It seems the dust has finally settled over at 285 Kent following a farewell weekend packed with frothy debauchery, nostalgia-tinged obituaries and, of course, jaded shoulder shrugs. Emerging from the haze is a consensus that the Man, in all its frightening manifestations — aka the police, stroller-pushing Williamsburg yuppies, the city’s ever increasing wealth gap, and what’s known as the Bottle Club Law — can’t kill the spirit of the underground, after-hours, and DIY that inspired 285 Kent.
So what’s next?
B+B spoke to a bunch of venue owners and party people dedicated to consistently bringing the dangle to the rest of us weekend warriors. Some are relative newcomers and others have put in some serious time as DIY event organizers and venue managers, a vocation that doesn’t appear to have a high turnover despite the obvious risks. All are active in, and passionate about the New York City (well, let’s be honest– mostly Brooklyn-based) DIY scene, and offered us a slew of ideas about what we should be doing next weekend.
Esther Neff – Panoply Performance Lab (East Williamsburg)
Proving that Williamsburg isn’t totally dead, the space at PPL is a DIY relic nestled amongst towering luxury condos occupied by manicured French Bulldogs. “It’s been an art space of some kind since the early ’90s or late ’80s,” Neff explained. “But even in the two years since we’ve been here — all these condos are new, and they happen very fast. I don’t know — it’s very dystopian. All of a sudden they raze a building and all of a sudden a condo’s up in a week and a half. It’s so fast it’s bizarre. But I think everybody’s experiencing that.”
Neff, along with fellow artist and collaborator Brian McCorkle, inherited the space at 104 Meserole through a network of artists and DIY devotees. The duo curate performance art shows, experimental music, visual arts performances, and experimental dance. “I think our max capacity here is 50 people. I mean it’s a teeny-tiny space. In the summer it’s nice, though, because these doors open up,” Neff said. However she lamented that the days of overflowing carefree parties are over. “Now it’s like, ’Don’t take your beer outside! For the love of God, don’t smoke outside — we don’t want the police here.’ You know? That kind of attitude. So fewer people fit now.”
PPL is a tiny, well-worn box of a space with a mangled wood door. It feels lived in. Though it was a Friday night, the atmosphere was mellow and easy going. People slowly streamed through the door, greeted one another, popped open a beer, lit a cigarette, and settled in for the experimental set. “That’s one of the nice things about this neighborhood. It’s not all hipsters. We have really good audiences. We’re kind of on the edge of Bushwick-Williamsburg-Bed-Stuy, and then whatever thing this is going on here,” Neff said. “So it’s an extremely diverse audience — which is awesome — age-wise, cultural background-wise. People have different interests and varying reasons for wanting to make art, everything from like really super amateur and outsider art to people who are very academic.”
Neff spoke to the unfortunate reality of changes taking place in the city that have made it increasingly difficult for DIY spaces to exist. “I’m really of the attitude that — and I think a lot of people are — that while some of these things are conditional, we don’t have much agency in terms of our rent, and in terms of the economic and social structures in the city. We can complain as much as we want about gentrification and so on. But we can use some of these patterns or processes to actually make art and just acknowledge that it’s part of our practices, and work with them.”
But a lot of newer underground spaces are finding creative ways to confront these challenges. “Because of the lack of real estate a lot of places are interdisciplinary. Like Fitness Center for Arts and Tactics is a good example– where it’s a gallery during the day, and they have huge blowout shows in the basement at night. So they kind of operate as a not-for-profit very carefully within the art world and then it’s a secret kind of explosion at the bottom. Whereas 285 is so visible, it can’t last long,” said Neff.
“I think it’s about scale too,” she added, explaining that newer spots opening up are increasingly smaller. Instead of having one big show that can pack everyone in, multiple shows hosted by the same people drawing on the same audience happen in one night. “People are going from show to show instead of all congregating at one place and staying there,” she said.
Neff previously helped run Surreal Estate, a now defunct space that was much larger than PPL. “We were tear gassed. It was a nightmare for us. Like people were always OD’ing and stabbing each other,” she laughed. “Sometimes the smaller places slip below the radar, so it’s better to have little spaces than to have one big 285 Kent. Any of the larger venues have a lot of problems.”
There are several ways to avoid problems as a DIY venue. Neff pointed out the importance of getting involved with the community where you set up shop. “Talk to your community board, talk to the cops,” she said.
She was insistent that underground venues could be a positive force for a neighborhood and something capable of working against the negative effects of gentrification. “I think it’s really important to a lot of organizers of spaces for that to be the case. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re here so Starbucks can move in because we made all these nice murals,’ but rather it’s ‘We’re a community space.’”
Edan Wilbur – Death By Audio (Williamsburg)
Right around the corner from 285 Kent is DIY-veteran turned non-profit art space Death By Audio. Though the place went legit sometime between 2008 and 2009, DBA still harbors the same underground vibes its been steeped in since its inception. Edan Wilbur, who runs the show over at DBA, was resistant to the idea that the closing of 285 meant anything immediately for DBA. “We were here 3 years before 285 opened its doors and we are still here functioning in the exact same way and capacity,” he said.
But he described the closing of 285, a venue that was able to bring more mainstream acts to a high-capacity space, as “a big blow to DIY in Williamsburg,” and added, “but we’re still here.”
Wilbur explained he doesn’t think any venue in particular has stepped up to fill 285’s shoes at the moment, but he’s still hopeful for the future of underground music in New York City. “The people running the shows will start running bigger shows, the bands will gain more fans and who knows maybe the kids in the crowd will start their own band, blog, or venue and put back in what they’ve gotten from what they’ve experienced and the cycle will continue.”
Though DBA will be sorely missed. “It was nice to have 285 around the corner,” Wilbur said. “When us, them and Glasslands all had good shows, we would be the center of the musical universe in the city, and it would be funny to look across the river to New York City and realize, musically, that block had more important things going on than probably the rest of the whole city in terms of the fruit it would bear.”
Wilbur spoke to the importance of DIY venues in the city as places where underground music can thrive. “I feel like we are the people breaking the new bands,” he said.
He explained that DIY venues just feel different. “I feel weird and unwelcome at mainstream venues, whereas at DBA I try and make everyone feel welcome and keep the separation between band and fan to a minimum.” He added, “I’ve always felt that in those kinds of spaces it’s all more of an experiment.”
And though the closing of 285 Kent is something Wilbur sees as an inevitable development in a rapidly changing city like New York, he feels that people are increasingly gravitating away from the mainstream toward less marketable, and less visible acts like those appearing in DIY venues. “It’s the same way that people are disconnecting from the mainstream on so many levels,” he explained. “Cable TV has turned in to ‘watch whatever you want on your computer.’ People want more localized food. Shit like that– why wouldn’t you want a more personal, less watered-down version of your music?”
Alaina Stamatis – Ho_se (Bushwick)
“It’s sort of like a house with a basement and a backyard,” explained Alaina Stamatis, self-described O.G. manager of Ho_se, the relative newcomer to Bushwick and neighbor of the new Silent Barn. Ho_se tends to host “more bizarre programming,” Stamatis said. But the small-ish venue also hosts noise, performance art, rock, and folk. “We do like a cheese club, we’ve done speed dating — just a lot of things that don’t make any sense, just for fun.”
Stamatis wasn’t so sure that DIY venues are getting smaller. “I think people just get spaces that they can get, and they just do what they want. There’s no real trend. I think you get whatever you can get and that’s where you have your shows or your parties or whatever you want to do.”
And as for the risks of having a DIY venue, Stamatis was decidedly chill. “We’re not afraid of anything. We’ve never had any problems with having parties, so we’re not secretive at all,” she explained.
