Comics & the Aesthetic Economy

June 11, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Faye Kahn¹

While social evidence that the rich is dividing farther away from the poor becomes more & more unavoidable, it seems that at the same time the art world is inversely nudging the them closer together. Traditional distinctions between “high” & “low” art are fading. In his essay “Comrades of Time,” discussing the definition of the term “contemporary,” Boris Groys states that “…at the turn of the twenty-first century, art entered a new era-one of mass artistic production, & not only mass art consumption.” Art-making is no longer restricted to a higher, educated or professional class. With the encouragement of advancing technologies from the ball point pen to the smartphone & increased visibility of the individual creative practice via the internet has reified this notion of art as “mass-cultural practice” ad infinitum (probably to some ad nauseum). To track the currency of art between upper & lower economic & academic classes & attempt to elucidate the creation of connecting middle classes of art, for instance independent comics & publication as well as social media experiments, it may be helpful to recognize the presence of commercial aesthetics in all classes. By following this reciprocal currency of consumerist media to high art & back, there are many significant signs pointing to a possible future of a classless art world.

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Imagine this daisy in an advertisement for a department store chain. Now imagine it in a comic made by a peer. Lastly, imagine (or remember) this daisy in a contemporary art museum, as a part of a painting, a 300-editioned print of which is sold for more than $1,000. Of course this image is fairly well known- it was designed by artist Takashi Murakami in the mid-late 90s & repeated throughout his career in various incarnations (in carnations……….). What is unique about this daisy, however, is that to the unfamiliar eye its origins & environment could believably be in any of these three locations, or strata of art. It is difficult to say this of other contemporary arts images- a Jeff Koons sculpture, a performance piece by Marina Abramović, a photo by Wolfgang Tillmans (although this might be grounds for an interesting project). Most can’t be conceived in the commercial sphere-until the work becomes safely art-historical, when they can be reproduced on consumer goods & sold to a nostalgic or young audience-until then they are works intentionally too “conceptual” or “difficult” to be at home in a consumer setting where expediency of communication is paramount.

Murakami was/is famously aware of this & was actively attempting to collapse gaps between high & lowbrow art communities. Naturally, other internationally renowned pop artists like Lichtenstein & Warhol & more recently Philip Guston & Yoshimoto Nara have exercized a similar style. I stop at Murakami, not because I’m particularly fond of his work, but because his conceptual “Superflat” agenda is well articulated & aware of the collapse of economic boundaries. “When comparing  a half a million dollars to ‘free,’” says Murakami, comparing to his blind-assortment collectible figure series (‘free’ with a purchase of candy) to his life-size statues of the same characters residing in contemporary arts institutions, “there’s an overwhelmingly different sense of values, almost a confusion of values.”² This “confusion of values” intellectualized by Murakami in the art scene in the late 90s/early ’00s is a significant checkpoint in the travel of commercial aesthetics, but this consciousness not exclusive to artists of highly educated stature (according to Wikipedia, Murakami has a Ph.D. from the Tokyo University of the Arts) but also in artists in so-called lower, consumer target-market classes.

Before I continue, here’s quick review these “levels of art” as crookedly defined for the purpose of this essay:

1) High Art (elite)

2) “DIY” or “Low” Art

3) Commercial Art (consumerist)

“High Art” referring to work usually made by career artists & found in the gallery, museum, & similarly institutionalized art biennials, fairs, etc., with a prestigious milieu of critics, buyers, curators & so on. For level 2, I’m wont to trade in the negative term “low” (granted this negativity is a badge of pride for some) for “DIY,” which as an adjective has come to encompass the “mass practice” of unprofessional quotidian participation in the making of art (“unprofessional” or “quotidian” not as pejoratives, but as neutral descriptors)-including student work. Level 3 is one populated by masters of an aesthetic practice but whose products are intended to be consumed by an unassuming hoi polloi. Although this stratum by nature lacks the conceptual, self-aware qualities arguably integral to defining something as “art,” certainly artistic techniques are employed (& exploited). Not only this, but it is common for early-career artists to hold jobs in this industry for obvious financial reasons, allowing them to coexist on both levels, while to varying degrees keeping their personal work separate.

