Empty Rooms

Drew and Nick at the new space

Wow, comes the exclamation, then the nodding head, looking around. This place is great.

I’ve heard or witnessed—or been a part of—such an expression since stepping foot in the warehouse my current studio is located at behind a mechanic in southeast Portland. Drew had originally found the space and when he and Nick and I toured it in late September, it took all of ten minutes for us to agree on applying for the lease. It just had that feeling to it.

In the months since, the warehouse has brought an unwavering voice of enthusiasm and support from locals as well as those who are following our pursuits from the previous space on Stark Street. Regardless of what is on the walls or the floors, whether music is being played or the echo of rain from this dreary Portland winter is resonating in the cargo doors, people who come here experience something special by simply being in our ongoing pursuit of building this space—both physically in studios and structures, but also existentially in vision and practice.

The artists here want to create here because it fosters that energy. The people who visit end up returning to bring their own art and experience whatever it is they’re getting out of these walls and their contents. In a world with such bleak outlook, a halfway decent gathering here can feel like all that’s good in the world.

Rooms

There’s nothing quite like an empty room. Its essence alone as a space to occupy is provocative to the most fundamental of our nature and needs. But more than that, it spurs our creativity, our relationship with life and how we live it. Our personal spaces become havens and shared spaces never exist without controversy and compromise. An empty room is primal. It forces a person to ask themselves, What can I make? but also Who am I?—for in defining the characteristics of a space, a person is ultimately defining a reflection of how they see themselves.

Perhaps this is why I never had the same bedroom arrangement for more than six months at a time. It hasn’t really mattered what period of my life is being referenced or where I was living at the time—re-arranging my space is a meditation of mine. Usually there was some kind of shift in my life—anything from a major break-up to completing an art project—and I would break down my furniture, move stacks of books into different piles, and slowly completely de- and re-construct my room, re-organize my records, and get on with my life.

And perhaps it’s also why I now find myself consistently opting for living conditions like the warehouse, where there might not be a kitchen or reliable heating but there is a collection of mobile walls and high ceilings and jaw-dropping acoustics and an energy that is waiting to be harnessed to its potential. If I have this one life, I want the space I exist in to have some meaning, some feeling.

interlude

I probably couldn’t chose a favorite concert ever, but if I had to write a list of my top five, A Silver Mt Zion at the Great American back in 2012 would have to be up there.1 The band hadn’t been through the bay in six years, the Occupy movement had been causing national news, and the encroaching tech influence had people on edge about the city’s dying underground culture. The raucous political nature of the music had the entire venue buzzing from the get-go.

At the outset of the show, Efrim thanked the city and dedicated the set to Occupy Oakland. He commented how the band enjoys both the venue and the city, reminiscent of their hometown of Montreal in feeling completely foreign to the surrounding region. Their wall-of-sound, violin-lead set was full of energy and the band was more talkative than usual and the first bit of the set seemed to fly by.

Midway through, during a bit of banter while tuning, an interaction ended with the audience booing a specific heckler who was some combination of drunk and stoned and yelling about how Bob Marley sucks. Efrim poses his take on the situation, replying, “What do we love about this room? The people in it. Can’t get attached to rooms. Rooms are just empty spaces.”2

This idea struck me then and has come to mind on occasion, especially over the past year.

ASMZ

A Silver Mt Zion

For a long time, I never knew how to define this website. This is important, because for quite a few years, a lot of people didn’t understand the point. After all, today this place turns 21 and the past two decades have seen a significant shift in public perception regarding the internet and what it means to have an online presence. And I’ve been thinking about this since the site turned 20 last year, and I keep coming back to thoughts about these warehouses and concert halls, the single studios and the public floors.

