Monday, December 5, 2016

Fire Codes

Robert Boyd

On Friday night, December 2, an artists' warehouse/performance space known as Ghost Ship in Oakland, California, caught fire and burned. There was a large crowd present for an event hosted by a Los Angeles record label, 100% Silk. As of now, there are 33 reported deaths.

The interior of Ghost Ship from their Tumblr

Apparently the one staircase leading to the 2nd floor (where most of the people were gathered) was made of wooden pallets. The warehouse has been described as "maze-like, stuffed with furniture, objects, and artworks." I read this and thought of the many art spaces I have been in for which that description applies. For example, the great Fort Thunder in Providence, RI--if a fire had started there, it would have blazed up quickly and killed many. The artists there lived in rooms made of plywood they had built for themselves--they were like highly flammable coffins. But fortunately, nothing like that ever happened.

This past summer, I was researching the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, which was established in 1985 at 2315 Commerce St. in a neighborhood of abandoned and underused structures. CSAW was a vast warehouse that had long been abandoned. It had holes in the roof and a large mostly undivided interior. As soon as artists started moving in, they started building walls to delineate their own studios.

"I built the first wall in the hallway. I was right in the front and people would come into the building and they were right there in my studio," said Nestor Topchy, one of the earliest residents of CSAW. "It funneled people into the core of the building and into the very back performance space."

Deborah Moore, one of the founders of CSAW, told me, "Virgil Grotfeldt did the first walls" which shows the unreliability of memory! "They were aluminum studs, and he built them in one day. I got home from work one day and there's the first studio. He did his and I think he did Marcy Hardin's too. And they just continued from there."

"Each wall was built by somebody else," she added. "Some walls were more impressive than other walls. No code inspection. Nestor built his walls on wheels, which was brilliant, but he got this black stuff that looked like sheet rock. From inside the studio, looking at it, it was like this lovely black sheet rock. It looked great. On the back side that faced into the hallway, it was stamped with big red letters--'Flammable! Caution!' So everybody who walked by had to see that!"

CSAW was well known for big events--plays, bands playing, performance events, etc.

 Scott Gilbert, "The Whole Story" page 1 (unpublished) , pen and ink, 1991

And in retrospect, it's only a certain amount of luck that kept CSAW from becoming a Ghost Ship-style tragedy.

Ad hoc art spaces are important to art scenes. To use a term popularized the year that CSAW was formed, they are "Temporary Autonomous Zones." Hakim Bey wrote, "The strike is made at structures of control." But what if that "control" includes fire codes? In Dallas in recent months, several events at art spaces have been shut down by the fire department for failing to meet code. In Christina Rees's editorial about the situation, she wrote, "To any hesitant attendees: this is the nature of DIY events and it always has been. Buck up and deal with it. Don’t miss the interesting stuff just because a room is a potential fire trap." But after the Ghost Ship fire, I would not discount anyone's fears in this regard.

If you run an art space and you don't have a certificate of occupancy or whatever your local fire department requires, at least keep your place clean and uncluttered by flammable detritus, have your exits marked in some way and have more than one, and have some fire extinguishers around. It's your responsibility to keep people who visit your building safe.

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