Punk-Space Organiser Interrogation #4: Liz and Nina, Silent Barn, Brooklyn

Another month, another peek into the behind the scenes world of DIY spaces around the world. This month it’s the turn of The Silent Barn, a long-running New York City-based project with a sprawling, fascinating infrastructure that has carved out a unique niche in what they call the ‘giant gray area between “formal arts residency” and “punk house”’. I caught up with two resident organisers, Liz and Nina (NM) to find out more…

BB: When did Silent Barn open? Am I right in thinking this is its second iteration?

Liz: The Silent Barn was originally born in 2006 in Queens, as a smaller house-show space. There were shows in the basement and the kitchen, and a few people lived there. That venue was vandalized and eventually shut down in 2011, at which point a few of the residents and friends decided to collectivize and work towards opening a more sustainable above-ground all-ages art space. The first show at the new Silent Barn was December 30, 2012.

BB: What was the process like for actually securing space and what are the financial pressures?

Liz: I moved to the Barn in January 2014. I wasn’t actually involved in the old space, or the process of securing the new space. From what I’ve gathered, securing the new space involved a lot of meetings and emails and organizing and hard work, and many spaces were considered. The re-organization process between when the first Silent Barn closed and the new Silent Barn opened took almost two years. The initial funding of the project involved a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $40,000, plus a bunch of investors. In terms of finances, there is now a dedicated working group at Silent Barn called Money Buddies that handles finances and accounting. They work with a working group called Risky Bizness, which handles assorted things related to legal issues, risk, and protecting the long-term sustainability of the project.

NM: Part of the financial pressure is that rent in New York is incredibly expensive. Silent Barn is able to alleviate some of that pressure by renting out studio spaces and apartments above the venue and by having most of the admin work done by volunteers, but there is still a lot of overhead to cover. The main ways for art spaces to make money are from grants, donors, sponsors or running a bar. We’ve had some amazing people donate small amounts to the space which has helped a lot, but no major angel donors. Our mission statement is explicitly anti-sponsorship. We’ve gotten grants for small projects within the Barn but not for the space as a whole thus far. A lot of the money for the show space comes from the bar because that’s the default model but it’s definitely not ideal, especially at an all-ages show space that prioritizes experimental shows over giant bangers. It’s a bummer how closely affiliated running an art space is with selling alcohol.

BB:The live-in deal seems unusual for a DIY space, can you talk a bit about the residency scheme?

Liz: Silent Barn occupies a three-story building. The first floor is the public venue, with a large show space, a bar and cafe, a gallery, a big back yard, a record shop, barber shop, and garage full of studios. The second and third floor are the residencies – they are very much separate and even have their own separate entrance. There are four apartments, each with its own kitchenette, bathroom and two bedrooms. Residents are encouraged to treat their space as their studio. Tali and I over the past year have used our kitchen/living room as a practice space, which is how we were able to start a band here together. We recorded some of our record here. We host all sorts of performances in our apartment, have a rotating zine wall and a couple of permanent installations up. There have been Spanish classes and readings and meetings. Residents make up the residency working group, so the residency program is sort of in constant flux, and basically driven by whoever lives in the Barn at any given moments. At times it seems there have been folks who want to see it play out like more of a formal artist residency program. But it’s also sort of challenging to offer that kind of formal environment, since in order to live here you need to be down with shows happening all the time, not having a lot of private space, and general sensory overload.

NM: Silent Barn’s residency program is pretty wacky because it occupies this giant gray area between “formal arts residency” and “punk house.” Residents have included everyone from professional artists with formal practices and art world cred to 19 year old pop stars to people who might not consider themselves “artists” in any legible capacity but just fit into the energy exchange of the space. Initially the residencies were supposed to all switch out every year so that many different people could feel ownership of the space and have the pretty life-changing experience of living at the center of something like this, but we realized that yearly changeovers would be too chaotic and too much like a college dorm so now it’s on a rolling basis—people can stay for one month or three or six or a year or sometimes longer. It’s not the most comfortable living environment but when you think of it as temporary you can really put a lot of energy into the goals you have for your residency. It’s weird when people cycle out because most live-in DIY spaces are run entirely by their residents and though that’s not the case here, the residents really do shape the space’s vibe. But it’s inspiring to see new people cycle in and get inspired by Barn life.

BB: Who’s involved on a day-to-day basis and how do you split tasks and make decisions?
Liz: It’s hard to say, since it’s always changing. Most decisions at the Silent Barn are made by the collective, which is referred to here as ‘The Kitchen’. I think there’s somewhere around 50-70 collective members right now. Collective members are called ‘chefs’. Each ‘chef’ is a person who works on a specific project here, or rents space here. Each chef is proposed to the collective and voted on via email. A lot of the communication is done via email lists. Within the Kitchen, there are about 16 working groups -that number is also always changing. I actually had to look up that number in our internal Silent Barn Wiki. Some examples are Grants, Media, Public Art, and Deep Space, the latter of which works on construction and maintenance of the building. I’m involved in the Shows working group, which manages public events, and the Safer Spaces working group. And since we live here we’re also involved in residency stuff.

The working groups have a fair amount of autonomy to make decisions for themselves, but when decisions are going to affect the entire collective, there is a formal proposal and voting process that happens over email. There’s also a weekly Kitchen Meeting that all collective members are welcome to attend, though most people tend to prioritize working group meetings.

It’s important to know that there also five dudes who are on the lease also comprise an LLC called Paesthetics, which is considered a working group and although the ‘Silent Barn Kitchen’ is in theory a collective, there are hierarchies that exist to make the Silent Barn happen. It can be confusing. The Barn also made the collective decision last year to hire a full-time employee a/k/a ‘The Barn Coordinator’ who handles a lot of logistics, licenses, bar and staff management, and other stuff.