First, a re-wind to the early aughts when I would still get questions about this site from friends and family alike: it’s obviously self-indulgent, but the internet also is a space ripe for capitalization and, at the time, blogs were becoming something of a buzzword. So, what is it? they’d ask me, because at any given time this site would change from an anti-war blog to a photo portfolio to an experiment in HTML art. I always saw the site itself as a piece of art, but that didn’t seem to agree with people. The consensus was to be considered art, something eventually must take a final form. The constant work-in-progress nature the internet offers doesn’t really make a web site a piece of art.3

So I began to say that this site was, at any given time, the digital extension of my life. A one-way concave mirror, focused on what I want people to see but inevitably displaying a distorted perspective on the rest of my life due to its very nature. It was an easy enough thesis that made enough sense, but something about the concept never sat right with me. Through this year of reflecting on my life as it pertains to the internet, I realized what I was wrong about: a website isn’t a mirror or a window, a canvas or a portrait. A web site is an empty room.

      Notes
  • I’m always stoked to find recordings of shows I’ve been to, and with this one there are two. While I tend to listen to the one with higher quality audio, listening to this one turned out to be incredibly disconcerting to me because the guy who recorded it happened to be standing right next to me—I can hear myself laugh and clap throughout the set, making for an incredibly strange listening experience.
  • The entire exchange is worth listening to, as is this anecdote about modern dramatic representations of the past in popular culture and basically this whole thing about unicorns and the Canadian government
  • Again, according to them, at least. I don’t see why time-based art has to have an end, or that the idea of something being finished relates to art as a concept.

When I think about the internet and how new it still is, I try and imagine it in the context of the future. Years from now, it will be a tell-tale sign of exactly how old you are depending on which version of the internet you recall. When I first logged on to the internet at 14, Netscape Navigator was basically the go-to. I had web pages hosted on GeoCities. My high school years was the Napster era, where I would make five bucks here and there selling the new Eminem album to the lacrosse team. Then there was the blog craze, MySpace, and Web 2.0 before hashtags existed or the phrase Social Media was common. Fifty years from now that will sound like Coca-Cola having cocaine as an ingredient. What a shitty generational legacy.

Rooms

The internet started making more sense to me when I began to think of this site as an empty room. The metaphor works: I change this place around about as much as I do my physical space. And after all, this is still just a collection of data, a representation—this isn’t me, it’s just where I think out loud, a place where others can drop by and see what is hanging on the walls, a space large enough that they can think and browse and leave.

Then I started thinking about other web sites. How the internet never seemed to have an apt metaphor—Information superhighway never accounted for commerce, but calling it a mall is insultingly narrow-cast.

But the internet as a city, and all us in our little rooms, that makes a bit more sense. The internet isn’t some open and democratic space where all can be heard equally and our voices can ring out and speak truth to power—no, it’s really more like each person has their own little room in a much larger building owned by some faceless corporation and they’re pacing about and screaming to the gods at HQ about the government. The buildings and their rooms are increasingly consolidated in ownership, and mortgage is paid by the landowners spying on every act you take and every thing you consume.

NYC

The Abomination of Hudson Yards · New York, 2019

And like all places, people want to feel good about the building their room is in. Half the planet is waking up to the fact Mark Zuckerberg is a slumlord and Jeff Bezos is a scam artist, but they own so much of the territory and the actual need for diversity on the internet doesn’t have a defined purpose, we just look around at Facebook and Amazon and Google as these behemoths and know that whatever it is, it isn’t good.

So I no longer run this space as some reflection of myself or my life, but rather as if it were the physical walls around me. The room that welcomes everyone who walks through the door, that shifts to a mood but aims to supply enough space to consider things that matter. To think about what is hanging on the walls, reflect on an idea, and move along at your leisure.

It’s important as ever to believe in and support local art spaces and locations who allow the space for such ideas to take root and grow in a community. And while the dynamics of physical rooms and digital ones are different enough, the reality is the world needs rooms that aren’t awash in a neon glow of For Sale signs.

We need rooms that just have art on the walls, rooms that don’t have a business model but whose existence defines their necessity. Rooms that have strangely-colored walls and haunting echoes. Rooms in refurbished garages you find looking to fix your iPhone and end up playing a piano. Rooms that have existential gravity, that inherent inspiration. I want to work in those rooms, online and off, and make them spaces for and by everyone else.

(In that vein, some other rooms I recommend visiting: Cities, void (), {ths}, a softer world)

So that was 21 years of redecorating Distorted Perspective. This is an ongoing project, a piece of art that is never the same twice, a room constantly emptied and re-built. Thanks for stopping by. Here’s to 22.