Art in Every Crevice: The Silent Barn is Back

Bushwick's arch-hipster curatorial collective is taking DIY legit. A look at life "in the stew."

Kunal Gupta unearths a piece of white drywall from a pile of metal scraps and plywood. It's January 5, the first Saturday of the new year. Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle plays on loop as a crowd of about 40 waits for a noise band called Alien Whale to take the floor.

"Here it is," Gupta says, dreadlock ponytail wagging, as he hauls out the slab of Sheetrock. Scrawled over a painted yellow sun are the words "Jan. '13 Budget," and two columns, "Expenses" and "Income." It might just be the first-ever 3-D Excel file.

Gupta is one member of the Silent Barn, the reincarnated collective of underground do-it-yourself arts and music organizers that reopened last week next to a Shell station in Bushwick. If the new Barn's bookkeeping has a certain primitive quality, that's understandable. Revenues and liabilities aren't the kinds of problems that usually top the list in a place like this—the first legal, live-in DIY venue in Brooklyn. Typically the issue would be, like, cops. Or fixing the carbon dioxide supply on the Kegerator.

The Barn’s in-house creatives are known as “chefs,” and they’re free to fire up whatever they like. Here, from left, are Alison Sirico, Nina Mashurova, Kunal Gupta, Nat Roe, and Brandon Zwagerman.
Christopher Farber
The Barn’s in-house creatives are known as “chefs,” and they’re free to fire up whatever they like. Here, from left, are Alison Sirico, Nina Mashurova, Kunal Gupta, Nat Roe, and Brandon Zwagerman.
The Barn in all its glory at 603 Bushwick Avenue.
Christopher Farber
The Barn in all its glory at 603 Bushwick Avenue.

Or the Department of Buildings. That's what did in the last iteration of Silent Barn about a year and a half ago. Now the music, art, and living space has resurfaced in a three-story mixed-use warehouse minutes from the Myrtle Avenue/Broadway subway stop. Silent Barn organizers found the building while biking around the neighborhood in search of "For Rent" signs. They plan to rotate fresh acts and experimental talent almost daily.

From the outside, the Barn looks like your standard Bushwick pile: a khaki brick façade with an awning that reads "George Cho Contractors, Inc." The only way to know what's inside is a pair of small stickers where the doorbell should be.

The interior was still coming together when the Voice passed through. The downstairs features a concert space the size of a small high school gym, as well as walled-off areas that will be rented to a recording studio, a bag-making company, a barbershop, and, in what has to be a first for DIYers, a lawyer's office. The yard is shielded from the street by a metal gate and will be turned into a community garden, though it is now filled with mounds of pebbles. The top two floors house four apartments that will be rented out to Silent Barn farmhands for the reasonable sum of $3.50 per square foot. As a not-for-profit, the Barn is just looking to break even.

In the spirit of professionalism that the crew is striving for, a few members formed a private company, Paesthetics, LLC, to run the bank account. They spent six months negotiating a no-nonsense lease. They bought insurance. They filed paperwork. They applied for a beer and wine license. "It's rare for these things to happen in DIY spaces," says Joe Ahearn, 26, one of the Paestheticians and an event organizer at the Barn. "They're almost antithetical to the way DIY spaces open."

DIY has traditionally meant "Do Whatever, Until Something Stops You." DIY venues, which are scattered throughout the boroughs, tend to book bands of the extreme alternative or experimental variety. (The Silent Barn's old space in Ridgewood hosted electronic musicians Dan Deacon and Grimes during their beginnings and was home to Gupta's notable indie video game collective, Babycastles; Williamsburg's DIY staple, Shea Stadium, is often the rehearsal space for Titus Andronicus.) DIY groups curate independent art installations and serve alcohol, sometimes without the required paperwork. And many of them have a casual regard for the distinction between residential and commercial space. There's no guarantee how long a place like this might stay open. When the fire department shut down the old Silent Barn, it had been going since 2004. But, as Ahearn puts it, "You go for one day at a time until the thing collapses."

But now collapse is not an option. Some 46 organizers drummed up more than $40,000 on Kickstarter to rebuild the place; Ahearn and the rest of Paesthetics have signed a decade-long lease. This is not Yoko Ono making a table out of crates in the 1960s. Well, maybe a little, but these guys are not fucking playing here.

"Five of us are committed to being around," says Gupta, who is also a member of Paesthetics. "We threw our bodies around into legal paperwork. Now our literal bodies are tied to this."

Gupta is sitting at a booth in the empty concert space, his graying sideburns peeking under Prada glasses and giving way to the darker dreads piled above. He explains why his move into the new Silent Barn was inevitable. "DIY culture reminded me of India," he says. "It felt like a better part of the world." As if on cue, a man in a hoodie just behind him began strumming an acoustic guitar.

Like all good collectives, the Silent Barn has no designated leaders: The organization is "horizontal," they'll tell you, though everyone has one task or another to oversee as its "chef." The 46 chefs gather in the "kitchen," where they vote on decisions like which of the 70 applicants would live in the Barn for the first year as artists-in-residence (you might also call them "tenants"). Only 12 members—even the word "member" seems distasteful, somehow—live in the building. Everyone moved in around New Year's.

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