Essays

A DIY Space Is Forced to Close in Denver Amid the Post-Ghost Ship Crackdown

Residents of Rhinoceropolis, a seminal art space and DIY music venue, were kicked out of the warehouse complex last month over “serious fire code violations.”

A show at Rhinoceropolis in 2008 (photo by Julio Enriquez/Flickr)

On a cold winter’s night, back when I was a pimply teenager trying to find my place, some fellow artist-musician friends and I went to a mysterious concert we’d heard about on MySpace. When we finally found the address, in a dingy industrial neighborhood in Denver, we were sure we had the wrong place. As we stood there scratching our heads, someone noticed a small placard on the door to a seemingly vacant building — the hand-painted sign read “Rhinoceropolis.” Little did I know then that this inconspicuous warehouse would change my life. Now, the future of Rhinoceropolis hangs in the balance after the commune that called it home was evicted following the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland because of allegedly “serious” code violations.

Back during our first DIY adventure, my friends and I knocked on the door. No response. We gave it a push and stumbled into a deserted flex space used as a gallery, living room, and concert venue all in one. After some confused wandering, we found a serene-looking punk passed out on a couch and gave him a gentle shake. “Oh, are you guys here for the concert?” he asked, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “Yeah, should be started around 11 or 12.” Kids drinking 40s and smoking cigarettes started pouring into the venue around 11:45pm, before the ambient duo, Married in Berdichev, cast a spell on the audience amid a tangle of delay pedals, chimes, and Christmas lights. Eventually the Mathematicians took the floor to close out the night.

I’ll never forget what The Mathematicians told the crowd that night. “If you want to learn, go to a library,” said one of the band mates. “If you want to have sex with girls, go to college.” In my 16-year-old wisdom, it was one of the best pieces of advice anyone had ever given me. I like to think that the band — mostly made up of working engineers and scientists — was subtly encouraging us to get an education by appealing to the more primitive impulses of our youth.

A show at Rhinoceropolis in 2008 (photo by Julio Enriquez/Flickr)

Another unforgettable night we went to see underground legend Dan Deacon, a founding member of Baltimore’s Wham City collective, perform at “Rhino,” as the space is known colloquially. It was a hotly anticipated show and so the crew rented a big JBL sound system for the night. Deacon led the crowd in a whirling, jumping, thumping rager. The small warehouse was packed wall-to-wall. The crowd moved in a whirlpool like a single organism, with Deacon at its center, writhing around as if in a trance. In a big train, hands to shoulders, Deacon led the crowd out of the venue’s back door, into the courtyard, and back into the steaming room as the beat threatened to tumble the brick complex to the ground. When the show was over, the crowd burst out of the front door and into a snowstorm in a huge cloud of sweaty condensation.

On many similar nights, Travis Egedy, aka Pictureplane, performed at the space, where he also lived and worked. He was one of the original members of the collective and, like the other members, was part of an amorphous community of DIY spaces stretching from coast to coast and jumping across oceans. “The vision of a space like that is always about freedom, I think,” Egedy told Hyperallergic in an email. “Freedom to create your own reality outside of the constructs of society. It was a place people could come to explore themselves, and to discover themselves — I know that I discovered myself there.” A lot of people, myself included, found pieces of their identities at Rhino.

“Coming to Denver in 2007 and being introduced to this dayglo cave that artists and musicians both lived and performed in was a major moment for me in seeing the possibility of art as a part of an everyday lived experience,” Adam Gildar, of Denver’s Gildar Gallery, told Hyperallergic. “A number of the artists I’ve worked with over the years, some of whom have gained national and international recognition, have had direct ties to the warehouse as residents and regular contributors to its community.”

A crowded show at Rhinoceropolis in 2011 (photo by Jeff Ruane/Flickr)

Beginning in 2005, for at least half a dozen years, Rhinoceropolis — along with its next-door neighbor, Glob — was the main cultural incubator in Denver and a popular stop for touring bands and experimental artists passing through Middle America. A whole host of more mature gallery spaces, bands, artists, etc. where born out of Rhino. Today, the city of Denver, with its burgeoning arts scene, owes a huge debt to the DIY space and the artists who came up there. “I really hope that the city of Denver can recognize that a place like Rhinoceropolis, that has been serving the city for 11 years, is hugely important as a cultural landmark for the city,” said Egedy. “Denver needs to help preserve and save Rhino.”

“Undoubtedly Rhino has also played a role in influencing other spaces in Denver,” Gildar said, “ranging from other artist-run galleries and venues to its institutions such as the Museum Of Contemporary Art, which has also exhibited multiple artists from that community over the last decade.”

As has been pointed out in the aftermath of the Ghost Ship tragedy, artists don’t usually live in warehouses with improvised bedrooms and moldy microwaves because they think it’s romantic. Artists live in DIY work-live studio spaces because it’s the only way they can afford to have space to both work and live. No one in their right mind thinks it’s cool to not be “up to code.” But it also makes artists and DIY spaces vulnerable to sudden eviction, as we have recently seen with Rhino and Baltimore’s Bell Foundry. In Denver, members were evicted at a moment’s notice into single-digit temperatures because of “serious fire code violations,” as the Denver Fire Department put it.

“The fire hazards identified create a dangerously flammable environment including extension cords used for permanent wiring, wrapping paper on the walls, and plastic on the ceiling,” the Denver Mayor’s Office said in an email to Hyperallergic. “The building is not zoned for residential use and therefore does not have the required smoke detection devices and fire suppression systems (i.e. sprinkler systems), nor does it have a properly working furnace to ensure the safety of anyone living inside.”

A show at Rhinocropolis in 2008 (photo by Julio Enriquez/Flickr)

But Egedy feels that the code violations are just an excuse to crack down on artistic dissent and he’s suspicious of the rash of DIY artist space evictions following what happened in Oakland. “The shutting down of DIY venues all over America after Oakland does feel political to me,” he said. “They’re using a tragedy as an excuse to shut down spaces that the police and the government see as politically charged.”

“Our efforts are focused on ensuring safe spaces for our artistic community and to help facilitate this outcome, we are holding a community meeting with the RiNo neighborhood and others on January 18 at 5:30pm at the McNichols Building,” said the Mayor’s Office. But the RiNo neighborhood, though it encompasses Rhino’s location, is not to be confused with the DIY space, which represented the antithesis of the rapid gentrification underway in the the surrounding area. Back when my friends and I found our way to the magical space via MySpace, the neighborhood was a dark industrial wasteland, and its griminess added to its character.

Threatened by gentrification and zoned for industrial use, the future of Rhinoceropolis is uncertain if not bleak. But maybe some of the power of DIY artists’ spaces, communes, and underground cultural incubators is derived from their impermanence. Resistance through creativity can’t be static or location-dependent, and so Rhinoceropolis, the Bell Foundry, Ghost Ship, Drop City, Black Mountain College and countless other project spaces live on through their legacies as places of refuge from the flattening forces of patriarchal capitalism. May many more laboratories of artistic awesomeness always sprout up in their wakes.

Party remnants at Rhinoceropolis (photo by Julio Enriquez/Flickr)
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