Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Pop-up occupancy in the art scene

Some art is corporate and events like Art Basel don't have to worry about the fire code. But emerging art has no money. Budding artists are notoriously broke.  Like weeds in the cracks of a sidewalk they thrive in whatever cracks society offers. Those cracks become a thematic opportunity but also often an existential one.
Abandoned warehouses are such places. The crack in the armor of the postindustrial city can hardly be better exemplified than in an abandoned foundry. It becomes a safe harbor for those who explore the fringes. Experimental music, experimental theater, new forms of production and living together meld into full ecosystems.

Artists, although often solitary natures, know about what the corporate types call synergy. They understand that collaboration is better than competition and that unexpected fertilization can come from chance encounters. Collaboratives have long proven the value of opening up silos. The lack of resources combined with a curious spirit beget tearing down boundaries between work, live and play. This world is afar cry from the orderly world of zoning with its clearly defined categories,far also from the fire codes with their means of egress and requirements on combustible materials.
Bell Foundry, Station North

In Baltimore'sStation North this experience has been made many times, even before the area acquired its name and the official arts and  entertainment district designation. The Load of Fun was such a makeshift collaborative place with studios, galleries, theater and music.  But it was unsafe, didn't have the required exits and was shut down and condemned. The Single Carrot Theater became homeless and building owner Sherwin Mark who didn't have the resources to fully comply with codes felt he had become a victim. The facility came back after a hefty investment by the Deutsch Foundation and certainly changed its character, even though the theme is still art.

After the fire in Oakland that cost so many young people's lives, it was clear that fire marshals and code officials across the US would be sent out to check in their cities for similar facilities that have morphed into artistic eco systems.. This week Baltimore's officials closed down the Bell Foundry for violations that sounded eerily similar to those that apparently led to the Oakland disaster.

The artists feel victimized. They had to leave their studios and practice places in a hurry and the clash between the cultures of creativity and enforcement was obvious. The Baltimore Rock Opera lost access to their stuff and practice area. Many complained about the rough manner in which they were treated.

What should be done? Code enforces cannot allow significant violations. But do they have to throw everybody out in a hurry? Once aware of the issues, couldn't they allow an orderly exit that gives everyone the chance to sort things out? Couldn't they even advise how to mitigate the risks? Bring a structural engineer to see if collapse was indeed a possibility due to missing supports? Or whether this wasn't as grave a situation?  With the fire inspectors there it would be unlikely that the place goes up in flames that afternoon if a few hours would have been allowed to fix things or vacate.
Murals from Open Wall, Bell Foundry Station North

When in doubt, life and safety should always come first, for sure. But one gets the impression that authorities keep having a really heavy hand in doing what they are supposed to be doing. Baltimore certainly doesn't need another boarded vacant structure and more people without a job or in the street.

The matter isn't black and white. But one can't help to think that both sides see it as such, while a lot of middle ground between laisser-faire and law-and-order remains unexplored. Information about this latest case  is limited so far, but there are too many additional spaces that require this middle ground for it is needed for the artistic Baltimore scene to survive.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

City Paper