I grew up in DIY spaces. I lived in some. Others were homes away from home. These were spots where I learned what community looked like, and that a community could work together to create something that affected actual change.
When my and my friends’ bands booked shows, we didn’t bother playing proper venues; they didn’t make sense to us. We sat in people’s living rooms, then played in them; later, we slept on those same floors. We cooked together. We collated zines together. We talked until late while coming up with future projects. But it wasn’t just talk: we made those projects happen. (As I first started thinking about how to make TCI work, I described it to people as Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life, in the sense that I hoped it would inspire people to do things themselves, and to organize their lives on their own terms.)
From my “punk house” in New Brunswick, NJ, we ran two record labels, multiple radio shows, three zines, and too many bands to count. We were in New Brunswick to go to school, but it’s in that other, parallel world, that we learned to write, to (really) read, and to create. It was a community and a “scene” that kept going, even after the show was over. You were trying to carve out a space that stayed with you; it wasn’t simply about entertainment, or fashion, or cheap release. It was, and is, about family.
My story isn’t unique, but for each person who’s had an experience like this, their story is powerful. Which is one reason it’s been difficult viewing the dominant mainstream narrative surrounding the fire at the Oakland artist space, Ghost Ship. The storyline has too often focused on what was wrong with the building, and has mischaracterized the people who lived and created there as hedonistic “ravers,” suggesting, somehow, that they got what they deserved.
People lived together in that warehouse, in part, because they were family; they were also there because rental prices are too high in that city, and for many, it was their best option. At TCI, we continually talk to artists who are just barely making ends meet, but continue making things anyway.
It’s always been hard to survive financially as an artist, and makers of various sorts have always ventured into the spaces mainstream culture ignored. Look at Downtown NYC in the early ’70s, for instance, when white flight to the suburbs created an opportunity for the creative class to find cheap spaces where they could make their work. Then, fast forward a few decades and look at why CBGB’s and dozens of other less “famous” venues in the city (and in the other boroughs) were forced to close and got turned into franchises when all those people who’d fled decided to return and rent prices skyrocketed. There will always be a dominant culture that issues noise ordinances while trying to sell you expensive sneakers based on what you just lost.
This cycle is unending. In part, because new spaces will always surface—spaces that pop up in cities and towns and neighborhoods, no matter how small. Some have clever names and are internationally known. Some are quiet unnamed basements or garages where two or three kids meet daily to make their first zines or songs. All are important.
As it grows increasingly difficult to drive a mile without passing a strip mall or a chain store, and as downtowns are replaced with bigger and bigger malls, these places become even more essential: real-life places, where people can put down their computers and cellphones, and commune and create with like-minded individuals. In 2016, I can think of nothing more important than finding a safe space you can call your own.
An unfortunate side-effect of the kinds of discarded or forgotten buildings we use for our communities: Not all of them are actually safe. As Lightning Bolt drummer, and former Fort Thunder proprietor, Brian Chippendale, wrote on Facebook the other day: “the paradox of life affirming death traps.”
And, this week a friend put me in touch with Melissa J. Frost, an architect who’s spent much of her life in these kinds of spaces, too. She’s looking to create a printed resource for making DIY spaces safer. As she writes on a site that will help her gather materials for the handbook: “safer spaces is an attempt to organize for and with those wanting to respond to tragedy with care. this is for all of us who understand that the fire in oakland was not an unlikely accident, but rather an inevitability given the dangerous precarity of the spaces in which underground DIY culture exists nationally. this is for everyone wanting to see these communities flourish and wanting to see to it that this does not happen again.” People can use the site to offer building services, list services needed for their spaces, offer project assistance, etc. This is the kind of spirit that persists, even as communities mourn.
In the near future, it appears that things will grow more difficult for artists on a number of levels before they get easier. Prior to the fire, we were already organizing a “response and a gathering,” Art After Trump, an event that will feature more than 150 people speaking, singing, dancing, and likely crying. Now, with Oakland in mind, there’s more to repair.
A couple of weeks ago, we posted a recording of Meg Heim reading “Snails,” a poem written by Francis Ponge, who’s said all artists “must open workshops and take in the world for repair, as it comes them, in pieces.” The world does feel more fractured now, but it won’t feel like that forever. In the meantime, we have faith that the artistic community will respond in kind.
A lot of people are saying “now more than ever” these days, because it’s true: now more than ever we need these kinds of DIY spaces—spots to think, to create, and to dream our way into a reality where things aren’t so dire.
You can donate to help victims of the Ghost Ship fire here.