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Space invaders
If you don’t think the Boston area has become hostile to noncommercial artists, take a look at what’s become of independent art spaces over the past few years

A stone’s throw from the train, perched high above the street in an industrial loft, there’s an atmospheric art space. Events are held here every night: cult-film screenings, interactive art installations, rapid-fire rap battles, moody indie-rock acts, spoken-word freak-outs, aural noise-metal expositions, performance-art pieces, tongue-in-cheek Grand Theft Auto competitions, scary-costume fashion shows, and the occasional kiddie-pool Jell-O-wrestling match. There’s always a table of food and a stash of Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys on hand; an uncorked bottle of red wine often makes the rounds. The crowd is usually inviting but not invasive, conversational rather than aloof — an intermingling of auteurs, painters, sculptors, writers, poets, neo-punks, bike messengers, grown-up skaters, indie rockers, curious bystanders, and sundry other freaks and geeks. Best of all, there are five or 10 spaces like this across the city, varying in degrees of cleanliness, predominant sexual preference, and musical snobbery.

It’s nice to fantasize, eh? In fact, there aren’t any such places around town. After all, we live in Boston, a city where gentrification killed the art-school star, where culture and art are largely considered commodities. A place where nearly all alternative art spaces have evaporated due to escalating rents, unrelenting gentrification, permitting problems, zoning ordinances, and a regional attitude that classes these unclassifiable venues with crack dens and brothels. A place where artists who want to work had better be ready to relocate to a place that actually wants them — somewhere like Lowell, North Adams, Providence, or Baltimore.

But it wasn’t so long ago that artists and performers rolled through 84 Kingston Street, a rollicking Chinatown loft building that was unceremoniously demolished in 2000 to make room for a mammoth luxury development. Or that spots like 17 Stillings Street in Fort Point Channel, Jamaica Plain’s Bad Girrls Studio, and Davis Square’s Gallery Bershad led a thriving existence. But things have shifted. The Revolving Museum had to go to Lowell to survive. Boston’s 25-year-old Mobius Artists Group no longer has a performance space. Last July, Boston’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) unleashed a surprise attack on Roxbury’s Berwick Research Institute, shutting it down and labeling it "an illegal nightclub" in a complete misunderstanding of its purpose. Last month, the Oni Gallery went on hiatus indefinitely, due largely to bad-landlord issues. That same month, in Cambridge, the local ISD issued a cease-and-desist order to the nearly-decade-old Zeitgeist Gallery. So what about those underground spots that continue to fly below the radar, promoted by e-mail, the Web, and word of mouth? Sorry — we can’t tell you about those. Because then they might go away, too.

Although the exact circumstances of each local arts space’s demise are different, there’s certainly a trend here — and it doesn’t portend a bright future. Boston is supposedly the Athens of America, Cambridge the Berkeley of the East Coast, but as the area moves away from supporting art for art’s sake, these cities seem more like the former Soviet Union. "There’s this prevailing, very oppressive attitude towards artists," says Katt Hernandez, a local improvisational violinist. "It feels like you are not permitted to exist here, not as an individual, not as a space. It’s terribly depressing."

At Inman Square’s Zeitgeist Gallery, the early show starts at seven. By 7:30, the snug, one-room space is already packed to the gills for an event billed as "Electrovideomove," a monthly dance-DJ-digital-video-improvisation series that’s as confusing as its compound-word rubric. In the center of the room, clustered around an unscrolled projection screen, is a crescent of folding chairs, manned turntables, laptops, wires, sound equipment, and huddled bodies. They’re focused on a young woman who moves like a balletic mime: she runs backward, briskly slides across the wooden floor, then slips into a spidery four-on-the-floor crouch as if she’s Miss Muffet mimicking her arachnid nemesis.

