a bit more about the category of “young professionals”? Does this include the artists that show their work? Or does this describe the audience?
LiFT [Clint Fluker]: The category of young professional is a necessarily broad one for LiFT. We consider anyone with a youthful spirit and a desire to create something new in the city a young professional. Often, when we think of “young professionals,” we picture a 25 year old in a suit eagerly putting together PowerPoint presentations and attending mixers for networking purposes (we still do this ourselves…daily). These people are indeed young and professional, but it’s a very limiting view of the category. Activists, artists, students, and entrepreneurs are also part of this category, and we want to make sure that we attract as many different kinds of “young professional” people that we can. In a way, our salon format is designed specifically to break out of the “mixer” routine and attract young people to have conversations with each other for purposes other than professional networking.
Though the majority of people who attend our events are like us, between the ages of 20 to 40, we are just as interested in providing space for a graduating senior moving into the job market as we are for a retiree who has recently found the passion for painting. Our aim is to engage and encourage individuals who are taking steps in new and varied directions. Indeed our audience skews young, but our goal is to provide a family-friendly environment and we have found that families often bring their children to our events. Some of the most fruitful conversations at LiFT have been initiated by children still in grade school. Many of the most eye-opening questions during our salon have been posed by our more mature attendees.
MK: The first LiFT salons were held at the Atlanta Baha’i Center on Edgewood, right in the middle of a wild nightlife scene. What prompted the decision to hold them there? What is the relationship between the Center and the surrounding area?
LiFT [Nasim Mahboubi Fluker]: The Atlanta Baha’i Center is actually one of the older buildings in the Edgewood Corridor. It was built in the 1940’s by an African American Baha’i Architect and his son because during that time in Atlanta’s history, it was very dangerous for the interracial Baha’i community to meet in homes. As a result of numerous threats from white supremacist groups, the Center was built in the bustling African American business district. It was this rich history of creating inclusive spaces for progressive thought and building diverse communities that attracted us to the Baha’i Center.
On a more personal note, I am a member of the Baha’i Community, and my parents actually met in the Center in 1978. I personally think that faith-based communities have a role to play in contributing to positive community growth.
That said, as an organization, LiFT is a mobile entity. Our March LiFT, #CreATL was held at the Decatur ArtHouse, a great organization with an open floor plan that really allowed us to spread our wings in a new section of the city. We are grateful that they too have opened up their space to us as we try to bring the LiFT experience to new areas. We are very interested in partnering with different organizations around the city to get the word out about how important it is for young professionals, artists, and activists to work together on the issues facing our city.
MK: LiFT has only had a handful of salons so far, but you’ve been able to draw 150+ people to each event. Why do you think this is? What, if anything, have you homed in on that wasn’t already going on in Atlanta?
LiFT: I think Atlantans (especially 20-30-somethings) are thirsty for the type of space we have been able to create: a space that is inviting, creative, and at times challenging. We have found that by finding connectivity between the arts and social issues, we have been able to appeal to a wider audience than if we were just focusing on one or the other. We really wanted to create opportunities for young professionals and artists to dialogue because we found that these two communities were way too segregated. We just felt like in order to begin tackling some of the most pressing social issues in the city, we really needed to foster the nexus between creative energy and institutional knowledge. We are still trying to nurture more dialogue at our events – and our real objectives for LiFT are to inspire more people to take action and exercise agency in creating the Atlanta they want to live in. This sentiment [was] the impetus for our March Salon #CreATL.
MK: What plans do you have coming up? What else is on the horizon for you all? Also, what’s behind the decision to title each salon with the #?
LiFT [Nasim Mahboubi Fluker]: We currently have a few exciting partnerships in the works. We will be partnering with the Hammonds House Museum for a quarterly series starting this summer called #GetLiFTed. We are thrilled to be able to collaborate with such an important cultural institution in Atlanta. This partnership will also allow for our artists to have an opportunity to display their work as part of our #GetLiFTed campaign for longer periods of time. Currently, as a pop-up, the art goes up and comes down in an evening. Now, [with the partnership with Hammonds House], artists may be able to show their work for as long as a month in an actual exhibition space. We are experimenting with our event format so look out for brunches, garden parties, and even more intimate salon-style dialogue sessions popping up around the city. For those interested in donating to this campaign, they should visit our Power2Give site!
The hashtags are just fun – they help us stay clear about the monthly theme and help folks tag us on social media.
MK: I’m also wondering if you would add some sort of statement about LiFT’s engagement with race and particularly where you see it within the conversation surrounding/about African-American art and Black art or Black aesthetics. Clint, I remember you mentioning that you didn’t want LiFT to be recognized as being only a Black organization. What are your thoughts on LiFT’s position within the ecology of art and race in Atlanta?