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Lots of Commercial Graphix in Action

 

This commercial universe, simultaneously seductive & repulsive, has provided us a strange key to a universalized art practice. It consists of a language instantly readable & in turn available to all to appropriate (throw legality into the wind). The visual toolbox of late capitalist propaganda is one of monumental typography, drop shadows, heavy outlines, over-emotive caricatures, light reflecting textures, shining sparkling neons, pastels, & primaries, & supreme cleanliness, (even when portraying something dirty). Whether you want simple geometrics or complex mechanics there is a commercial toolset for you. Anyone born in a first world country (& to a lesser degree, beyond) in the past 50 years has come to age in a society increasingly saturated by this imagery & fast motion. Having been the target market of any number of advertising campaigns at every given moment of a lifetime, a significant number of artists, whose headcount increases with the approach of the contemporary period, have co-opted this style in more radical ways than simple parody. Take for example (moving beyond the household names of 60s pop artists) Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats collage series, the gradients (among many other things) of Cory Archangel or the clusterfuck of American commercialism in Ryan Trecartin videos. All of this work is, while certainly of high conceptual &/or critical value, speaking with a language that is, though perverted, immediately legible or familiar to anyone who has experienced pop culture.

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Art Toolkit, 2013

This artistic momentum is surprisingly well represented by the current proliferation of amateur comic artists, many of whom are vocally & visibly aware of the high art world. It’s safe to say that comics, originally a consumer product, have become widely accepted as an outlet for personal expression, like photography, that has become recently emancipated from its irreproducible commercial status to the disposal creatives of all ages & classes. The beginnings of this can be attributed in significant part to movements like the underground comix scene in the 60s & 70s with artists like Rick Griffin & R. Crumb (among many others) carrying through to cartoonists of the 80s & 90s such as Gary Panter & Raymond Pettibon. These cartoonists, along with experimental anthologies like RAW & Weirdo expanded comics into experimental territory, communicating more with high art logics than their syndicated predecessors/counterparts (psychedelics are a shortcut to philosophy!?). Counterintuitively, while extending the medium into traditionally elitist domains (psychedelics are a shortcut to the philosophical!?), they simultaneously introduced comic-making to a wider, younger, & unprofessional bracket. Now, comics were not only an art to be consumed, but an art practice to actively participate in, as much or as little as one consumed them.

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Andy Burkholder excerpt, 2012

The alternative comics community today is expansive to say the least. Contemporary DIY comics anthologies like Mould Map, Sonatina Comics, & Happiness (to name just a tiny fraction of those existing today), tumblrs,  & conventions (Brooklyn Comix & Graphics Fest (although recently discontinued!), CAKE, TCAF, etc.) document hundreds of artists per year. Comics have gradually become another near-neutral visual alphabet or option for people to represent themselves with: similar to how everyone with a camera can now be a photographer/self documentarian, anyone with a writing tool can now be a comics artists/self documentarian.

Despite this hyperactivitity & close relationship to the art world, independent comics remain largely ignored by institutionalized critical artistic discourse. While there’s no shortage of books, journals, & blogs dedicated to dissecting comics culture & composition, they remain intended for readers interested in comics specifically & lack a serious concern for communicating with the larger contemporary art world. In other words, while the artwork straddles all strata of art, the reception does not (or does so very disproportionately). When consulting with a few active comic artists about this, many of them responded with reference to a class-related animosity between the comics & high art world in one direction or another, or rather, to the anti-intellectual/elitist (respectively) attitude either of the two fosters. On the one hand, comic artist & editor of the Happiness comic anthology series, Leah Wishnia states, “…art/alt/underground comics are a rejection of the elitism propagated by the fine art market, and the institution behind the fine art market may resent this and therefore, continues to label the majority of comics as ‘low art.’” At the same time, comic artist Blaise Larmee expressed a disillusion at the contemporary alt-comics sphere for its perceived blandness to outside audiences & Austin English admitted to looking to fine art for more inspired organization of text, characters & figure drawing. Unsurprisingly, the comics blog “Comets Comets” (the name a riff on the popular “Comics Comics Mag” (now also defunct) ran by Dan Nadel of Picturebox Publishing, Tim Holder, & Frank Santoro) maintained by Larmee, English, & comics artists Jason Overby & Carrie Bren was one of the only (if not the only) sources of writing that started to look at comics in a conceptually analytical way.

