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DIY or die: Why Denver needs under-the-radar, all-ages arts spaces

Japanther and its crowd become one at a show at Denver DIY show space Glob.
Japanther and its crowd become one at a show at Denver DIY show space Glob.
Dean Keim

Last month, Denver DIY house venue and show space Mouth House was shut down by the cops for good. As far as house venues go, it had a good, three-year run. Undaunted by surrounding gentification, Mouth House sat in the midst of Five Points, minding its own business in a surprisingly busy neighborhood that didn't seem to mind or even notice the dirt yard -- which was often teeming with people either taking a smoke break from the noisy interior sweat box or waiting to get in to see whatever band was playing (or sometimes, whatever guy was writhing around on the floor pouring windshield-wiper-fluid-blue soda all over himself while screaming into a microphone).

When I heard that the coffin lid on Mouth House had been nailed shut forever, all I could think was, fuck. Another all-ages performance space in Denver gone for good.

See also: Denver DIY space Mouth House shut down, two of its tenants due in court today

Part one of Pete Bell's 2012 documentary on the still-thriving DIY Denver venue Rhinoceropolis.

I guess the cops were looking for drugs when they set up an undercover sting at a Mouth House Halloween party. From talking to some people who lived at Mouth House, it sounds like they didn't find drugs -- but they found enough violations that they shut the place down. The current tenants of Mouth House have been asked to leave, and given less than a week to do so -- which sucks for them. If you've tried to find a decently priced place to rent in Denver lately, you know it isn't easy. These tenants -- some of whom are my friends -- are effectively homeless. And two of them will be in court today, as I report in this Backbeat story.

But there's more to the Mouth House saga. The situation isn't a one-dimensional issue of some kids losing an affordable housing situation that also doubled as a venue for shows and, often, parties. With the closure of Mouth House, Denver has lost yet another space where people of all ages, demographics and incomes could gather to see art and music, as it was happening, for free (or whatever they could afford to donate).

With these DIY or Do-It-Yourself venue ventures, the house, warehouse, gallery or space is run by a community of musicians and artists that operates it as a place to showcase art and music while interacting with the larger community. And like Mouth House, sometimes these venues double as living quarters for those who run the place. That in-house investment is not seen in a "normal" tax-paying, business-minded venue venture: Living in a venue also means that you'll most likely do a lot of work there for free. Booking shows, providing sound and other equipment, operating and staffing the venue, cleaning up and finding places for out-of-town performers to stay are all things that tenants of DIY show spaces do on a regular basis.

But all of those are also the inherent benefits of running a DIY show space. You're in charge of everything, which means you can see performers you like getting a chance to connect with an audience (and possibly get some money), make lasting connections with touring acts, offer affordable performances in a space that is welcoming to all, have a really good time doing what you love and experience art outside of the realms of what is often considered socially acceptable.

I'm not knocking the business behind legit performance venues; I understand there is a place for all types of show spaces. But I see a lot I disparity in those places that are supposedly devoted to showcasing art -- namely, the artists often getting ripped off and the audience being completely separated from the performance and in essence, the full experience.

 

Kevin Wesley of Hot White merges with the audience.
Kevin Wesley of Hot White merges with the audience.

Especially with bar venues. When you're a band (or you're a DJ, a comedian, dancer, hula hoop expert, etc.) at a certain level, a bar venue may be the only place where you can get a show, especially when you're first starting to perform out. Bar venues can work, and there are some great ones to play here, but there's also that big, stinking issue of ageism. When you choose to open a bar and have performances happen inside of it, you are telling people not old enough to buy booze that they aren't invited. Why? Because they weren't legally born within a time frame that lets them consume what you're selling. And I think that's bullshit.

This is one of the many reasons I prefer DIY venues -- because no one can be excluded based on something they can't control. I've been of age for more than a decade, but I will never for a second believe that art shouldn't be accessible to everyone. And as a person who plays music, the last thing I want to see when I play a show is a room full of people my age with their backs turned as they belly up to the alcohol trough, I mean, bar. I'd prefer a mix of people, not mixed drinks. When would-be audiences are shut out of a place because they can't legally start a bar tab, that says a lot to me about the priorities of the money-makers. And the priorities aren't the art or the kids who will someday be in charge of making that art, either.

I'm not saying DIY spaces are pristine, alcohol-free zones where everyone is invited and everything is beautiful. There is plenty of drinking and other shit I don't want to know about going on at DIY venues, too. They are not immune to the substance culture that is so intertwined with the art culture. This is also where I see the legality of a DIY space being a problem, as operating under-the-radar means no one is policing the drinking and such. But I don't think we can change that -- not at DIY venues, and probably not at grown-up, legit venues, either.

Like Monkey Mania, Hipster Youth Halfway House, Unit E, Garageland, the Tarshack and dozens of other now-deceased Denver DIY venues, Mouth House operated on the notion that it could all end, any day. These sorts of art-driven ventures are generally illegal in some sense, and part of the deal with DIY culture in this capacity is that nothing is really permanent, anyway. There's an appeal to circumventing the system and doing it your way; there is an attractiveness in things that are temporary and subject to change at any moment, because those things enjoy certain freedoms that legally cemented ventures can't. Call it magic, call it the full-on realization of artistic expression, call it a really good fucking party, call it what ever you want -- just make sure that it is accessible to everybody.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies.



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