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 year or so ago, while eating a sandwich at the Monte Carlo, Wesley came up with the idea of starting Sursumcorda--a physical space based on the utopian ideals of the Web (i.e., audiences and artists sharing in the creative process). "I was thinking, What else can you do to let people into your world? It seemed to make sense to do some real-world equivalent of the Web."

From the start, Sursumcorda was half dream and half marketing ploy: A venue would promote Sursumcorda's record label and vice versa. The whole would be partially financed, meanwhile, by Wesley's software consulting. It would be a nexus where commerce, technology, and art--the elements of Wesley's life--collide. Another vanity project, perhaps, but one with prospects.

"Rock 'n' roll seems to be at the end of its life cycle," Wesley continues somewhat dreamily. "The next rock 'n' roll, the next thing that's going to sweep the world, is virtual reality. It's like that Dennis Miller joke: 'When some truck driver can sit at home on his Laz-E-Boy and fuck Claudia Schiffer, it's going to make crack look like Kool-Aid.'"

"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

Until that halcyon day, Wesley imagines, Sursumcorda might be the closest possible thing to a real virtual reality--a space that evolves to entertain its audience.


Unlike a Web site, a nightclub has to justify its existence by making money (and, unlike an e-business enterprise, there are no venture capitalists eager to toss their cash into such a long-odds proposition). On the evening after Sursumcorda's opening--or, if you like, initial public offering--the joint is definitely not jumping. The front room is virtually empty. The bank of PCs against the wall blink sadly, while the woman behind the counter, left with no customers to serve, busies herself tidying newspapers. Aside from the computers, Sursumcorda doesn't look appreciably different from the zillions of other coffee shops in the city. The small newsstand, which sells zines, cigarettes, and indie records, is closed for the evening.

Through a dark hall at the back of the coffee shop--which has been wallpapered with digital images of Sursumcorda's staff and boosters--things are a bit livelier. The old Foxfire space--with its crappy acoustics and ungainly stage--has been given a fresh gloss, including sleek bar fixtures, more computers, a caged-in sound booth, and an expensive digital-projection system. Though still tiny by nightclub standards, the space will accommodate Sursumcorda's eclectic programming: new ambient music one night, underground film, spoken-word performance, standup comedy, poetry reading, touring rock outfit, or emo-pop band the next.

On this evening, electronica artist Jake Mandell is grooving over a Mac laptop onstage, mapping a dense sonic landscape. The music is loud, but no one seems to be paying much attention to it aside from turning up the volume of their own conversations. A digital-projection system splashes ghostly silhouettes over the exposed brick behind the stage, while an adjacent screen plays mathematically generated images. The crowd is older and more subdued than the anxious teens who once made this space their own. Mandell's set is also fairly low-key: His head bobs slightly in time with the beat, but he doesn't look up from his computer keyboard. A Sursumcorda employee, meanwhile, flits through the audience with a digital camera. Eventually, when Wesley has worked the kinks out of the system, the Sursumcorda audience will be able to watch itself watching via streaming video on Sursumcorda.com. The experience will be a digital feedback loop--drawing people onto the Web site at the same time as it draws them into the club.

When Mandell's set ends, he drops off the stage and fades into the crowd, which is thinning quickly as patrons wander out into the dead quiet of the Warehouse District after hours. Wesley, who has been working since 5:00 a.m. and probably won't go to bed until hours after closing time, is still ensconced in the caged sound booth, tinkering with computer-generated imagery, adjusting knobs, sending messages out into the void. Surrounded by buttons, Wesley seems in his element, comfortably in control of his environment. He's built himself the perfect playground; now it remains to be seen whether anyone will show up to play.

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