“Where does form end and content begin?

American comics came from newspapers and manga from ukiyo-e. There was no preciousness about the drawings that led to the printed matter until more recently. Original art can be beautiful to look at, but it’s beside the point: comics are perfect objects that have been formed by combining the raw material of an individual’s (or group of them) vision with the machines of mass production (computers, these days). They’re able to (like other modern media) lack the Bodhidharma-style transmission of artistic consciousness “Art” traffics in and allow many people to have and enjoy the same content cheaply.”

Jason Overby, originally posted on Comets Comets on 06/21/2010. The blog was disbanded in the summer of 2011 but some of the original writing remains here & here.

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Blaise Larmee

Due to the internet visibility of artists at all moments in their careers, we are more aware of this in-between group of young artists, concurrently existing in all levels of art, & in turn the levels are more connected, regardless of said existing tensions. Artists emerging from the 90s Providence Fort Thunder junk-art-music-noise-space-universe like Brian Chippendale, Matt Brinkman, & arts collective Forcefield are a few examples using this new form of commercial art inspired neo(n)materialism in a way that has caught the eye of institutions such as the Whitney Biennial & new galleries. Vancouver-based artist Chris Von Szombathy utilizes cartoon, illustration & commercial vernacular to communicate severe & conceptual topics beyond what’s normally associated with their style. Austin English put together a show at Baltimore Open Space exhibiting young artists with comic-influence such as James Ulmer & Leif Low-Beer. Strange (reciprocal?) lateral appropriation (to borrow a term from Sean Joseph Patrick Carney) is happening between artists inside & outside of the comics world not only in places conducive to such activity like tumblr but also in the gallery space. All of these instances are notable because they are garnering attention while they are happening, while they are “contemporary” rather than after they have become art historical (the art world is not lacking in Gary Panter & R. Crumb shows).

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Current Frieze Cover, as of June 2013

There is much more to say & countless more artists to consider in the economy of aesthetics between the different classes of art. It brings to mind for example the many lives of anime character AnnLee traded between artists Pierre Huyghe &  Philippe Parreno (her latest incarnation by Tino Seghal at the 2013 Frieze Art Fair, discussed here & many other places), the universe of fan art (recently considered here in Hyperallergic), “designer” vinyl toys & statues, & the time-based worlds of animation, photography, & film. The entirety of DisMagazine seems to be dedicated to promoting alternative use of commercial aesthetics.

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Three Artists, Courtesy of Beginnings Gallery, Greenpoint NY

I recently walked into a new-ish local gallery space called Beginnings in Brooklyn to find a show exhibiting 3 artists: a painter, a photographer, & a writer. The painter, Jamian Juliano-Villani immediately caught my eye as her work subscribed to a neon(n)materialist agenda, reappropriating known graphics like animation smear-frames & 70s illustrations by Moscoso with updated dayglo color schemes. The photographs, initially seeming unrelated, were by Jan Kempenaers & documented the abandoned Yugoslavian monuments to the socialist republic. This visual work was punctuated by framed essays referring to the rise & fall of democratic capitalism, written by Wolfgang Streeck, director of the Max Planck Institue for the Study of Societies (MPIfG), based in Cologne, Germany. The sheer variety of this show, while on second look (& after discussion with curator Matt Giordano) managing to be cohesive through the themes of ideological criticism, along with the newness of the gallery I think attests to novel locations in which commercial aesthetics can now comfortably exist & will appear more frequently in the future. Sternberg press, who published the original “What is Contemporary Art” e-flux edition from which I extracted the Boris Groys article quoted in the introductory paragraph recently posted on their tumblr an upcoming volume on “Altcomics.” All of this, while egos will never completely allow a true socialist art world, is evidence that surprising juxtapositions & convalescence of all three classes of art are becoming more possible & will bring artistic practice & hopefully also criticism to more audiences without losing conceptual value or legibility.