"I think the dancing is funny," whispers Shawn Faherty, motioning to a sock-footed male dancer. A computer animator who heard about the event through the Web site iotacenter.org, Faherty’s more impressed with the 3D animation than the eccentric performers. "I like how they project their images onto the screen. Too bad they didn’t have a bigger place."

Actually, they’re lucky to have a place at all. Unlike the on-hiatus Oni Gallery or the now-defunct Berwick Research Institute, the Zeitgeist Gallery is mainly uncurated, more like a rental hall specializing in weird art — a specialization that, according to the Zeitgeist’s Web site, "ranges from the farthest reaches of noise and avant-improv, to providing a decent piano for improvisers, to housing toy puppet theater, to providing a non-competitive atmosphere for songwriters." The space goes for a fee of $65 to $120, depending on the day of the week and the time slot; it rents out twice a night.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this October, the Zeitgeist has survived against all odds: it’s not only overcome relentless hectoring from Cambridge City Hall, but it continued to exist after a fire gutted its original location. Then last fall, it avoided another potential displacement when the building housing it went up for sale. But Gill Aharon, upstairs neighbor and curator of the Zeitgeist’s twice-monthly "Fishlung Piano Series," borrowed money and coughed up enough of it to buy the building, together with Alan Carrier, a Cambridge real-estate agent. So once again, the Zeitgeist managed to endure, with one of its own now playing landlord.

But then last month, another problem erupted. A cease-and-desist letter from the Cambridge ISD arrived, citing the gallery as an "illegal place of entertainment." According to the order, the city had received a complaint that the Zeitgeist had been featuring live music in a "Business A Zone" — a classification that doesn’t permit such auditory merriment. No one was sure what prompted the letter. As far as Zeitgeist director Alan Nidle knew, no one had recently pissed off the neighbors; live-music shows usually end early enough, he says, that "there aren’t people spilling into the street at ungodly hours." But the letter’s oddest feature was that it incorrectly classified the Zeitgeist as a "bar or other establishment where alcoholic beverages are sold." Although an occasional bottle of wine has been known to materialize at an art opening or two, the Zeitgeist has never sold alcohol, and its events aren’t known for on-site drinking binges.

Sean O’Grady, the city’s zoning specialist who issued the cease-and-desist order, won’t comment on the letter. Instead, he directs public inquiries about the issue to ISD commissioner Robert Bersani, who won’t disclose where the complaint originated. He also won’t really explain what led the ISD to classify the Zeitgeist as a bar. "We use the best information that we have to evaluate a site," Bersani says. And what does he mean by "best information"? "The bottom line is we drafted a new letter [to the Zeitgeist]," says the commissioner, deflecting the question. "They’ll have to apply for a special permit." The new letter classifies the Zeitgeist as a "theater or hall for public gatherings," a designation requiring a special permit that must be approved by the city.

All of which sounds fine. Except that historically the Zeitgeist has had a tenuous relationship with the city. Take, for example, the "Wildlife Preserve" Friday-night film series held in the late ’90s. The always-imaginative Nidle convinced Matt Carberry, owner of Carberry’s Bakery, to let the Zeitgeist screen silent films in the parking lot of his baked-goods business two blocks from Central Square. But true to the Zeitgeist’s spirit, the events weren’t simply film screenings; they were small-time carnivals complete with food vendors, T-shirt giveaways, and arts-and-crafts tables.

"We had live musicians during the film," recalls 31-year-old Hans Rickheit, a comic artist who worked as projectionist for the screenings. "We’d have artists and dancers do little performances. But it didn’t last long, because a local crank called and complained, and that brought attention to the licensing commission who decided we owed them money for doing what we were doing, even though it was on private property." The series was temporarily shut down, but the Zeitgeist fought back in court. It prevailed and was allowed to hold the screenings, but could no longer sell food, host live music, or make any noise.

