You might remember a show space in Williamsburg called Dead Herring. It was around for six years — practically decades in DIY years — before it closed in 2013. “I knew it wouldn’t last forever,” Nicki Ishmael admitted. “It’s that whole DIY has-an-expiration-date thing.” But it’s a wonder Nicki can keep it together when reminiscing. DIY’s the only home she’s ever had in New York City. From the moment she arrived here Ishmael has been deeply involved in the underground music scene. “I immediately moved into a DIY space when I moved here back in 2006,” she recalled. So it’s only natural that Ishmael and others from Dead Herring refused to let their own closure, and dozens more around them, get them down.
Just a handful of blocks from their former digs and a few months after Dead Herring shuttered, Ishmael and friends opened Cloud City – a much smaller venue devoted to visual arts exhibitions, theatre performances, film screenings, small live music shows, and “the occasional potluck.” On display right now is a photography show close to Nicki Ishmael’s heart, “RIP DIY,” which features over a hundred photos taken by 20 artists at 30 DIY venues (all now defunct) around Brooklyn.
Ishmael’s own photographs are featured in the exhibition along with some other established live music photographers like Tod Seelie, Mike Murrmann, and several who are regular contributors to Impose. All were steeping in the Brooklyn DIY scene at one time or another. Ishmael said she documented almost every show at Dead Herring, but had strong connections to other spaces as well.
“I used to go to DBA a lot more than other places,” she explained, proudly pointing out her photos of an empty Death By Audio — a place where the image burned into my mind is one of sweaty bodies jam packed into a darky and dingy box. “I was definitely sad, I cried on multiple nights when it closed and I was very sympathetic because a year before hand I had gone through the exact same thing and they were all really supportive,” she said.
Ishmael described the loss of DBA as leaving a “hole,” in the scene. “But I’m so glad they got to do the “Death by Art“ show, they were going out with a huge bang and they never would have done that art installation without the closing,” Ishmael said. “And I thought it was an amazing coming together of all the different things people do within the scene and just really celebrating the end of that space well.”
But “RIP DIY” has revived this cross-space collaboration — each artist contributing to the show has some sort of special connection to one or a handful of the venues. For example photographer Tina De Broux lived at the old Silent Barn. “Because of her position she offers a super unique perspective,” Ishmael explained, describing the exhibition’s panel discussion held earlier this week as a reunion for the photographers, venue goers and operators.
“It was like a wake,” she said. “After DBA closed I didn’t see anybody for three months and it’s like, we’re just supposed to accept this loss? I dunno. It seems kind of crazy because it was just a space, but it was also a community, it was so much more than just like, a space. And all these DIY spaces meant so much to so many people and it’s definitely sad that they’re gone and this is more about celebrating and remembering that.”
The walls at Cloud City are dense with photographs – black-and-white, color, professionally considered and taken with heavy flash. There are even some smaller guys that may have been inconsequential snapshots at one point, but hold historical weight now. Some are familiar – Death By Audio, Glasslands, the old Secret Project Robot, Body Actualized, the original iteration of Silent Barn (which Ishmael told me was very briefly called Raven’s Den). But a bunch of the DIY venues featured are from well before my time and many I’d never even heard of (Flight of the Buffalos). Several existed inside the notorious McKibbin Lofts around 2005 during the building’s wilder, more anarchic days.
“You can get really connected to it if you recognize a band, a space, a show, or if you just remember that feeling,” Ishmael said. And it’s true – Dawn of Humans playing at Fitness in 2013, and Lightning Bolt performing a few years back brought back memories of other shows at other times in different places. “It’s almost like an anthropological study of this time and our lives, because this is my experience of this and so many other people’s.”
If we’re talking anthropology here, DIY needs to be defined. I asked Ishmael what makes a DIY space DIY, besides the obvious traits such as extra-legality? “I think it’s the reason behind why you’re doing it, I think DIY is rooted in the drive to do it for other people and yourself, you’re not making money off it, you’re not getting any recognition, you’re just doing it for creating a fun space for other people to enjoy,” she said. “It’s born out of good intentions, basically.”
And though she mourns the loss of these spaces (so many in the last year in particular), Ishmael is pretty take-is-as-it-comes. “It’s kind of illegal sometimes, so I don’t know if changing policies is the best thing,” she laughed. “It’s cool that some spaces are going legit, but people will always find a way to do it here. We’re not owed DIY spaces or anything like that, so let’s just try and do it for as long as we can, have as much fun as we can, and then see what else we can do.”
Ishmael’s optimism isn’t unfounded. Consider new places that are thriving, like Aviv in Greenpoint and relative old-timers like Shea Stadium who are sticking around for the foreseeable future. “There are a lot of DIY spaces happening and just because you don’t know about it doesn’t mean it’s not going on– like, there are all these spaces maybe we’re not cool enough to know about,” she laughed. “And that’s really fun to think about. ”
In a way, “RIP DIY” is about passing the torch to the next generation. By solidifying a distinct era in DIY, the show is effectively drawing lines (however fluid and blurry they may be) between the DIY of then and the DIY of now. I asked Ishmael if she thought the next generation of DIY was already underway. “I’m sure it’s gonna happen and is already happening already, that’s the thing that’s amazing about DIY is that it’s gonna keep going,” she said. “There will be another 20-year old version of me who has the energy to do all this stuff, there will always be driven people who make things happen.”
“RIP DIY” is only open for a few more days at Cloud City, located at 85 North 1st Street in Williamsburg. Be sure to catch the show and stop by the closing party on Sunday, March 15 at 6 pm.