On Tuesday, Brooklyn said goodbye to OG DIY art space and music venue Secret Project Robot—for now. The final show of the weeklong “Doomsday Celebration: One Long Goodbye Until We Meet Again” featured Blob Dylan, King Pussy Face, and Call of the Wild, plus about 100 longtime friends and supporters there to see the space one last time before its doors closed forever.
“But I don’t want this to be the same story all the DIY spaces get,” cofounder Rachel Nelson told Brooklyn Magazine. “It’s not ‘The Man shut us down!’ or ‘New York sucks!’” It’s not even really goodbye, as Nelson is emphatic that SPR is not over. “We’re not closing—we’re going to reopen somewhere else,” she said. “And it’s really positive! We’re excited to try something new.”
The Secret Project Robot Art Experiment began all the way back in 1998. It was born as Mighty Robot, created by multimedia artist Eric Zajaceskowski; by 2004 Nelson was part of the team, and the newly christened Secret Project Robot moved into a floor of the Williamsburg arts complex Monster Island. In 2011, after Monster Island closed, SPR moved into the former auto-body shop in Bushwick where it’s been since, steadily presenting musicians, curating art exhibits, producing festivals, throwing parties, and enabling spectacles—doing all they could to build a home for art and culture to thrive, day after day.
With a gallery, two stages, a massive backyard, and 27 artist studios, SPR has been able to incubate, produce, and showcase an incredible amount of work. Some of the better-known musicians who have been through (often several times) are Laurie Anderson, Spiritualized, Black Dice, A Place to Bury Strangers, and Oneida. (Back in the Monster Island days, they were early supporters of many then-up-and-coming Brooklyn bands, giving their stage to the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Dum Dum Girls, Cult of Youth, and Knyfe Hyts.)
SPR has also cultivated relationships with many underground and alternative party producers, hosting Cheryldance, Ende Tymes, Spring Fever Festival, A/V Salon, and Bushwig—the now-massive annual alt-drag extravaganza got its start in Secret Project’s backyard. And those are just the big shows. SPR has always been a home for emerging artists to try to find their way. “There have been so many tiny shows I’ve loved,” Nelson said. “We’ve always tried to be a place where artists could come and experiment. We’re not mad if nobody shows up.” When she was working on SPR’s 10-year anniversary celebration, she went back through 17 years of archives and tallied it up: well over 2,000 artists have performed or exhibited in their space.
Meanwhile, SPR has not been immune to the changes in New York’s many striving scenes. “At this point, the old DIY model has become unsustainable,” Nelson said. One of the ways they’ve worked to combat the intense challenges inherent to running an art space in Brooklyn today is to cross over into a more legitimate business arena: in 2013 Nelson and Zajaceskowski opened the bar Happyfun Hideaway with the intention of using its proceeds to support SPR. “There’s a long history of bars being important cultural centers in New York City, going back to Pyramid Bar and Mudd Club and those sorts of places,” Nelson said. “So doing this is not untrue to who we are.”
The gambit worked—so well, in fact, that the team opened up a second bar, Flowers for All Occasions, in late 2015. “You get really embarrassed, when you’re in this DIY world, to pursue something other than being a poor artist,” Nelson said. “But why? With money, we can do more of what we want to do as artists.”
Those lessons will come with them to the next SPR incarnation, which Nelson hopes to find this fall and have ready to open in early 2017. “I think everybody’s trying to figure out what’s next for DIY, for the underground,” she said. “It’s a really important question for the city right now.” She nods to spaces like House of Yes, Silent Barn, and Trans-Pecos, which have all found ways to recreate themselves, becoming or remaining sustainable while staying true to their DIY roots. “I think we all realize we have a responsibility,” she said. “When I moved here, I found Rubulad, Mighty Robot, that whole late-’90s, early-’00s Williamsburg scene, and there’s a new generation of people who need that, who need to see that the world can be different. I think everybody who’s doing this has to keep at it, even though we’re tired.”
So it’s definitely worth mourning the shuttering of yet another strange and wonderful space, and we should take the time to do so. But in this case, let’s not be sad for too long, and let’s not jump to any grand conclusions. “The media always wants to spin a story about the death of Brooklyn,” Nelson said. “But there’s always a new underground, there’s always a new thing happening. For us it’s always been about sustaining an art community, finding new freaks to nurture who love us.”
All photos by Alix Piorun