H. FAYE KAHN
 is a freelance animator in NYC &  a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.

NOTES

1. Many thanks to Matt Giordano of Beginnings Gallery, Blaise Larmee, Jason Overby, Austin English, & Leah Wishnia for taking time to chat with me about these subjects & providing important examples. Thanks also to Chris Von Szombathy who discussed this with me about this at length in 2011.

2.© Murakami, Takashi Murakami: Company Man, by Scott Rothkopf pg. 137




A Postulate of Friendliness: AS220 at last

November 30, 2011 · Print This Article

 

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.

Mercantile Building circa 1915

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.”

Mercantile Building, circa 2010

“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.”




Dirt Palace : The Early Years

October 12, 2011 · Print This Article

There are many things to say about the Dirt Palace — an impossible many. It started in 2000 as an artist-run performance space in Olneyville, the same neighborhood that used Fort Thunder used to be in. The building is old. It used to have many more floors (as you can see from the photo above: at this time, the building only has two). I heard it was once a pharmacy and once a library. I’ve also heard it was a nunnery, but I don’t know that I believe that story. Before founders Pippi Zornoza and Xander Marro moved in, it had been abandoned. Since purchasing the building they have hosted countless events and residents: artist live upstairs and it works like a kind of collective.  They curate their storefront window, occasionally make their own mead and boast a S.S.C.O.W.L. library (Shivering Shelves Collection of Weirdness Library).”S.S.C.O.W.L. houses an extensive collection of rare and independently published comics and zines as well as antique, arcane and unusual books, periodicals and videos on a wide variety of subjects.” The library is open to the public on days when guest librarians have curated the collection around a particular theme.

Band Room

When I visited the Dirt Palace this summer, it reminded me of a Wes Anderson set. Pippi was creating a stone mosaic for the building’s exterior in their main ballroom on the first floor. A few others worked on other projects: the ballroom I stood in was a communal studio. Adjacent stood the band room, complete with a drum set, guitars and recording equipment. Nearby was a dark room for burning screens, a cartoon studio with hand-me-down equipment procured from RISD and a separate printing studio with a wash tub. Everywhere I looked I saw original prints.

The Library

Xander led me up  the widest flight of wooden stairs I think I’ve ever seen. The banister was thick and, like the stairs, stained dark. I remember the wallpaper was a deep rose, printed in a Victorian pattern. Did I mention the height of the ceilings? The ceilings were high, everywhere: like 12 feet at least. The whole place felt like an old and giant East Coast house, a little rickety and creaky and very likely full of ghosts. The library was on the second floor, as were the bedrooms: seven separate rooms, all built out with lofts. There was a bathroom on one end of the hall and, on the other, a lovely kitchen with a living room. The kitchen was bright and full of light. Plants and knick knacks were everywhere. The wall behind the stove had images from vintage cookbooks wheat pasted all over it like a homemade wallpaper. There were two fridges to accommodate the various residents and tons of plants and a breeze blew threw the house so that, despite the day’s heat, I felt pretty cool. And certainly, totally bowled over by the imagination that just seemed to leak out of the walls.

The Kitchen

How does a space like this come to be? How do a couple of twenty-year olds go about buying a building? What is like to interface with the politics of one’s own environment? This is what I’d come to ask; it was why we were in their kitchen and why we sat down. Xander and Pippi were immediately affable; it was obvious they had invested years not only in a physical space, but also into their friendship.

I’ve divided the following interview into four parts and will post it over the next four days. This first section I call, The Early Years. 

Caroline Picard: I’m interested in how the Dirt Palace started.

Pippi Zornoza: When we first started the space Xander and I had both at different times lived in this building that had gone through a series of evictions of artists who were illegally living there. They would sort of fill up the spaces and after a certain amoung ot time the fire department would pay attention and all of these people would get evicted. It was also the same time that they were starting to look at the Eagle Square development, which is the building that Fort Thunder was in. There were alot of artist studios in that same building. I’m not sure how many people actually had spaces there, but it seemed like there were a lot. And so around that time I think we first started working on acquiring the Dirt Palace property; before Eagle Square became a development-

Xander Marro: There were people in suits walking around [Eagle Square] taking measurements but it wasn’t like their development plans were public; no one knew what was going to happen.

