DIY Denver Weighs Working With the City Against Freedom in the Shadows

DIY artists and musicians gathered at RedLine to discuss the future of Denver's underground art scene.
DIY artists and musicians gathered at RedLine to discuss the future of Denver's underground art scene. Kyle Harris
Just a few months ago, Denver's experimental artists and musicians fearlessly lived, worked and threw shows in scrappy warehouses. Now they are talking about collaborating with the city and the private sector, and debating the merits of incorporating as nonprofits, cooperatives or LLCs.

What changed? As Westword contributor and Amplify Arts Denver co-organizer Bree Davies put it last night at a town-hall meeting at RedLine, a nonprofit art center: "There was pre-Ghost Ship and post-Ghost Ship."

A week after the fire in Oakland's Ghost Ship warehouse that killed 36 people at an electronic-music show, police and fire officials shuttered Denver DIY hubs Rhinoceropolis and Glob for fire-code violations. Residents had two hours to pack their belongings before scrambling for couches to sleep on.

As other venues were closed by cities across the country,  the DIY community clamped down., an international database of underground spaces, temporarily went dark; venues shut down the social-media channels they'd used to promote shows and connect with bands, fearing cops would use them to get tips on places to go after next. Artists who once hounded the press for coverage refused to go on the record. Rumors spread that a mobilized neo-Nazi force was targeting underground arts spaces on the anonymous message board 4Chan, and that the scene was under attack from President-elect Donald Trump's alt-right supporters.

But now fear and paranoia have given way to political organizing.

On January 10, artists who have lived and worked underground came together at RedLine, under the banner of the week-old coalition Amplify Arts Denver, to brainstorm how the DIY community can build resources and political power. The group also announced a proposed funding program organized with the aboveground River North Art District that would ensure that DIY spaces have both the know-how and the financial wherewithal to comply with city codes.

Help the Residents of Glob and Rhinoceropolis!!! from Kim Shively on Vimeo.

At the event, Denver's artists and allies proved to be measured and thoughtful, even if some were politically inexperienced. But why would they be experienced? Their focus has been building an arts scene — a home for noise music, experimental film screenings, all-night dance parties and punk shows — not navigating bureaucracy and electoral politics.

Before the conversation, artists mingled, ate Sexy Pizza and drank Great Divide beer donated by those companies. The gathering looked like a regular art-show opening, if a little crustier.

Musician Warren Bedell, who's been part of Glob, spoke to Westword about his frustration with city officials treating artists and musicians like naive millennials, when many of the people associated with Rhinoceropolis and Glob are parents approaching forty and working day jobs. The city, he said, is acting "like Dad" and treating artists as children who will eventually shut up and learn to behave.

But the roughly 200 people who attended Amplify Arts Denver's town hall aren't about to shut up. And elected officials who dismiss the political power of this segment of the arts community may face significant opposition.

Target number one: Mayor Michael Hancock, who is serving his second of three possible terms and ran unopposed by any funded candidate in his last race. Number two: Councilman Albus Brooks, who represents a district that includes downtown and the RiNo neighborhood. Both politicians have come under fire from housing advocates and artists for their support of Denver's urban-camping ban and for having what critics say is a too-cozy relationship with rapacious developers.
click to enlarge An event at Rhinoceropolis. - BRANDON MARSHALL
An event at Rhinoceropolis.
Brandon Marshall
The Amplify Arts Denver conversation was led by artist Molly Bounds. Besides Bounds and Davies, the group's organizers include more cultural heavyweights: Titwrench music festival co-founder and Westword MasterMind Sarah Slater, photographer and documentary filmmaker Matt Slaby, and filmmaker and Westword MasterMind Kim Shively, among others.

"The majority of artists in our community would like to live in places that are safe," said Bounds to the jam-packed crowd. "If we hide from this and head further underground, this might lead to less safe spaces."

Two options dominated the discussion: Artists could unplug, move out of Denver and retreat deeper underground; or they could learn to navigate the system, working with lawyers, academics and architects to ensure code compliance.

Coleman Mummery, a musician who lived at Rhinoceropolis, worried that incorporating DIY spaces or collaborating with the city would whittle away the freedom that makes these venues sacred. He waxed poetic about playing music until sunrise, something he fears would not be possible were Rhinoceropolis to become a nonprofit. Perhaps artists who wouldn't incorporate or cooperate with zoning inspectors would be forced to move to Commerce City and open a warehouse there, he said.

An art professor suggested that the DIY community reach out to academics who could connect artists with architecture, law and nonprofit-management students eager to offer pro bono services. Another audience member pointed to the Rad-ish Collective in Boulder, which had taken heat from the city after inspectors discovered a slide in the building connecting the second floor to the first. In that case, the people who lived in the space organized themselves as a cooperative and found favor with Boulder City Council.

One audience member raised the question of affordability and homelessness, and pointed out that Denver artists were relatively privileged compared to people living on the street. Davies indicated that Amplify Arts Denver would be uniting with other groups, including Denver Homeless Out Loud, which were fighting  for affordable housing in the city before artist spaces were targeted.

As the meeting wound down, one last audience member, Lares Feliciano, the program director at Think 360 Arts, who hails from Oakland, weighed in.

"I just feel like it's really important to say and to acknowledge that the absolute 100 percent reason we are here is that artists died in a fire because they were forced to work and live in a space that was unsafe," she said. "We are doing this for them, that those people died, and it's really important to remember that we are all here because of Rhino, because of Glob, and because of people in Ghost Ship who cannot be here now."

As members of the arts community prepare for a public meeting with various city departments at 5:30 p.m. on January 18 at the McNichols Building, they'll be considering their answer to this looming question: Will the underground arts scene be more likely to survive if it surfaces or if it stays in the shadows?

As of now, the DIY scene appears to be rising.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris