FREAK ROOM: RUINS

Freak Room exterior

This page was written for Em Reed’s Speculation Jam in February 2020.

From Summer 2015 to Spring 2018 I ran an art studio with a handful of friends called The Freak Room out of the second floor of a previously-abandoned warehouse in Baltimore, Maryland. I had just finished school and though I had participated in a handful of projects in the DIY art scene this was my first major involvement with starting a brand new art space. Without much institutional intervention, were able to design the space ourselves and make the rules for our lives and work within it. Since its closure, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’ll live and work collaboratively now that the DIY-style housing and community is becoming scarce.

Previous to our tenure, The Freak Room had been rented by a sports marketing agency. I don’t have the full story, but things must have ended suddenly for them as well. Virtually everything that could have been used to run their business was left behind. Most of the rooms were carpeted with astroturf. One room had a full pool table with Ravens purple and black. Another had walls painted in chromakey green. The whole place was filled with pallettes of discontinued soft drinks and promotional merchandise like plastic Pepsi-branded lockers, Philadelphia Eagles tabletops, various inflatable props, t-shirts, etc. There was also a handful of computers left over, a set of original Harman Kardon Soundsticks, and a Fujitsu Stylistic ST4110 which I still used until it stopped powering on last month. On our first tour of the space we found a long-vacant hidden bedroom in the back of the space. Besides a mattress, some holiday decorations and drawings done directly on the walls there were numerous photos of children sitting in a Santa’s lap. The basement of the space was perpetually flooded with a large pool of water. We made a deal with the landlord that we would clean the space out ourself in exchange for a few months of free rent.

Electronics remains Studio bar Ravens decals in the studio

One of the first nights we blew up an inflatable 20-foot bottle of Diet Lipton White Tea Peach Papaya. After the first couple of months we had neatly divided up the space and built some walls and shelves. Besides tearing up the astroturf from most of the rooms, we ended up keeping a lot of the sports merchandise and decor. The pool table room remained largely untouched and was the main area of congregation in The Freak Room. Pool became our main group activity though none of us had much interest in it prior to moving in. The leftover sports theme influenced basically all the activity that happened in the studio. We had small gatherings and a few parties that almost all centered around the pool table.

The space was extremely dilapidated. It had several large gaps that went all the way through the walls and many of the windows were broken. We had an initial rat infestation and a brief pigeon infestation as well. There was never reliable heat or air conditioning. The pipes froze every winter-something that I almost miss now that it’s barely gone below freezing the past two years. We did our best to repair things but some repairs were too difficult or costly for us to complete. The landlord owned a ton of property. Luckily the building manager he employed was an amazing person who we quickly befriended. He would often help us make repairs and hang out. He’s since relocated to Oklahoma but checks in from time to time.

Pool room Table in studio

When a friend visited from LA, I showed her The Freak Room. By now the leftover sports equipment and merchandise was completely mingled with secondhand power tools, ceramics supplies and half-finished battle bots on our scrap wood tables and shelves. She said the space reminded her of Garry’s Mod. The repurposed and vacant streets of City 17 littered with absurd unrelated objects colliding in interesting ways.

The Freak Room did possesses a no-limits sandbox quality. The combination of art supplies and sports paraphernalia were really reminiscent of assets modded-in from other games and properties. Even the massive issues with the space, contributed to the janky modded sandbox feel of the studio. Being there felt like we were left alone to apply our intentions to the space and our lives within it.

Studio sale Gmod party example

I don’t want to glamorize the situation. The DIY art scene in Baltimore has had a long history of gatekeeping and poor integration with local communities. The DIY scene has a large contingency of transplants, many of which are graduates of Maryland Institute College of Art (myself and most of the residents of The Freak Room included). I can confidently say this has gotten way better in the past 5-6 years, but its still something that constantly needs to be considered. I’m aware of the role arts communities play in gentrification (This article is a thorough account of how this happened in New York’s Lower East Side). We tried to be mindful of this as much as possible with The Freak Room. We made friends with a handful of people in the neighborhood but were still definitely seen as outsiders. Some locals were understandably hostile to us but things never really got worse than kids breaking a few windows.

In April 2018 we got evicted from the space. The relationship with the erratic landlord had completely collapsed. The situation didn’t break cleanly. The member of our group who had found the space and collected the rent and had the most contact with the landlord was effected the most. After the eviction, the landlord was almost constantly threatening her with weird legal ramifications. By now, almost everyone associated with The Freak Room has moved to other cities.

