Paint by Numbers
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.
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.
And, he argues, just because artistic expression takes place in an unartistic venue shouldn't necessarily make it any less valid. "What is art, what isn't art?" asks Leonardo Lasansky, chair of the studio arts and art history department at Hamline University. "Everybody gets so concerned putting these parameters on what art is. History has proven to us that those rules are constantly broken." And besides, he adds, artistic expression is moving outside museums and galleries. "We're coming into a phase of thinking and considering art outside the traditional institutions that have told us 'this is great art.' How do you get your message across? How does one hear a voice that hasn't been heard before?"
That's the question WonSavage is asking. In hopes of finding an answer, he has planned a May 10 meeting with Fire Marshal Deegan and Minneapolis City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes and council member Paul Ostrow, whose First Ward includes the Tyler Street location. He's hopeful that he and the city can come to an understanding and figure out a way for these types of art events to take place in buildings not originally intended for such uses.
For his part, Deegan says he is eager to work with the artists, to educate them about what is feasible and to clarify the permit process. But he's not sure the city can legally allow these alternative uses of industrial spaces. "I know there are things I could suggest that an architect could draft," he says. "But is that good public policy?"
Ostrow is ready to explore a possible compromise. "We need to be making sure that nothing we do discourages artistic expression," says Ostrow, who has plenty of good things to say about what the Art-A-Whirl has done for his ward. "Somehow we've got to recognize that if folks do it the right way, the content of their expression cannot be any factor in whether they get approval or not. That's real easy in principle, but it takes some work in the real world. It's work that's got to be done."
In the eyes of the city, WonSavage stresses, his event--and those of his peers--should be looked at no differently than the Uptown Art Fair or the Basilica Block Party. "We have a whole scene that we represent. We want to say, 'Stop calling us raves, stop shutting down our shows and presentations.' These are legitimate art events," WonSavage declares. "I deserve the same respect and consideration as any other citizen who comes to you and says, 'I want to put on this event; I want to put it on outside.'"
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