In its first year and a half Buddy, a collectively run gallery above a tacky furniture store on Milwaukee, has hosted everything from a cookout with Tibetan monks to a naked gathering in celebration of organic food to a concert of Tuvan throat singing. But it may be better known for its all-night dance parties–last year NewCity named Buddy the “Best Place to Go If You’re Under 21,” as well as the venue “Most Likely to Get Noticed by Homeland Security.” Graffiti covers the gallery’s battered walls. The space is frequently littered with bottles and more often than not reeks of stale beer and overflowing toilets.
No more, says founding member Ed Marszewski: “This is all about to change.”
Two years ago Marszewski–who publishes the 12-year-old political zine Lumpen and the journal Select, which he describes as an “experimental media project highlighting interventionist art as cultural interference”–decided he needed a place larger than his home or his previous offices in which to centralize his activities. In May 2002 he discovered that Axis Gallery–a 3,000-square-foot space in Wicker Park near Heaven Gallery, where he’d hosted some Lumpen events–had closed and would be available for occupancy. Marszewski, who’s 35, envisioned a venue for experimental music, performances, festivals, and exhibitions that would foster a “habitat and cultural space for emerging
accidents, radical culture, and intentional community organizing,” he says. But he had to find the right mix of people to make it work.
Six months earlier he’d met 21-year-old Caton Volk, cofounder and director of the local video production company Method Media, while giving a lecture on “digital activism” at Columbia College. (Volk’s been in the news of late in connection with a controversial provision of the Higher Education Act that bars those convicted on drug charges from receiving federal financial aid. Busted for marijuana possession while in high school, he dropped out of UIC in 2000 after he was denied funding.) A few months later Marszewski hired Volk to document Version>02, a four-day conference and film festival he had organized at the MCA. It was such a natural fit he asked Volk if he’d like to move Method Media into the space on Milwaukee. Volk brought on board his longtime friend Jeff Creath, a consultant for Method Media who’s worked as an art director on several independent films. Like Marszewski, Creath was looking for an outlet that would integrate politics and culture.
In June 2002 Volk, Creath, and Marszewski signed a three-year lease. They’d recruited 23-year-old Daniel Pope, whom Marszewski had met while tending bar at his family’s tavern in Bridgeport, and Pope’s friend Erich Ringbloom to live in the space and help them set up and run events. A month and a half later they held their first one, a casual meet and greet announced by a flyer that read, “We’ll just be hanging out….Someone might play some live music.” Ringbloom says that about 100 people showed up. Two weeks later, in conjunction with Heaven, they threw Lumpenwave–“the 80s party to end all 80s parties,” in Ringbloom’s words. More than 1,000 people came.
Lumpenwave’s success encouraged the collective to continue hosting large affairs, and after a while proposals from other organizations began rolling in. The group rented out Buddy to anyone with an idea that struck them as out of the ordinary–“whatever made the gallery seem less like a big white box,” says Ringbloom. Over the next year Buddy hosted two major events each month and two or more smaller gatherings a week–improvised-music soirees, film screenings, fashion shows, bike-repair workshops, parties. “Illegal Art: Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age,” sponsored by Marszewski’s former employer In These Times, was mounted there, as were a show with art by teens organized by the urban outreach program Street Level Media and an exhibit sponsored by the Italian consulate. They held benefits for Indymedia and the antiwar group Voices in the Wilderness.
Even the more earnest-sounding events could get crazy, and for a while the space was raided by police once a week. More often than not the cops would just deliver a warning, ordering them to keep people from urinating off the roof and throwing beer bottles at the train (the rooftops of both Buddy and Heaven are just ten feet away from the Blue Line tracks). But occasionally they’d threaten organizers with a night in jail, or shut down an event altogether. At the anarchist film festival held at the gallery, a cop started confiscating people’s IDs. Almost every Monday the city’s graffiti busters paid Buddy a visit: the brick wall facing the el tracks was typically covered in elaborate murals painted by partygoers or spray-painted slogans like “Fuck Bush.”
In June, Pope left Buddy to return to “the quiet life,” he says. Others have taken his place in the collective, but even with fresh blood the constant chaos was wearing everyone down. “We got tired of cleaning up after hyperintoxicated blowouts, tired of babysitting, tired of assholes tagging up everything,” Ringbloom says. In an attempt to lose their reputation as a “party loft,” he says, Buddy drastically cut back programming.
“Sometimes there’s been too many people there who weren’t really into the ideas being presented–consumers who came just to hang out and disrespect the space,” says Marszewski. “We haven’t utilized Buddy to benefit our own growth.”
So from now on, though Marszewski says they’ll continue reviewing proposals from outside groups, all events will be curated by the collective–no more renting the space out and letting sponsors go wild; more events by invitation only. But before they pull in the reins, Buddy’s hosting one last blowout, a benefit to help the collective cover its operating expenses and finance the proposed makeover. The “Last Supper,” this Saturday, January 24, will feature a homemade meal of Korean-Polish barbecue and vegetarian Indian, a PowerPoint presentation on the renovations planned for the space, performances by local audiovisual electronics group A Very Sensitive Device, and a date auction.
“There’s been a lot of weird shit [at Buddy]–some of which was great, some of which wasn’t really a good idea,” says Marszewski. “But this is all about experimentation, and we’re learning from our mistakes.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.