BB: Whats the best and worst/most challenging things about working collectively?

Liz: The Silent Barn is unlike any other collective organizing experience I’ve ever had, because it’s such a huge project and there are so many people and perspectives involved. We can only really speak to our specific experiences within the Silent Barn, which are limited to the specific working groups and projects we’ve been involved with. The size of the collective is definitely a challenge in and of itself. Communication can be hard. The biggest challenges, I think, are on-boarding new volunteers, and the sort of thanklessness that can come with the collective process. You get used to the idea that sometimes your hard work will be overlooked. But it’s kind of humbling in a way – you learn to let go of ego and do stuff for the sake of doing it and effecting change or opening up space, rather than for the sake of recognition or a pat on the back.

NM: Echo everything that Liz said! A non-hierarchical project like this is a pretty major lesson in letting go of control, learning how to work with and trust other people, how different people communicate and process information in different ways…Basically every other space has a definite leader and a clear chain of command and people who are used to working that way get really frustrated by Barn processes— at worst it can be like a giant game of broken telephone, and since it’s all volunteer-run it can take months to execute a simple task because people get distracted by jobs or life stuff. It also makes it hard to keep people—someone can be in the middle of a really important project, then get a demanding outside job and have to quit. But then at its best it’s really inspiring to see so many people dedicate their energies to keeping the space alive for really no reason other than believing in it. There are collective members doing volunteer admin or construction who are professional lawyers and architects. The structure itself is sort of an implicit challenge to a lot of the values we’re taught in a capitalist consumerist society.

I feel like an organization with this many moving parts has taught me a lot about how societies organize and how power gets distributed consciously and unconsciously. In many ways it’s this weird microcosm of so many larger governments/bureaucracies..

BB: What other spaces are you been inspired by?

NM: The Vera Project, Museum of Human Achievement, Death by Audio, Dreamhaus.

Liz: I was really inspired by the Boston house show community when I lived there. Now I am most inspired by folks who are taking the energy of punk and DIY and trying to create more sustainable and accessible spaces, like Pure Joy in Chicago and the DIY Space for London project y’all are working on!

BB: Best show or event so far?

Liz: The first Alice show. Friends First Fest. Any time ELM performs. The Media 50th issue party. Any Downtown Boys show actually, because at their shows Victoria tends to talk about gentrification and Bushwick and the ways we are all implicit in it, which is important to have articulated on stage during shows.

NM: Queer Punk Pride. Anything BK Transcore books. Grrrlfest, which was all bands by girls currently in high school. Phresh Cuts parties, which used to be these queer dance parties / pop-up queer barbershops. Cypher League hip hop showcases. The biannual Paper Jam Zine Fair. Really intense transcendent noise shows that less than a dozen people show up to. Any time a band plays their first show.

BB: What part of town is the space in, and role if any do you think DIY spaces can play in gentrification? How if at all have you tried to counter this?

Liz: The Silent Barn has a specific Outreach working group which specifically exists to make sure the space is engaged with our neighborhood. There is one member of that working group who goes to a lot of community board meetings. That working group also organizes our Public Meeting series of panel discussions. There was recently one on police brutality.

NM: The space is in Bushwick which is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, so that’s a really complicated thing to negotiate. This part of Bushwick had DIY spaces long before Silent Barn moved in—the Market Hotel had been here since 2008, Body Actualized, Party Expo, a ton of other spots…but since we’re an above ground space, realtors can use us to “brand” the neighborhood and lure in new populations. The very first few months we were here we would look on Craigslist and see realtors advertising $1400 studios “right next to Salad Wheel and Silent Barn!” It was really dark.

Then again, being an above ground space means we can do real public activism without being afraid to blow up the spot. We can go on record as standing in solidarity with existing community movements without worrying that we’re going to be evicted the next day.

The relationship between DIY spaces and the neighborhoods they move into is historically really tense, and Silent Barn is actively trying to fight that model. The archetype is that young affluent white artists move into working class low-income communities, usually communities of color, then alienate existing residents by drawing more “outsiders” who don’t respect the neighborhood and by throwing shows that are too loud too late. We’ve been taking steps to form relationships with existing Bushwick residents—we open the space as a daytime cafe, hold weekend daytime events for kids and parents, have a music school, host youth hip hop & dance workshops, we’ve organized events with the local senior center.. Outreach participates in conversations surrounding anti-gentrification, anti-rezoning, and anti-development and makes the space available to community activist groups to hold meetings. The very model of collective ownership is theoretically intended to make space for people from different backgrounds to get involved and direct the space in whatever way feels necessary. Ultimately, because of white supremacy, “culture” is only legible when it’s being fostered by white kids with liberal arts educations working within accepted frameworks, but there are a lot of artists in Bushwick already, and although we recognize we’re coming into this neighborhood as outsiders, we try to make this space open to them as much as if not more than anyone else. We’re trying to stay accountable and pursue a collaborative model rather than a colonial one.

The thing is, all of the above relates to us trying to be better citizens of our geographic communities, but I don’t know if it does a damn thing in terms of fighting the actual forces that drive gentrification. It’s a pretty complicated calculated structural matrix that has more to do with huge realty firms, high-profile marketing campaigns, tax breaks and strategic rezoning deals than DIY spaces…though artists do end up playing a huge part. Landlords love leasing space to affluent white “creatives” to raise property values…they let them stay and do their thing, make things look cool and attractive…then a couple of years later they kick them out, sell the property, build a condo.

BB: What kind of lifespan do you see it having?

Liz: The Silent Barn is currently on a ten-year lease … I’m sure it will exist for all ten of those years, at least, though I imagine it will probably have ebbs and flows of looking and feeling different ways.

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