AS220 : Compost and Artistic Fertility

July 13, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

During one of our weekly meetings, Abby brought in an article, written by a group affiliated with Providence’s AS220. AS220 is a community arts organization that has been interesting for us to look at for many reasons. 1) They are awesome–which was gleaned from first-hand experience when Devin and I went out there last fall to put up one version of the North Georgia Gazette show. 2) They have an incredible vision, one that is stretching out and expanding to different pockets of downtown Providence, where they have artist studios, a membership-print shop, a bar, a restaurant 2 galleries, a performance space and live-work spaces. While they are a non-profit organization, they nevertheless use these different projects to generate both income and accessibility. They have a non-curtorial approach to their exhibitions, and as such anyone can get an exhibit, as long as he or she is willing to wait. They are interesting in administrative ways as well, for instance every member of the AS220 staff receives the same living wage, whether Gallery Director, Building Manager, Bartender, Office Administrator etc.

AS220's print shop

AS220 Bar

Fort Thunder

A number of the founders/collaborators at AS220 came out of a previous energetic/artistic hub in Providence called Fort Thunder–a warehouse in an abandoned textile factory that was built before the Civil War. From 1995-2001, Fort Thunder was used as a site for exhibits, art performance and live music performance, where artists lived and worked and experimented. From what I understand it was situated in such a marginalized part of the city, there was little to no restriction on what those inhabitants (and later visitors) could do. If they wanted to sell coffee, coffee was made on an archaic espresso machine with no thought to food licenses. Further–the space has been described to me as “a warren” covered in layers of posters, with labrynthian passageways that would be constructed and reconstructed over the course of the space’s lifetime. It sounds like it was a messy paradise and while I would have loved to have seen it, my own interest stems from the peculiar oustide-ness of the space. Because it was located outside of interest–whether legal (apparently any number of fire codes were broken, and were there to be any fire the thing would have poofed up like a tinder box) or, at least initially, artistic. I’m interested in such communities because of all the inherent negotiations that have to take place, both on a relationship/communal/day-to-day living sort of way and in an imaginative way. In other words, without the any predetermined  beurocratic/civil architecture, how do people organize themselves? Further, what is that they choose to create and where do they devise a sense of satisfaction?

It is easier, I think, to devise a sense of satisfaction when one knows what one is striving for.  Desiring a gallery show, gallery representation and a spot in the Whitney Biennial seems to go hand in hand with, for instance, being a painter in New York. After all, that is often why people move to New York to begin with. Yet, at Fort Thunder, it was almost as though the strategy for traditional success was abandoned and replaced with an enthusiastic dedication to localized communal practice. There was a shift in the center of one’s sense of success. By all accounts the vitatlity of the space was a result of the deep-seated community, a community that reflected, supported and critiqued the work of its peers. As an outsider peeping in, I can’t help but guess that it was the fluid reflexivity of that community which created and sustained (at least for a period) the overall satisfaction of its members. A number of artists and musicians from Fort Thunder achieved the fame that those New York painters are looking for, but their difference in origin is especially striking to me. While there must have been a hope, among some of the Fort Thunder folks, for public recognition, I can only imagine that the impetus to stay and work there was tied to an immediate gratification that outweighed any pipe dream for national/international success.

At any rate. I didn’t go there, so my remarks are as questionable as anything–in this instance I’m talking from a wildly speculative and likely trespassing place. But the point is, I found this really interesting essay on AS220’s site and I wanted to post a section of it here. Here is the link to the page where you can read the essay Compost and the Arts in its entirety. I would highly recommend it.


by Umberto Crenca, Meagen Grundberg, Megan Hall, J Hogue, Matt Obert, Rachel Pleasants & Tom Sgouros

In each of these cases, we readily remember the few at the pinnacle of their profession,  but few beside the devotees remember the names of all the others, despite the fact that all of the artists named above have work in major museums, and all the composers are ones  whose works are still regularly played by choruses and orchestras around the world. This quirk of historical memory is easy to understand—there’s only so much we can remember.  Unfortunately, the quirk leads us to forget that every pinnacle has a mountain underneath it.  Mozart was a genius, it is true, but he was a genius born into a milieu that was remarkably  fertile ground for composers and musicians. Claude Monet was an original eye, but his eye learned from his friends and fellow rebels against the Salon painters. And whatever you  think about it, Jackson Pollock’s work wouldn’t have made the impact it had on America
had it not been for the ferment of the artists and critics who were working in the same place and time.

