Joshua Tehee

In the wake of Ghost Ship fire, underground art spaces struggle

This Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 file photo shows the front of The Ghost Ship warehouse damaged from a deadly fire in Oakland, Calif. To set foot in the Ghost Ship on a party night was to pass through the industrial facade of an old warehouse and enter an exotic world glowing with rainbow lanterns, guarded by figures of Asian deities and pulsing with a welcoming vibe. The Dec. 2 fire killed dozens of people during a electronic dance party, after it raced through the building, trapping them inside.
This Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 file photo shows the front of The Ghost Ship warehouse damaged from a deadly fire in Oakland, Calif. To set foot in the Ghost Ship on a party night was to pass through the industrial facade of an old warehouse and enter an exotic world glowing with rainbow lanterns, guarded by figures of Asian deities and pulsing with a welcoming vibe. The Dec. 2 fire killed dozens of people during a electronic dance party, after it raced through the building, trapping them inside. AP

Underground art and music scenes don’t typically get to the top of the news cycle unless they’re pioneering – New York’s punk rock scene, let’s say – or struck by tragedy.

So it was with the community that existed in and around the Ghost Ship, a warehouse/artist collective in Oakland that caught fire earlier this month, killing 36 people and sparking national debate about the safety of underground art spaces.

The New York Times’ coverage included detailed schematics made from a 3D model of the building’s interior, while The Fresno Bee pondered whether a similar tragedy could strike here. At the same time, the editorial board admonished the city of Oakland, saying the the fire is what happens when cities don’t enforce rules.

While much of the focus has been on deconstructing the Ghost Ship fire and puzzling out how to prevent future catastrophes, underground art communities in Oakland and around the country are feeling the effects of the scrutiny. Some artists and organizers in Fresno are urging their communities to privacy and care when sharing information about their spaces and events on social media.

The fear may be warranted.

Just days after the fire, a poster on the anonymous online message board 4chan called for users on the site to report these kinds of art spaces to the authorities. The intent was to “crush the radical left.” A list of possible targets (many with addresses and photos taken from social media) began circulating on the site and online.

Already, art spaces have been closed in Baltimore, Denver, Nashville and, just this week, Richmond. Many feel the two are connected. Several Fresno venues were included in the list.

Yes, our city does have underground art and music spaces, and it is better for it. Some are more publicly visible and active than others. It is easy to believe that all art and music is and should be conducted in white-walled studios and above-the-board bars and nightclubs. The truth is these kinds of makeshift art space are tied into the fabric of any vibrant cultural arts scene and can produce bold and creative work.

Any connection I feel to these spaces, comes from time spent in them, both a patron and an artist. In the early 2000s my band borrowed practice space in a downtown warehouse. It was slated to be demolished (it has since been replaced with lofts), but at the time it housed a haphazard collection of artists and musicians.

It was a gathering place for the scene. On most weekends, and some week nights, you could hear a book reading or see some random band who happened to be traveling through town. People created work there. Some lived there, when needed. No one thought to question whether correct permits had been pulled. Was it dangerous? Probably so. It didn’t stop people from showing up and using the space.

In the aftermath of the Ghost Ship fire, some backlash is reasonable. It’s hard to argue against better assessment when 36 lives were lost. But questioning the need for accessible art and music spaces should not get lost in the conversation. Blanket efforts to shut down such spaces, especially those driven by hate and disguised by politics, will only push those communities further to the fringes, or drive them completely underground.

Worse, yet, it could destroy them altogether.

All are dangerous propositions and an added part of the tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire.

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee

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