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.
Chefs Brian Blomerth and Kate Levitt, with Slippy the Pomeranian.
Christopher Farber
Chefs Brian Blomerth and Kate Levitt, with Slippy the Pomeranian.
“Hipster happens very quick,” says Howie Seligman, 57, the self-styled “DIY sensei."
Christopher Farber
“Hipster happens very quick,” says Howie Seligman, 57, the self-styled “DIY sensei."
Shane Suski’s installation of Craigslist-sourced balloons.
Christopher Farber
Shane Suski’s installation of Craigslist-sourced balloons.
Weston Minissali of the band Cloud Becomes Your Hand, at Silent Barn’s January 5 show.
Christopher Farber
Weston Minissali of the band Cloud Becomes Your Hand, at Silent Barn’s January 5 show.

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.

Chefs have complete freedom to fire up whatever they want. If you're "press chef" Katie McVeay, 24, you're working on a project called "Canned Ham," a mini bed-and-breakfast inside a trailer that will sit in the yard and shelter bands touring through NYC. If you're G. Lucas Crane, 35, who is also part of Paesthetics, then you're in the process of turning your living room into a supper club called Hawkitori. And if you're Nina Mashurova, 23, who was accepted to live in the new Barn but wasn't a chef beforehand, you're contributing multimedia projects (Shane Suski, another resident, also would have turned your living room into an art installation made out of hundreds of red balloons found on Craigslist).

In other words, if you're a chef, you're "living in the stew," a metaphor that almost everyone uses to describe the communal environment. The feeling is co-ed fraternity on an IV drip of neo-dada.

"There's an opportunity for documentation here," Mashurova says, a little obscurely. "It's funny. You're balancing the mundane moving-in things like getting curtain rods and dressers, and there are shows and art exhibits everywhere."

Her living area has the only working stove, so it smells like cooked cinnamon. Crane's apartment has the only shower with hot water, so everyone's seeing how long he or she can last without bathing. The only heat in the whole place comes from small space heaters in bedrooms.

Their earlier experience with the Department of Buildings apparently long forgotten, the focus now is on creating the new. That seems to involve a lot of Woodstock-era language their parents might recognize: "We're accepting the chaos," someone says. "It's all happening," another woman whispers. "This is a place where you know good vibes live," offers Crane. "There's art in every crevice," says Gupta, adding that even the crappy basement will be put to use. "At the very least, we'll put up a sign that says 'Mold Museum.'"

What sets Silent Barn apart from other DIY efforts, however, might be its enthusiastic transparency. A detailed Google site is complete with a dictionary of Silent Barn jargon, a mission statement describing the Barn as an "experimental sandbox," and an exhaustive list of everything that could ever go wrong (labeled "Risks"). Although other clandestine music venues value secrecy, Silent Barn makes public even its Sheetrock budget.

Nathan Cearley has already helped create a legal DIY space in Olympia, Washington, and now he advises the Silent Barn on the liabilities front. "I guess I'm the grumpy old dude," he says. "Everyone's young and wild and ready to go, but I'm like, 'Let me tell you about insurance.'"

Cearley, who is 36 and lives elsewhere, says the biggest risk associated with DIY venues is residency. That's why the new Silent Barn makes a clear distinction between commercial and residential space: A staircase separates the two.

Crane, sitting on a Poäng chair from Ikea, describes the difference: "This is my home. It's legal to live here, and it's legal to host here." When a resident hosts an event upstairs, it's legally no different from someone hosting a party in their apartment. When the Silent Barn hosts events downstairs, they charge a cover to pay the artists and bookers—and, for now, serve hot cider and soda.

Crane lived in the old Silent Barn in Ridgewood for six years. At 35, he's the oldest Barn dweller. Today, he is humping slabs of plywood to his second-floor apartment, the one he'll turn into Hawkitori. "I just want this whole space to be a giant dining table," he explains. It goes without saying that he'll build the table himself.

By day, Crane makes mail-order electronic synthesizers, but he has dedicated most of the remaining moments of his life to the Silent Barn. "It's a really big ideal for me," he says of the new space. He used the phrases "labor of love" and "lifelong project." He wears square glasses and has shaggy red hair that shakes when he does "voice manipulation" with his noise project, Fox/Crane/Bear Trio.

Crane is something of a Silent Barn godfather, the man almost everyone points to if you want to understand where the Barn comes from and where it will be in 10 years. "Right now, we're just dotting our Is and crossing our Ts," he says. "We're doing nothing different than before, but now we're above board."

This time around, Crane is legally responsible, and like Gupta, wanted to live in the Barn. "The first year is always the hardest. In 10 years, I see this being the same kind of setup with different people. In 10 years, this neighborhood will be just as gentrified as Williamsburg." He pauses. "We wanted to be able to plan something years from now."

He has always preferred living like this, Crane says. "I want to remove everything icky from discovering underground art." He motions downstairs. "I want New York to have one of these. I don't want people to think New York City is full of cliques of swill."

The January 5 show is Silent Barn's fourth since reopening. A bouncer collects $7 from every audience member. The cider stands in for cans of PBR. A Pomeranian named Slippy skips around the room. And Alien Whale sounds exactly like an alien's wail, forcing a few listeners to plunge fingers into their ears.

But outside in the yard, the drywall balance sheet, leaning against the façade, all but dares passersby to question the Barn's resolve, its ability to make this DIY thing actually work. Red ink shows rent at $13,770. "Energy, water, and telepathy" clock in at $2,048. Waste management, insurance, repairs, and loan repayment bring the monthly nut to just under $19,000. Meanwhile, an "income" column, written in a hopeful blue, calculates $19,042 for "stewdio rent," "stew residency rent," door donations, daytime rentals, and "Barnacle subscriptions."

Gupta cocks his head and studies the numbers. "We have 10 years to get it right," he says. "This is, like, day four."

Corrections were made to this article to indicate that the Department of Buildings was responsible for the Silent Barn's initial closure and that Shane Suski created the balloon installation.

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