Arts policy in America is predicated on the search for the next genius: competitive grants  and fellowships are the rule of the day, where a large number of artists compete for a small  number of opportunities. Certainly there was competition in eighteenth-century Vienna. Not  everyone could become a composer patronized by the Emperor, or the concertmaster at the  Esterhazy palace. But those who didn’t could go work in the only slightly smaller musical
establishments of the Trautmannsdorfs, Lobkowitzes, Liechtensteins and their friends, or at one of the dozens of choruses and ensembles at churches and theatres all over the city and surrounding area. The environment provided the demand (and the means) to support a fantastic flowering of talent, much of which is still heard more than two hundred years later. Looking back, and trying to explain the phenomenon of Viennese music, it seem that it was  due to more than just the selective munificence of the royal court and the aristocracy. It seems as likely that the large number of available venues and the supportive audience for new and interesting music were at least as important. At the distance of two hundred years, the point can only be debated, not settled. However, over the past couple of decades, we have been watching the arts in Providence, Rhode Island, and we have the following observations to offer.

❦ ❦ ❦

In the early 1990’s, a group of artists, looking for cheap, flexible space in which to live and work, began living in an industrial mill building in the Olneyville section of Providence. Dubbing it “Fort Thunder,” the artists there lived all over the building, and worked there, too. There was a shared kitchen, a shared silkscreen studio and a large flexible performance area for anything from film nights to costumed wrestling, rock concerts to puppet shows. Around the corner from the performance space, there was “Cafe Intelligentsia” (a comic/zine library with an antique espresso machine), and in the very back there was a rehearsal space—filled with exotic noisemakers and encouraged by the lack of neighbors to complain about the noise in this remote industrial area of the city.

The artists who made up the Fort Thunder community supported one another not only by sharing resources (apartments, studios, food) but by showing up for each other’s performances and applauding or criticizing, buying or bartering for posters, comics, zines and recordings, and by collaborating on larger projects. Fort Thunder provided fertile soil in which these musicians, graphic designers and installation artists could grow. Indeed, the
metaphor of a “compost heap” easily suggested itself to visitors greeted by rooms filled with bicycle parts, toys stuck to the walls and ceiling, and a communal kitchen often stocked with free food from local dumpsters.
To the surprise of only those who hadn’t been paying attention, Fort Thunder was catapulted to international acclaim when Forcefield, a four-person collective working there, was invited to create an installation for the 2002 Whitney Biennial. The installation was favorably reviewed by the New York Times, and Forcefield made the cover of the November 2002 Artforum and also contributed a “Top Ten” list to their summer 2002 issue. Another Fort Thunder group, the Drum/bass duo Lightning Bolt has enjoyed fame among the underground music scene for several years. The band has toured in Asia and Europe, as well as the US, and has their own DVD called “The Power of Salad.” In April of 2004 the group entered into a new realm of notoriety when it recorded a “Peel Session” with John Peel of the BBC.
Not only did Fort Thunder foster the individual success of groups like Lightning Bolt and Force Field, but—before it was leveled in 2002 to make way for a shopping center—the space itself soon earned its own critical acclaim. What began as a place for a group of local artists to live and work soon became a music venue for bands from all over the world. Musicians came both to perform and to sit in the audience of the various shows that took place at Fort Thunder. In November of 2003, The Comics Journal devoted an entire issue to the artistic work of Fort Thunder residents and noted that the Fort was “important not just for the sum total of its considerable artists but for its collective impact and its value as a symbol of unfettered artistic expression.” Even the physical space at Fort Thunder achieved national attention in summer of 2001 when the architectural publication Nest Magazine featured photographs and descriptions of the building.

Other links:

Double Negative Magazine

The Comics Journal



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