CHICAGO — The walls were painted pink-and-yellow zigzags, and a cast of characters outfitted in white tuxes and animal heads ignited an abandoned nightclub, turning the space into a carnivalesque, Dada-influenced funhouse without mirrors. This is just one moment from Ben Coleman and Henry Detweiler’s project No Vacancy, a Necessary Void, which ran July 20 – August 8 at 91 Broad Street SW, Atlanta.
This site-specific installation occurred as a result of the two artists, who previously did not know each other, spending three weeks together creating a wonderland from what was previously raw detritus. Without access to phones or internet, Detweiler and Coleman made supply and food requests via text message only to Dashboard Co-op, the Atlanta-based organization that works with artists to ignite raw spaces with contemporary art.
Invested in creating an experimental environment that blurred the lines of truth and fiction, fantasy and reality, and the two artists’ solo practices, Detweiler and Coleman’s installation became an explosion of aesthetic influences ranging from modernism and Dada to performance, pataphysics, Gutai and sci-fi special effects. Both of the artists brought with them to the space Alfred Jarry books, something that they only discovered when the texts were laid out on a table. In any strong creative convergence, two minds most become one — if only for a short period of time. The resulting work existed as a universe entirely of its own.
Alicia Eler: Tell me about the origins of this site-specific work. Are you both based in Atlanta? Did you stake out the site or was it assigned to you through Dashboard Co-op?
Ben Coleman: Dashboard Co-op contacted Henry and I to propose the project. At the point of original contact, a site had not been arranged. Additionally, at that point, Henry and I had never met, although we are both based in Atlanta (I am from London, but have been living in the US and practicing in Atlanta for a number of years now). The site was kept unknown to us until we were taken there on the first of the 21 days we were to inhabit the space. We were even driven there wearing blackout glasses so that we didn’t know where we were.
AE: You talk about the fact that in the 1990s, this space was a three-story former gay nightclub in downtown Atlanta. What more do you know about the demise of this business? Was it abandoned ultimately? Did you encounter any types of ghosts or spirits, or was it just vacant? Any creepy dreams? Did you feel a connection with this as an abandoned queer space, or do you not have much identification with queer culture/community/aesthetics?
Henry Detweiler: From what I understand, the building started out as a furniture store in the ’20’s and was a series of furniture businesses until the early ’90’s. At that time it became a series of “down-low” gay nightclubs and the surrounding block became pretty notorious as a hangout drug dealers. The last nightclub that inhabited the building closed sometime in mid to late 2012, presumably as the result of some crippling debt.
BC: In the 90s a number of major businesses moved out of downtown, and the building became a nightclub called The Palace. It went through a number of mutations on a theme, with changes of ownership and name (typical for any nightclub space). In it’s most recent incarnation, it was Cafe 91 (apparently, it’s much easier and cheaper to obtain a liquor license if you claim to be a ‘cafe’ … good to know). At the point at which the space was made available to Dashboard Co-op, the building was recently purchased, and was not only abandoned, but trashed, either by the previous owners in a fit of pique, or possibly by subsequent trespassers.
HD: Initially, the space did seem to have a somewhat sinister personality, which I think we both adapted to after a couple of days. I personally didn’t have any ghostly encounters or creepy dreams, but I definitely avoided the basement after seeing a few silhouetted rats scampering around at night.
BC: It was an absolute mess, but still contained all of the paraphernalia of a functioning nightclub: office paperwork, files and safes, menus, drink lists, signage, mirrors, cocktail shakers, occupancy clickers, balloons … we found a Galaga machine, a jukebox and two pool tables covered in mold in the basement. Virtually all of the lighting was red. We even found drivers licenses of former employees, and a pamphlet from a memorial service for a dead employee. We didn’t come face to face with any ghouls in sheets, but the ‘ghosts’, or perhaps more accurately for me, the memories of the sleeping building were definitely present.
