No matter how much you love your favorite DIY venue, there’s no sense in getting too attached– as anyone who’s been in the game for a while will tell you. But having lost seemingly countless art caverns and show spaces in the last year, we’ve reached a certain moment where posi vibes and healthy acceptance of the city’s natural ebb and flow, suddenly feel less like rational bits of wisdom and more like things we say to make ourselves feel better because everything is terrible right now.
Whether by force of landlord, party police, or unnatural disaster, we’ve lost some of the greats– Palisades is gone (for good), Market Hotel (indefinitely, save for some vegan markets here and there) maybe too, and Secret Project Robot went away as well. Since the beginning, the duo behind the latter, Rachel Nelson and Erik Zajaceskowski, have vowed to return in one form or another, and now good things are finally happening. “Secret Project Robot just signed a new lease!!” they announced on social media last week. “the art zombie rises!!!”
Better yet, the venue’s not only staying in Brooklyn, but their new location (TBA as soon as all their permits and licenses are straight) is just a short walk from the rest of the SPR art galaxy, which includes Flowers for All Occasions and Happy Fun Hideaway— two art bar-type hangouts Rachel and Erik opened in the last few years that have become neighborhood staples in their own right. It’s great news all around, especially since they were priced-out of their last Bushwick spot, where making rent ain’t getting any easier for anyone, and it looked like they too might have to scoot out to a different area.
But Rachel was for real when she told us back in June, after announcing their impending closure: “We’re not giving up, but maybe we’re going to have to change the model.”
That’s exactly what they’re doing with the Secret Project Robot resurrection. The art venue itself will remain a non-profit institution, but they’re setting up a totally legit, “legal bar” in an adjacent wing– all of it spread out over 2,000 square feet of interior space. Unfortunately, the backyard won’t be as epic as the one at the old space, but at least they still have an outdoor area.
Few details about the bar itself have been decided yet (“we’re still doing paperwork and cleanup”) and there’s no official opening date, only an optimistic projection of “late March, early April.” But one thing we can tell you is that they’re “toying” with a rather excellent name for the drinking section, “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”
“Think of it like a museum bar— but obviously not as fancy,” Rachel said. “You can go get a drink and it can be your hangout spot, but it’s also going to be an art spot. The idea is that the bar will help sustain the art programming.”
Going at least partially legit seems to be the only way to create a lasting institution these days, but it’s a sign of the times for another reason too. Just a few weeks ago, 36 people were killed when a fire broke out inside an illegally converted warehouse art/party space in Oakland known as the Ghost Ship. The place had long been grossly neglected by both the building owners and city officials, and it was widely known as a “death trap.” In response to the tragedy, enforcement against illegal parties and venues seems to have stepped up in New York City too. Though it remains to be seen whether an uptick in party policing will improve safety at all, or if it might actually have the reverse effect of making DIY more dangerous. By forcing one-off party promoters and illegal venues to go deeper underground, fire code and safety considerations might take a backseat in favor of thwarting the cops and ensuring that events even go forward.
Rachel explained that, as “the bureaucrat of the bunch,” one of her “primary” concerns is creating a safe space– in every sense of the term. She admitted that regardless of whether a venue is legal or not-so-legal, this can be “one of the hardest parts about running any space.” That’s partly why SPR is rethinking things. “We’re trying to take the concept of DIY from just being an illegal space, to a place where people live together and really do it themselves,” she said. “With some level of legality, we can actually focus on doing all these different events, without having to worry if the police are going to show up or not.”
The gallery section at the new spot will be devoted to a wider variety of arts programming than ever before, with a full calendar of events and a bar that’s open every day. That means the continuation of live music, but also more attention toward mediums such as dance, performance art, and theatre–things that, Rachel pointed out, “we’ve sort of always done.”
It’s kind of dizzying to imagine Erik and Rachel taking on even more curatorial activities, though as it turns out, they’re not completely bonkers about going it alone. “It kind of became too big of a monster for just two people,” she admitted. That’s where the new partners come in, many of whom you might recognize from the old space. Monica Mirabile (from #FlucT) will contribute her dance and “performance art stuff” expertise, while Kathleen Dycaico‘s interest in dance crosses over into multimedia territory with video. SPR veteran Jake Dibeler (formerly of the electro-punk band Bottoms) is also on board, along with Adrian Diaz who will hold down the party booking, which Rachel said will include “way more emphasis” on queer parties.
The physical setup reflects a similar ethos– bringing in “new blood” to build permanent installations, while maintaining some older bits. Actually, this seems to have been the Secret Project Robot m.o. since they started doing the dang thing way back in 1998, when Williamsburg was still cool and “hipsters” were just a twinkle in the New York Times’ eye. This commitment to flexibility and innovation probably explains SPR’s impressive resilience too.
Even after all these years, Rachel admitted that when it came time to close the doors on their last Bushwick location, she and Erik thought twice about saying TTYL to New York City. “We still think about it. Up until we signed the lease we were like, ‘Ugh do we wanna do this again?’” But they resisted the temptation to pack their bags and hightail it to cheaper, wide-open-spaces, places like Detroit, where working artists have it considerably easier than they do here.
“On one level, because we’ve been doing it for so long, there’s almost like a duty to it,” Rachel said. “We want keep New York alive in the sense of all parties used to be art parties, if you look at the history from Warhol to Mudd Club in the ‘80s with Basquiat.”
What they’re hoping for though is much more than a nostalgia trip– in fact, Secret Project Robot seems to have its antennae (or whatever robots wear on top of their heads) pointed directly toward their city’s future. “I think for us, it’s been a really big effort to keep the idea of the art-of-the-party going, and to remind people that New York is this really special, bizarro place,” Rachel said. “Even though it’s expensive to live here, we can still inspire people to make art and do art. We’re still inspired.”