Paint by Numbers

An alternative art party in northeast Minneapolis? Must be a rave.

Paul WonSavage's smile is as broad as his expansive hand gestures as he spreads his map of a northeast Minneapolis salvage yard out on a table. "This space is so beautiful," he says, in a giddy rush of words. "It's a golden opportunity."

WonSavage, director of the multimedia performance group Ricochet Kitchen, had planned to hold an outdoor show on May 19 in the warehouse space--enclosed brick buildings surrounding a wide concrete lot--at 1321 Tyler St. NE, home to Gopher Towing and Zap Vehicle Rentals. He anticipated some 800 people coming to the performance, titled "PAINT II: Outsider," where the audience could take up brushes and sweep 300 gallons of paint onto large canvases spread around the open courtyard. "While that goes on, they'd be surrounded by the muses of fashion, dance, music, independent film, poetry, and spoken word," WonSavage coos, with a vigorous nod that brings a bounce to his long mane of chestnut hair. "You get in people's heads and expand their worlds."

PAINT II was supposed to coincide with Art-A-Whirl, a popular annual gallery tour and art festival sponsored by the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association. Although Ricochet Kitchen's show was not affiliated with Art-A-Whirl, WonSavage expected to have participating artists perform at his outdoor extravaganza.

Ricochet Kitchen founders Paul WonSavage and Kristin Freya (seated) in a recent performance with dancer Jen Brackin
Tony Nelson
Ricochet Kitchen founders Paul WonSavage and Kristin Freya (seated) in a recent performance with dancer Jen Brackin

There was, however, a problem. To WonSavage the salvage yard was ideal; to Minneapolis city officials it was completely inappropriate. The Tyler Street building did not meet the fire department standards necessary to hold such a large affair. "It was a good place for him. The building fit his concept," explains Linda Roberts, an inspector with Minneapolis's Licenses and Consumer Services division. "For the city, as far as regulations, it's not a good place right now."

Industrial warehouses, says Minneapolis Fire Marshal Tom Deegan, were not built to hold large parties. Without considerable modifications, they generally don't have sufficient exits, ventilation, and security outposts to manage hundreds of people. "Everybody wants to see these things happen," he says. "We just want them to be safe."

But that, WonSavage says, was not what Grant Wilson, the license inspector he worked with, told him. Wilson's concern, it appeared, was that WonSavage was clandestinely planning a rave--a kind of popular dance party that, of late, has come under fire as a den of underage drinking and use of the drug Ecstasy (see "Party Over," February 21, 2001). "He's like, 'This isn't a rave, is it?'" WonSavage recalls. Wilson, WonSavage says, defined a rave as anything with techno music, laser lights, and "rave advertising"--which, WonSavage surmised, meant cartoonish ads directed at teens.

WonSavage had planned to have techno music--"a legitimate form of music"--at PAINT II, along with jazz, hip hop, and funk. The show would include theatrical lighting, but no laser lights. Moreover, only those over the age of 18 would be allowed to enter, and no alcohol would be served. WonSavage then produced documents about Ricochet Kitchen (including a grant from the Neighborhood Arts Program, administered by the city's Office of Cultural Affairs) that he felt clearly demonstrated that the event was to be an alternative art performance, not a teenage drug-fest.

(City Pages attempted to interview Wilson for this story; calls to the inspector were returned by Roberts, another license inspector who had been involved in WonSavage's permit process. While she stressed that PAINT II had not been prevented because of concerns that it was a rave, she did not know what Wilson had said to WonSavage.)

Believing that he had satisfied Wilson and proved that Ricochet Kitchen was not a rave promoter, WonSavage was both surprised and dismayed when the friend he'd hired to produce PAINT II called and said the show couldn't go on. The producer, WonSavage recalls, described the following chain of events: Fire marshal Deegan had called the building's property manager asking about the rave that was being held there. Then the property manager called the building's owner in Florida, who in turn threatened to evict the tenants if the rave took place. Deegan says he did not notify the building owner of an impending rave, although he was in contact with the owner and tenants because they were working to fix previous fire-code violations.

In any case, WonSavage was unwilling to cause so much trouble, so he dropped his plan for the show. But he has not dropped what he refers to as his "righteous" cause. It's unfair, he proclaims, that the city cracks down on alternative arts because officials are trying to respond to sensationalized fears of drug-riddled dance parties. "Those of us who are doing experimental art presentation need to be separated out from this witch hunt," he says. "We don't have anyplace to go."

Founded in 1997, Ricochet Kitchen is a nomadic arts organization without a permanent performance space. The group holds its shows in art galleries, theaters, or clubs, including the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, the Loring Playhouse, and First Avenue. But there are certain events, PAINT II among them, for which a nontraditional venue is a more appropriate setting, WonSavage explains. For one thing, 300 gallons of paint makes more of a mess than a theater or club can handle. For another, renting a large indoor/outdoor area can cost thousands of dollars--much more than an art group on a shoestring budget can afford. Gopher Towing offered its 28,000-square-foot space for free; WonSavage says leasing that much room anywhere else would have cost at least $6,000.

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