PZ: And Xander had a friend looking into opening up a bookstore, so she had been looking at spaces and was looking at the space that is a kitchen right now for the bookstore, and found out it was not that much more expensive to just rent the whole building. So she and Xander started talking about it, and I didn’t even know Xander at this time, but she had the idea of, “OK, so what if we got this space and it could be another collective space.” The landlord was sort of pitching the rent-to-own agreement, so it started from that—people just reaching a certain frustration level with other people being evicted over and over again. We wanted some sort of sustainability.

The bookstore idea fell out of the picture really quickly, and Xander approached me and some other people, and as we started getting a group together we asked what this could really be? Maybe we could actually buy this building. The model of AS220 was already there, so we thought what if there was this artist not-for-profit women-run studio? We were really young, I was 21 at the time, you know, and really idealistic. I had a lot of naive but positive energy, and we just sort of threw ourselves into the idea, almost in a cockamamie way. And now looking back and knowing the trajectory of course I still would have, but I definitely went into it, I would say more than Xander, pretty naively.

We had this idea of starting a not for profit, which we did. And that the NFP would own the building and there would be artist living spaces up here, and shared facilities downstairs. Definitely with the idea that the studios downstairs would be more open to the community. Within the first year it became really clear that there were different goals and motivations from different people in the group.

CP: How many people were involved?

PZ: There were six of us originally. And there sort of became a little bit of a faction of what the direction was going to be. We spent a lot of time forming the NFP and creating a board of directors and applying for a grant, and we had 18 months of the rent to own agreement. The landlord was a slumlord. He pretty much knew we would do some improvements to the building, thought we wouldn’t be able to buy it, and imagined he would reap the rewards after he evicted us, or keep us on as tenants until he could sell it later.

XM: We had the fear of him yanking it out from underneath us and I think that fear wasn’t irrational—I don’t think he was a nefarious person, but I do think he was in it for the money-

PZ: He was definitely in it for the money. And it also became clear at some point just- well there were two different conflicts of interest- we were just working on the space every moment that we weren’t working our day jobs. it was just what had to happen at the time, because there wasn’t really plumbing upstairs. We couldn’t wash dishes. I don’t think we even had a stove right away—people were sort of camping out in different areas of the building and we just wanted to get it to a livable place.  I had just been evicted a few weeks before we started this project and I didn’t have a place to live, so we just sort of moved in and started working.

The Bathroom

XM: I remember you were sleeping at the top of that stair because all these windows were boarded up and that was the only crack of light.

PZ: And I had just heard a bunch of rumors about this building being broken into all the time, and people squatting here

CP: Was this a sketchy neighborhood?

XM: I think socioeconomically it’s probably similar now, but the trajectory that drug use has taken over the past ten years, like there were more crackheads basically. There were more people who were just freaked out and whatever else that stuff does. I think that maybe the average income and whatever other factors people throw into a good or bad neighborhood, crime is probably the same—I never felt super unsafe, but I think there were just a lot more visible drug users.

PZ: And that was when I was here. I was sleeping in this entire abandoned building alone. I was irrationally scared, just cause there was no electricity up here—now when I think back on it I think that the doors all worked. But you know, being a woman in this building that people identified as being abandoned, sleeping here at night, it was sort of sketchy.

CP: Especially since you’re removed from usual domestic things.

The Hallway

PZ: Yeah, yeah. So it became clear to us A) that we were spending our own money. We needed drywall, so we would just go buy it and split it amongst the six of us. And it just wasn’t the proper model for a NFP. There was no real business structure except for that we split expenses.

XM: And that there was a board but they were really backseat.

