The afternoon after a fire at an Oakland warehouse claimed 36 lives — artists, teachers, creative arts therapists, PBS producers and others, all attendees or performers at a show featuring artists from underground dance music label 100% Silk — as the shock of the tragedy began to settle in, eyes began to turn to the venue itself.
The Oakland Ghost Ship, as it was called, was described by those who had attended parties there as a "death trap” and a “tinderbox.” There were no second-floor fire exits, no fire alarm, no sprinklers; dozens of complaints about the warehouse had been filed and yet, according to a report in the L.A. Times, no building inspectors had set foot there in the past 30 years.
For some, the tragedy seemed to make any scrappy venue appear suspect. But the Ghost Ship, as bad as its safety protocols apparently were, also was immediately recognizable to anyone who has engaged with independent or underground music as a familiar kind of space, a venue handcrafted by artists, away from bars and theaters, where artists and musicians create, perform and often live. These are spaces — abundant in our own city — where performances are not bound by how much money they can bring in; where art often feels more energetic and more free; where both artists and audiences who feel excluded or marginalized elsewhere can come together under their own banner.
Where else, in a city like Oakland, with finite infrastructure and rising rents — again, a situation not too different from our own — would an event like this even have been possible?
The issues that surround these venues, including the ways in which we might be able to nurture fringe art and music inclusively, vitally and safely, are the subject of “DIY Lives," an event on Dec. 16 and 17 at Non Plus Ultra. It will feature a panel discussion among some of L.A.'s DIY venue operators, including Jim Smith of the Smell, Pauline Lay of Pehrspace and Max Baumgarten of Basic Flowers, as well as Sean Carnage, host of the eclectic and loud Sean Carnage Monday Nights events, and Randy Randall of No Age, an outspoken supporter of DIY spaces.
The event, says organizer Bret Berg of Alamo Drafthouse, is in part a chance to incite "a renewed interest in going out to shows at these places” — venues that have been threatened in recent months as the real estate market in L.A. continues to shift.
But in the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy, Berg says he also hopes the event can dispel uninformed opinions about DIY spaces that have spread in the past few days — that they’re all dangerous, that the people who run them are careless, that they’re run under the radar as a way to make illicit cash.
“No [DIY venue] in L.A. is as unsafe as [the Ghost Ship] looked,” Berg says. “I want people to come to this show so they can see what the culture represents, and how important it is to people who go to those shows."
Matt Conboy’s film Goodnight Brooklyn will screen both days of the event. It traces the last days of Brooklyn’s legendary indie rock space Death by Audio, in which Conboy lived and which he co-ran. His film focuses on Death by Audio's final days, after the building it rented for nine years was bought by Vice Media for its new headquarters.
In the film, there are the DBA tenants — some of them lifers, like Conboy and Oliver Ackermann of the band A Place to Bury Strangers, but most transient — by turns enraged and despairing over the abrupt end of their de facto commune. There are the bands and fans, too, who rally around the venue for a marathon final month of shows, on whose sweat-soaked faces is written the real value of the space. And there's the building itself, ramshackle but familiar, the kind of place that serves as a blank canvas, a building on which a handful of artists wrote nine years of their lives, and where countless kids, even after just one insane night, were inspired to go home and make something.
More than anything, the film captures the way DIY venues sit at the intersection of all kinds of big issues. On the one hand, Death by Audio was a scuzzy party space for musicians and artists, whose finite lifespan was always to some degree inevitable. But on the other, it was the nexus of a thriving, important art scene, a social experiment in which some of the basic values of society at large were rejected outright, and even a testing ground for making use of urban spaces.
That intersection is particularly interesting for Conboy. “I like to describe our community, or communities like ours around the country, as kind of like terraformers,” he says. “We’re transforming this underused, abandoned American manufacturing infrastructure. I don’t want to be self-aggrandizing, but I think that’s what creative communities do. They’re very astute at looking for opportunities to realize their dreams."
That can be part of what makes the closing of DIY spaces so difficult — the feeling that artists put time and effort into loving spaces no one wanted, only to have those spaces ripped away when the real estate tide turns.
It’s a feeling Pauline Lay knows well. Lay, who is taking part in the panel at DIY Lives, was running Pehrspace when the 10-year-old DIY venue was forced to close in August after its building was purchased by a real estate company. Like Death by Audio, Pehrspace was a small venue that rewarded repeat visits — the more you went there, the more you felt a part of it — and a place where you could bet on any given night that you’d see something weird. (Lay is looking for a new space in which to reopen — a fundraising effort for $16,500 in expenses hit its goal in November.)
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“The laws about commercial spaces are very much not in favor of renters — there’s no obligation [to tenants] because they’re not living there,” Lay says. “But there should be. It was very disappointing to have to close our space, and it was very disappointing to see all the families, all the people who had been renting space around us, for some people as long as 20 years. And the new owners were just sort of like, 'Well, you’ve got to leave.'"
When the values of art and commerce clash in such direct ways, DIY venues often find themselves on the losing side. In what is perhaps Goodnight, Brooklyn's most moving scene, Edan Wilber, Death by Audio's longtime sound engineer — a burly fellow who appears to love rock & roll more earnestly than anyone else on this planet — breaks down thinking about the end of the venue. “I’m so much more wealthy than these people will ever be,” he says of the building's new corporate overlords.
In the coming days, as some continue to question the value or purpose of these spaces, it is important to remember the vital role they play in our cultural landscape. Some DIY venues could surely be safer, and hopefully they will be. But big or small, many are indispensable refuges for misfits, sanctuaries of creativity in a society that's often apathetic about any art that can't be monetized. That’s why we should protect them — because they make us all wealthier.
DIY Lives, featuring the L.A. premiere of Goodnight Brooklyn, takes place at Non Plus Ultra on Friday, Dec. 16, and Saturday, Dec. 17. Tickets and more info.