Everything Is Permitted
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.
The large upstairs, recently the performing area for the play Freewheeling in the Attic of Whim, has been used for everything from punk concerts to Irish dances, and is the regular home to Bedlam Theatre's bi-monthly "romps," a cabaret-style performance that often goes until the early hours of the morning. Though this creative outlet seems to exist mostly for its own sake, it doubles as a rent party.
The result of all these activities, inevitably, is a buildup of debris: planks of wood, plastic bags, rubber tires. "It never ceases to amaze me," Ward sighs, "but it's impossible to keep under control."
While dumpsters of refuse come out of the Bedlam Studio, odd noises pour out the portal to Gus Lucky's (1626 E. Lake St.), presumably to the bewilderment of nearby businesses, which include a Swedish import shop, Sallie's Southern Soul and Creole Restaurant, and the Pizza Shack.
Here is an example of the sorts of sounds to be found inside this café-cum-art gallery-cum-performance venue: At one performance manager Jonathan Whitney constructed a "prepared instrument" out of a large wooden shipping box he had scavenged from the Walker Art Center. The box contained a snare drum, which was attached to a large piece of wire, which Whitney affixed to the back of his pickup truck. He then drove his truck just far enough to tighten the wire, stepped out, and set up several video cameras. These he pointed at a woman and two children, whom he had recruited to throw rocks at the wire. The force of the rocks would cause the drum to make an anguished clatter, which was then amplified by several microphones. Further, extending out of the box was a gas-mask-type apparatus, also wired for sound, which a performer wore while reading entries on the subject of justice from a book of quotations. The box and reader stood in the performance space of Gus Lucky's Gallery, while a nearby television displayed the rock throwers outside.
"It's amazing what the Walker throws out," Whitney says in discussing this performance, but equally amazing is what Whitney has made of it. Who has ever heard of such a complex, Rube Goldberg device intended simply for the creation of a random, clattering sound? And the entirety of the gallery is similarly crammed with monuments to soaring, preposterous flights of fancy--quite literally in the case of a sculpture by Melissa Hronkin that hangs from the ceiling. Titled "Early Ornithopter/The Absurd Hero," Hronkin's piece looks like the sort of badly considered, hastily assembled flying device that occasionally appears in documentaries about the early, tragic years of manned flying machines. The wings of her device stretch out 12 feet and are seemingly built out of sticks and whirligigs, connected in the center by a horse's harness.
Whitney is a young man with a closely shaved head and a quiet manner, but he grows visibly excited showing off the venue, the charge of which he inherited several years ago when the building's owner gave up on an earlier scheme: a restaurant/gallery that filled the venue's two rooms. Now a makeshift coffee shop occupies the first room, with its walls obscured by pottery and wall hangings. These ornaments wrap around the magnificent arch that leads into the performance space. In theory, the coffee shop is the money-making end of this venture; in truth, selling beverages is an afterthought, as the venue claims a grander purpose.
Gus Lucky's is a place of nearly unbounded creativity, a perpetual-motion device of a gallery, welcoming performances as varied as the Praxis Group's recent eight-hour Hamletmachine, "contact" dancing, spoken-word performances, cello and steel-guitar duets, and productions that defy any attempt at description, all of which seem to bleed into one another at surprising moments. For example, Whitney designed some of the sets for Hamletmachine. Gesturing to the venue's elongated performance space, Whitney explains that "it's not just a theater--there are things that cross over between disciplines." While the word things would ordinarily seem unnecessarily vague, looking at the art on the gallery's wall (changed every two weeks to allow anybody who shows up at a Wednesday meeting to hang work), and glancing at a schedule of forthcoming events, leads one to concede that no word other than things will do. Too much of what appears here is still unknowable, unnameable, and forming as we watch it.
While artists have long flocked to immigrant and minority neighborhoods--for reasons more fiscal than political, it must be said--they've also turned to that other mainstay of the prospecting real estate agent: the industrial corridor. Rogue Buddha gallery, an ambitious venture begun seven months ago by two recent University of Minnesota graduates, is situated at the intersection of 24th Street and Hennepin Avenue--ostensibly a prime, perfect location. But Rogue Buddha has made its home on East Hennepin (2402 E. Hennepin Ave. NE). This location is so obscure, even to longtime Minneapolitans, that the gallery's voicemail message includes careful instructions for the intrepid driver. It is a bare strip of soil they have staked out for themselves, with nothing nearby except for a perpetually darkened coffee shop with a sign reading "opening soon" hanging optimistically in the window. Nearby are several nondescript businesses whose imposing structures seem designed to discourage walk-in business: A printing company, a computer distributor, two darkened storefronts that purport to be a Chinese cultural center and a church.
"We don't get much walk-in business," cofounder Nicholas Harper confesses. Harper, a graphic artist who also publishes the zine Butt Seriously, decided to open a gallery after looking for a space to use as a studio for his own work. The Rogue Buddha is long and spare, with a large metal desk planted firmly near the door and track lighting aimed at the walls. During the week it is quiet, with cofounder Heidi Jeub seated at the desk, working on ink drawings as a slight breeze blows in a door on one end of the gallery and out a door on the other end. The venue does not advertise its shows, except to print up posters and send out a mass e-mail; neither do passersby peek in. Nobody passes by.
Nonetheless, for the recent opening of their "Dirty Laundry" show, the gallery was able to attract as many as 400 patrons. They spilled out into the streets until the police directed them back into the building, where a punkabilly band called Mad Trucker Gone Mad played in the basement. Four hundred! On the night when Kid Rock was playing! Unlikely as it seems, the two shows might well have competed for business, as the work that makes up the gallery's current show draws its influence from tattoo artists, comics, and that same foul-tempered rock 'n' roll attitude that fuels Kid Rock's popularity. Several photographs by Mad Trucker bassist Daniel Dieterich, for example, show bare-breasted women shooting guns and heroin. "Tits, tits and more tits," Dieterich writes in his artist's statement. "They all think I'm a pervert. I say it's art."
Harper explains that each of the venue's openings "is different and unique to the showing artist," and with this show Rogue Buddha has the feel of a basement club found among abandoned warehouses and lonely railroad tracks in the early Sixties, where Benzedrine-addicted garage bands played roaring rhythm-and-blues-inspired riffs. This ambiance could not be more appropriate: After all, these are paintings of monkey superheroes and samurai with their severed heads stuck on poles. The "Dirty Laundry" show very much gives a sense of the gallery's dedication to what Harper calls "an environment which is not sterile or typical."
Typical would require that the gallery establish some kind of norm. Instead, in the seven months of the gallery's existence, it has hosted such sundry events as dance, theater (a play called The Orators that involved members of the seemingly omnipresent Praxis group), "sound collage" DJs, and free jazz. An upcoming performance will feature classically influenced art song by Jennifer Cuff. "We want people to have as many experiences in the space as possible," Harper explains--as good a reason as any for heading over to the wrong side of the tracks.
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