Pool Table

Things changed a lot in the DIY art scene and Baltimore at large in the post-Uprising era. If you want more information about those events I can recommend a few articles. I try to avoid recommending articles from big news sources like NYT and the Washington Post but these two do a pretty decent job summarizing a lot of the culture that’s still persisting and in most cases intensifying:

These articles aren’t perfect. For instance, I don’t like that Hui uses the term “riots” in reference to the activities directly following Freddy Gray’s murder. I also feel like MacGillis puts too positive a spin on O’Malley’s run as Baltimore’s mayor.

The most direct effect on the DIY scene was the closure of the mostly-QPOC run warehouse space The Bell Foundry. A space with a long history, it was unceremoniously condemned by then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on her last day in office (she didn’t run for reelection). Citing the Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire that happened in Oakland earlier that month, law enforcement came and evicted the residents of The Bell. The area The Bell Foundry was in was and still is undergoing rapid redevelopment. Most of the warehouse and other DIY spaces in the area (most of which are rented) immediately stopped having any sort of events. The Freak Room, because we were far from downtown and already didn’t host many events, went on for about 2 more years until we were evicted. Much of the information in this article in the Baltimore Sun from 2017 remains true in 2020. One difference, however is then-mayor Cathy Pugh was caught in a scandal and left office in 2019.

At this point I need to address how many articles I’m linking from The Baltimore Sun because its also part of the problem. Among other things, it acquired then folded Charm City Paper, a huge independent news source for Baltimore that had been running since the 70’s.

The downward trend of the DIY scene here has me really worried. I haven’t lived anywhere besides Dallas, Texas and moved to Baltimore when I was 18. I hope a lot of my fears are just a result of me growing older and not knowing when new spaces emerge. There is still a lot of great energy here and new younger folks who are eager and far better equipped to start new things. However a lot of decades-old fixtures surrounding the scene are being shuttered. Even Seoul Spa, an amazing LGBT-friendly Korean spa just outside of the city closed earlier this year after years of service.

Dollhouse

Since the end of The Freak Room I’ve rented at a long-standing warehouse show space in the city. We still have really great shows from time to time but attendance does not compare to the raucous and packed shows I attended in the same space 9 years ago. Recently things seem even more tenuous as the nearby historic Lexington Market is closing for remodelling after literally 238 years of uninterrupted business. Again I will reference Shan Wallace’s terrific photography and writing in this piece for True Laurels titled For the Love of Lexington Market.

The development company who bought my building out from under the artists who lived here in the 80’s has also started building two high rises on either side of us. There are rumors that they will put language in the next lease banning us from doing events of any size. I feel like soon it will be impossible to be left alone to live the way in which we’ve become accustomed. I don’t have confidence in the corrupt and dysfunctional city government or these poorly-funded development companies to even follow through with their redevelopment plans. I can’t imagine things are much better in other cities, though I can only speak to my experience here in Baltimore.

I often fantasise a lot about relocating and salvaging what is left of the community built around The Freak Room. I don’t know where or how to do this or if its even possible. I’ve heard of creative communities living more isolated lives in rural and remote areas. This sounds beautiful but I like living in a city. I like being able to come and go from an ordinary world. The warehouse tradition is also something I think is entirely unique, especially in long-running spaces like the place I currently occupy. The main bathroom here has no door and is on an elevated platform obscured with glass bricks. There’s a covered peephole next to the toilet. These design features are from a time where the space served as a sex venue of sorts. Many of us here share similar dreams of hidden rooms and labyrinths behind the drywall.

Climate woes are also a factor. In 2017, I was in San Francisco for some work-related training. I quickly bonded with another attendant from Australia over our mutual love of the Australian-American sci-fi series Farscape. He told me that housing had become so expensive in Sydney that many people, including his mother, had begun renting houseboats as a more affordable alternative. He said as prices continue to climb and sea levels rise the house boats drift further and further away from the coast.

Some may be familiar with some of the peculiar development failures of Baltimore via the popular YouTube Channel This is Dan Bell. and his Abandoned Mall Series. A child’s hand is softly gummed by the mouth of an animatronic tree in The Rainforest Cafe as it espouses vague warnings about environmental collapse.