PZ: Yeah really backseat, like people who were excited about the idea, and who had some sort of connection either through the city, but mostly just people who were idealistically supportive. Even maybe in a different echelon of professionalism, but not people who were gonna come home from working their day job and throw in a bunch of hours of work. It was more like, you ladies do the work and we’re the figureheads who are supporting you to provide legitimacy. So we just started realizing that the way we were running the project, even though we knew that we were working towards this NFP model where the structure would be different, what we were doing just wasn’t sustainable. Being a constant volunteer but also in the place where you lived. Even the idea that once things were comfortable there would be programming, it was the idea that you’d wake up, go downstairs, and work more. And we all wanted to be artists as well, so that balance of artist, art administrator, and not getting compensated, was all really blurry. And also just realizing that we were running out of time;  if we  were going to fundraise 40,000 dollars, we weren’t going to make it.

XM: We had to come up with a down payment, and mortgage, and financing if we were going to buy the building.

CP: And it sounds like the amount of construction that you had to do, if you got it professionally done, would have taken a year at least.

XM: And it would have doubled our mortgage. We just figured it all out to do it ourselves.

PZ: Yeah, scrapped things together- you know, like maybe we did some things illegal, maybe we didn’t-

XM: We tried to build up to code.

PZ: We did try to build up to code. I meant more being like, “Oh there’s this giant stack of 2×4’s that are twelve feet long outside of that Dominoes; they’ve been there for 6 months, maybe we should just go there in the morning and take them.”

XM: Oh yeah! I remember that.

CP:  But still everything was so compressed. On top of the timeline you had to build the physical infrastructure , and organization, you were trying to raise money.

PZ: And also people didn’t have experience and at the time we operated by consensus. I like the idea of operating with a goal towards consensus, but for me through that experience I came up with the phrase tyranny through the minority, you know? If one person doesn’t like the idea, but everyone else thinks its good, it’s hard to move forward. I do think we strive here to agreon everything, and there’s sort of a give and take and compromise, but consensus was a hard way to operate.

CP: How the group was splitting?

PZ: Oh yeah the group. Oh and the other thing was that the board of directors has to be comprised of a certain amount of outside people. We couldn’t all just beon the board. Maybe one of us could, but at any point the board could decide that people were only allowed to live here for 2 years: We realized that we had no control over our home.

I think we decided that we had put so much time and engery into this- what was it going to amount to in the end? Really nothing. And realizing that we had no control over it, it just felt sort of wrong. There were so many conflicts of interest and there became a split in the group where some people really wanted the NFP to exist, and maybe change the thing so no one lived here, and there were other people who I think had been more present for a lot of the work who thought it made more sense to privately buy the building but still do what we’re planning on doing, but not to run it as a NFP.

Dirt Palace Lamp

XM: In a lot of ways it had to do with mentorism—people who had experience in this community—AS220 was the real first experiment that had existed for how artists could own real estate and how artists could collectivize and work together in all those things. So that was like, a real instant model—when we decided to do this we talked to a lot of people. I feel like we were on a listening tour of everyone who had done something similar, asking them to  impart their wisdom. The wisdom of the day was to do the NFP model and it took a while for a few other people to really understand who we were even as individuals and say hey you know what, why don’t you try this other way. I felt like finally we started to listen and say well tell us more about what you know about this other way… and realized that it kind of made more sense.

PZ: Yeah and it got a little complicated, we ended up getting an outside moderator to listen to both sides and the decision that we came to was that the NFP would still exist and those people could take the name of the NFP and the grant—we had a $40,000 grant—and that’s the Hive Archive in town. And they ended up purchasing a building on Aleppo, and they’re still working on that building and I think they’re starting to do some programming now. And then we were able to keep going with trying to buy the building

XM: And one of the people who was on the board, who had personally gotten a loan from the city for her own business, held our hand and walked us through that process. Because the grant we had gotten was from the city, through their CDBG money, but they also used CDBG money to help give loans to small businesses. And there was no way we would’ve gotten a loan otherwise, you know- Pippi’s 21, I’m 25. I’m a teacher and she’s a waitress.

PZ: Yeah and I was totally working off the books.

…Go here to read the second part of this interview…

(Special thanks to Daryl Meador for help transcribing this audio into text!)