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The announcement of this month’s Rubulad bash, which takes place this Saturday near the Gowanus Canal, comes with the note “please forward wildly.” There are plenty of good reasons for this, the least of which is that it will be awesome; the forthcoming installment of the 18-years-running DIY art party will have a Light Circus Extraordinaire, G. Scopitronic’s Non-Stop Film Fest, and an array of dance rooms, live acts, and food.
But not long ago, a typical Rubulad invite warned recipients against posting the information to “any public lists”; even glimpsing the party’s often dangerously packed dance environs, let alone knowing its name, was a word-of-mouth treat. That, though, was when the art-party collective had a home, one located a few BQE exits north from this Saturday’s Santa-themed extravaganza.
For the past six years, Rubulad has occupied an unassuming two-story building in the Williamsburg/Bed-Stuy hinterland nestled between iron shops, glitzy Bar Mitzvah palaces, and the BQE. But that time is nearing an end. Rubulad’s Kickstarter campaign to relocate ends on Thursday, and it’s currently raised $21,375—somewhat far from its ambitious fundraising goal of $35,000.
“It is a marvelous psychedelic mess and it needs your help!” trumpeted a recent mailing from Secret Project Robot, themselves inspired by the venerable and sometimes floating Rubulad, which threw its first parties in 1993 at a warehouse space under the Williamsburg Bridge shared by four bands. (The rent back then: $1,100 a month.) After leaving in 2002, they floated until they found the Flushing Avenue space; last July the parties did that again, the result of the space being shut down by the Fire Department one too many times.
In the Facebook era, event planners have to choose a public or private setting for their gatherings. Rubulad long tried to remain blurrily access-neutral in a way that no longer seems possible. Once a mysterious party spot in an unknowably vast New York underground, they are now findable on Yelp—a listing that co-founder Sari Rubinstein has tried to remove.”We try to be a community thing,” says Rubinstein, who co-founded the group with Chris Thomas. “Not a closed community, but a word-of-mouth community.” There were regular brunches, potlucks, family events, and other excuses to gather in non-Dionysian ways.
Far more art weirdoes than professional party promoters, several members of the community—though not Rubinstein and Thomas—continue to live upstairs from the Flushing Avenue space’s cleaned-out ground floor. In the heyday of the downstairs—a former iron shop—one could swig pre-legal absinthe or acquire brownies (yes they are or no they aren’t) while dancing to music that veered from soul to Bollywood to slow, grinding blues and beyond. Crowds stayed until dawn, or beyond, actually keeping the floor packed and moving.
On occasion, a half-naked marching band might materialize in the crowd, pasties somehow fashioned from unspooled cassette tape. Upstairs, there was a cabaret stage, a cat hiding in what looked like a very cozy bed-nook. A theremin/singing saw garden would periodically sprout on the roof. Every conceivable surface was covered in something shiny. “First the dishes, then the revolution,” read a scrawl above the kitchen sink.
Word got out. The brownie girls got busted. The Fire Department kept showing up, and not unfairly. On big nights, the place was dangerously though enthrallingly packed. A visitor might wonder which window he would jump from, if things came to that. Rubulad eventually fell victim to the ever-changing city, including a Jewish Williamsburg that is gentrifying in its own way as much as the rest of Brooklyn, its residential byways a few blocks away from the party’s nondescript entrance.
“It’s not a noise problem,” says Rubinstein of the clash between Rubulad and its neighbors. “It’s what they call ‘public nudity.'” Which is to say: any bare flesh. “It’s cultural differences. We can make it so no one can hear us, but not wearing t-shirts is another thing. We have to walk through their community. In general, it was quiet most of the winter and really crazy in the summer, building up to them calling the Fire Department so many times that we’d have to take a break. That pretty much happened every summer we were here, and the landlord would call us and say, ‘Can you please stop people having to walk through the neighborhood naked?’ And we just couldn’t do that in July and August.”
Upstairs, layers of art cover the walls like sediment, various parties’ themes—Loose Mother Goose, Bunny Hop—poking through. Giant rolled-up backdrops lean against one wall in a wide bundle, ready for the next party. A miniature papier-mâché subway car dangles from the ceiling. There is a couch with a blanket and a table with a laptop and still a strolling cat. Despite the Acid Tests-like visual explosion, the whole place feels homey, and it should. Though Rubulad only took over the space in 2002, in Rubinstein’s account, it’s been a party-spot-slash-art-loft for at least two decades, if not longer—it was once known as the Happy Birthday Hideout (“bands and circus performers”) and, before that, an after-hours gay disco.
“The avenues for people to do be creative in an unfettered way are being closed down,” said Rubinstein of the ever-escalating civic pressures and small-print enforcements of post-Bloomberg Brooklyn, which now include the city’s surprisingly effective MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots) program. Thanks to a particular loophole in their caretakers’ lease, Rubulad can’t be evicted from their upstairs digs. But, like the similarly nomadic though relative young’ns from Silent Barn, they’d still like to have a place they can call their own, and have their friends (and some friends of friends) over—and maybe even inspire other people to throw their own parties, in the comfort of their own homes.
Rubulad’s Santacon afterparty—with music by The Underground Horns, Top-Secret Mystery Act, and Santa’s Slaves; DJ sets by Ursula 1000, Ol’ Stark, DJ X; and Norm Francoeur’s Light Circus Extraordinaire, G. Scopitronic’s Non-Stop Film Fest, Hot F***ing Tamales, Modern Dance Awareness, and Yogi Avatar’s Saucy Santa Sex-Position Photo Booth—takes place Saturday night at 124-136 10th Street in Brooklyn. Tickets range from $10-$20, depending on when you arrive and whether or not you’re in a Santa costume.