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The unmarked exterior at 389 Melrose Street in Bushwick gives little indication of what's inside. The art group Secret Project Robot has transformed the interior of a former auto shop into an electric maze that feels like a black-lit neon discotheque. At this new home, the gallery/collective has been hosting its packed-out block party psyche-delicatessens—bashes that began at Secret Project Robot's former location at Monster Island, where a dizzyingly oversexed atmosphere filled the room in what felt like nothing less than Williamsburg's halcyon moment.
"Secret Project Robot has a lot to do with what kind of world I want to live in," says Rachel Nelson, co-founder and happy participant in the eight-year-old collective. She walks through the warehouse out onto a walled art garden of wooden verandas painted like an installation of Mondrian-style cubes. The aesthetic here captures a larger art movement's bucolic vindication at having created a world outside the dulling conformity of the daily grind.
Indeed, while the blue-chip art world struggles to recover from its art-as-investment bubble, young artists mistrustful of the system have formed groups all over the city with the intent of taking back some of art's cultural resonance. Instead of announcing a set of well-intentioned demands by means of manifesto, the fractal-art movement (handmade, street art, low-brow) has enacted a paradigm shift by changing the dialogue to a kind of micro-economic collectivism, where art's new role is nothing less than the complete transformation of marginalized and decayed neighborhoods into creative utopias (be they Williamsburg, Silver Lake, Detroit, or Portlandia). Groups like Secret Project Robot and the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the Bronx (RDAC-BX) have each set up community spaces in an effort to create beauty from the rubble, regardless of whether the establishment cares to tune in.
"In Brooklyn, and especially here in Bushwick," continues Nelson, "the idea that you'd come to New York to make it big has given way to the idea that you make art for the sake of itself, not in some competitive way. It's all about people making art and music and doing gardening in more of a community than you could hope to get in the exclusive gallery scene."
During the day, the main atrium of Secret Project Robot is eerily quiet. Pizza boxes are strewn on the floor, garbage bins are filled with empty beer cans, and the occasional disheveled artist wanders from studio to kitchen and back to studio again. The casual atmosphere at times conceals the serious consciousness that permeates these four walls. Works like a teepee made from potato chip bags, a mannequin outfitted in a Gay '90s/No Wave gown, and a blooming abstract collage on canvas made of sweaty bandanas evoke the sense that cultural debris has been reconfigured here as both an affirmation of environmental concern and a big "fuck you" to the contemporary wave of consumerism.
The trance-y atmosphere of their experimental-music events is the major draw of Secret Project Robot. The gallery has hosted a veritable who's who of hipster and otherworldy acts, such as How I Quit Crack (née Tina Forbis), who performs decked out in neon lingerie amid bouquets of fluorescent flowers while breathing warped vocals over layers of crescent beats, distorted synths, and heavy feedback as transcendent as it is bat-shit weird. It somehow makes perfect sense within the swirl of Secret Project Robot's New Wave stoner backdrop.
Nelson co-founded the collective with Erik Zajaceskowski. It operates today as a nonprofit, where, according to Nelson, an artist receives 100 percent of profits on works sold. As their Orwellian name might suggest, Secret Project Robot's "art party" environment is more than a simple withdraw from the matrix of everyday insanity. The denial of "apathy and cynicism" and the call to action is never far from anyone's lips.
"Art that is controlled and funded by corporations is keeping people contained and controlled," implores RodStarz, a founding member of Rebel Diaz. "Art that is made for and by the people, especially art that comes from oppressed communities, will reflect the struggles of that community."
Off 149th Street near Hunts Point in the South Bronx, the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective (RDAC-BX) boasts the second-floor warehouse of a formerly abandoned candy factory. The space is covered in fractal murals that mix social realism, graffiti, and protest imagery every bit as romantically passionate as Secret Project Robot is self-consciously hip. RodStarz (Rodrigo Venegas) and his brother, Gonzalo (a/k/a G1), were born in England into a Chilean activist family, and raised on the North Side of Chicago. They opened RDAC-BX in 2009 as a multidisciplinary arts studio, where a steady parade of painters, MCs, and filmmakers with names like Vithym, DJ Illanoiz, and YC the Cynic make their way on a daily basis to create, perform, and attend workshops on political education.
On the first Friday of every month, Rebel Diaz hosts an open-house party where artists and audience co-mingle in the performance of live hip-hop, fist-pumping a call-and-response of social outrage that drives the crowd into an unrestrained frenzy. By the early morning hours, when the nighttime haze reaches its peak, core members like Starz, G1, and MC Elijah Black step up to the mic and deliver with such intensity that attendees are practically frothing at the mouth from the conduction of positive over negative energy.
"A group like Rebel Diaz is important, 'cause kids in the Bronx relate," Starz notes. "They're getting stopped-and-frisked like it's an after-school activity. So when we make music about that, they feel it. It becomes more than Rebel Diaz as a group."
"We create our own lanes," Starz reflects with wide-eyed sincerity. It's a view shared by many here—that art can be a means to political capital in the Occupy environment.
"I'm sort of pessimistic about whether art can change the world," admits Secret Project Robot's Nelson, as a purple sunset recedes behind the art space. "But," she concludes, "I think art can change your world."