When asked what drives her to host events of somewhat murky legality she explained, “I think it’s a happy hubris. I can’t conceive of something happening to me that’s worse than the enjoyment I get from putting on events and having a cultural relationships with weird people. It’s totally worth whatever could possibly be happening to me — negatively.”
And what does the closing of 285 Kent mean for Stamatis? “I think with spaces, especially in New York, nothing lasts forever,” she said. “You might lose your space, or you might decide it’s time to go. The only things that last forever are feelings — your desire to do things might still exist, you might be with the same people, but everything else is pretty tentative.”
As for where the 285 Kent scene will find its home again, Stamatis thinks it will likely stay in the family, so to speak. “A place like Bossa Nova [Civic Club] could take on a lot of the programming that was at 285 Kent,” she said. “I think that there will be more attempts towards one-off places, and new spaces, which is what originally was going on. People would get some space that was in transition, at the time it was a gutted, useless zone and people rented it for a night to do an event. And I think that will come back more– because there is no permanent warehouse show. Which I think is more fun. It’s more fun to go to a new space that you’ve never seen before, that maybe you’ll never go to again.”
Brian Sweeny – Body Actualized Center (Bushwick)
Since opening at 143 Troutman Street in 2011, Body Actualized has delivered cosmic yoga, ceremonies, performances, tarot and poetry readings, as well as “chill out parties where everyone sits all over our wooden floor with pillows and blankets listening to live ambient and generally modern psychedelic music,” according to co-founder Brian Sweeny. The venue is also a frequent host of everyone’s favorite Bushwick witches, Moon Church.
Sweeny spoke to a transformation he witnessed within the DIY community over the past several years. “When I started curating and producing events in 2010, the DIY scene consisted basically of Market Hotel, Shea Stadium and the old Silent Barn in Ridgewood. The shows were mostly indie rock and harsh noise,” he said. “Now, Brooklyn is all but overwhelmed with electronic weirdness and we are happy.”
Joining the echo chamber of other Brooklyn-based artists and weirdos in the chorus of “Bushwick is definitely where it’s at,” Sweeny explained he sees the center as a “pretty essential part of the Bushwick community,” and as a participant in the “electronic music Renaissance happening in Brooklyn right now.”
He seemed unfazed by the suggestion that the closing of 285 Kent was a sign that underground venues might be increasingly difficult to operate. “I don’t think it will be tougher to throw underground parties. New Yorkers are innovators, hustlers, and risk-takers. Where there is a will there is a way. People may just have to get smarter.”
Though Sweeny had some fond memories of 285 Kent, he was of the opinion that the venue was mostly a loss to adventure-seeking Manhattanites, or “party-trolling newbies [who] are itching to get in on the action,” because of its convenient proximity. “That latter part of that legacy — location — probably won’t be replicated. But I can tell you for a fact that there are a number of amazing and huge venues about to come your way. You might not be able to smoke inside, but you’ll feel the vibe.”
“It’s a big deal for all the people that worked and hung out there a lot, obviously,” he said. “It’s also a big deal for the rest of NYC party scene because that was really their ‘in’ on the freedom that comes with underground partying. They’ll just have to do a bit more research to find where the vibe may be hiding.”
But Sweeny assured that “everyone is invited to be a part of Body Actualized,” and reminded us that the cool thing about DIY venues is the sense of community and freedom they offer. “You don’t feel like anyone is ‘watching you,'” he said. “It’s like you’re in this autonomous zone that exists outside the law and many societal norms.”
Clearly New York DIY hasn’t drifted off into its death throes just yet. So next weekend hit up one of the OG venues still standing, follow the Twitter trail to the relentless after-hours hellbent on digging your Sunday grave, check out a cardboard robot bottle, or chill out in one of the spaced-out zones brought to you by the new wave of venues in Bushwick. The choice is yours. But you know, RIP 285 Never Forget and stuff.