Tracey Tree

I find solace in José Esteban Muñoz’s writing. In his 2009 book Cruising Utopia, Muñoz argues that futurity is inherent in queer existance and that uptopic vision should be applied in place of more pragmatic thought when speculating on the future of queer life. From the introduction:

The moment in which I write this book the critical imagination is in peril. The dominant academic climate into which this book is attempting to intervene is dominated by a dismissal of political idealism. Shouting down utopia is an easy move. It is perhaps even easier than smearing psychoanalytic or deconstructive reading practice with the charge of nihilism. The antiutopian critic of today has a well-worn war chest of poststructuralism pieties at her or his disposal to shut down lines of thought that delineate the concept of critical utopianism. Social theory that invokes the concept of utopia has always been vulnerable to charges of naivetè, impracticality, or lack of rigor…I am also not interested in a notion of the radical that merely connotes some notion of extremity, righteousness, or affirmation of newness…The version of queer social relations that this book attempts to envision is critical of the communitarian as an absolute values and of its negation as an alternative all-encompassing value.

I really appreciate the autotheorectical nature of Muñoz’s work. In Cruising Utopia and his later book Disidentifications, Muñoz often cites examples from his own childhood and life the same way he cites other authors, studies and historical events. In the chapter of Cruising Utopia titled Utopia’s Seating Chart, Muñoz discusses the work of Pop Artist Luke Dowd in order to illustrate his anti-identitarian, non-prescriptive utopic vision. Muñoz describes a piece by Dowd that he personally owns: a portrait of the Marvel Comics character the Silver Surfer. At the end of the chapter, Muñoz elaborates on his personal connection to the character:

This painting engages me on a few levels. It certainly indexes Pop Art’s interest in superhero mythology-one can look at the majesty of the Surfer in flight and think of Andy Warhol’s Superman silk screens. The difference is that Superman was a dominant comic during Warhol’s childhood. The sickly boy of European origins lost himself in the fantasy of this Superman who was a perfect man. I too grew up reading comics such as Marvel’s The Fantastic Four…The Surfer was an alien exiled to Earth, always longing to return to his homeland.

For me, a Cuban who grew up in Miami, where I was always told I was living in exile from my homeland, the Surfer’s mythology resonated. Dowd’s painting, then, speaks of a troubled world of superheroes both in touch with reality and defying it, not the idealized sphere of Pop Art’s cartoons. The Surfer is sexy too, but not in the explicit way that Superman is. His form is perfect but his skin is pure reflective silver. The illusion of reflection…is first initiated in the surface of the Silver Surfer’s skin. My childhood desire for him is not Warhol’s desire for this alien who looks like a hunk; it is the desire for an alien who looks like an alien, who is odd and freakish and reflects my own freakishness back at me…It signals a desire for another way of being in the world, another way of knowing the world, and this world is one gleaming with potentiality.

In 2018 I visited New York City in order to see the Charles Atlas Retrospective at the Kitchen. I was really moved by the work, most notably his collaborations with Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer of the Judson Church Group. Though I was already a big fan of Rainer’s work, specifically because of her No Manifesto (No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic. No to trash imagery. No to involvement of performer or spectator. No to style. No to camp. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer. No to eccentricity. No to moving or being moved.) I had no idea she had any connection to Atlas.

Rainer Variations, directed by Atlas, features Rainer attempting to instruct fellow artist and choreographer Richard Move as Matha Gram in the movement of Trio A, a dance piece originally preformed by Rainer in 1966 that coincides with her No Manifesto. Move continually adds little aesthetic flourishes antithetical to the anti-style sensibility of Rainer’s choreography. The pair struggle to connect in mock frustration in a very sentimental and clever collaboration. An excerpt.

What moved me most about the retrospective was how interconnected Atlas’ work was with his friends and contemporaries. Most if not all of the videos were made for someone else’s production or employed the talents of one of Atlas’ peers. Moreover, the fact that Atlas worked with Cunningham and Rainer meant a cross-generational collaboration that allowed me to see the Judson Church Group’s work in a broader context. Atlas’ retrospective at the kitchen presented something that is the way it is because its the only way it could be. In that, what the body of video work presented and the video work itself is mostly the same thing. Atlas’ work depicts a version of his life and community and his life and community made the work.

Despite its absence in the retrospective, my favorite Charles Atlas project is Hail the New Puritan!, a 1986 pseudo-fictional documentary following Scottish dancer and choreographer Michael Clark with production design by Leigh Bowery and music by The Fall. The Fall was a band I was very into when I was in high school but hadn’t thought that much about as an adult. Seeing them again with Atlas and co. was completely unexpected and compelling. Like seeing Cunningham and Rainer in Atlas’ retrospective, this changed the way I thought about the Fall and social conditions that informed their music.