In response, the Zeitgeist printed up fliers mocking the city’s demands, commanding the audience not to "clap, whistle, or cheer" because "such enthusiasm is unfortunately considered an unacceptable menace and disruptive to the fragile sensibilities of those who live nearby." Scrawled alongside the handwritten pronouncement were unflattering caricatures of two officials from Cambridge’s permitting department. "Every time we did something that wasn’t particularly following the status quo," recalls Rickheit, who squatted in the Zeitgeist’s basement for five years, "they’d send one of their goons over and tell us to cut it out."

To be certain, the Zeitgeist cultivated an uproariously insurgent mood. When the city hauled Nidle into court, he appeared at a hearing wearing boxing gloves — he was going to fight the city, right? Folks from the Zeitgeist wrapped City Hall in red tape to complain about bureaucratic gridlock, challenged candidates from the Eighth Congressional District to a Hip-Hop Rap-a-Thon, chained a cartoonist in a bear suit to a news box dispensing comics in front of City Hall, and set up a gigantic game of Monopoly to protest local development. The list goes on.

"I guess I was too confrontational in the old space," Nidle says wistfully, the day after meeting with the Cambridge ISD. "I was the Jim Jones of the gallery world. And now I’m being forced to drink my own Kool-Aid."

LOOK AT that," says 27-year-old Katya Gorker, pointing out her kitchen window to a fenced-in lot across the street in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Thick with weedy yellow stalks, rubber-tire piles, and a shopping cart spilling over with trash, the fallow dirt enclosure looks as though it’s been neglected for years. "There’s such a space crunch in this city, and that’s sitting there empty. We could clean that up and use it for something."

Gorker’s always hunting for vacant space that could be used for something — specifically, for art. That’s how she discovered her current digs, the top floor of a brick building that once housed the Berwick Cake Factory and eventually became the Berwick Research Institute, an artist-run nonprofit collective. A painter, filmmaker, and professional projectionist, Gorker was about to get the boot from Chinatown’s 84 Kingston Street — a place she remembers fondly as the kind of artist-colony setting where "at any given time, there were 10 or 20 people who’d pull you in their rooms and show you pieces they were working on" — when she found the weathered building still advertising "Whoopie! Pie" on its brick façade. The rent was cheap; she relocated.

Soon after, in 2000, Gorker and five other volunteer art-school grads founded the Berwick Research Institute, a conceptual outlet for experimental art. Within six months, they had turned the Berwick into a physical space for the group and started booking shows in the basement, acting as a kind of underground incubator for experimental, obscure, and unprofitable art work. During its tenure, the Berwick hosted everything from "Release1: The McDonald’s Project," a roving art exhibition that presented everything from utopian innovations on fast-food equipment and San Francisco noise-rockers Deerhoof to African-American spoken-word performances.

But then last July, Boston’s ISD crashed the party. Sometime after midnight one Saturday, the police showed up during a performance-art piece by an art activist named Pippi, cited the place for violating sundry building codes, and evacuated the space.

Then, adding insult to injury, the ISD distributed an erroneous press release the following Monday, boasting that it had shut down "an illegal nightclub" called "Burwick Bakery." By the tone of the press release, it sounded like the ISD wanted to thump its chest for averting a tragedy like the previous February’s fire at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island:

While conducting the periodic night inspections, inspectors found Pippies Tour with more than 100 patrons, some dressed in costume, and many drinking, smoking and dancing. Further investigation led inspectors to discover that admission into Pippies Tour cost partygoers $5.00 each. Inspectors also found a number of Building Code and Zoning Code violations, including a number of life safety violations.

"The dangers of unlicensed nightclubs is obvious and really doesn’t need to be highlighted in light of recent tragedies," John Dorsey, the ISD’s assistant commissioner of policy and communication, told the Phoenix last July. "It’s not about stomping on anyone’s fun."

"We all have this parental complex about the city," says Gorker of the underground art scene. "You know that at some point your parents are going to come home and tell you what you’re doing isn’t good for the neighbors."

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Issue Date: February 13 - 19, 2004
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