Everything Is Permitted

Where to go to make an electronic drum out of your pickup truck--and other secrets of alternative art venues

But for the empty and shunned Shubert Theater, Block E in Minneapolis remains a doggedly bland parking lot, defeating every attempt to redevelop it. Those of us who are willfully, absurdly romantic about the subject see the parking lot as a disturbed burial ground, haunted by the stubborn ghosts of an older Minneapolis. These spirits curse any scheme to turn the block into a sprawling entertainment center; for when the city tore down Block E in the mid-Eighties, they razed an important part of the scrappy soul of the city.

Bookended by two Shinder's bookstores, Block E was also home to one of the city's most adventurous galleries: The Rifle Sport, a claustrophobic showroom situated one floor up from the dive to end all dives, Moby Dick's. Between 1985 and 1988, Rifle Sport specialized in temperamental, decidedly nonmainstream art and performance (Moby Dick's, meanwhile, specialized in bar fights and frottage.) Bands such as Savage Aural Hotbed and (perhaps it goes without saying) Rifle Sport frequently set up in one corner of the gallery, making as much noise as they wanted to, while artists like Ruthann Godollei indulged in their peculiar obsessions--in Godollei's case, almost single-handedly launching the art-car movement in the Twin Cities. As young punks from the suburbs, my friends and I would wander up to Rifle Sport after yet another nearby Urban Guerrillas show (remember them?), fascinated by the very unsuburban feel of the gallery. This was low-rent, seat-of-your-pants stuff; this was very downtown, when downtown still felt threatening.

Presumably, with the building of the Target Center and the redevelopment of downtown, "seat-of-your-pants" and "threatening" ceased being desirable qualities in downtown businesses. And so down came Block E--Moby Dick's and Rifle Sport alike--and it has steadfastly stayed down as property values nearby have shot up. A Rifle Sport could not exist in downtown now; it could not afford to. Venues that exist to support noncommercial and sometimes deliberately alienating art have always found a home in the more down-at-the-heels parts of town, where they can indulge their whims without worrying too much about whether they are making any money at it.

Let us look at a cabaret such as the Acadia, whose growing stable of exceptional talent (including the Scrimshaw Brothers and Heidi Arneson) is turning this space into a theatrical resource on a par with the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Even the Acadia must nestle onto the corner of Nicollet and Franklin, where it is still possible to see shadowy figures huddled in the bus shelters with crack pipes pressed up to their mouths. The intriguingly named SpaceSpace, which expired about a year ago, provided inexpensive rehearsal and performance space to a new wave of young modern (and postmodern) dancers in a commercially ignored stretch of Elliot Park. And Patrick's Cabaret, which can lay fair claim to being the paterfamilias (Patrick-familias?) of the exploding cabaret movement in the Twin Cities, has recently chosen as its new location a building so far east on Lake Street that, as primo commercial real estate goes, the venue might as well be located in White Bear Lake.

Or let us look to the University of Minnesota's West Bank. In a neighborhood that is an odd, and occasionally uneasy, mix of pierced and tattooed punks and veiled or skull-capped immigrants from East Africa, is the Bedlam Studio. The hundred-year-old building, set on a truncated corner of Cedar Avenue (504 Cedar Ave. S., to be exact), doesn't draw attention to itself; it's hidden in the shadows of the massive, Mondrian-like Riverside Plaza apartment complex that looms into the sky. When the door to Bedlam Studio opens, one can never be certain what will pour out. Puppets? Carefully customized bicycles? Gangs of radical activists?

Recently, when the doors opened, several dumpsters filled with garbage came out. "I don't know how it all builds up," explains Maren Ward, who cofounded Bedlam Theatre in 1993 with several other recent Macalester College graduates. Ward has round, expressive features and a flat, broad Midwestern accent--features she uses to great advantage when she performs with the company. Although with its loose collective structure she might at any moment be called on to produce a play, or direct it, or simply clean up the Bedlam space. "We had just cleaned it out a year ago," she complains.

The source for the rubbish is the bewildering variety of activities that take place in the location; the theater first rented the building four years ago, but performed a full-length play in it for the first time this month. They have used the location for rehearsals and for building puppets, such as those for their annual Barebones Halloween Show, but otherwise have lent it out to whoever could make use of it, leading to Bedlam Studio's self-definition as a "creation workshop." The basement, for example, is piled high with spokes and other spare parts--the property of the Grease Pit bike shop, a collective of sorts that meets every Saturday to fix up their two- (and sometimes many more than two)wheelers. Farther back is a darkroom, and next to that a small meeting space used by progressive political organizations, such as Earth First!, who also occasionally build puppets here for their demonstrations.

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