Hail the New Puritan! slides from actually or convincingly real segments to the absurd and surreal. It’s hard for me to even believe that Channel 4, a major UK network, funded this project. The club scene near the end of the movie is a great example of this in that the whole club seems to be a constructed set. It reminds me a lot of Meriem Benani’s recent project Party on the CAPS. In this interview with Dazed, Benani explains how, in order to film a giant party scene for the video, she simply threw a giant party. Obviously I would highly recommend watching Hail the New Puritan! though it can be hard to find a good copy online. Please contact me if you’re interested in watching it and you’re having trouble tracking it down.

The type of game I am most interested in seeing is autofictional and speculative. Its the type of game I am (very slowly) trying to make. I want to play a game that represents a utopian version of the conditions under which it was made (if anyone reading this has any recommendations for games like this, please contact me). I like thinking about game worlds as mind maps or rhizomatic diagrams in that they can serve as containers for objects and characters that you can interact with as you move through the world. In this interview about his madcap takse on Transformers vs. G.I. Joe and Super Powers for DC Comics, comic artist Tom Scioli was asked about his abundant use of maps in his work. His response:

I think everybody has that fascination with maps and the first time you discover an imaginary map, say the one of Middle Earth from The Lord of the Rings or a map of Eternia from He-Man or even Kirby's detailed map of Kamandi's world. Over the course of that series he even covers most of that ground. The map functioned as a guide to what the character did. Hicksville creator Dylan Horrocks has argued that a map really is a comic and that always stuck with me. Here I attempted to make a literal interpretation of that idea.

This can be directly applied to both playing and making games. I don’t feel the need to explain the various key roles maps play in many types of games. Exploring game worlds and uncovering obscured areas of the map can provide the greatest sense of progress in certain games. Some will be familiar with drawing maps on graph paper for older first-person RPGs and dungeon crawlers. The more-recent RPG series Etrian Odyssey necessitates players draw their own maps of the game’s dungeons using the bottom screen on the Nintendo DS. Designing a game can be very similar to writing a story which, according to Scioli, can be the same thing as drawing a map.

A playwright friend of mine starts her writing process by interconnecting loosely associated words with lines. This gives her the direction she needs to begin plotting. Fictional maps and game maps often serve as non-hierarchical overviews to linear narratives. Below is an example of a diagram for a project I made a few years ago. Next to it is a map constructed from memory of The Freak Room.

Rosebook Freak Room Map

I’ve recently been listening to the fantastic Rebind.io podcast. A handful of times host Emily Rose or one of her guests has compared the video game medium to avant garde theater; a very apt observation that has really influenced the way I’m now thinking about both mediums. Lately I’ve been seeking out plays that have stage direction that is impossible to follow or engineer. While searching for the source of a sample used in a Takako Minekawa song, a friend chanced upon the play A Curious Dream published online, which is a great example of what I’m describing. Though he managed to fully produce his plays, Reza Abdoh is another inspirational playwright; specifically for his 1991 production Bogeyman:

When I told my previously-mentioned playwright friend about my desire to find more plays with impossible or extremely complicated stage directions she quickly recommended Crime or Emergency by Sibyl Kempson. Though the play has been produced a couple of times, I would be very surprised if all of the directions, which include driving hundreds of SUVs on stage, flooding the stage with feet of water and raising the temperature in the theater to 120℉, were ever used. While reading Crime or Emergency on the train back from DC one day, I was particularly moved by the following passage. I couldn’t help but compare the camp described by Lacey, a nurse practitioner, to The Freak Room and the warehouse space I currently occupy:

LACEY:
But recently I went to a place that had been a camp. And it was so great. The bathrooms and the rooms were not finished off, but the structure of two by fours inside the places were exposed, so you could see the homemade handiwork, you got the feeling that they had been built by one very adept carpenter of a period of time. And the two by fours were painted white, Even in the bathrooms and showers. There were corners and shelves built in, for soap or for toilet paper or what not. It was nice. Very practical, and comforting. You didn’t examine things to make sure they were clean. It didn’t matter as much. Because there was still care put in. The walls themselves were painted bright, strong blue. Which you appreciated especially at night. Just a light bulb in the ceiling with a beaded metal pull cord. It felt like childhood, it felt like someone had cared. And it was a privilege to be there, to spend time there. I hope I never forget it. Instead of roaches and rats, there were spiders and deer curled up out back in the sunshine. (She sighs.)

Rose’s comparison between games and theater made me realize that games can be a place for play with impossible stage directions. These games can also be the rhizomatically-generated autofictional and utopian games that I desire to make and play. Following Muñoz’s, these games would archive past memories and events through a utopian speculative lens; focusing on social and creative relations. Experiences like these would provide me a respite from the pragmatism that overwhelmingly guides my thoughts and actions and could hopefully lend some sort of guidance on how and where to live in the future.