HD: I think that we were more interested in the fact that it had been a nightclub, rather than that it had been a gay nightclub. That fact seemed relatively incidental. That being said, as a gay man, I felt an almost anthropological fascination when we were unearthing some of the ephemera from the building’s recent past. The down-low gay subculture is so specific and clandestine (by design) that I don’t really have much context or relationship to it and my own experience. So getting to rifle through the that stuff was pretty fascinating.
BC: As a musician and a avid student of the history of underground dance cultures, it was an exciting space to be working and living in. I have been engaged with house music and the club scene from a young age as a composer, listener, dancer, clubber and performer, so it was a thrill to rummage through the cdrs that had been left behind the bar or in the changing room for the drag performers, and incorporate these sounds into the sounds we composed for the performance. What was also important for me is that we treated the space and the communities that had inhabited the space with respect, as they deserved.
AE: You were in the space making work in what sounds to me like a very intuitive and focused way. Tell me a bit about the process. How did your lack of access to phones and the internet affect the work? What was it like only having access to text for communication? Can you expand on the idea of how living completely in this space change the work you made?
BC: Henry and I had only met once (in a meeting with Dashboard to discuss the project) before we were brought together in the space for three weeks. We spent the first afternoon and evening exploring the space and finding out more about our new home, and getting to know each other in the process. We sat up late talking and writing ideas down. The ideas came fast and we fell into a pattern of working during the day and brainstorming at night over dinner. We had two beds at opposite ends of the top floor club space, on raised dance platforms, and in the center of the huge space in-between we had two tables pushed together, covered in notepads and scrawled ideas. This was our idea factory. You are very perceptive in your choice of words: the work was undoubtedly intuitive, and intentionally so, operating on both a conscious and unconscious level. Additionally, and key to the success of the experiment, was the focus which came from having no other distractions. We lived, breathed and ate the work at all times, often spending 14 hours painting followed by long sessions brainstorming performance ideas into the morning of the next day. It is all that we thought about, day and night. The only point at which we interacted with the world outside of the space was to text the Dashboard staff to request materials (the staff were the only people we had access to via text). The fact that we already sent out our first materials request within the first day speaks to how intuitive and focused we became in a short time frame. The fact that this first request was for gallons of lubricant and every paint color sample available also speaks to the fact that we were already operating in a free and unimpeded manner in this new space.
AE: What’s it like now that the exhibition is over and the space is again abandoned? Will it go back to what it was before- basically, an abandoned old gay bar in one of Atlanta’s very economically depressed neighborhoods – or will your work help it transform into something else?
BC: I hope we contribute (in a butterfly-flapping-its-wings manner) to the ongoing evolution of a very interesting area of Atlanta by briefly spotlighting it for people, but it is nonetheless an neighborhood which already has a lot to offer and does not need to be saved or transformed. The residents of downtown already have a vibrant and interesting community of their own, and I believe that thanks to them, the area will continue to develop and grow in exciting ways, regardless of our own brief stay.
HD: It is my understanding that the space is going to be leased by a group of young artists and musicians to be used as a mixed use studio space and venue. I don’t know if the work we did influenced their decision to take over the building, but it’s nice to know that it will definitely no longer be abandoned. Artists are a pioneering species, so the fact that those guys are moving in is a signal that the neighborhood is turning around.
AE: Do you collaborate often? How was this site-specific installation an extension of your collaborative and respective solo practices?
BC: As a musician and live-artist, collaboration is an inherent part of my practice, and I find it rewarding to work with artists in other disciplines. Henry and I have never collaborated before but we surely will again, if I have anything to do with it. This was one of the highlights of my practice to date and we already have plans to collaborate again soon, and ideas to spare!
HD: I typically do not collaborate in my regular practice. I usually make drawings and paintings and branch out into installation and performance work only when the opportunity presents itself. I think this experience has shown me that I can have just as, if not more, of a satisfying creative experience though a thoughtful collaboration as I can as a solo artist. The work that Ben and I created is an extension of both of us, so it’s difficult to say where I end and he begins.
Ben Coleman and Henry Detweiler’s No Vacancy, a Necessary Void ran through August 8 at 91 Broad Street SW, Atlanta.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.