This story begins in December 2008 at the annual Space 1026 Art Auction.
A local property manager generously donated a one year lease for a warehouse he owned in Fishtown. I was a four year member of the Space 1026 art collective, as well as the captain of the Vaudevillians Mummer Comic Brigade. I was well aware that my activities and attitude had overgrown 1026’s limited resources and other members’ patience. I had Mummer fabric and floats tucked into every nook and cranny of our collective studio. I needed more space in which to rehearse and build larger floats. I wanted to make an even bigger mess with the Vaudevillians, and not have to ask permission to do it.
In the auction, I won the warehouse for one year for $1,200. The following February I packed up my studio and moved everything into what was affectionately known as NERD Island. With the hope of creating a new art-making community, I offered studio spaces for $400/year. I thought the line of interested artists would be out the door. The money raised through rental fees would be used to cover what I owed to Space 1026 for the the auction and backrent, fix the electricity in the new space — currently off the grid and running from two outlets for the whole space — and pay for other improvements like a bathroom, running water, and roof repairs. Interest was high until I explained the lack of facilities and light, and the location. By March, three months into our rental, we had five members. The rent was ridiculously low, but everyone was broke — including me. NERD Island needed to be renovated to a “livable” condition to attract more artists.
In mid-April, I woke to a call from a new NERD Island member who was attempting to move into the warehouse. “We can’t get in. The doors aren’t there.” I rushed to the warehouse to find our side and back doors completely cemented over. The Spanish-speaking Evangelical Church of Christ that was connected to us felt it was in their power to close access to the warehouse since our entrances were on their property. Previous attempts at communication were unsuccessful due to language barriers. Access was now limited to the large rolling front gate which required two people, one ladder, a metal rod, and a medium sized rock to open. Working at the warehouse now relied on the buddy system, which severely limited visits.
Months passed, summer arrived, and a visit to NERD Island revealed another obstacle for entry: the front door was magically fixed, but I didn’t have the key. It was seven months into our rental and communication with our landlord had broken down due to mutual frustrations. The warehouse was easier to access once I got the key but remained a wall-crumbling, roof-leaking, bathroom-lacking, lights-not-working mess. Current members understandably started asking for rental refunds. I made the difficult decision to give up on the warehouse and leave Philadelphia to restore my finances and my sanity.
Before I left, I attempted to make a quick stop by the warehouse to retrieve some of my belongings. The door rose with a turn of the key and then suddenly got stuck at four feet open. Wide open warehouse, late at night, all alone. I boarded up the front the best I could. I had exactly enough screws to create the illusion of security. L&I wasn’t fooled and slapped a condemnation sticker on the property a few weeks later.
My landlord had one month to repair the property or it would be condemned. L&I’s warnings were ignored, the door was never repaired and I received a call months later that the warehouse had been broken into. NERD Island had turned from artist studio to squatter refuge. Art supplies were stolen and replaced with soiled clothing and makeshift bedding. Mustard, cake mixes, and excrement were also added to the pastiche. The place was trashed.
A year had passed and with no supplies or tools I decided to resurrect the only artistic venture planned for NERD Island: A Mummer Comic Brigade for the next parade. I arrived back in Philly on December 25, after a month of online Mummer planning and communication. I setup our production space in my friend’s house. Mummers started arriving soon after. We used a vacant bedroom as the main sewing room, the kitchen floor as a printing table, the extensive hallways as drying racks, and the open field just down the block as our rehearsal space. Daily updates and desperate membership invitations (25 people are needed to be considered a brigade for the parade) were sent through Facebook and Twitter. Our practice videos were shared with members on YouTube. Everything was accomplished online and in my friend’s home. We worked nonstop for four days, ending with our performance on New Year’s Day.
Ron Goldwyn, from WPHL for the Mummers Parade announced, “He has assembled quite an interesting group of folks that came to the Mummers online. This is a sort of social networking brigade.” He helped me realize that in the end I had accomplished my initial goal for NERD Island: to make art with others. The warehouse remains in a ruined state but the collective lives on online. My attraction to art began with the collaborative process formed at Space 1026 and the experience taught me art can be made anywhere with anyone if you’re willing.