DIY Spaces “Go Legal” in Bushwick
The Localized Impact of Care and Queerness
Written and Illustrated by Ashley Brycen Beam
From the street, when the roll-gate is up, a ticket booth greets your first step inside the courtyard. There’s a camper to your left that serves as the Silent Barn Library, open Saturdays, run by a few guys who curate and sell texts. They aren’t open today. The booth is wooden, unfinished with handmade features, reminiscent of a carnival or local fair entrance without the flashy red-and-white striped tents.
A tetris wall of emojis is painted in a corner brick-pocket of the courtyard — green, blue. Yellow, blue, green. The slew of emotional expression is Silent Barn’s unofficial “How Are You Feeling?” board, an imitation of the laminated poster typically found in a medical office.
An exposed cranium of a large-scale human head evokes exposition of a creative’s brain, a project of scientific creativity. Two picnic tables with ashtrays carefully placed on-and-around them for easy access, painted black with blunt, colorful strokes of yellow, purple, blue sunbursts, faded by varied weather forecasts.
A wide concrete sidewalk lends vague direction to the side-entrance of the show space, where a bar, stage and sound booth are housed. The curb of the sidewalk drops into gravel, where the picnic tables sit and serve as a communal spot for smokers and non-smokers alike. It’s a short distance to walk for a smoke break between acts.
There is a grey mural with painted black features, floral spirals and white accents. Within it hides a fort, a tree fort without the tree, a look-out maybe. Its ladder is flush against the grey. A childish nature of the construct seduces visitors to play, to climb up the three-seater fort and drink beer, maybe throw rocks. Low ledges and a fear of heights, “MILAGROS” visibly credited alongside the fort’s ledge.
No wall is blank — all has something posted, painted or tagged. Inside, too, where giant, white spheres hang from the ceiling donned with teddy bear faces. Colorful painted cardboard cut-outs of petal wreaths frame the bears. These reflections of childhood could be read as adulthood that hasn’t reached its expiration date. Silent Barn is a playpen for art, music and care of community and individual [source].
Care is an act of deep consideration, serves a purpose for the protection and maintenance of a person, place or thing. Care in this piece is an act of survival for threatened artist spaces and community members in Bushwick, Brooklyn [Mel Interview]. When placed within a lens of queerness, read as the periphery of normalcy or an alternate orientation/course of action, care takes a position of defensive action that might be interpreted as a deviant act [source].
Queer care is debated to be an action or idea hard to define due to the dependent nature of individual perspective and experience — remember the term was once a common slur [source]. But, within the context of care, it promotes the maintenance and defence of the weird, the other, the things not commonly accepted in mainstream America.
The term’s common use lies within the LGBTQ community and written theories [on perversion of normalcy or alternative space, such as Sara Ahmed’s intentions in Queer Phenomenology] [source]. You don’t need to be LGBTQ queer to practice queer care.
Queer care is necessary to enlist when targets are placed on persons and places housed in the periphery of mainstream society. When society’s “other” is targeted, fellow peripheral community members and spaces jump to action, as seen in Bushwick DIY.
“DIY spaces in Bushwick offer a sense of self that is unavailable otherwise”
In the midst of a do-it-yourself (DIY) epidemic [source], legal codes are discussed with five local venue owners based in Bushwick. Live-in attorney and collective member of Silent Barn, Mike Lawrence, moderates the Building Legal and Sustainable DIY Venues hosted at the collective’s space on April 24, 2017.
“DIY lately has come under attack more than it ever has, and it’s also clear it’s needed more than ever before,” Lawrence opens the panel, “We desperately need spaces to have young people perform, and places for kids to connect and have places where kids can get inspired.” [source to live stream of panel]
The purpose of the panel is to open dialogue about individual venue owners’ experiences with starting and maintaining DIY spaces in the outer boroughs of New York City. Audience members take notes on how to keep these art spaces up and running in a way that is legal and beneficial for their community.
It is not only the DIY owner’s duty to uphold their space, but also that of community members’ in the form of care: educating themselves about the needs of a space, speaking out against mistreatment [by authorities or otherwise], and giving back to a space in ways they can, such as preparing for inspections [Mel Interview] or donating to a kickstarter.
From fire codes to the request for transparency of New York Cultural Affairs, the process behind New York City inspections is muddled and seemingly suspect, as discussed at a town hall meeting at Market Hotel on the topic of Cabaret Laws circa 1920s. John Barclay, owner of Bossa Nova Civic Club, states he has no idea how to deal with authority when confronted at his venue.
“With the way the system is setup now, it is pretty much impossible to be fully legal,” Barclay admits during the panel, “I have gone way out of my way to do everything I can to follow the rules, and still have felt oppressed by the authorities in New York City.”
DIY venues are spaces that provide localized accessibility to community members, in terms of performance but additionally as sanction established within the audience or DIY space managers [source]. DIY spaces, such as Silent Barn (a non-profit sponsored by Flux Factory), provide and encourage safe spaces for care, whether that care is turned to face oneself, the community, or political/self-expression through performance art. It is a cycle churned by individuals. This cycle is necessary now more than ever, living post-Ghost Ship and post-Trump.
The city fire officials “showed up with a full counter-terrorism raid force of thirteen people or something,” explains Barclay of his more recent account with authorities, “they raid your spot and write tickets for absolutely everything.”
The increase in visits (a dozen in one month) is due to the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, which Barclay said he understands, but thinks the ticketing increases were out of bounds [source]. Bossa Nova Civic Club was a target of this unreasonable raid, much like Market Hotel was targeted for a liquor license denial and false claims of operating as a dormitory, upon additional claims back in October of 2016.
“Listening to music, and sharing it with others, and dancing and singing — especially getting to do that in public — in a safe and controlled [public] environment — is one of my strongest forms of self-care,” -Elliot Colbert
When political praxis deems queer, or peripheral, existence unimportant through expressed prejudice or -phobias, DIY spaces become targets for violence. This is similar for LGBTQ community members. There were two trans murders within 48 hours in New Orleans back in March 2017, in addition to the Orlando shooting at Pulse nightclub during its latinx night.
Queer care is a step towards undermining these threats. Learning fire-safety codes, hosting open dialogues about traumas and threats, and memorizing legal codes to create sustainable spaces is a matter of protecting communities and their members.
For most, DIY spaces in Bushwick offer a sense of self that is unavailable otherwise, understood through conversations with volunteers and Silent Barn community members Elliot Colbert, 29 year old non-binary transwoman, [source] and Mel Hacken, 24 year old genderqueer femme [source]. For these DIY spaces and venues to be targeted and threatened into legality, thus a greater scope of attendance, it removes once safe-spaces from their social and personal experiences.
“To have a space be so important to the queer community, the DIY venue community,” Hacken shares of the Silent Barn in Bushwick [source], “that is obviously being attacked as of late, and in general has been for awhile, to be able to actually give a part of myself and my time to that space, to me, is really important.”
They say it’s a form of self-care, to be able to give to things they find important when it’s hard to make yourself important to you [source]. Spaces like Silent Barn are fueled by those who care about community, run mostly by volunteers and residents [source].
DIY spaces are an extension of shared experience and support, so to have targets and threats placed on underground communities jeopardizes lives and identities that are hard to sustain above-ground. Legalizing DIY venues and spaces pose a higher risk of violent targeting due to the heightened exposure to communities that oftentimes lay low for safety [source].
Legalizing underground and DIY spaces means regulating the space in ways that are surveilled, such as noise control [source]. In order to start running a legal event space, one must research zoning permits, a Place of Assembly permit, registration for an Employer Identification Number required for tax forms, and how the space might qualify as a corporate structure. This all depends on the type of event space one is trying to create.
There are also laws limiting the amount of noise a space can make, according to the NYC government website. In creating and maintaining underground event spaces, the location of the space is centered around the community’s access and less about specific zoning [source].
Becoming a recognizable, legal, public space could be limiting in terms of personal freedoms to do what one wants, but with the unavoidable trend of gentrification, legality is hard to avoid. Between dancing laws, alcohol permits, noise limitations, fire safety, DIY is learning how to survive within these bounds [source].
Colbert met with me at Silent Barn just before their afternoon half-hour meditation routine, where we talked about queer identities, spaces and care practices (self and otherwise).
Their routine of self-care revolves heavily around the spaces of Bushwick, specifically Little Skips, where they work as a barista hold the opportunity to play whichever music they care to share, and Silent Barn.
“Listening to music, and sharing it with others, and dancing and singing — especially getting to do that in public — in a safe and controlled [public] environment — is one of my strongest forms of self-care,” Colbert expresses.