Zen Arcade

A new-wave rocker turns into a medical-software developer. A Web site turns into a nightclub. Adventures in branding and reinvention at downtown's Sursumcorda.

A few years ago, David Wesley and his wife Bernadette were sitting around on a Saturday night when they decided it might be cool to do a radio broadcast. The couple went down into their basement recording studio, and, without any particular plan, began to send their signal out over the Internet. It didn't matter that no one in the electronic ether was receiving; they were just in it for kicks. The Sursumcorda Radio Hour, as they dubbed it, became a regular feature of the couple's Saturday evenings.

On a given night, the Wesleys might play music from their eclectic library, interview local musicians and scenesters, take calls (which, not surprisingly, tended to be from friends, baby sitters, and long-distance phone company solicitors, many of whom expressed little interest in being broadcast over the Net), or visit with "Margaret," the female version of HAL 9000 who introduces each show. The show's audience was minuscule--mostly friends from around the country--and its content sometimes inaccessible (imagine broadcasting your after-dinner chatter to the world). But, after 60 shows, the Sursumcorda Radio Hour has taken on a life of its own, breeding an online atelier, an embryonic record label, and, most ambitious, a cybercafé-cum-cabaret-cum-music venue that is rising from the ashes of the Foxfire Lounge on First Avenue in Minneapolis's Warehouse District. David Wesley seems, rather incredibly, to have built a media empire out of air.

On a recent afternoon, in the midst of the mad rush leading up to Sursumcorda's May 6 opening, Bernadette, who is a spoken-word artist, arrives. She explains that she first worked with David when he was the frontman of the local new-wave band E B da--Wesley went by "Wesley Mayhem" in those days and still uses the moniker on occasion as a nom de roche. (The band's first album was also titled Sursumcorda, a Latin phrase referring to an uplifting musical refrain.)

"I need to be around tons of buttons": Techie-turned-art impresario David Wesley
Craig Lassig
"I need to be around tons of buttons": Techie-turned-art impresario David Wesley

"When we started, we were just doing it for fun, to be creative. We weren't trying to do anything with it," she explains. "Our basement became the Wayne's World of Web radio." In the background, a girl with tricolored hair is wrestling with a hissing espresso machine, while another employee with thick and tattooed forearms stacks demitasses on the counter. Jo Gordon, a restaurateur who, along with Wesley, is one of Sursumcorda's three founding partners (the other, Steve Fluegel, is a high school friend of Wesley's), zips by with a box of rubber gloves.

"That's how the whole thing got solidified," Bernadette continues. "The idea behind this place was really to take the Web site to a tangible, sensory level. No one's been able to connect the whole cybermovement to reality like that yet. And that was always Dave's vision."

Specifically, Wesley's vision for Sursumcorda is of a physical manifestation of his Web site, Sursumcorda.com. Billed as "an experiment in collaborative Web design," the site includes experimental and documentary film, visual art, writing, and music by its collaborators. Though it began as a showcase for Wesley's own music, it has since grown into a virtual gallery, which, while still populated mostly by Wesley's friends, offers a commercial showcase of art that, for reasons of taste, merit, or economics, wouldn't otherwise find an audience.

Like Sursumcorda.com, the namesake nightclub might best be described as a vanity project with generous impulses. The club--a bricks-and-mortar enterprise in the parlance of the New Economy--is intended to bring together Wesley's far-flung endeavors, including the weekly variety show 21, which he cohosts with local comedian Colleen Kruse, a small retail outlet selling magazines and old vinyl, and a record label, which is based in a tiny room cluttered with rock paraphernalia below the club and which represents three local bands--Bayern Kurve, Monuments of Leisure, and Pablo. Ideally, Sursumcorda would become something like Andy Warhol's Factory--a place where artists and the art crowd interact.

The Zeitgeist, though, is a slippery creature. And Sursumcorda's location also puts it in the unenviable position of inviting comparison to the Foxfire, a beloved, though short-lived, venue that died because it couldn't ply its underage clientele with alcohol. Even on its dullest night, the Foxfire had a reason for existing: It was one of the few remaining places in town where teens could be gently initiated into rock's sweaty rituals. But economics were working against it: In a high-rent entertainment district--where "entertainment" is increasingly synonymous with "Jell-O shots and jalapeño poppers"--its demise seemed destined.

Sursumcorda, by way of contrast, would appear to have both better business prospects and a murkier raison d'être. The club has a liquor license, as well as a full-service restaurant. That also means, though, that the built-in teenage clientele who made the Foxfire what it was will likely have to seek their pleasure elsewhere. According to its founders, Sursumcorda will appeal to a broad audience: morning-caffeine seekers and the upscale downtown lunch crowd, as well as crepuscular scenesters and local music fans. They envision a place that, like the Internet, will offer something for everyone. Or everything to no one.

If buzz translates into profit--another principle of the New Economics that has yet to be borne out--Sursumcorda could become a going concern. Thanks to a concerted advertising campaign, the club--and its built-in hook of the Internet reified--has caught the eye of the local media, in the form of KMSP-TV (Channel 9) features, Star Tribune stories, and pieces like this one. Though dot-coms would have it otherwise, a business can't survive on hype alone. But Sursumcorda may thrive if it becomes the epicenter of bohemian cool that Wesley dreams of. It will, at least, represent something genuinely new: an overground underground.

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