Creating Space For Creating Art
Everyone has a story or a perspective, a song or a painting. But some people may not realize they do because space has never been made for them, or they’ve never been handed the tools. Lots of folks have aimless energy; a desire to make something happen that’s bigger than themselves, but nowhere to do it. Community art spaces, at their best, are open doors for this sort of energy: They’re places that anyone can access and where anyone can participate, where everyone’s voice can be heard. Or at least that’s what community art spaces could be, and that ideal is worth working extremely hard for. And it is a lot of hard work. It is crucial for people to have space where they can comfortably work through their ideas, where they can try things for the first time, where they can make mistakes in public. It is especially crucial that this space exists for those who have not historically been given any space at all, because of the oppressive status quo they were born into, because of their race, or gender, or sexuality, or socio-economic background.
There is power in offering up a room, a PA system for an afternoon or an evening and saying, “Here, this is your space.”
“Community art space” is a vague term, and can mean different things for different communities, but generally refers to open meeting places meant to house art, culture, and organizing. These are spaces where the goal is serving a community, rather than private financial gain. As a result, it is typically easier to gain access to one of these spaces for a show, or an event, or a meeting, than a commercial space or an expensive bar. Community art spaces typically value being accessible and non-exclusive spaces, ones where individuals of all ages are welcome, where youth are empowered and treated with respect. They should be spaces that believe art is an important part of community building and a means for sharing ideas and politics. Or, where weird music with no draw, out-there art shows, pop-up clothing shops, prisoner letter writing nights, puppet shows, queer potlucks can find a home. Spaces where people who have always felt isolated in their towns, or trapped in their heads, can feel less alone.
The Silent Barn is a collectively-directed community art space in Bushwick where I live and work. I’ve been involved since the beginning of 2014, but it has existed in various formations for about a decade. When I first arrived, this was a project with an eight year foundation and history and traditions with funny words and lore to navigate. This was varyingly easy and confusing, welcoming and scary. The Silent Barn is not a perfect space but it's a space I'm inspired to be every day. Perfect spaces do not exist. Regardless of their intent, we should view all spaces with a critical eye.
The Barn’s story begins around 2006 in Ridgewood, Queens, when the residents at 915 Wyckoff Avenue started throwing shows in their kitchen and basement. It continued for five years, but the space was shuttered in 2011 by city agencies and subsequently raided and robbed. A group of core Silent Barn collaborators decided it was time to channel the energy of the project into something more sustainable:they raised $40,000 on Kickstarter, formed a collective and spent over a year having open meetings to discuss the future of DIY and the future of the space. The Silent Barn has this motto—”Silent Barn is people”—and although I wasn’t there, I think hearing stories about this time period proves this true. At the end of 2012, five members signed a lease on the current building at 603 Bushwick Ave. Today, that building houses a large performance space where shows happen every night, plus multiple art galleries, a garage of art studios, a recording studio, two floors of apartments, a big back yard, a trailer that houses Mellow Pages reading room, and a lot more.
The current collective is made of roughly 70 volunteers—folks who either manage a certain project, rent studio space, or live here. We call ourselves The Kitchen and members are the Chefs of whichever area they work in: Calendar Chef, Bar Chef, Sound Chef, Public Relations Chef, Flyer Chef, Design Chef, Ghost Hunter Chef. All new Chefs are proposed to the Kitchen by email. Sous Chefs are volunteers within working groups with a smaller level of commitment, who are not necessarily Chefs or Kitchen members. The greater Silent Barn collective is rarely all in the same space. (Operating a mostly-all-volunteer project in New York City is particularly challenging as a good number of collective members have full-time jobs, or are juggling multiple part-time jobs to make rent, or are involved in running shows here at night—coordinating so many different schedules is nearly impossible.) Instead, everyone talks all day, every day, non-stop, over email and through a Facebook group.
I’m involved as a Chef in currently working in three groups: Shows, Safer Spaces, and Residents. Within the Shows working group, I am part of the four-person calendar team and it operates like a mini collective within the collective facilitating every event on the calendar. The Silent Barn’s booking process is unique. Most “DIY” venues over the years, especially in NY, have historically been booked by one dude who is the dude at that space and books everything. We book collaboratively, so more voices and genres are represented, though it is a challenging and far from perfect method. The calendar team is currently entirely comprised of folks who identity as female or non-binary, and half comprised of Safer Spaces chefs, which feels important—the “DIY” world has never been an exception to white-male-dominance also present in the more general music industry establishment.
Within music, specifically, community art spaces are important for what they do provide as much as for what they don’t provide. Our space maintains an anti-corporate sponsorship policy, which to me feels like a breath of fresh air in a cultural landscape where excessive commercialism is inescapable. There are plenty of ways in which the space engages with capitalist systems. The single biggest challenge to making a space like this happen in New York City has got to be the astronomical rent, which we make by a combination of charging rent to residents and studio tenants and also selling alcohol every night. Still, this policy feels like a significant gesture.
We need spaces where our lives and projects and bodies don’t feel exploited. We need more space where art, ideas and people are centered rather than profit and bottom lines, where we can interact with each other without having a can of Red Bull pushed in front of us. That shit is bad.
We have a lot of funny Barn language that I think makes things feel lighter every now and then, which is good, because making spaces like this happen doesn’t always feel that way. It usually feels like everything is happening at once; like sensory overload. Being part of a collective-run DIY music space is full of fun surprises: noticing a mural or a new studio you’ve never seen before, running into someone you haven’t seen in years, coming home to some magic happening in your living room, kitchen karaoke, 24-hour-shows. But it is also full of struggles.
A lot of people come to Silent Barn every night—to see shows, drink beers, hang out in the yard—and the large majority of them will never think twice about the difficult conversations, the arduous horizontal decision making process and limitless emotional labor that go into making a space that is always evolving, learning and changing.
Collectives have a tendency to feel like microcosms of the power struggles that exist everywhere in the world, because we do not exist outside the suffocating, hanging shadows of capitalism, sexism, racism, and other power structures that rule the mess of a world we inhabit.
In a space with so many dreams and visions and so little financial resources, scarcity hits hard. People burn out, largely because we are pushing back against capitalism in a city that literally exists because of capitalism, a city fueled by principles that are in direct opposition to the ones Silent Barn values as an anti-corporate space. These obstacles are not specific to Silent Barn, or to Bushwick, or to New York and are exactly why space is so hard to secure in the first place, especially when you are trying to do anything on your own terms.
A friend recently asked me how my own definition of DIY has changed over the past two years of involvement at the Barn. “DIY” is such a hollow term, one that the music industry is constantly commodifying and trying to sell back to us. We need to create radical new vocabulary for radical new visions. But to answer with the terms at hand, being involved in such a robust project has made it clear to me that in order to be involved in any sort of large scale, self-determined cultural space it is important to elevate the political and social ideologies that drive spaces and organizations; to consider the extent to which the space resists corporate influence, creates autonomous opportunities for volunteers, attempts the impossible task of fostering a space that is safer, and thinks critically about the neighborhoods they exist within and how to support long-standing residents of the community. Without centering those concerns, DIY culture is contributing to the systems it seemingly wants to deconstruct.
For those considering starting a community art space, my biggest suggestion would be to explore your community first and find out what it needs. Think carefully about your goals and articulate a mission. Think about how you can open up space for those who have not been afforded it. If you can’t find space, find people first, and work together. Figure out whether or not you are up for the challenge of collective organizing. Talk to everybody.
But mostly, listen.
By Liz Pelly, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license.
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