2016-12-13 15:26:14
After Oakland Fire, Brooklyn Artists Vow to Keep Partying

Just before midnight on Wednesday, two young women with shaved heads slipped into a hallway during a party at a commercial building in Brooklyn and removed their clothes. While a man wearing a neoprene jumpsuit and knee-high boots crooned in a nearby room, the women crawled under a plastic tarp and began to grapple, a 10-minute piece of performance art that ended with them covered in handprints of black ink as an appreciative audience applauded.

It was the first night of a four-day art event called Chasm, which filled an industrial space in the Bushwick neighborhood with LED sculptures, performers and a D.J. who spun not music, but pulsing digital art made in real time and projected on the walls.

But halfway through the event it was over. The three-level space is zoned for industry, not parties, and organizers feared it would be raided. New York City officials have been policing similar events with renewed vigor since a fire killed 36 people at a warehouse party in Oakland, Calif., on Dec. 2. In industrial pockets of Brooklyn, the same kind of scene thrives, throwing pop-up parties in places like the shells of an ancient cannonball factory or an abandoned hospital.

“Artists need to be in major cities to get any sort of chance of a lifelong career, but most people can’t afford to have up-to-code fancy spaces for their art studios or for their events,” said Julia Sinelnikova, 26, a sculptor and light artist who organized the Chasm spectacle.

Echoing many peers in the do-it-yourself scene, Ms. Sinelnikova criticized the authorities for shutting down events if they lack permits or are set in spaces without safety features like sprinklers or escape routes. The result, she said, is that Brooklyn’s artists celebrate even deeper in the shadows. “They send a huge message to people trying to present culture in a classy way that it should be marginalized, that it should be underground,” she said. “They are always focused on demonizing people who are presenting this culture in the world.’’

City officials maintain that the issue is not the preservation of culture, but the preservation of life by abiding by safety regulations.

The authorities have said the deadly fire at the Oakland warehouse, known as the Ghost Ship, trapped partygoers in a jury-rigged warren of art studios and living spaces. The loss has been deeply felt in Brooklyn. But while the deaths have stirred new introspection and prompted vows to be safer, the risky venues will persist, viewed by users as essential to emerging artists as radio was to rock ’n’ roll.

Yet as obituary after obituary has streamed across Facebook feeds in the days since the California tragedy, there is a growing sense of deep agitation. Cities value the creative class, but do little to support it, artists say. And in expensive cities like New York, running legitimate galleries and dance clubs, or bringing existing ones up to code with sprinklers and adequate exits, requires deeper pockets than most artists have.

In New York, to throw a legal party in a space like a warehouse, organizers must apply for a permit from the city’s Buildings Department. The agency notifies the Fire Department, which then inspects the site, noting things like well-lighted entryways as well as capacity. Not all pass muster. A party expected to attract 4,500 revelers in the Gowanus Ballroom, a former steel mill built in the 19th century along the Gowanus Canal, was canceled in September after fire inspectors found the building unsafe.

But those steps are often bypassed in handshake deals between warehouse owners and party promoters. “When you hold an event, in any kind of venue and you’re not adhering to rules and laws that are in place to protect people, you’re doing something very dangerous,” Frank Dwyer, a spokesman for the Fire Department, said. “You’re putting your customers and first responders in potential danger.”

“Art does not trump safety,” he added.

The department could not provide a number for how many such spaces had been shuttered, because the city does not differentiate among the kinds of establishments that are shut down for fire code violations, which could include restaurants, bars and commercial spaces.

Since the Oakland fire, event spaces in cities as far away as Dallas and Dubuque, Iowa, have come under intense scrutiny. While gentrification has been underway in New York for far longer than in Oakland, leaving fewer unregulated art spaces, some still remain.

To Brooklyn’s D.I.Y. community, the fallout seems more about scapegoating than safety.

“The upper-crust community is obviously not cracked down on,” a 24-year-old who works in the music industry said. He asked that his name not be used because he runs an unauthorized Bushwick venue in the basement of a three-level home he shares with 12 roommates. “I’d argue that we are fulfilling a more interesting and vital cultural function,” he said. “And to put us under a magnifying glass definitely inhibits art.”

His home regularly hosts 250 or so people in a basement with no sprinkler system. The next scheduled event is to be a fund-raiser for victims of the Oakland fire this weekend. “The irony is not lost on me,” he said. “It doesn’t stop us because these people need an outlet.” The basement, he said, is a rare space where otherwise marginalized people can feel free to perform, like a transgender D.J. who recently spun during an electronic music night. Guests have included young people from a nearby housing project.

What is needed, many in Brooklyn’s under-the radar art scene say, is support from the city, rather than restrictions. Last week, Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, announced a $1.7 million fund to bolster and secure the many artist communes that dot industrial Oakland. Such subsidies for artist communities exist throughout Europe.

In New York, the fire prompted the city’s Cultural Affairs Department to engage with the Fire Department and entities like CultureAID, a network of organizations that support arts communities after disasters, about how to aid the D.I.Y. scene, a spokesman for the cultural affairs agency said.

“From long-established institutions to emerging artists and arts collectives, New York’s cultural community is a tremendous source of energy and vitality — but safety and creativity are not mutually exclusive,” the spokesman, Ryan Max, said in an email. “We will not allow code violations that undermine the safety of artists and audiences to go unaddressed.”

Some are taking safety into their own hands.

Once a month, Silent Barn, an arts collective in Bushwick, undergoes what the artists and the musicians who live and work there call Bummer Patrol. A team of members takes a step back from the freewheeling ethos to inspect studios, lofts and living spaces in the building in an effort to uncover potentially hazardous violations like overloaded sockets, unused space heaters left plugged in or improperly stored art supplies, like paint thinner, which is highly combustible.

“We saw a really important responsibility here,” Eli Dvorkin, one of Silent Barn’s founders, said. “On the one hand create a space that is as weird and vibrant and open to experimentation and creative risk, but to do it in the way that was following the rules in such a way as to keep everybody safe.”

That can be expensive. Silent Barn’s current site is a building on Bushwick Avenue; its original homespun venue, started by a group of roommates in their living room, was shut down after accruing a host of violations from several city agencies in 2011. To fund its new, up-to-code home, Silent Barn began a Kickstarter campaign, received grants and solicited supporters — “a whole bunch of broke people,” Mr. Dvorkin said.

In the fall of last year, a fire broke out in the new space. Some residents lost all of their belongings. But everyone escaped unharmed.