LiFT: We explicitly, though not exclusively, highlight young black artists, activists, and entrepreneurs. A large part of the contingent that comes to our events might identify as black (we don’t know all of them personally), and we are happy for it. We market to them on purpose. We feel that this is a community that wants and needs to be engaged, especially considering Atlanta has a sizable black population and an incredibly rich history as it relates to civil and human rights issues, the development of black-owned businesses, and the forging of the country’s leading HBCUs [Historic Black Colleges and Universities]. However, we are not looking to carve out a place in the larger abstract notion of “blackness” or “black aesthetics.” There are people and organizations dedicated to that cause, but that is not our mission. We wish to engage people in concerns that go beyond just race, but also extend to varying socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender perspectives, and spiritual practices.
Which leads me to another point, we have attendees and have featured individuals from different backgrounds. Our planning team includes members from different backgrounds. Everyone is welcome to attend LiFT events and participate to the degree they wish to be involved. Thats what LiFT is really all about, its a welcoming place where people can gather and exchange ideas. When it comes down to it, we are really just giving the people what they want, and what we want. Its a ball! But, I don’t have to tell you that, Meredith, you have been to LiFT. Keep spreadin’ the word!
February: #ATLSoulFoodie with visual artists Gerald Lovell and Jurell Cayetano, DJ Jeremy Avalon (Werc Crew), food artists Jamila Crawford (Earth Candy) and Will Edmond (Werc Crew), and special guest Atlanta Mobile Market.
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. Â They’re being accepted more by the larger cultural world, and I think that helps cartoonists break out of their shells a little bit. Â Most ofÂ 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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 â€” the purpose of my residency â€” 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.Â
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 cityâ€™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, whoâ€™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 organizationâ€™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.
AS220â€™s origin story is contextualized by what was then a particularly bleak post-industrial setting. It has made a point to champion ART â€” both as a vehicle for individual expression and as a means to develop a visible local community (via the shared experience of artistic production) â€” 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 everyoneâ€™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 heâ€™d had to defend his non-juried agenda over and over again to board members. â€œThey want to know how we ensure quality,â€ he said. He grinned, obviously confident in his forthcoming punchline. â€œI told them â€˜We donâ€™t know. Nobody knows. But at least we ensure the possibility of quality.â€™â€ 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,Â 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. â€œWe 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,â€ they said. â€œWe challenge the pervasive notion that complete, unbridled, uncensored freedom produces mediocrity and that excellence rises out of repression. It does not!,â€ and then finally,Â â€œArt 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.â€
There is much more to the manifesto, but the vigor and vim underlying its message is clear â€” 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. â€œOh!” I said, instead of introducing myself. “So this is where the cool kids hangout.â€ Both joking and earnest, one of them replied, â€œThere isnâ€™t anyone of us who is cool here, everyone is just good.â€ 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 utopicÂ 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 Â possesses a convincing charisma, he was able to solicit the ever infamous mayor “Buddy” Cianciâ€™s help. â€œCianci understood the potential of art and entertainment so he was open to suggestions.â€ Which is how Crenca secured AS220â€™s first space on Empire Street â€” 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.
Itâ€™s important to remember that projects like this arenâ€™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 Iâ€™m sure sometimes frustrates) their own ideals. Crenca will say he had to â€œcreate a place for his own survival,â€ 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,Â How to Keep the Arts from Dying of Old AgeÂ in 2004,Â “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, donâ€™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 â€” perhaps even a larger sense of mortality â€” 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 â€”Â discussing the bleak potential of an abstract future that entertained global warming and economic crises. â€œMaybe thatâ€™s what humanity is actually best at,â€ he said. â€œDestroying itself.â€
â€œItâ€™s interesting to me that you would sound so resigned to the end of the world, but then at the same time youâ€™re putting all of your effort into this very idealistic organization,â€ I said.
â€œYou gotta do something,” he shrugged. “You might as well.â€
â€œYes, but youâ€™re not just doing something, youâ€™re specifically invested in the idea of a future because of the Youth Program,â€ I said. â€œIâ€™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 arenâ€™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 theyâ€™re around a host of people already converted to the idea of art and expression.â€
â€œThatâ€™s right,” Bert nodded. “Thatâ€™s it, exactly. Thatâ€™s our insurance policy â€” the youth program. I mean, Iâ€™m getting old. Maybe I donâ€™t know what good art is. I might have lost touch a long time ago, but theyâ€™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 donâ€™t have opportunities, and you know weâ€™ve got 150 kids engaged a week. The youth program is our insurance policy.â€ He cleared his throat. â€œAs long as the base continues to swell, contrary to elitist notions around art.â€
â€œWell I have to imagine too, I mean even just me in my life, I think itâ€™s really hard to get outside of standard ideas of what one needs to feel OKâ€””
â€œSure, sure. Itâ€™s absurd. All that garbage on TV it really just makes you feel lousy. Itâ€™s impossible to find places where you just feel good for being who you are. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m trying to do here, with these kids, with everyone. You got to build something thatâ€™s independent of all that other stuff.â€
â€œBut then thatâ€™s the thing, thatâ€™s like this big irony,” I shook my head and probably guffed a little. “I mean itâ€™s like culture is kind of just fucked, and you know that, but then here you are trying to promote culture. To facilitate it.â€
â€œYou have to. Itâ€™s not fucked here.â€